A Death Foretold
Mexican Activist Murdered While Walking in Funeral Procession
Despite government efforts to impose law and order in Iguala after more than 40 students disappeared there, murderers still operate with impunity.
IGUALA, Mexico — Beside the open casket at the funeral of Norma Angélica Bruno Román, age 25, was neither the time nor the place to mourn her murder.
Norma’s wake was held inside the home she shared with her parents and her two small children. It is a modest concrete dwelling on a street corner in the neighborhood of San Gerardo. Outside, a blue tarp was hoisted to shade a few rows of plastic chairs rented from the local funeral parlor. Halfway down the block, the Mexican Federal Police stood guard in an armored patrol vehicle, part of a force put in place after Iguala’s cops were accused of complicity in the murders and disappearances of 46 student demonstrators last year.
Norma’s mother and father went out into the street, hailing the young officers. They wished to report a crime, they said: The man who made a death threat against their daughter on the day before her murder was at the wake in their home, seated in the chair nearest her casket as if he were a lookout.
The National Police officers looked at each other. One of them repeated back, in his own words, what he was hearing. That a man employed as a lookout for the dominant crime syndicate in town was spying on the mourners who attended Norma’s wake. The cops were told the man stepped away from the casket every so often, walked out of earshot and made a phone call. The National Police officers appeared to sympathize, but their orders were to remain where they were.
Inside the house, Norma’s body was on display in a gloomy sitting room only large enough to fit a casket and some chairs against the wall. At the foot of the casket, a photograph of Norma was in a frame, and bouquets of yellow flowers decorated the concrete floor. A thin man in a yellow button-down shirt and white slacks turned his drawn face to the new arrival and fixed him in an inscrutable stare.
The relatives of the dead woman say the lookout arrived before Norma’s casket did, and kept vigil beside it overnight.
“I’m a friend of the deceased,” is all he would say to anyone who asked.
Norma was murdered while walking in a funeral procession near the entrance to the Christ the King Cemetery in Iguala. She had separated herself from the cortege to answer a cellphone call, and didn’t notice the two boys on a motor scooter riding up from behind. The boy on the back seat knocked Norma down with a gunshot from behind, then hopped off the bike and fired a kill shot at point-blank range. An eyewitness saw the boy rifle through her pockets and steal her phone.
The boys on the motor scooter rode away and evaded capture. This in a town whose streets are patrolled night and day by a special tactical unit of Mexican Federal Police deployed to bolster public safety.
Norma’s father Miguel stands beside the entrance to his home. He wears dark aviator shades and has the bronze complexion of a man who spends most of every day in the sun. “It all goes back to Ayotzinapa,” he is saying in a quiet voice, referring to the infamous student massacre that occurred five minutes from here.
Three students at the Ayotzinapa Rural Teachers College were murdered in Iguala, and 43 of their classmates were disappeared on the night of September 26. Corrupt city cops working hand in glove with a local mafia called Guerreros Unidos are suspected of having carried out the massacre, under orders from the mayor and first lady.
The Ayotzinapa case is officially closed. More than 90 suspects, mostly ex-city police, are in jail on charges of murder and kidnapping. But Norma’s father said that more and more of the gangsters and corrupt city cops involved in the massacre are showing up back on the streets of Iguala. “And since all those people knew her,” he said of his daughter Norma, “it was easy for them to threaten her and pressure her to work for them. And it cost her her life.”
The earliest news reports suggested that Norma was murdered for her political activism. But the motive appears to be much more secretive and complicated.
Norma did participate in The Committee of Relatives of The Other Disappeared in Iguala. Since November, members of the committee gather every Sunday in San Gerardo Catholic Church and depart in a group to the hills, stopping in areas rumored to conceal shallow unmarked graves. “Ayotzinapa” is not an isolated case in Iguala. Hundreds, and perhaps thousands of people, have been disappeared here at the hands of organized crime in recent years.
Norma’s first cousin Ivette was kidnapped and disappeared on October 24, 2012, when she was 19 years old. Ivette’s mother, Sandra, wanted to take part in the search expeditions of the committee, but three herniated disks in her back prevented her from attempting the rigorous hike herself. Her niece Norma went in her place five or six times, more out of a sense of loyalty to her aunt than in the interest of activism, Sandra said.
