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Writer: Molly E. Moore
Photographer: Michael Robinson-Chavez

Only hours after Irma Angelica Rosales left work, a boy playing in a garbage-strewn lot spotted something in a dry drainage ditch, barely poking from beneath a pile of dead brush next to some rotting tires. A little hand.

gallery Part 1:
Epidemic of Murder
in a Free-Trade Haven


gallery Part 2:
Justice Elusive
for Slain Women


Links and Credits

Within the hour, the television news reported that another young woman had been killed in Ciudad Juarez. She was the sixth since the start of 1999 six weeks earlier, and by official count, the 209th woman or girl to be slain in the border city in the previous six years.

Her description fit the pattern of many of the slayings: young, thin, long black hair, dark complexion - and an assembly-plant worker. Raped, smothered to death with plastic bags, dumped in an abandoned lot, this time just behind one of the big modern maquiladoras, factories that produce consumer goods for American companies. Like so many victims, this one was anonymous.

Suly Ponce, the special prosecutor for women's killings in Ciudad Juarez, grimaced at the latest report. Two days earlier, on Feb. 14, 1999, the bones of another woman had been found on the desert fringe of this modern manufacturing city that shares a border with El Paso, Tex.

Ramon Angiano, a gravedigger in the San Rafael cemetery outside Ciudad Juarez, stands in front of one of the 300 unmarked graves containing the city's unidentified murder victims.

The killer or killers were preying largely on the young, female work force created by the rise of maquiladoras, symbols of Mexico's integration into the global economy. The majority of workers were women, including thousands of migrants who had left poorer, more traditional rural towns and villages for a new life in Juarez.

Now, in addition to churning out exports, Cuidad Juarez was producing corpses. The vacant lots that pock the city and the open deserts on its edges had become dumping grounds for raped, slashed, strangled, crushed and dismembered bodies. As Esther Chavez, a pioneering women's rights advocate in Juarez, put it: "They were murdering women and throwing them out like garbage."

Ponce, 35, had been appointed special prosecutor by a new state governor who had campaigned promising to end the killings terrorizing Ciudad Juarez. After three months on the job, she had no substantive arrests to her credit - only more bodies. And now a new one.

As criticism of her ineffectiveness grew more shrill with the discovery of each new victim, Ponce snapped at a reporter, "I sometimes feel like I'm being blamed for all the murders."

* * * * *

Yadira Garcia had worried all day, from the moment Irma, her 12-year-old sister-in-law, left the U.S.-owned International Wire Group Inc. factory where they worked together. Less than two weeks after starting work at the plant, Irma had said she had been fired. Yadira had last seen her heading home alone, to their neighborhood of cardboard shanties and concrete cubicles next to the maquiladoras' sprawling industrial park.

As soon as her shift ended at 4 p.m., Yadira hurried along the rutted, dirt roads of Colonia Mexico 68. She stopped at her sister's house on a steep ledge a few hundred yards away from her own gray concrete box. She wanted to make sure Irma had picked up Yadira's son, Jesus, and brought him home as agreed. But there had been no sign of Irma. Yadira's husband and Irma's older half-brother, Miguel Angel Garcia, was behind their house sweating over the crumbling clay oven where he baked bricks. "Where's Irma?" he asked.

Irma's brother Miguel Angel Garcia stands in one of the brickyards where he makes adobe bricks. Irma stayed with Miguel in his Colonia Mexico 68 home the last three weeks of her life.

Yadira started to feel nervous. Maybe Irma had panicked over being fired and gone to her aunt's house nearby. But she wasn't there. Maybe she was visiting Yadira's brother. She wasn't there either. Maybe she and a boy from the maquiladora, Oscar, had gone to the movies. Irma, who had arrived from the town of Gomez Palacio in Durango State just a few weeks earlier, could scarcely navigate the city on her own.

By the time the pink clouds of a desert sunset had melted - about 11 hours after Irma left work - Yadira and Miguel had gone to the factory, the jail, the local hospitals, the Red Cross and the police station. No Irma, no information about Irma. With nowhere else to look, they returned home.

