Correction to This Article
A Dec. 16 map of Mexico incorrectly labeled Chihuahua and Durango as provinces. They are states.

Unresolved Murders of Women Rankle in Mexican Border City

Benita Monarrez, with her granddaughter, says there has been no justice in the 2001 killing of her daughter, Laura.
Benita Monarrez, with her granddaughter, says there has been no justice in the 2001 killing of her daughter, Laura. (By Sylvia Moreno -- The Washington Post)
By Sylvia Moreno
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 16, 2005

CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mexico -- Almost 18, Laura Berenice Monarrez was a serious student with dreams of a big future. She wanted to be a medical examiner, she told her mother in a long conversation on Sept. 18, 2001. Boys were just a distraction from her career plans, she said.

Three days later, "Bere" Monarrez disappeared. Seven weeks after that, her body and those of seven other pretty young women were found in an abandoned cotton field beside a busy boulevard near downtown. All had been raped and strangled.

Today the so-called campo algodonero or "cotton field" case remains unsolved, as do many of the 377 slayings of women and girls over the past 12 years in this gritty, industrial border city.

"For us, four years have passed and we have a lot of programs, but we have no justice," said Benita Monarrez, 43. Although government funds have been established to compensate families of murder victims, she said, the money means nothing as long as her daughter's killer remains at large. "For me, that is injustice."

For years, the mysterious deaths and disappearances of women have frustrated officials and terrified families in Juarez, a transient city where thousands of women live in shantytowns and work in maquiladoras, the factories on the U.S. border that produce electronic circuit boards and auto parts.

About a fourth of the victims were kidnapped, raped and strangled in a similar way, leading victims' families to believe that a sexual serial killer remains on the loose. The whereabouts of almost 40 other women who have disappeared since 1993 are still unknown. And this year, the number of homicides with female victims has surged to 30, although authorities attribute 80 percent of them to domestic or family violence.

More than 100 of the murder cases remain unsolved because of bungling by inept or corrupt officials, according to investigations by the United Nations, Amnesty International, the Inter-American Human Rights Commission and other groups. Mexican federal officials have conceded negligence due to lack of resources and investigative or technical skills.

Maria Lopez Urbina, the first appointed federal special prosecutor for the city of Juarez, was even more accusatory. This summer, as Urbina prepared to leave the post, she said some murders might never be solved because of "incorrect, negligent or outright omissive" conduct by about 130 officials in previous prosecutors' offices in Chihuahua state.

Now, a new set of state officials is trying to bring justice to the families of slain women and reform the state's criminal justice system.

"We are working to change the mentality and eradicate the corruption and the impunity that has permeated the state," said Patricia Gonzalez Rodriguez, a former criminal court judge who was appointed attorney general a year ago by Chihuahua's governor, Jose Reyes Baeza.

This year, Gonzalez has reopened 140 unsolved cases of murdered women, dating to 1993, and has made some arrests. The most notable was that of Jose Luis Hernandez Flores in the 1998 abduction, rape and murder of a woman whose family had insisted to police for seven years that they suspected Hernandez, among others.

Gonzalez's office has also fired more than 30 state officials, including lawyers and investigators, and brought administrative charges of abuse of authority against them for mishandling the murder cases. Criminal cases have been filed against six.

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