Her chocolate-brown eyes devoured Ciudad Juarez as it unfolded through the dusty window. Outside was a life she imagined would soon be her own. She would get a job in one of the modern factories with the famous American names: Ford, Motorola, General Electric. She would have her own money to buy the stylish dresses and platform shoes the city girls wore. She - not just her older brothers - would send money back home to her ailing Mama and Papi.
Her parents were a 12-hour bus ride behind her, deep inside Durango state in Mexico's arid northern ranch lands. She was in a new world now. Juarez was a city built by globalization, by the jobs, money and social forces remaking Mexico. Here was the gateway to the world's richest economy. In the dry desert air, the buildings of El Paso, Tex., just across the Rio Grande, looked close enough to touch.
Still giddy on her first day, Irma accompanied her older brother, Miguel Angel Garcia, and his wife, Yadira, to meet Yadira's mother, Maricela Garcia, who looked out for the family members drawn to Juarez. But Maricela, a 49-year-old shopkeeper hardened by a lifetime of work in the big factories of Ciudad Juarez, was alarmed to see the little girl from Durango.
Irma Angelica Rosales's brother Miguel Angel Garcia sits next to his son, Jesus, 4, and his wife, Yadira, who is pregnant with their second child, in their home in Colonia Mexico 68.
Maricela knew that Juarez, although it was one of Mexico's most modern and prosperous cities, had also become a dark and rootless place that could consume a small-town girl like Irma. The evidence was on the television news: reports showing the bodies and bones of girls and young women found in vacant city lots and vast, open tracts of desert. Over several years, a long list of young women, many anonymous even to police, had vanished from the streets, poor neighborhoods and buses of the city, never to be seen alive again. Dozens more disappeared with no trace of their bodies. By June 2000, the death toll would reach 238.
"You shouldn't have brought her here," Maricela hissed in Miguel's ear. "There are things she's not going to understand about Juarez."
In the days after her arrival, every time Irma wandered into dingy Garcia Groceries, with its sparse shelves and noisy video games, Maricela admonished, "Look, Irma, it is very dangerous. There are people raping and killing here."
"I don't care," Irma retorted, weary of the constant warnings. "They can rape me - just so long as they don't kill me."
* * * * *
Three months before Irma Rosales stepped off the bus from Durango, Suly Ponce arrived for her first day on the job in Ciudad Juarez as the special prosecutor for women's murders. She surveyed her new office in dismay. There were no computers and no files, just a typewriter, two little chairs and an ugly telephone.
She remembers thinking in frustration, "They've given little importance to the creation of this office. It's been created for the politicians just to say, 'I was here!' "
Ponce was the fifth person to head the state government's Special Office for the Investigation of Women's Murders in Ciudad Juarez in the nine months it had existed. After six years and 200 slain girls and women, virtually none of the crimes, excluding those committed in domestic disputes, had been solved.
Irma's nephew, Jesus Garcia, sits outside of his family's home in Colonia Mexico 68. The light blue buildings of the Juarez Industrial Park stand in the distance.
The political pressures to solve a series of lurid slayings in one of Mexico's most important manufacturing centers were immense. Ciudad Juarez epitomized the promises of the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which had helped create jobs for more than 1.2 million Mexicans - 250,000 in Ciudad Juarez - who churned out consumer products for the biggest name brands in the world. In a convergence of supply and demand, foreign firms and Mexican workers flocked to Juarez for the same reason: the wages, which were higher than elsewhere in Mexico, but more than 10 times less than the $5.15 minimum for an hour's work across the border in the United States.
For 3 1/2 centuries, Ciudad Juarez has been a strategic passage between north and south - for the Franciscan missionaries who first settled here in 1659, for the raids of Mexican revolutionary war hero Pancho Villa in the early 1900s, for bootleggers during U.S. Prohibition and, for the last 35 years, for the consumer goods manufactured in the border factories.
But the U.S. gateway that brought prosperity to this dust-coated city over the last four decades - more than quadrupling its population - also created a market for drug traffickers, migrant smugglers, gunrunners and car thieves. With the criminals came an explosion of violence and some of the highest homicide rates in Mexico.