At nearly 9 p.m., the television news was on, and the reporter announced the discovery of another slain girl. Yadira's heart froze. The family said she and Miguel should go to the morgue, at least to check. But Yadira did not want to go. She did not want to say, "Yes, yes, it is her."

They telephoned the police station again.

"Yes, we have a little girl here," a woman's voice replied. With the same blouse, with the same jeans, with the same tennis shoes as Irma. The girl, the woman said, had been arrested for stealing.

"I don't care if she is a thief, as long as she is alive," Miguel remembers telling the family. "I will pay the fine and get her out."

When the family arrived at prosecutor Suly Ponce's office, an official told them the girl in jeans and a white Nike blouse and pink-trimmed tennis shoes was not in jail after all.

"They raped her and killed her, and she's here," Miguel recalled an official telling them.

The next morning Ponce's office identified the most recent victim as Irma Angelica Rosales, age 13. In truth, on the day of her killing, Feb. 16, 1999, Irma was five months shy of her 13th birthday. As in so many of the cases that came before hers, age was not the only thing the authorities would get wrong.

* * * * *

Municipal police detain two men outside a cantina in Ciudad Juarez.

In the beginning, in the early 1990s, police labeled the dead women and girls prostitutes and drug addicts. They blamed the killings on the victims, claiming they had invited trouble by wearing miniskirts and frequenting bars.

Even prosecutor Ponce partially accepted that view.

"Sometimes there are cases that a girl meets some person, he strikes up a relationship with her, they drink . . . and it ends violently. It's difficult to know," she said.

One problem with this theory is that it failed to solve the crimes. After more than six years - with the exception of a handful of slayings in domestic disputes - only one suspect had been convicted of a single murder. And that conviction would later be overturned by a judge who ordered a new trial based on questionable evidence.

It had taken law enforcement authorities nearly three years to arrest their first serious suspect in the killings: Sharif Abdel Latif Sharif, a 49-year-old Egyptian chemist and convicted rapist who had lived in the United States for most of the previous two decades. Police said they could tie Sharif to at least four of the slayings, and possibly, they said, he was responsible for most of them.

But within weeks of Sharif's arrest in October 1995 the body of a 15-year-old girl, bite marks on her left breast, turned up in the desert. Then another, and another.

In April 1996, police proclaimed another breakthrough: Eleven alleged members of a gang of nightclub workers called the Rebels were charged with the deaths of seven women. A state prosecutor declared he was working "to see if it's possible to charge them with all of the murders."

With the Egyptian still in jail, police said he had paid the gang members to commit the rapes while he was behind bars to prove his innocence, a theory considered preposterous by the victims' families.

Juan Aranda, Irma's neighbor in Colonia Mexico 68, waits for his stuffed toys to dry.

And still, the killings did not stop. It was hard to know even what forces were behind them. Some activists in Juarez blamed the volatile social caldron created by poverty in a city ill equipped to handle the crush of new migrants. There was a culture clash between unfamiliar urban life and the conservative, rural traditions from which most migrants have come.

"Men who fit into the macho culture definitely feel some resentment toward women because they can't dominate them as easily anymore," said Guadalupe Ramirez, the head of a small organization that tracks the cases of disappeared women and girls. "The men don't respect women who leave the house to work. They think they can assault them, that they can insult them, that they can walk by and touch them. Women have worked to get ahead and be independent, and men aren't happy about it."

Few of the victims' families ended up with any answers at all. Irma Perez, 51, who had come to Ciudad Juarez from the state of Hidalgo 33 years ago with dreams of a better life, has been waiting for years for police to solve the slaying of her 20-year-old daughter, Olga, who disappeared on her way home from work in a shoe store on Aug. 10, 1995.

A month after Olga vanished, Perez was presented at the morgue with a bag that police said contained what was left of her daughter. "Just some bones that looked like they had been there for a long time," she recalled. "He put the little head back together for me because it was coming apart. He put it together so I could see the jaw, but I couldn't look at it anymore."

