Gender violence and hope in Ciudad Juárez: interview with Arsène van Nierop, president of Hester Foundation
‘Yo soy #132 Holanda’ was honoured to interview Mrs. Arsène van Nierop, founder and president of Hester Foundation (Stichting Hester). Stichting Hester was named after Arsène’s daughter, Hester van Nierop, who was found raped and murdered in a hotel room in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico in 1998, when she was nearly 28 years old. After a short holiday with her parents and younger sister, Hester was on her way to the United States, where she hoped to find an architecture internship. She never reached her destination. In 2004 Arsène van Nierop, Hester’s mother, decided to take action by founding the Foundation for Hester to fight the injustice to the women of Ciudad Juárez.
a). Background / Hester’s story:
1). Could you tell us a little bit about you, about your family?
I am Dutch; I always lived in The Hague. I had started studying but I stopped; when I just got married I used to give sewing lessons to children. After 15 years when my children were grown up I went back to school, to study communications and marketing, and then I worked for several years. Hester was my first child. We had always intended to adopt a child from abroad, so after Hester we adopted German, from Peru. German was in the Netherlands receiving medical care for his burnt arm and he had to stay in the country until he was fully grown. So we took him into our family. After that we had Melisse, our 3rd child.
Can you tell us about your daughter Hester? Her profession, her favorite music, hobbies, activities, her circle of friends, and the people she was normally in touch with?
Hester was a really short girl (1.52 m). She was always talking loud, she had a sparkly, spontaneous personality. She was very kind, always helping everyone around her. When she travelled to Mexico, she was 27, almost 28, having just recently graduated from her architecture studies. She had gone there to visit Melisse, her sister who was in Tepic (Nayarit), volunteering at a project protecting sea turtles. After visiting her sister she intended to look for an internship in the US. Hester was murdered on September 19, 1998. She would have turned 28 six days after, on September 24. She studied in Delft, and had lots of friends, many of whom I just got to know after her death. Growing up, during her school years she was always surrounded with friends, she’d had a boyfriend, a relationship that lasted several years.
2). What was your view of Mexico before your trip in 1998?
Melisse went to Mexico to work protecting turtles. We did not really know Mexico, aside from holidays. Since both our daughters were in Mexico, my husband and I decided to join both sisters on the trip. We spent one week together, after which Melisse returned to Tepic. We wondered what was the best way for Hester to travel to the US. We saw a map of Mexico and thought “-Tijuana is known for its violence”. So we picked Cd. Juárez in the middle of the desert, checked the city in our Lonely Planet guide, saw it was an industrial city near the border and did not second-guess our decision. Afterwards, Hester headed to Cd. Juárez, where she intended to stay one night before crossing the border to the US and we went back to Mexico City, to fly back to The Netherlands. We said goodbye to Hester when she was taking the bus to Casas Grandes, Chihuahua.
3). Could you tell us what happened in September 19, 1998?
We came back to Holland on a Sunday or a Monday; I remember we were talking during the evening with our son German about the holiday, then he left for his home. At midnight the police came to our home and asked us: “-Are you the parents of Hester?” They knew she had been murdered, but nothing else. They advised us to call the Embassy, later on we talked to the Mexican Police. She was found under the bed of a room at Hotel La Plaza in Cd. Juarez. Because of my son, from Peru, we had learnt Spanish over the years and we were able to communicate with the police in Spanish. It was difficult to communicate with the police in written form; the language they used was difficult, bureaucratic. The Dutch ministry of Foreign affairs did not translate for us.
4). After you received the news of the murder of Hester in the Netherlands, did you assume that this was a circumstantial incident -a matter of being with the wrong person at the wrong moment? As you know now, at the very least since 1993, Cd. Juárez has been known for a series of crimes against women (femicides), do you consider Hester’s murder part of this ‘phenomenon’? When/how did you come to this conclusion?
We thought she was with the wrong man at the wrong place. We did not know anything of the situation in Cd. Juárez at the time. A few months after Hester’s murder (19/9/1998), on May 4th 1999, a Dutch journalist, Marjon van Royen* called me from Brazil. She was writing an article about the violence in Cd. Juárez for the Dutch newspaper NRC**. She told me Hester was 1 of the 400 women that had been murdered in Cd. Juarez. It made me start to realize what had happened. Back then I was paranoid of journalists. I was dealing with tremendous grief, sadness, and I did not like the media interviewing me or my children. I did not think it would help. But I called the NRC to verify she was working with them and I agreed to give her an interview.
5). What were the answers given and the actions taken by the Mexican authorities to find the murderer? Did they give you information? Were they supportive to your family?