Sometime in the early 1990s - police cannot say why or exactly when - the pattern of killings changed. Once confined mostly to drug feuds, brawls and gang fights, the slayings began to include large numbers of women and girls. Many of these killings were almost incomprehensibly brutal. Women were raped and strangled, crushed or mutilated. Some bore knife or teeth marks on the left breast. In some cases, victims' partially clothed bodies had been bound with shoelaces; often someone had carefully arranged the shoes beside the body. Body after body turned up with skin singed black by the sun or bones picked clean by desert vermin.
In attacking young women, the killer or killers were preying on victims furnished in part by the global economic forces so vital to Juarez's boom. The majority of the slain women worked outside the home. Many were migrants whose pursuit of 21st-century jobs had created a new phenomenon of mobile, independent - and vulnerable - working women, many living away from their more traditional rural communities for the first time. Of those victims who were employed, an estimated 40 percent worked in maquiladoras, the assembly plants that meant billions of dollars to international business and Mexican households.
Business leaders, citizen organizations and international human rights groups attacked Mexican law enforcement authorities for failing to solve or prevent the crimes. The new governor of the state of Chihuahua, where Ciudad Juarez is located, had campaigned on promises to curb the violence.
The job of deciphering the most macabre and baffling series of homicides in modern Mexican history now fell to Ponce, a chain-smoking 35-year-old with auburn hair who favored fashionable suits of bright red or butter yellow. She had been a university professor, federal elections commission official, public defender and local magistrate. She had never been a prosecutor.
If the sight of her new office depressed her on that first day, Ponce's first visit to a crime scene horrified her.
News photographers moved the body to get better angles for their pictures. Police trampled footprints and tire tracks that could have been valuable evidence and, with reporters and curiosity-seekers, littered the ground with cigarette butts and empty soda cans.
"We didn't know what we were looking for," recalled Ponce. "We lost all the evidence. Everything. Absolutely everything."
Furious, she cordoned crime scenes, claimed more office space, and installed computers and banks of fancy telephones. With help from FBI agents from El Paso, who offered advice on preserving evidence and tracking killings, she tried to make the investigators more professional. Even some of the FBI's Quantico, Va.-based serial killer profilers, the agents depicted in the movie "The Silence of the Lambs," were called in to test - and ultimately reject - the theory that a single, crazed mass murderer was on the loose.
And still, the killings continued: on Dec. 10, 1998, Celia Guadalupe Gomez, 13, a technical school student, raped, stabbed and strangled, left in a vacant lot; a month later, an unidentified teenager, strangled and dumped in the same empty lot where five other bodies had been discovered over the past three years; on Valentine's Day, the scattered bones of yet another unidentified female, found in the desert outside the city where numerous other bodies and skeletons had turned up.
After three months on the job, Ponce had nine new slayings - half of which fit the same horrific pattern - and no real suspects. She was under fire as just another ineffective bureaucrat.
"This was what was so alarming: We didn't know who it was," said Ponce. "We were studying the entire family [of the victims] and we couldn't reach any conclusions because many of them were good workers, many of them were students - good girls, clean girls."
* * * * *
"What's happening here?" she remembered thinking. "Who is behind all of this?"
"Mama, I want to go to Juarez," Irma pleaded.
She had a plan. She would move in with her half-brother, Miguel, and his wife, Yadira, who had been telling her about the big city her entire life.
"Ay, my daughter, you're so young," Rosa Maria Lozano remembers chiding her. "You have to finish school."
But at 12, not waiting to outgrow her childhood dimples and mischievous spirit, Irma had already decided to escape school, and along with it the tedium that enveloped daily life for a girl with dreams in the town of Gomez Palacio.
At the family home in Gomez Palacios, in Durango state, Irma's mother, Rosa Maria Lozano, holds a snapshot of her daughter.
Irma had spent her entire life in the blue house at 185 Avenida Martin Carrera, Colonia Jose Rebollo Acosta, on the poor side of Gomez Palacio. The pavement stopped three blocks from her doorway, and with each passing car, dust seeped through every crack in the little three-room house. The view out Irma's window was the neighbor's front yard: a heap of rubble and chunks of concrete.
