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Mexico lawmakers revoke law reducing rapists’ penalties

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CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mexico — Women in this tough border city came together after dozens of their daughters, sisters and friends were raped and killed, their bodies thrown in the desert. Years later, most of the 60 murders remain unsolved.

Three dozen women's groups formed in the wake of the killings in Ciudad Juarez, across from El Paso, Texas. These groups won a rare victory Tuesday when state legislators reversed a law that would have shortened sentences for rapists judged to have been provoked by their victims.

The Chihuahua legislature overturned the law — which gave some rapists lighter sentences than cattle thieves — after coming under pressure from the public and outraged women's groups.

"We know for sure they are changing it because the pressure was humongous," said Victoria Caraveo, director of Women for Juarez.

Women in Chihuahua had appealed to the media and feminists across Mexico to oppose the law, staged street protests and even taken the fight to the floor of Congress.

Mexico's Congress had threatened to intervene if the Chihuahua state congress did not revamp the recently approved penal code, which cut the minimum sentence from four years to one if the offender could prove that the victim had provoked the attack. Those caught rustling cattle in this northern ranching state face six to 12 years in jail.

Defenders of the law say women sometimes charge their boyfriends with rape rather than admit to their parents that they are having sex.

Jorge Ramirez Marin, a national congressional leader of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, which dominates the Chihuahua state congress, said the law was misunderstood.

But "of course, there are those who think that a woman can't even be touched with a rose petal," he said.

But feminists said the law would let rapists argue that they attacked their victims because they were scantily dressed or had smiled at them.

Lawmakers agreed to remove the clause Tuesday. They also scrapped a second provision that had lowered the minimum rape sentence from four years to six months if the victim was penetrated with an object.

Under the new law, set to go into effect next week, rapists face six to 20 years in prison.

Rene Medrano, spokesman for the Chihuahua congress, said legislators unanimously approved the changes because of "pressure from the citizens."

While police have not solved most of the 60 murders of female factory workers in Ciudad Juarez, the killings led to the creation of a solid women's movement as women banded together to protect themselves.

"United, we can transform the world," Esther Chavez said in a statement Tuesday. Chavez opened the city's first women's shelter and rape crisis center in response to the series of killings.

But families of the victims say much still needs to be done.

Paula Flores, who became a leading activist after her 17-year-old daughter was raped and killed in 1998, did not participate in the recent fight. Her daughter's killer has still not been found.

"I now put my faith in God, because in the justice system I don't have any," said Flores, 44, in her home, filled with her daughter's photos, clothes and trinkets. "I prefer now to visit my daughter's grave rather than waste time going to the prosecutor's office."

On a recent Friday evening, a group of women in tight miniskirts and halter tops walked down Ciudad Juarez's main drag, yelling obscenities at men who bothered them. One woman screamed "idiot" after a cowboy pinched her.

Down the road, Maria Fermina Medrano washed clothes as her 1- and 3-year-old daughters played in a neighborhood where several women have been murdered.

"The way one dresses or smiles should not be considered a crime," said the 22-year-old mother. "I think if something like this happened to the daughter of a legislator, they would approve the death penalty."