The Mexican police got in touch with us and gave us information nearly every month. They said things like: “Well, we have been looking after the murderer, searching the neighbourhoods of Juárez, but we didn’t find anyone. We have an idea about the person, he has a sports school but he’s not there, he left”. Mexico is a well-developed country, it’s not a 3rd world country. We thought the police was going to do their job, we trusted them to work in a similar way as in The Netherlands. We did not know it is another kind of police.
6). In 2004 you came back to Cd. Juárez with your husband to do your own investigation about your daughter’s case. How / Why did you take the decision to travel to Cd. Juárez? What gave you the strength to come back and find out what happened 5 years before?
I read about Cd. Juárez, about the “maquiladoras”, the production factories, the women working and the men wanting a small slice of the American dream, some were involved in drug trafficking.
Hester was only one of the many women murdered in Cd. Juárez. Sergio Gonzalez Rodriguez, the journalist author of “Huesos en el desierto”*, had been contacting the Dutch ministry of Foreign Affairs, asking to interview me, which he did, in written form. He included Hester’s story in his book. At that time I began to realize that the Mexican police didn’t work. We knew exactly how Hester had travelled to Ciudad Juárez; we were with her until the last part of her trip. A year after the murder we received a report informing us she had been in Casas Grandes, Chihuahua. Then I thought -“Why didn’t they call and ask us?”- At this point I wrote a very angry letter to the police. Sergio advised me to contact Amnesty International, a Human Rights organization in The Netherlands, to let them know Hester was part of the 400 women murdered in Cd. Juárez. I knew Amnesty International, but I did not think it was something for Dutch citizens. A little bit more than a year after Hester’s murder I contacted Amnesty International. They were writing about the murders in Cd. Juárez as part of their annual report of 2003 and Hester was mentioned in the report. The Dutch TV also contacted me several times, asking for interviews. They asked me: “-Don’t you want to go to Cd. Juárez?” I remember thinking: “-What should I look for?” When your child is murdered you want to know every single thing that happened. There were so many things I did not know: I didn’t know Ciudad Juárez or what kind of city it was, so we decided to go.
7). What did you find out about the case of your daughter? Had the authorities informed you of these findings?
Once in Mexico, I met Esther Chavez, from Casa Amiga. I got her name from Amnesty International, they said: “-you can trust her”. Esther arranged everything for the TV program. She was a very small woman, but equally strong. She told me: “-You have to get a lawyer; otherwise the police is not going to look for the murderer of your daughter-.” In The Netherlands you are not used to getting a lawyer, it’s not necessary, the police investigates. You have to know the customs of every country. I went to the court (Procuraduría General) and I talked to the policemen responsible for finding Hester. I had several papers where they promised things, saying they would investigate. I wondered: “-How is it possible that you didn’t find out anything?” They answered things like: “-I just worked 1 year on the investigation of the case”, or “Oh yeah, those are just papers”.
8). During that trip you realized that several families are living similar situations to yours. Could you describe, according to your point of view, what these families are facing in Cd. Juarez? How is their situation similar or different from yours?
Women, mothers, share the same sadness, the same grief. They have also lost their child. They also know that the police is not working, that they would not do anything. For example, one of the murdered women had gone to the doctor with her three-weeks old baby. She did not come back, neither did her baby. At the court, the friends of the suspect told the victim’s younger sister: “We are going to find you afterwards”. So, the victim’s mother, having already lost one of her daughters, now found herself worried about her younger daughter. In Mexico, the women face not only sadness, grief, but also fear. The situation in the slums we visited in Cd. Juarez is terrible. In The Netherlands I have luxury and health, my employer paid for psychological support, I had time off to deal with what had happened. There is a support system in place. In Mexico such support does not exist, or it exists on “paper”, but it is not applied. For example, I heard about a single mother, who lost her daughter and was not able to receive this support because one of the requirements is the signature of the father, and in many cases the father is absent, that kind of issue.
b). About Hester Foundation:
9). In your trip you met Esther Chavez, founder of Casa Amiga, an organization that aims to help families of women victims of violence in Cd. Juárez. Can you tell us about the service Casa Amiga provides to these families in Cd. Juárez?
Casa Amiga is a crisis center, you can not live there, however they have a space for women who have been harassed or threatened, it’s a safe place for them to go. It is not a proper refuge or shelter. There is a small house, but women can only stay for a few days. At the center women exposed to violence have access to psychological advice and therapy, social and medical help, advice in dealing with the judicial system. Casa Amiga acts to prevent, inform and raise awareness on how to avoid violence, for example organising workshops to promote self defense, communication, self confidence. Some workshops and pedagogic help are also aimed at children that are exposed or in danger of being sexually abused. At Casa Amiga there are 25 workers and around 50 volunteers.
