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The Deaths That Haunt Juarez

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In the cold desert night, the stranger appeared like an avenging ghost. Blood streamed from a cut above her puffy, blackened eye. Her baggy pants and blouse were dirt-streaked, and she was missing a sneaker. To the peasant who saw her staggering toward his house, it was a terrifying sight.

“You’d better get out of here, or I’ll fill you with bullets,” the frightened man warned.

“Please, sir, let me explain,” begged the approaching figure. To the man’s astonishment, it was a 14-year-old girl.

The girl told a tale that has electrified this bustling border city in the past few months. Authorities are calling it a rare break in one of Mexico’s greatest crime mysteries: the killing of nearly 200 women here since 1993.

For years, experts and officials have struggled to explain the slayings in this city across the border from El Paso. A serial killer? A macho backlash in an industrial hub that thrives on cheap female labor? Now authorities had a survivor, brutally attacked and apparently left for dead on the city’s outskirts.

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As a result of the girl’s testimony, authorities charged five men last month in the slayings of seven women. One of the men is also accused of raping the girl, whose story was related to The Times by her mother.

Prosecutors say they’ve uncovered a sinister tale of murder-for-hire involving U.S.-owned factories and their most vulnerable employees. Bus drivers who were supposed to provide safety for the factory girls, they say, turned out to be their predators. In perhaps the most ghoulish twist in the story, the bus drivers allegedly were working for a jailed chemist who prosecutors say masterminded other deaths.

“We can’t say we’ve resolved all the cases,” cautioned Suly Ponce, head of the local Special Prosecutor’s Office for Women’s Homicides. But, she added, authorities could be starting to solve the mystery.

It all began six years ago. At first, authorities saw nothing unusual. There were women shot by jealous boyfriends, knifed in gang fights, overdosed on drugs. The homicide statistics were unremarkable for a mushrooming city of 1.5 million, as famed for its bars and thriving drug trade as it is for sprawling industrial parks.

But another kind of corpse began turning up again and again: young, slender women with long dark hair, many of them students or workers at maquiladoras, the mainly U.S.-owned assembly plants that have flourished along the border.

Most of these victims had been raped and strangled. And they had another common trait: “They had no panties. None. They could have all their other clothes--shoes, socks, stockings, bra. But no underpants,” Ponce said.

Nearly one-third of the 187 women who have been killed since 1993 fit that pattern, Ponce said.

Authorities have produced few convictions, despite consulting everyone from the FBI to a U.S. criminal-profiling expert who was an advisor on the movie “The Silence of the Lambs.” The lack of results has prompted protests by women’s groups who complain that officials are not trying hard enough.

“Authorities haven’t cared because the victims are women and they’re poor, and many times they have no family in Juarez,” said Alma Vucovich, president of the Mexican Congress’ Committee on Sexual Equality, which has demanded federal intervention.

Now, however, even critics believe there may be progress.

Survivor Typifies Female Work Force

The key to the arrests is the 14-year-old survivor. In many ways, she is typical of the army of laborers in the city’s 330 maquiladora plants. The companies traditionally favor female employees, arguing that they are more nimble and orderly. For their part, Mexican women have embraced the factory jobs and freedom they couldn’t find elsewhere in this traditional society.

The girl arrived from the northern city of Durango four years ago with her mother, Maria de la Luz Gonzalez. “Here, there’s work,” Gonzalez, 47, said in an interview in her wood-and-tarpaper shack in a desolate slum at the desert’s edge.

Laboring in factories that pay little more than Mexico’s $3-a-day minimum wage, Gonzalez struggled. When her daughter wanted to buy the baggy hip-hop pants so popular with teenagers, Gonzalez put her foot down. The girl would have to earn her own money.

In a city that thrives on young women’s labor, that was easy. The girl passed herself off as a 17-year-old, using a friend’s birth certificate. Soon, she was assembling motors on the 4 p.m.-to-1 a.m. shift at Motores Electricos, a subsidiary of the Milwaukee-based A. O. Smith Corp.

