Thousands gathered in New Mexico on Thursday for a rally to express outrage over the recent sentencing of convicted sex trafficker Jake Dennis Petito, who had served only one year of a 45-year sentence for trafficking a 17-year-old girl. The sentence has left a number of New Mexico indigenous women enraged, thinking that the judge’s sentence is a slap on the wrist.
“When we received the word that justice had not been served it was a much more profound blow to me and to the people of my family,” said Kimberly Guerra, who worked with Petito in his online sexual business. Her sister, Sonia Chiumento, is also a survivor of sexual exploitation. “This is not the first time that our lives have been cut short at the hands of authorities. We know how to protest and we know how to stand up and say we will not accept this.”
The LGBTQ advocacy group Gays Against Guns sent three women to the rally to highlight sexual assault and domestic violence in New Mexico. (A group of women brought Petito to justice after they formed a new support group for sex trafficking survivors.)
In speeches at the event, activists denounced the Justice Department, the U.S. Attorney’s Office, and New Mexico State Attorney General Hector Balderas, for helping perpetuate a culture of victim blaming. Delivering her own speech, Latina activist Carmen Leal said she faced opposition from all sides when she tried to raise awareness about the issue at a local women’s shelter.
“We are born as a race of sons and daughters, survivors and victims, but we are not safe in this land,” she said. “We need to be out here today.”
There are 31 women in the state who have been murdered by an intimate partner since 2010, though two of those murders may have been committed by self-defense, according to The Taos News. Five other women were killed in the state between October 2017 and October 2018. According to “Jane Doe Report,” a project tracking domestic violence and sex trafficking in New Mexico, five of those were runaways or victims of the sex trade.
The rally came on the same day that a mass murder of students at a high school in Santa Fe, New Mexico, remains unsolved. In the wake of the trial of James Harenson, the defense argued that a father’s actions could make it difficult for him to understand what his son was thinking. That may not be so unique of late. After Jazmine Barnes was shot dead in a red Ford Focus in Houston last month, her death became all the more topical. The fact that she had been murdered was almost lost amid the myriad events in her life, and her killer wasn’t found until nine days after the incident.
In the case of Penny-Ann Lancona, a month after she was stabbed and raped in Sacramento, California, members of the community identified the killer through her Instagram posts. A few weeks ago, Emma Jean McVicker was killed in an apparent attack that she may have known about. The attackers were first heard on a burglary call in 1995. But McVicker is still waiting for justice nearly twenty years later.
Such questions drive activists, attorneys, and friends of victims to conduct research, call elected officials, and protest at rallies like Thursday’s. Only days before the Petito case, a group of activists began advocating for a federal crime against sexual assault — made all the more urgent by the New Mexico sentencing, which included three more years for distribution of child pornography.
The campaign is called the “Groupon Violence Project,” an obvious reference to a popular discount website. For the next few months, visitors to Groupon’s website will be directed to support the movement’s goal of more thorough sex trafficking research and efforts to support victims. While New Mexico lawmakers are working to keep Petito in prison, organizers hope New Mexico will also take action to demand that organizations like the Justice Department act on the problem.
“The problems with this justice system go far deeper than recent cases,” said Joanna Cirillo, deputy director of the Center for Native Women’s Health, who was at the rally. “This is an old one. It goes beyond criminals. It’s the systems we have put in place that oppress and silence them.”
Read the full story at Taos News.
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