10). After meeting Esther Chavez you started the foundation that you named after your daughter Hester. Can you tell us how Hester foundation started and a bit about the activities that are done to collaborate with Casa Amiga in order to help women and families of women victims of violence in Cd. Juárez?
After this trip I started thinking of creating Stichting (foundation) Hester. We saw there was a need to talk about violence, to inform about the situation. We invited Esther Chavez, as a speaker for a Dutch audience. We were in contact with Wereld Omroep / Radio Nederland*, a Dutch radio station that can be heard all over the World. They were able to send information to Mexico without censorship. The main objectives were to raise awareness about the violent situation that women are subjected to in Mexico and Central America and to actively provide tools that can help women to stand up against this violence. Foundation Hester** works actively supporting Casa Amiga, providing around 10% of their annual budget.
c). The status of Hester’s case today:
11). What is the current status of the investigation and arrest of the murderer of Hester?
In 2004 a drawn portrait of the murderer was released. This portrait was done on 2002, Hester was murdered in 1998. The state’s attorney was very proud to spread this picture, but she told me it was not allowed to talk to the journalists about these actions, for fear that the murderer would change his appearance. After years you observe it is not possible to get the murderer, so we decided to focus on the women. It is not possible for me to change the criminality in Mexico. The Mexican lawyer told me she could not do anything more because the government is not working hard enough. In 2007 I spoke to the Dutch Minister of Foreign Affairs, Maxime Verhagen, who accepted to take Hester’s case to the Inter American Comission on Human Rights (IACHR) in Washington. The objective of Hester’s foundation is dual: to help women and to raise awareness, but not to get the murderer. In 2010 the case was presented at the IACHR together with 5 other cases of murdered women and now we are still waiting for the process. But we know this can take years and years.
12). Now, in 2013, 15 years have passed. Given that the name and the portrait of the murderer of Hester are known, what do you think has prevented the arrest of the criminal? Impunity? Corruption?
The murderer’s name is Roberto Flores; that is a very common name in Mexico. At some point it became apparent that the murderer was a friend of the owner of the hotel, he was doing some small drug trafficking for him. The people who worked at the hotel could not testify, they were intimidated or threatened. There is a lot of corruption involved. Policemen don’t get a proper salary. People in El Paso, Texas earn 10 times more; all they have to do is cross the border. It is very easy to be involved in crime in Mexico while living in El Paso. The police somehow seems to work with them. Time passes, nothing is achieved in solving these cases.
13). Have you received support from the embassy of the Netherlands in Mexico, the Dutch government and, in general, from the Dutch society in your fight to claim justice for Hester’s case? In which form(s)?
The case of Hester is currently at the IACHR thanks to the Dutch Embassy. There is a Dutch police attaché in Washington looking after the murderer. He found out the murderer had 5 different alias, but only 1 of them is listed in the Interpol website. He had to travel twice to Mexico City to pressure the Interpol to add all the names to the website. This arrangement took months, it always takes time… The case will expire in 2014. In May, I have an appointment with the Mexican embassy to talk again, last year I was there and they said the expiration of the case “is not a problem”. A day later they wrote me an email saying ‘oh, yes, perhaps it is expiring’. But if Hester’s case goes to the Inter American Commission, then the neglect of the case will become evident and it will be a bit of an embarrassment for the government. Perhaps the situation will change a little bit.
14). In 2008, you wrote the book titled ‘Noodkreet uit Juárez’ *(Grito de socorro de Juárez), can you tell us the synopsis of your book? How has been the reception of your book among the Dutch audience?
The first half of the book details the process of my grief, the sadness of losing my daughter, coping with the horrible situation of her murder abroad, and the difficulties we encountered as we dealt with the Dutch and Mexican governments and the media, how we put the pieces together. The second half explains our trip to Juárez, our meeting with Esther Chavez, our experience at Casa Amiga, meeting other women and how we decided to start Foundation Hester. There is a part about the response from the European Parliament and our collaboration with them to send a message to Mexico: “Well, you have to change your attitude”. People normally read the book in one go, they are flabbergasted and impressed. I have received calls from people telling me they read my book in one sit and they would like to invite me to give a talk in their organizations.
In my book, I try to explain that it is possible to start a new life after losing your child. I was not able to find a book that told me that the sadness would stop, so I wanted to tell other women that it will stop if you work on it …
15). How could you describe your family before and after Hester was murdered? Could you imagine, based on your life in the Netherlands, that tragedies like this happened?