She lived with her 52-year-old mother, who had diabetes and heart trouble, and her 49-year-old father, Juan Rosales, a sometime truck driver with failing kidneys. He had spent much of the previous year in the hospital for dialysis treatments. A stern man, appreciated by his wife because he did not beat her or Irma, he had no use for parties, dancing, music or movies - Irma's passions. Even if he had, there was little money. Mama stuffed tamales in the kitchen behind Irma's room to sell at the local factory gates. It was a peso here, a peso there.
At the end of the fifth grade, Irma ripped up her report card in hopes that the school would prevent her from returning, but she was readmitted anyway. The pea-green walls of her classroom were bare except for two chalk-coated blackboards - no posters, no pictures. The teacher spent most of the day disciplining children; she knew that across Durango, one in three students would not advance past the sixth grade.
Every Monday, Irma refused to go to class because she did not like the flag-raising ceremony students were required to attend. Every Friday, she played hooky because she hated cleaning the blackboards and erasers. Instead of studying, she dreamed.
Often she thought about Miguel, Dona Rosa's 29-year-old son from her first marriage, and his life in Juarez. Miguel sent money to pay for her father's dialysis and to cover other expenses. He visited Gomez Palacio with his wife and their 4-year-old son, Jesus.
"Mama," Irma pleaded. "Let me go. Let me go and work with Yadira. I can work in a factory there."
Surely, the big international factories would not hire a child as young as Irma, Dona Rosa said to Yadira during a holiday visit to Gomez Palacio early last year. "Can she get a job there?"
"Yes, yes, they would hire her," said Yadira.
Dona Rosa remembers thinking: "We are in debt. My husband is sick." She was exhausted by her rambunctious daughter.
A few days later, Irma came home from school early, crying. She said that her teacher had accused her of smoking, had slapped her, had knocked her down.
"I don't want to go back to school," Irma said. "I want to go to Juarez with Yadira."
"Son, can you do it?" Dona Rosa asked Miguel, who was preparing to return to the border with his family.
"Well, if you like, I'll take her," replied Miguel. "She's my sister. We have room."
"You're the only one I'd let her go with," Dona Rosa said. "I know you'll take care of her."
Thirty-six hours later, on Jan. 27, 1999, Irma was in Ciudad Juarez.
* * * * *
Buses filled with migrants arrive every day in Ciudad Juarez from all over Mexico. They have pushed the city's population to more than 1.2 million - according to some estimates, as many as 2 million. Most newcomers are impoverished - farmers with land too worn out to provide for their families; economic refugees from the poorest pockets of the Mexican states of Oaxaca, Veracruz and Durango; thousands of women and girls who have never held a job beyond cooking, washing, cleaning and accommodating their fathers and husbands.
For many, Ciudad Juarez serves as a chaotic waiting room on the way to the Other Side. Tens of thousands of Mexicans cross the border here each year, legally or illegally. But for even more, Ciudad Juarez offers a $4-a-day job in the maquiladoras of U.S. Fortune 500 companies that dot the Mexican side of the Rio Grande.
Maquiladoras, which translates loosely as "places for making industrial products," were created in 1965 when Mexico formed a special commercial zone along its northern frontier where foreign companies - mostly American - could import parts duty-free and export finished products back to the home country or around the world at favorable tax and labor rates. Mexico now has 3,485 maquiladoras.
In addition to propping up Mexico's economy during years of financial crisis, the maquilas, as the factories are often called, spawned and nurtured one of the greatest cultural revolutions in modern Mexico. The factories - in which at least 60 percent of workers are female - lured hundreds of thousands of women and girls from their confining homes and remote villages across Mexico, giving them greater financial and social independence than perhaps any other single phenomenon in recent Mexican history.
But while Ciudad Juarez's maquiladoras pleaded for new workers to help fill orders for foreign markets, the living conditions for many workers were wretched, in communities that seemed to have been erected overnight from the scraps of the assembly industry.
In Colonia San Francisco at the southern end of Ciudad Juarez, schoolchildren stand outside a primary school constructed with cardboard boxes used by the nearby factories to package stereos and television sets.
Many houses near the neighborhood that Irma moved into with her brother and his wife were constructed from the wooden pallets and cardboard boxes discarded by the maquiladoras. Miguel and Yadira had fared better: They had a single cement room. Still, they had no telephone or running water. Their landlord provided electricity by pirating current from the city light pole in front of the house. Power surges frequently fried their television and refrigerator.