But on March 18, three weeks after the girl had started work, she didn’t come home. Her mother tells the following story:

The driver of the company bus took the nervous girl, his last passenger, to the edge of the city and turned off the lights.

“I’m going to kill you,” he growled. The last thing the girl remembers is the iron grip of his hands tightening around her neck.

The girl later regained consciousness near the home of the peasant, who called for help. She declines to be interviewed, her mother said. As a rape victim, she is not being identified by most media. But she has appeared in court accusing the driver, Jesus Manuel Guardado.

To investigators, her story was just the beginning.

They say Guardado led them to three other factory bus drivers and their alleged ringleader, Victor Moreno. These are the men who were charged last month in the slayings of seven women. In a recent court appearance, they pleaded not guilty. But upon their arrest, they had told a chilling tale of murder.

Defendants Describe Grisly Business Deal

According to prosecutors, the men said they had received a bizarre offer from a convicted killer in a Juarez jail, Omar Latif Sharif: Could they rape and kill two women a month? Prosecutors say Sharif offered to pay $1,200 a month on receiving evidence of the slayings--two pairs of panties. Since they were addicted to cocaine and other drugs and desperate for money, the drivers agreed, said Ponce, the prosecutor.

Sharif had more complicated motives, she said. The Egyptian-born chemist has long been a central suspect in the Ciudad Juarez killings and was jailed in 1995. But authorities have struggled to prove his guilt. He was not convicted of anything until this March, when he received a 30-year sentence for one murder. He has appealed the conviction.

“His accomplices say Sharif’s idea was to distract attention from himself. With this [plan], he would make authorities and the citizenry think he had nothing to do with the other homicides, since he was in jail,” Ponce said.

She said that investigators are probing where Sharif got the money to pay the bus drivers but that they believe it came from patents on his scientific inventions.

Sharif’s alleged involvement is a subject of intense debate in Ciudad Juarez. He had been charged with rape twice before, in Florida, said Capt. Sadie Darnell of the Gainesville Police Department. In 1981, Sharif was sentenced to five years’ probation in a North Palm Beach attack, she said. Then, in 1983, he was given a 12-year sentence in a Gainesville rape. He served six years of that sentence before moving to Ciudad Juarez, she said.

Sharif has not been charged in the bus drivers’ case. And he has declared he is innocent.

“I’ve been fighting for my freedom for 3 1/2 years. They accuse me of everything,” he told reporters recently from his jail cell in the city of Chihuahua.

As for the five men facing charges, they initially admitted to the killings but later recanted in court, saying they had confessed under torture. The director of the local jail, Andres Mendoza, denied a request by The Times to interview the men.

Prosecutor Ponce says the five suspects acknowledged participating in 20 slayings but that only seven killings have been substantiated so far.

Despite the arrests, much remains baffling about the Ciudad Juarez killings. The slayings blamed on the bus drivers account for only some of them. And experts disagree about the causes of the bloodshed.

Last year, Robert K. Ressler, a former FBI criminal-profiling expert, concluded after visiting the border city that several serial killers might be involved. In March, however, an FBI team assisting Mexican authorities said the slayings appeared unrelated.

“It would be irresponsible to state that a serial killer is loose in Juarez,” the FBI said in a statement.

Experts say the investigation is particularly difficult because some of the bodies were found after months in the desert and haven’t been identified.

But a growing women’s movement has protested that the scant results are due to sloppy investigations and negligence by authorities. While many activists say they are hopeful the latest arrests will resolve some killings, they are wary.

Paula Flores, 41, is one of the women who continues to join demonstrations and paint crosses on city street poles to protest the unsolved deaths. The homemaker said the story of her 17-year-old daughter, Sagrario Gonzalez, explains her distrust of authorities.

Sagrario left work at a maquiladora in Ciudad Juarez at 3:30 p.m. on April 16, 1998, and never came home. Her panicked family contacted authorities that night.

