This dingy border town across from El Paso is best known as one of the largest cocaine funnels into the United States. But now it has a new legacy: The Strangler, who has raped and killed at least 17 young women in the biggest killing spree in Mexico.

The victims were all petite women with long black hair and dark skin, and all but one was between 15 and 23. Most had their hands tied behind their backs with a shoelace. Their bodies or skeletal remains have been found since August in the remote mountains and desert flatlands surrounding this frontier city. Although some had been stabbed, most were strangled to death. Many had knife or teeth marks on their left breasts, and often a pair of shoes was placed neatly next to their partially disrobed bodies.

Last October, citizens here breathed a sigh of relief with the arrest of Sharif Abdel Latif Sharif, 49, an Egyptian chemist and convicted rapist who had lived for most of the last 20 years in the United States -- including, he says, in Georgetown. At the time of his arrest, nine bodies had been found in a desert area south of town, and police said they could tie Sharif to at least four of the murders, although they charged him with only one.

Then, just a month ago, citizens started finding more bodies in a hilly area on the north side of town, and some of the women had clearly been killed while Sharif was in jail. In four weeks, eight bodies were discovered, and many had The Strangler's signatures: the shoes, the mutilated left breasts, the wrists bound with a shoelace.

Angry, skeptical and afraid, the people of Juarez were thrown into a quandary -- and doubly so a few weeks ago after a state judge threw out the murder charge against Sharif for lack of evidence. Whom to believe -- a convicted rapist or the notoriously corrupt police? Was Sharif The Strangler, or did they have the wrong man? Had he bribed the judge? Was he paying people to commit more murders to prove his innocence? Were copycats on the loose?

Last week, police gave their answer, arresting 10 men and one woman and claiming they were part of a gang of nightclub workers who had kidnapped, raped and murdered the women. The 11 new suspects and Sharif were formally charged in the killings of seven women.

"We are continuing to work to see if it's possible to charge them with all of the murders," said Jorge Lopez Molinar, deputy attorney general for Chihuahua state. He said 10 of the suspects had confessed to the killings and that their statements "indicate very clearly that Sharif was involved."

This week, police added a new twist to the case, claiming that the suspects were among 100 members of a gang called The Rebels that was involved in a drug trafficking and child prostitution ring in 800 night spots along the border.

The arrests, while perhaps calming the nerves of Juarez's 1.3 million residents, have not stemmed the controversy surrounding the case.

The government's human rights ombudsman in Juarez charged that the 11 suspects were illegally arrested, and their families alleged that their confessions were obtained through beatings. Lopez denied the allegations, saying the ombudsman "has become the defense attorney for these people. He has the right to investigate, but he has to keep his mouth shut."

In a jail-house interview, Sharif said the continuing murders even after his jailing proved that he was not the serial killer. He said Mexican police, under intense pressure to solve the killings, fabricated the murder case against him because he was an easy target.

"They have used my past against me and made me a scapegoat to get public pressure off of them," said Sharif.

Sharif ran up a long criminal record during his more than 20 years as a resident of the United States. He was convicted of two rapes in Florida and charged with one in Texas.

"I'm not a split personality or a psychopath. I'm a drunk, an alcoholic, and when I drink, I'm crazy and I don't know what I do," he said. "I've hung around with a lot of prostitutes and drunks and topless dancers. I'm not proud of it, and I'm not making excuses for my alcoholism. I'll admit to my sins. But I've never killed anybody."

Sharif, who said he began living in the United States in 1974, refused to discuss his past during the interview, saying he did not want innocent acquaintances unfairly harassed and tarred because of their relation with him.

According to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, Sharif was arrested 10 times between May 1981 and March 1983 and was twice convicted of rape, for which he spent about six years in prison. He was indicted on rape charges in Midland, Tex., in October 1993, according to court records there. He had numerous drunken driving charges in both states.

According to a U.S. law enforcement source familiar with Sharif's record, the Immigration and Naturalization Service was supposed to have deported him after his two Florida convictions, "but somehow he fell through the cracks." An INS spokesman declined to provide details about Sharif, citing privacy laws.

Sharif left the United States in May 1994, before the INS apprehended him, and the Texas rape charge was subsequently dropped, according to Teresa Clingman, the prosecutor in the case. Sharif is banned from returning to the United States and will be arrested if found in the country illegally, according to INS documents.

In the interview, Sharif said he was born near Cairo and has advanced degrees in chemistry. He has at least nine U.S. patents for chemical compounds developed while employed by the Midland firm of Benchmark Research and Technology Inc.

Sharif said he moved to Juarez in May 1994 to open a Mexican branch for his employer. He was arrested Oct. 3, 1995, and charged with assaulting a woman who told police that she was raped by a man who said he was going to kill her, just as he had done to other women. Reading from the criminal file, Gustavo de la Rosa Hickerson, warden of the jail where Sharif is being held, said doctors found no traces of semen in their examination of the woman.

Police arrested Sharif that day and immediately publicized that they had apprehended a key suspect in the serial killings. After an investigation, they said witnesses claimed to have seen Sharif with four of the victims before their deaths.

Sharif said his rape-accuser was a prostitute who was sniffing glue in his apartment and became violent, threatening to get even, when he refused to give her $100 for drugs.

"A half-hour after I was arrested, they said I was the serial killer. There was no investigation -- nothing," he said.

Sharif has launched an intense campaign to persuade the public that police have wrongly accused him. His efforts have had a measure of success, partly because of the well-documented brutality and corruption of Mexico's police forces.

"I think the police are liars," said Ramona Morales, whose 17-year-old daughter was the victim whom Sharif was first accused of killing -- the case that the judge later threw out. "Now people are saying he bought the judge. You don't know who to believe any more. I hope God helps us find the truth." CAPTION: Accused serial killer Sharif Abdel Latif Sharif shows anguish during an interview in jail in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico.