In Mexico, a Crime in Progress

The killings continued even after Mexican police arrested Egyptian suspect Abdel Latif Sharif Sharif.
The killings continued even after Mexican police arrested Egyptian suspect Abdel Latif Sharif Sharif. (By Juana Arias -- The Washington Post)
By Ceci Connolly,
a Washington Post staff writer on leave in Mexico City
Wednesday, May 9, 2007


A True Story of Serial Murder South of the Border

By Teresa Rodriguez and Diana Montané With Lisa Pulitzer

Atria. 316 pp. $23.95

The first body was found on Jan. 23, 1993. Alma Chavira Farel had been raped, beaten and strangled before being dumped in a vacant lot on the outskirts of Ciudad Juarez. Five months later another victim turned up, her body too mangled to be identified. By year's end, the tally hit 16 -- all dark-haired young women, mutilated and ditched in the barren desert across the Rio Grande from El Paso. More bodies kept appearing, about 400 over 13 years. Arrests have been made, investigators replaced, protests staged and fingers pointed. Still the slaughter of women continues.

It is the stuff of a "CSI" thriller. Indeed, two Hollywood movies have fictionalized the story. But the cases are very real, and now, finally, the scandal is getting the serious treatment it deserves in "The Daughters of Juarez," which is being touted as the first nonfiction account in English of the unsolved murders.

Teresa Rodriguez, a reporter with the U.S.-based Spanish-language network Univision, made four trips to Juarez, returning with a tale that may seem unbelievable to those who have not spent time in Mexico. With assists from co-authors Diana Montané and Lisa Pulitzer, Rodriguez describes an industrial border city in which indifference, incompetence and sexism enabled a serial killer -- or more likely several -- to operate unchecked for more than a decade.

Rodriguez introduces American readers to a Mexican culture in which men dominate, the rule of law means little, women are devalued, corruption runs rampant and some people actually blame the victims. As state prosecutor Arturo González Rascón callously put it: "Women with a nightlife who go out very late and come into contact with drinkers are at risk."

Rodriguez is at times overly reliant on cliches -- corpses "pile up like cordwood," for instance, and "the names and the faces have changed, but the stories are sadly the same." Much of the reporting comes from unnamed or secondary sources, and the story sometimes travels down curious tangents. (A case of spousal abuse is one puzzling example.) The book also lacks a bibliography and sourcing notes, which might have added credibility.

But when Rodriguez focuses on the women and their stories, the book is compelling and valuable. Contrary to widespread perceptions, few of the victims were prostitutes. Many worked 12-hour shifts in the U.S.-owned maquiladoras, traveling to and from the factories before sunrise or after midnight, often on foot.

We meet Lilia García, a 17-year-old mother of two who attended college prep school at night after working all day in a maquiladora that made water massage equipment. There's Silvia Morales, who sang in a church choir and sold shoes in a respectable downtown shop. And Claudia Ivette González , who was turned away from her job at the Lear Corp. factory after arriving four minutes late. "A month later her corpse was discovered buried in a field near a busy Juarez intersection," Rodriguez writes. "Next to her lay the bodies of seven other young women."

Rodriguez and her co-authors capture well the contrast between the two worlds of Juarez: "While the young girls were assembling sophisticated circuit boards" in modern, air-conditioned factories with "access to sparkling indoor showers . . . and complimentary hot and cold meals . . . they were facing illnesses like cholera and tuberculosis at home. Many . . . were surviving in seventeenth-century conditions, confronting life without plumbing and electricity in cardboard and tar-paper hovels with no floors or foundations."

Outrage comes, however, not only in the murders, but in the way they are handled by police and prosecutors, who at best are inept and at worst likely involved in the crimes they are investigating. In the week before Lilia García's body was found, police received an emergency call of a "rape in progress" in a barren field 300 yards from the factory where she worked. Police arrived 70 minutes later but said they found "nothing to report." A few days later, the body of García, who had been beaten, raped, strangled and burned, was discovered in the same lot. An autopsy revealed handcuff bruises on her wrists.

Throughout "The Daughters of Juarez," suspects are locked up based on circumstantial evidence or coerced confessions. Bodies are misidentified, a lawyer is killed gangland style, and experts from Amnesty International detail egregious investigative errors.

Were they not so horrifying and sad, some elements of this tale would be laughable. Even after authorities had arrested Abdel Latif Sharif Sharif in connection with the killings, bodies continued to appear. When asked how that was possible, police claimed the Egyptian was directing members of Los Rebeldes gang to keep killing local girls -- from his jail cell. Later, special prosecutor Suly Ponce claimed Sharif Sharif was hiring several bus drivers to commit a fresh batch of killings in 1999.

Most troubling, though, is the lack of answers. As recently as November, one victim's mother expressed doubts about the guilt of two men charged in her daughter's death. "We don't want scapegoats. We don't want torture . . . or lies," she said. "What I want is the truth."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company