Nevertheless, an activist in Guerrero who is not a member of the search committee presented the murder to the media as a direct attack against the activism of the committee, an assertion the committee itself promptly and publicly denied.
What eluded the initial news coverage of Norma’s murder was the fact that she and her husband were detained for questioning in the days immediately following the Ayotzinapa massacre. Norma was released, but her husband, Luis Alberto José Gaspar, remains in a maximum security prison in Nayarit, accused of involvement in the disappearances of the 43 students. Norma’s parents confirmed that their son-in-law worked as a lookout for organized crime, but they said he only joined after several city cops pulled him out of his house, beat him, and threatened to kill him if he refused.
Norma complained loudly to her parents and friends that Gaspar was being set up as a fall-guy for the massacre. Her Aunt Sandra said she only found out after Norma’s murder that she had been cooperating with the authorities: “She told investigators from the prosecutor’s office who was responsible, and named names. She went to the Mexican Attorney General’s Office for help. She wanted to clear her husband’s name in exchange for providing information.”
Norma’s mother removes her dark sunglasses to rub her bloodshot eyes. Twenty-four hours have elapsed since her daughter’s murder. She sits listless in the back seat of a car, her eyes half closed, her head tilted up at the ceiling.
Three days prior, Norma left home in her pink sandals to buy a bottle of soda for herself and her mother. It was in the middle of the afternoon. Her mother was setting tortas on plates for lunch. “She came running into the house very upset. She got a bunch of phone calls. Her phone was ringing off the hook.”
Norma told her mother that a lead enforcer for Guerreros Unidos in Iguala had intercepted her as she walked to the store. He told her that the wives of all the men in jail for the Ayotzinapa massacre were working for him, except for her. He told her she had no choice.
“They thought my daughter was going to inform on them to the authorities. She came out of the experience very frightened.”
It was only the latest in a series of death threats against Norma that had begun in October. Later the same afternoon, a man she hardly knew advised her to take the death threat seriously. Her mother saw the same man reappear beside her casket.
Norma had requested protection from the division of the Mexican Attorney General’s Office that protects crime victims. She wanted to be relocated.
“This was a death foretold.” said Julia Alonso, a founder of the group Citizen Forensics, and mother to a son who was disappeared in 2007. “Because she was already threatened. Because the mafia is still here.”
The streets of Iguala are the domain of a militarized police force deployed by Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto. The three branches of city government, however, including the branch that investigates murders, remain under local control. Unless the victim files a complaint with the district attorney, the Federal Police have no jurisdiction to investigate a crime But the prosecutor’s office is infiltrated and locals says it leaks like a sieve.
Norma received death threats, but she didn’t report them to the local prosecutor. She went to the Federal Police and the Attorney General’s Office—and they did not protect her.
Trouble was near at hand. At the indoor soccer match in town that night, Norma saw a neighbor of hers shot and killed on the pitch. The boy was 15 years old and she called him Zapato. His murder occurred a matter of hours after Norma was threatened in the street.
Zapato had had his own troubles with the enforcers in Iguala. A passenger in a moving car had chambered a round in a pistol and pointed it at him a few nights before. According to him, the whole thing was a mistake, they had confused him with someone else, and he had taken care of the problem.
Norma was walking in Zapato’s funeral procession to Christ the King Cemetery when her cellphone rang. Miguel, her father, remembered how surreal it was for him to be walking beside a teenage neighbor’s casket at the instant he learned that his daughter was killed outside the cemetery gates.
At the prosecutor’s office, the woman investigator demanded that Miguel tell her everything he knew about the people who wanted Norma dead. He apologized but said he couldn’t tell her what he didn’t know. She grew angry and began to shout. Miguel told her that if he cooperated with the authorities the mafia would make him disappear.
“So for as much as you scold me and insist that I tell you what you want to know, it’s better for me to remain silent. Besides, I have nothing more to tell you because I don’t know anything more.”