When Irma Rosales was killed, Ponce ordered the detention of Oscar, the fellow maquiladora worker to whom Irma had given a Valentine's Day gift the day before she was slain. But Oscar and the seven friends who were arrested with him were quickly released for lack of evidence. Investigators then began interrogating Irma's male relatives, including her 29-year-old half-brother, Miguel, who had brought her to Juarez from their home town of Gomez Palacio.

"They would say that she wasn't our little sister, that she was our half-sister," recalled the brickmaker with a rosary tattooed on the back of his right hand. "How could she be a half-sister, or one-quarter sister? She was our sister."

Esther Chavez, left, who is an activist in the murder cases, waits at a hospital in Ciudad Juarez with a woman who said her landlord sexually assaulted her young daughter.

To Chavez, widely recognized as the first activist in Ciudad Juarez to track the killings and publicize the cases, this pattern of investigation sounded familiar. After years of amassing files bulging with scraps of newsprint and grainy photographs of bloated, bruised bodies, the 67-year-old former accountant for Kraft Foods did not believe the police accounts or theories.

"As the cadavers were appearing, they were looking for someone to take the blame," complained activist Chavez, who now operates a counseling service for abused women and rape victims. "They were resolving cases out of thin air."

* * * * *

Chavez and others in Juarez believed there was another reason authorities weren't pursuing the slayings more openly or aggressively: the political clout of the foreign companies that owned the maquiladoras and the local politicians who benefited from their presence.

"This is a city that was built for the maquila, it wasn't built for the citizens," Chavez said, using the shortened term for the factories. As for the workers, "they come looking for the American dream and end up working in the maquiladora industry for an average of $4.50 a day. They are surviving more than living. They try to leave behind one precarious life and find another."

Chavez was a native of Juarez but had spent much of her adult life in Mexico City working for international corporations before returning to her home town in 1982. She was stunned then at what her birthplace had become: "When I arrived I found a city so inhospitable, a city so ugly, I wanted to leave and go back to Mexico City." Instead she started writing letters to the newspapers about the city's problems and eventually became involved in promoting women's rights.

Irma Rosales was the third female killed who had worked at a maquiladora in the Juarez Industrial Park, one of many factory compounds in the city. One body had even been dumped inside the complex. Irma had been hired by International Wire Group Inc., a St. Louis-based company that produced components for refrigerators sold under the biggest names in U.S. household appliances - General Electric, Amana, Frigidaire, Maytag.

Shortly after his sister's slaying, Miguel walked through Colonia Mexico 68 and crossed onto the wide paved street inside the industrial park. He blamed Irma's death at least in part on International Wire, where he had helped her get hired by buying a fake birth certificate that declared her 16 years old and able to work without parental consent.

"You are responsible because you fired her, because you threw her into the street," Miguel told one plant official, "You left her alone and you knew she was a little girl."

Plant operations manager Jesus Castro said that Irma, who had been disciplined several times for tardiness and gossiping during work hours, walked into the personnel office on the morning of her death, Feb. 16, and announced, "I'm going to resign . . . I don't like it here." But he said Irma left without signing resignation papers.

The local plant managers took no responsibility for hiring a 12-year-old. Irma slipped by, according to Castro, because her fake birth certificate looked authentic. "This lady looked like she was around 19 years old," he said.

Bernard Boone, the vice president of International Wire Group Inc. who was responsible for overseeing the maquiladora were Irma worked, learned about his employee's death in the morning newspapers. His office - like those of most of the plant's executives - was across the Rio Grande on Henry Brennan Drive in El Paso.

Almost immediately, Boone was under fire. Police detectives interrogated him, his managers and dozens of workers. Civic activists attacked the company for using illegal child labor. Boone said his company has done no audits of employee ages since International Wire bought the plant from General Electric in early 1995. "But it's something we try to keep the record clean on," he said in an interview.

Business leaders in Mexico denied that the growth of the maquiladora industry and the communities they have helped create along the border have contributed to the series of killings of women in Juarez.

"We don't feel guilty about offering people jobs," said Carlos Rosetti, spokesman for Mexico's National Maquiladora Industry Council. "You can't fault the industry at all. It has nothing to do with the killings."