The death of your child changes, ruins, everything. It is very difficult. I had 2 other children, when facing the death of a child, you should not forget about them. It’s not something you know beforehand. After the murder, I only thought about Hester. Normally, as a mother, you don’t think all the time about any of your children. One of my children became very quiet, barely spoke. I was not showing my grief and my child did not know how to handle it. It costs years and years to overcome.
d). Mexico: the problems we face and looking towards the future
16). After being in close contact with many victims (or families of victims) of these crimes, in your opinion, what are the causes behind the evident violence against women in Ciudad Juárez? Do you believe there are organized networks of corruption?
There is a different culture; it is very difficult to change. Women are not valued in Mexico, you can use them. To change the situation, to end the violence, a major cultural change is needed. Via Casa Amiga, we try to promote messages such as “it’s better to talk than to beat”. Casa Amiga holds communication workshops that teach discussion and communication strategies instead of violence. Mariclaire Acosta*, an academic who writes about human rights in Mexico has said that “Mexican people think they know human rights, but they don’t use them”. Public servants / Government officials are chosen based on connections, regardless of if they are relevant for the job. The situation in Cd. Juárez is consequence of a combination of circumstances: the opening of maquiladoras/production factories in 1992; the concentration of women coming from all parts of Mexico; the imperant corruption; the drug scene and the phenomenon of machism, all contribute to the crime situation of Cd. Juárez. Women find themselves alone; they’ve lost the support and security that could be provided by their families. Women are educated in a very patriarchal system, girls are taught to listen and obey to their father, to their (male) bosses, to their husbands. There is a hierarchy. In order for the situation to change, women and men have to change the way in which they relate to each other.
17). Do you know if there are any programs that have been implemented by Mexico’s government in order to prevent these crimes?
I know there is a law from 2007* intended to stop violence against women. The law is on paper, perfectly designed, but they do not know how to enforce it. I know about the “organization for the extermination of violence”. There are a lot of organizations with good intentions but sometimes they don’t focus on the most necessary activities to provide help to women in slums.
* Ley general de Acceso de las mujeres a una vida libre de violencia. 1 de Febrero del 2007. http://www.diputados.gob.mx/LeyesBiblio/pdf/LGAMVLV.pdf
18). Do you think the communication media in Mexico play a role in the diffusion of these crimes or on the contrary, in covering up / hiding these networks?
The journalists with whom I have been in contact are “the good guys”. They have written about the Hester foundation in Proceso, saying things like: “How is it possible that there is an organization from The Hague, world capital of peace and justice, talking about crimes that take place in Cd. Juárez and not in Mexico”. These are integer journalists who tell the story they have to tell and won’t bend to corruption.
19). Last July, elections were held in Mexico, and the new president, Enrique Peña Nieto, a member of the PRI (the party that had ruled Mexico for 60 consecutive years until 12 years ago), came to power after a controversial electoral process. Has anything changed in relation to the fight against violence due to the change of government?
I did not hear about the changes, a Dutch journalist recently asked me about it, but in Mexico it feels like “nothing changes”.
20). Are you aware of the “victims law”? Do you think it will be helpful in dealing with these delicate crimes?
I haven’t heard about that law, but a law can only help if you enforce it. However during Calderon’s government I observed an increase in the number of soldiers on the streets. I don’t think it was a positive change. The military officials were not able to help common people on the street. It was not a good strategy, and it only resulted in more violence. People that received a military training are not used to helping people. The police system in Mexico is different: it’s there for the rich, not to help people. Whenever I am in Mexico, regardless of at what organization, high or low, they don’t know how to handle me. I am at the same time the mother of Hester and the President of Foundation Hester. They don’t really know what kind of foundation it is.
21). At an international level you are a very important voice. At the same time you are in a privileged position to raise awareness about the femicides and the situation of women in Mexico. Have you considered bringing the cases of other victims to an international court (Inter American court or other)? Are you involved in any actions to solve these cases at a national level?
I am happy if they accept the 5 cases that are currently being processed at the Inter American Commission of Human Rights. It costs thousands and thousands of EUR to take such cases to an international court. The Dutch government is paying for Hester’s case. Our main objective is to inform about the violence against women, not to change the criminality; I don’t think I’m able to fight against such a system. Our focus is on the women, on raising awareness, on promoting a change of culture.
22). Lastly, what would you say to women in Mexico and to those fighting against gender violence, be it from an individual or organizational level?
Do not accept violence, fight against it. But work together, not against each other. There are many NGOs in Mexico, but they are not collaborating with each other, it is absurd. Together you can achieve a lot, you are stronger. Strive for a cultural change. Don’t forget that half of the people are women. So, if women change alongside men, it is enough. Such a change would already have a big impact, as this system of ideas is partly kept by the women.