“They didn’t do anything to search for her. They told us that maybe she’d gone off with her boyfriend. But we told them he was with us,” recalled the mother, sitting in a shack dominated by a framed photo of the slender, smiling Sagrario in front of her factory. Candles with images of Jesus and the Virgin of Guadalupe flickered in the tiny living room.

Flores fought back tears as she recalled the family’s search. They visited hospitals, the Red Cross, even the jail. They handed out 4,000 fliers. But there were no answers--until two weeks later, when Flores visited the prosecutor’s office. A reporter told her that Sagrario’s strangled corpse had been discovered by passersby on the remote outskirts of the city.

Flores stormed into the adjoining police office. “Assassins!” she shrieked. Recalling the incident, she said softly, “They did nothing to search for my daughter.”

The federal government’s own human rights commission has joined in the criticism of law enforcement. Last year, the commission said state authorities had moved slowly on the investigations because they assumed some of the victims were prostitutes.

Esther Chavez, founder of a feminist group that has spearheaded protests about the slain women, says she has new hope that some killings may now be solved. But she notes that authorities have announced the resolution of the Ciudad Juarez slayings in the past only to see their cases weaken.

“This is a rerun of what happened three years ago,” she said.

A Dragnet That Targeted a Gang

At that time, police rounded up scores of members of a gang called the Rebels, who frequented the city’s bars and pool halls. Prosecutors said they were killing women on the orders of Sharif--the same jailed chemist alleged to be behind the bus-driver gang.

Five of the Rebels are currently on trial for seven killings committed earlier than those blamed on the bus drivers. But the Rebels case is plagued by irregularities. The suspects, showing burn marks and other signs of abuse, have said they were tortured to implicate one another and were denied access to lawyers. Little additional information has emerged to substantiate their guilt.

Prosecutors have repeatedly sought to charge Sharif in the Rebels case, but a judge has ruled that there is insufficient evidence.

Chavez and other activists worry that authorities are using Sharif as a scapegoat in an effort to show citizens that they are solving the crimes.

“I think he’s dangerous. But it seems very Hollywoodish that he’d be paying [for killings] for three or four years,” Chavez said.

Officials have denied her charges that the investigations have been sloppy.

And despite her criticism, Chavez said she thinks the blame for the women’s deaths doesn’t just rest with police.

The 65-year-old retired businesswoman has spent years leading demonstrations, badgering officials, holding the hands of victims’ families. She has come to believe that the seed of the violence against women lies in Ciudad Juarez itself.

The city has been transformed in recent decades with the arrival of hundreds of assembly plants hiring women. This may have generated a macho backlash, she said.

“Women are occupying the space of men in a culture of absolute dominance of men over women,” she said. “This has to provoke misogyny.”

And the workers flooding north to fill the factories have overwhelmed the city’s infrastructure. The poorly paid young women have to walk long distances in the dark along dirt roads from their slums to the company buses taking them to work. Many are from traditional villages and are unused to city life.

“On these footpaths and dark streets, it’s easy to kill them,” Chavez said. She and other activists say the factories are at fault for not providing better protection for their employees.

The executive director of the city’s maquiladora association, Servando Sarabia, says that’s the job of police.

“No business is responsible for the safety of its workers, except in the factory,” he said. The arrested bus drivers, he said, worked for private companies hired by the factories.

Still, the arrests have been a wake-up call to many in Ciudad Juarez.

In recent weeks, factories have started issuing whistles and pepper spray to female employees. The government has done sweeps to find underage employees like the young survivor. It has also demanded that bus drivers be tested for drugs.

But the measures haven’t provided much comfort to the women who were riding one recent afternoon on the bus the 14-year-old rape victim used to take to her job.

“We were all terrified,” said Nati Varona, a 36-year-old in a blue factory smock. Women are now trying to be extra-cautious, she said, and are sticking together in groups. But there is only so much they can do.

“We have to work,” she said with a shrug. “We have to take the risks.”


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