But Juarez Mayor Gustavo Elizondo Aguilar complained that the expanding maquila industry continues to draw people from the countryside that the city cannot afford to house, educate or adequately serve. One of every eight schools in Juarez is built by the government and citizens from cardboard cartons cast off by the maquiladoras. More than 100,000 residents have no running water. About 1,100 miles of city roads are dirt. Paving them would cost $1 billion, said the mayor.

Although exports from the maquiladora industry are worth more than $10 billion a year, the mayor said Cuidad Juarez received only $1.5 million in support from an optional, voluntary tax paid by the maquilas last year.

"In Juarez we have the advantage that there's work, but we have the disadvantage that we don't have the money to respond to the needs we have," said Aguilar.

Part of the result is a huge social gap that runs right down to the factory floor.

"With any of the killings - especially being a woman - you felt that it shouldn't have happened, especially to a person that works in your company," said Veronica Licon, quality director in the El Paso office for International Wire. "Even if you didn't know this person."

* * * * *

A month after Irma died, Ponce needed a new theory. Two Mexico City criminologists invited to assist in solving the slayings had quit, complaining that her investigations were in shambles. Activists, including Chavez, were criticizing her as "frivolous" and ineffective. Sharif, the Egyptian arrested four years earlier, had been convicted of only one murder. (The conviction was overturned in April of this year.) Six of the 11 members of the Rebels had been freed; the remaining five had been sitting in jail for three years awaiting trial.

In Irma's case, there were no leads.

Two women pass a bus in downtown Ciudad Juarez during a march protesting the rash of violence against women.

Then a 14-year-old girl named Nancy Villalba gave Ponce the break she had been waiting for. On March 18, 1999, Nancy banged on the door of a stranger's house, bloodied, shaken and crying. She said she had been raped by the driver of the city bus she had taken after her night shift at a maquiladora assembling components for a U.S. pump maker. The bus driver, she said, then beat her and left her for dead on the edge of town.

Ponce had noticed a trend in some of the slayings: The women and girls had last been seen with, or near, a bus driver. Irma's family, for instance, had reported that she had been seen in front of International Wire, waiting for a bus to take her home.

But more than 2,500 bus drivers plied the city streets. Ponce's detectives chased dead end after dead end for two weeks - until, coincidentally, police in Irma's home town of Gomez Palacio received a complaint about a domestic dispute. A bus driver who worked in Ciudad Juarez had returned home, argued with his wife and beat her up. Jesus Manuel Guardado, 27, a bus driver with a record of robbery, was arrested for assault.

His wife, Maria del Carmen Flores, told police how, when she lived in Juarez with her husband, he would come home occasionally with a kitchen knife covered in blood. Police in Gomez Palacio contacted Ponce's office.

Within days, the prosecutor announced that five bus drivers had confessed to participating in the deaths of 12 women and girls, including Irma. Most likely, Ponce said, they were responsible for many more. And at least some of them - like the Rebels - supposedly had been paid by Sharif, the jailed Egyptian, officials in the prosecutor's office said.

Detectives referred to the alleged culprits by their nicknames: El Dracula, El Narco, El Gaspy, El Kiany. They offered as evidence an account of Irma's last hours, printed on white legal pages and signed by Jesus Manuel Guardado and his alleged accomplices.

The statement that Guardado, alias El Dracula, signed at 6 p.m. on March 31 recounted that "on Feb. 16 of this year . . . when we reached the maquiladoras in the Juarez Industrial Park, we saw a short girl with white skin and black hair. She had on a pair of faded blue jeans, a long-sleeved white shirt and white tennis shoes. We stopped because she looked hot, because her jeans were tight and she walked kind of sexy." The description of Irma wasn't totally accurate; she had dark skin.

The statement then went on in graphic detail to describe how three of the men raped Irma before one asphyxiated her in the back of the bus. After key details of the bus drivers' purported confessions were leaked to the Juarez news media - court documents are not public record in Mexico - four of the bus drivers held a news conference from behind bars, some crying and some with bruises on their faces. The men said they were tortured and coerced into signing the confessions.

