ECATEPEC, Mexico — At 14, Jessica Lucero had already lived a hard life. A stint in rehab, dropping out of school, making her way, day in, day out, in a terribly violent, desperately poor neighborhood.
But things were looking up. She had stayed clean and was planning to resume studies. She dreamed of becoming a forensic pathologist.
Then, in June, Jessica was raped by a man she later identified as a notorious neighbor, a known drug pusher.
Jessica's reaction was to do something that few people twice her age have ever dared. She went to the authorities and denounced the crime.
Not 30 days later, she was killed, beaten to death with a small boulder. The force of the blow was so strong that her skull left a dent in the ground that would remain for days.
And with that, Jessica became one of hundreds of women and girls killed every year in Mexico state, a region of 15 million people governed until recently by the man who will be the next president of Mexico.
Authorities' handling of the cases in this state with one of the country's highest female homicide rates has raised questions about their commitment to law and order, especially when the victims are women.
The killings have been criticized recently by several human rights groups.
In a recent report, Amnesty International complained that "gender-based violence in the country continues to be widespread," and singled out Mexico state and two other states, saying "state-level authorities that have failed to prevent or punish documented cases of grave gender-based violence, including rape and killings, have not faced additional pressure or oversight."
In Jessica's case, a top state prosecutor went on national radio to suggest that the girl had been drinking when she was killed by young men who also raped her — again. He insisted that Jessica's death had nothing to do with her reporting of the original attack.
Soon afterward, he stepped down to join Enrique Pena Nieto's presidential transition team.
The dead women and girls of the state of Mexico, which abuts Mexico City, have as their voice and champion a fireplug of a man named David Mancera.
Part political activist, part social worker, and a bit of a gadfly, Mancera carries a spiral notebook filled with the scrawled names and circumstances of recent slayings of women.
"Just last week," he starts.
Yuridia Valente, 22. Raped, strangled, single shot to the head.
Fernanda Esparza, 19. Killed, allegedly by a boyfriend who killed his previous girlfriend three years earlier.
Sonia Neleya, 25. Raped and found dead, naked, strangled.
Name unknown. Stuffed into a suitcase.
Mancera, who cites statistics saying that 200 to 300 women were killed during each of the last five years in the state, has a flair for the dramatic. The other day, to demand an audience with authorities, he chained himself to the front door of the local attorney general's office. Then he led a protest march that tied up one of this city's main thoroughfares for hours.
He also rallied the social media networks; in Jessica's case, someone tweeted a photo of the dark-haired, full-cheeked girl to Gov. Eruviel Avila. That, apparently, did the trick: The governor ordered prosecutors to look into the case.
But the cases of many of the women who are killed or who disappear don't get such attention.
A Mexican watchdog group, the National Citizens' Observatory of Female Murders, said in a report this year that "a lack of investigation, prosecution and punishment" in Mexico state has led to a climate of impunity. It estimated that of 1,003 slayings of women during the Pena Nieto term, roughly half were unsolved and largely uninvestigated.
There are no real mysteries as to why women are being killed in Mexico state. Much of the impoverished region — including Ecatepec, the state's largest city — has grown rapidly in recent decades. Housing is precarious, jobs scarce, opportunities next to nil. Many people living in the state travel hours a day to work in Mexico City. Dysfunctional families leave children abandoned to their fate; many girls end up not going to school, getting pregnant, trapped.
In addition, drug traffickers have moved into the state, and with them, dealing and use have grown.
Activists also blame the state government for an apathy that made it easier to kill women and get away with it. Pena Nieto served as governor of the state of Mexico from 2005 to 2011, when his term ended and he launched his campaign for the presidency. He will be sworn in Dec. 1.
Lizbeth Garcia, a federal congresswoman from the state, said she and other activists last year sought to have the Pena Nieto government declare a red alert over the slayings of women, which would have triggered more attention and resources for the problem.
"They told us it was not such a serious topic," Garcia, a member of the leftist Democratic Revolution Party, said in an interview. "They accused us of wanting to damage the image of the state and of (Pena Nieto)."
Eventually, before Pena Nieto left the governorship, his government established a special prosecutor's office for gender-based crimes. In recent weeks, repeated phone messages and emails seeking comment, sent from the Los Times to Laura Elena Uribe, a spokeswoman for the state prosecutor's office, were not answered.
Elizabeth Vilchis, social development secretary for the state, disputed critics' allegations, saying the state is one of the few to respond to the killing of women with especially tough sentences, including life imprisonment.
"Far from neglecting these cases, this is one of the most active states … giving a broad range of attention to these cases," Vilchis, a state government official for 18 years, said in a telephone interview. She also cited the construction of three shelters for abused women.
On July 14, Jessica left home with a couple of young men from the neighborhood, people the family knew, people she had considered friends. She did not return. Her frantic mother, Cruz Perez, searched and searched; eventually the police found her body in woods about 15 minutes from home.