Rent for the room was $55 a month; it was bedroom, living room and kitchen. The two beds doubled as a place to sleep by night and sit by day. They now accommodated four people: Miguel, Yadira, their son, Jesus, and Irma. Yadira's mother lived just down the road, behind her tiny cubbyhole of a shop.
Yadira had lived in this neighborhood all but two of her 21 years. Miguel had been here since coming to Juarez with his father 15 years earlier in search of work. The couple had married when Yadira was 13. They had scraped by since. Miguel worked in a brick oven just out the back door, baking 1,000 bricks a day. In a good week he earned $70 or $80. In a bad week, when his calloused knees ached from leaning on the hard wet clay, he made half that.
Miguel and Yadira had seen Juarez grow, and knew the dangers of the dark streets where burned-out street lamps were never replaced. They had watched a protest movement emerge that put crosses on telephone poles to remind young women and girls to be especially cautious. Female activists marched through the streets under banners that urged "Women of Juarez Unite" and "Stop the Violence Against Women. Life and Liberty Without Disappearances and Impunity."
Whenever the television news reported another rape, another killing or another disappearance, Miguel would turn to his little sister and say, "Look, honey, another girl disappeared. You better not dare disappear on me."
* * * * *
Yadira, a shy woman with a heart-shaped face and long, coal-black hair, insisted on only one condition for Irma's job search: She wanted to find a factory where they both could work. With the killings continuing in Juarez, she didn't want Irma alone on the streets or buses.
The maquiladoras were desperate for workers. Banners hung larger than the company names outside most buildings: "Workers needed." "Operators needed." "Jobs available." Unlike the rest of Mexico, Juarez - with the lowest unemployment rate in the nation - had jobs for almost anyone.
Irma was four years shy of Mexico's legal working age. But in Juarez, for $20, Irma's brother could buy a fake birth certificate from a local forger that turned a 12-year-old child born at 2:30 p.m. on July 16, 1986, into a 16-year-old job applicant born at 10:30 a.m. on July 16, 1982.
"We were looking for just a day," said Yadira, who had decided to return to work after caring for young Jesus. "We went to one maquila and no luck; we went to a second, no luck either. And then the third one hired us. It wasn't that hard."
Irma presented birth certificate No. 260366 to Electro Componentes de Mexico, also known as International Wire Group Inc., with headquarters in St. Louis. The personnel office did not raise questions about the missing thumbprint that should have been in the corner, or the missing state seal. There was an official-looking stamp in the lower right-hand corner. Who would check beyond that?
The next day, after the mandatory pregnancy test came back negative, Irma and Yadira were in the training room wearing bright green smocks, earning 38 pesos, or about $4, for a day's work, the going rate for new employees at almost every maquila in town.
They learned to operate the machines that processed wiring for General Electric, Amana, Frigidaire and Maytag appliances. Nearly 2,000 people on two shifts labored in a cavernous workshop big enough to cover 2 1/2 football fields. Hundreds of clattering machines ate, then spit out, clusters of multicolored wires. Irma sat on a cushioned, blue high chair at a blue worktable testing purple, orange, green and black wires that would become the electrical veins of new refrigerators.
She was instructed: Stick the little white plug into a little hole in a little plastic box. Wait for the digital readout. Slap on an inspection sticker. Toss the wad of wires into a brown cardboard box. Then do it again, and again, and again. By the end of her 9 1/2-hour shift, Irma had tested 800 white plugs.
Watching her sister-in-law that first day, Yadira could see that already Irma's 12-year-old mind was wandering. Irma would gaze up at the row of gilt-framed photographs on the wall to her right: the annual winners of the Ugly King and the Congenial Queen contest voted by the plant workers. She joked with her neighbors. She ambled over to the nearby line where Yadira worked. They chitchatted over the racket of the clickety-clacking machines. The supervisor scowled. But Irma had never seemed happier.