Ponce charged the bus drivers with seven of Ciudad Juarez's sexual slayings, although her office continued to leak reports that it believed the men were responsible for at least 12, if not more, of the killings. Today the bus drivers remain in prison awaiting trial.

* * * * *

In the aftermath of Irma's death, the plant managers of the Juarez Industrial Park called an emergency meeting. They voted to donate three cars to the city to be used for police patrols in their complex, to fine maquiladoras that did not keep their unused lots clear of weeds and rubbish, and to erect more street lamps on the roads leading into the workers' shantytown that rings the park.

Mexican labor authorities also launched a sweep of the Juarez maquiladoras in search of underage workers. In nearly 380 maquilas they announced they had found 90 employees under 16 years old. International Wire found "two or three" suspicious birth certificates, but the teenagers turned out to be of legal working age, managers said.

Many people in Juarez ridiculed the labor department's findings. "The plants are full of little girls," said Maricela Garcia, Yadira's mother, who spent 27 years working in 10 maquiladoras. "Lots of people don't even finish sixth grade or any grade because they're all poor. And once the kids get to be 12 or 13, they work in a maquila."

And the killings have continued.

In the first five months of this year, police recorded the deaths of 13 women, four of whom match the same pattern: killed and dumped in the desert or abandoned lots. On April 1, Amparo Guzman, a 17-year-old maquiladora worker who had arrived in January from the state of Veracruz, left her house to meet co-workers in front of the cathedral of the Virgin of Guadalupe in downtown Juarez. The next day, her nude body was discovered in the desert hills northwest of the city.

An unusually vicious outbreak of slayings of both men and women along the frontier - and particularly in Juarez - recently prompted President Ernesto Zedillo to order additional police and troops to the border.

Prosecutor Ponce, confronting as much criticism as ever, defends her record by citing the bus drivers and other suspects who have been jailed and are still awaiting trial. Their arrests have made the streets of Juarez safer, Ponce said. Potential copycat killers "now think 10 times, because they know that we are going to grab them," she declared. "They know that impunity has ended."

However, special U.N. envoy Asma Jahangir recently brought international attention to the continuing slayings in Juarez with a scathing attack on Mexican law enforcement's failure to properly investigate the women's slayings.

* * * * *

"You know, I blame myself because I took her to Juarez," Miguel told his mother, Rosa Maria Lozano, a few weeks after Irma's death.

"No, son, you are not responsible for that, you are guilty of nothing," replied Dona Rosa, sitting in the little blue house where Irma grew up in Gomez Palacio, where she eventually returned in a pink coffin. "These are God's things, and that old man that ran her over, may God help him."

Irma's brother Juan Pablo Carica Lozano; her mother, Rosa Maria Lozano; and her cousin Carla Isela Reyes Lozano pay their respects at Irma's gravesite in her hometown of Gomez Palacios.

Miguel could not bear to tell his mother the truth about Irma. He could not tell her about murder and rape and plastic bags. And he forbade anyone in the family from telling her. But it was a double sin, he thought, lying to your mother, especially a mother so distraught that she sometimes slept atop her daughter's grave in the city cemetery.

"Sometimes I want to tell her the truth," said Miguel. "But then, I say, 'No, because I am just going to hurt her more. Maybe she will even die.' That's why I don't tell her the truth."

But what is the truth about the killings of the women in Juarez, and does anyone know it? Irma Perez, whose daughter was returned to her as a bag of bones, said, "At first, they said the Egyptian was guilty of killing Olga. But a few days later they caught the Rebels, and said that the Egyptian paid them off. So what is the truth? I say there still is no truth."

Even Miguel is not convinced that the three bus drivers who allegedly confessed to the slaying of his sister actually killed her: "I don't know if they are responsible or not. Only God knows."

Sitting back home in her daughter's bedroom, which has been turned into a tiny shop where neighborhood children stop for sugary after-school snacks, Dona Rosa said, "I don't know what happened. I don't know what the truth is.

"Why did God take her from me if she was so happy?"

Researcher Garance Burke contributed to this report.

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