When their shift ended, Irma and Yadira left the front entrance of the factory and followed smooth sidewalks paralleling the boulevards that curved around the factories. International Wire was framed in dense oleander hedges. Huge power lines towered overhead. A tiny employee park offered a basketball court and an oasis of benches under small trees. Guard booths and wrought iron fences separated each maquila's territory.
A family walks across the desert expanse outside Ciudad Juarez, an area that has become a human dumping ground for the city's hundreds of female victims.
Irma and Yadira crossed the fenced boundary of the industrial park into Colonia Mexico 68, a squatters' neighborhood of 3,500 inhabitants that sprang from the detritus of the Juarez Industrial Park. The neighborhood was named for the 1968 anti-government protest in Mexico City in which dozens of students were gunned down by the Mexican army. On the 15-minute walk between the industrial park fence and the tiny cement cubicle where they lived, Yadira and Irma trudged past the houses built from wooden pallets, some with cardboard-box additions. Roofs were covered in tar paper or scraps of tin and held down by rocks, bricks and old tires. Irma and Yadira did not see a single blade of grass.
If there was a menacing side to the poverty and impermanence of her new home, Irma seemed too distracted to notice. She was busy making friends, and noticing how nice all the girls and women were dressed, how shabby she felt in Yadira's hand-me-downs and her worn tennis shoes. She wanted to buy herself some modern outfits, and to send a few pesos back to the little blue house in Gomez Palacio.
Her first weekend in Juarez, Irma called her mother from a pay telephone.
"Daughter, do you want to come back?" Dona Rosa remembers asking.
"No, Mama, I'm doing great!"
"If you're not happy, tell me."
"No, Mama, I'm really happy."
* * * * *
The banner in the lobby of International Wire declared the Juarez plant the winner of the company's "Distinguished Supplier Award" and boasted of its workers: "One team better and faster than anybody else in the world."
International Wire's plant, like all maquiladoras, was built for profit. It had low labor costs, no independent unions and no requirements to meet U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration standards. Bonuses were based on working fast. Promotions were based on working fast. Special perks were based on working fast. If you needed a bathroom break, a colleague had better fill in for you.
At her station, Irma was the talker. Irma did not get back to her worktable fast enough after lunch. She chatted too much. Workers in her group, or "cell," complained. They would not get their bonuses because they had not met their quotas - because the gregarious little Irma goofed off too much, they said.
On Friday, Feb. 12 - the end of Irma's first full week on the job - the supervisor warned Irma that she was not performing well, International Wire officials recalled. But the supervisor said, "You haven't been here long. We're going to give you another chance. We're going to change your work area on Monday."
That afternoon, Irma left the factory with her first week's paycheck: $21.
On Sunday, Irma took the bus with Yadira and Miguel to downtown Juarez, where the streets were bustling with maquila workers spending their wages. Irma bought a pair of black, stacked-heel sandals - her first high heels - and a filmy flowered dress with a matching slip. She even had a few pesos left to by a Valentine's Day sucker and stuffed animal for a boy named Oscar at work.
"Irma, you look so pretty," the neighbors called out when she got home.
This was the Irma she had dreamed of becoming: big-city girl, factory employee, her own paycheck.
A man gawks at a woman passing by.
On Monday, she wore her new shoes to work and came home with blisters on her feet. But she planned to wear the shoes and the dress again on Friday, like all the girls and young women who came to work wearing faux-velvet tops, leather miniskirts and high-heeled shoes - so they could go dancing Friday night right after the end of their shift.
As they had warned Irma earlier, factory supervisors had switched her to a new job. But one plant official said that after receiving instructions for her new job, Irma disappeared from her assembly line for several hours.
The next day, Tuesday, Feb. 16, Irma's boss confronted her about leaving her post. Less than an hour after Yadira took up her workstation, Irma was standing beside her: "I'm going home because the old guy fired me for not doing everything he told me on Monday."
"I can't leave," Yadira fretted. "I can't come with you. You have to go alone."
This was the first time Irma had left the factory by herself, and it made Yadira nervous.
"Take the bus," Yadira cautioned. "Look for a Ruta 5 or a Ruta 7. They go near the house. Don't walk."
Yadira watched her little sister-in-law follow the thick yellow line that skirted the work floor and led to the exit.
"Irma," she called out, "be careful."
Researcher Garance Burke contributed to this report.