Juarez Killings Breed Fierce Anger

Times Staff Writer

With the number of women slain here over the last decade now up to at least 278, Eva Arce's disgust and sense of hopelessness have only deepened.

The discovery last month of four more victims -- raped, tortured and dumped in this northern Mexico city's desert fringes and in a rail yard -- underscored what she says is the authorities' incompetence or complicity in the homicides.

Investigators believe a majority of the slayings are unrelated and linked to robberies, domestic violence and other crimes. But of particular concern are as many as 90 young women who were also sexually assaulted and are believed to have been victims of serial killers.

Arce has reason to be outspoken. Her daughter Silvia, a 28-year-old mother of three, disappeared on a sales call in March 1998 and has not been seen or heard from since. She was one of several hundred women whom advocates say are missing and possibly homicide victims. Arce, 62, now cares for her daughter's children.

"When we demand action, all the government does is discredit the victims before they run us out of their offices," she said. "I have absolutely no hope. In five years, they have done nothing to solve my daughter's disappearance."

Countless women in Ciudad Juarez, a raucous and at times violent city of nearly 2 million in the high desert near El Paso, feel as bitter as Arce toward their government. The horrific string of killings began in 1993, when the body of a 16-year-old girl was found with its hands bound behind its back in the Loma de Polea section on the city's fringes. She had been raped.

Today, thousands are expected to vent their anger in International Women's Day marches here and in other Mexican cities during which the Juarez deaths will be highlighted as extreme cases of discrimination against women. Demonstrators are expected to march in solidarity in some U.S. cities.

Many here are still in shock from the discoveries Feb. 17 of the bodies of three young women, ages 16, 17 and 18, in the Cristo Negro area on the western outskirts of the city, near where two victims' bodies were dumped last year. Then, on Feb. 19, the mutilated body of a 6-year-old girl was found near railroad tracks in the city center. She had disappeared three days earlier while walking two blocks from her home to buy a soda. No arrests have been made in the February cases.

The day after the discovery of the 6-year-old, authorities disclosed that they had accepted a long-standing offer from the El Paso office of the FBI to provide training for Mexican detectives and other officials in basic techniques of murder investigation. Officers from Chihuahua state and the Mexican federal government began classes in the Texas city last Saturday.

But word of the FBI's involvement did little to placate Arce, who like many activists is convinced that the killings are being committed either by or with the knowledge of police or powerful government figures, or by narcotics traffickers able to kill with relative impunity.

"There is a lot of fear. People who might hear something -- a clue, a name -- don't say anything," said Jaime Flores Castaneda, a top official with the Chihuahua state human rights commission.

The climate of fear extends to investigators, who have learned not to pursue leads that might point to narcotics traffickers or powerful families in Juarez, said Gustavo de la Rosa Hickerson, an attorney representing victims advocacy groups.

As the former warden of the Juarez city jail, De la Rosa has close law enforcement contacts. His review of case files on behalf of victims' families shows that "some of these investigations reach a certain point and stop."

"There is a saying here. It's 'No se pase de listo,' which means 'Don't learn too much' or 'Don't get clever.' You'll end up dead out in the desert if you do," said De la Rosa.

Official Cites Progress

Angela Talavera, the new special prosecutor leading the investigation for Chihuahua state, denies there is any evidence of official collusion. She says the difficulty in solving the slayings has more to do with an understaffed police force and the transient and violent nature of life in the border city. Juarez is a center of narcotics trafficking and a staging area for Mexicans from the country's interior who hope to cross illegally into the U.S. or to find work in foreign-owned factories called maquiladoras.

Talavera insists progress is being made in the cases, although just one suspect has been convicted and sentenced in the up to 90 rape-slayings. Abdel Sharif, who had been in jail since 1995, was given 20 years last month for one of the murders.

Talavera says Sharif and 14 other people in custody are suspected in 24 of the killings.

FBI methods are being applied to evidence found at last month's crime scenes, she says, and the state has doubled to 60 the number of investigators working full-time on the cases. Rewards for information leading to arrests were recently quintupled, to $50,000, and her office launched a public awareness program that has drawn praise from the El Paso FBI office.

She says a 12-year-old girl who was raped and left for dead last month survived her ordeal and is cooperating with police to identify her attackers.

"Somewhere in Juarez lie the clues that will solve the situation," said Art Werge, an FBI special agent in El Paso. "The community is in outrage and demanding government response and accountability and has to keep up the pressure."

But other people, some in the state government, say much more should be done. Flores, of the human rights commission, says the 1,200-member Juarez police force is too understaffed, undertrained and underpaid to deal with crimes of this magnitude. And he agrees that there are irregularities in the investigative files, although he ascribed those more to "poor preparation" than to collusion.

One U.S. investigator who asked not to be identified said the Juarez probe has been hamstrung by discontinuity and a "Ping-Pong battle" between opposing political and police forces bickering among themselves, "with one side standing by hoping the other side fails."

Talavera is the eighth special prosecutor appointed by the state in the slayings since 1998. The city police force is run by a mayor belonging to the National Action Party, while the state police and attorney general's office are under the purview of a governor who belongs to the Institutional Revolutionary Party.

Critics who accuse police of corruption or incompetence commonly refer to the arrest of two bus drivers shortly after the November 2001 discovery of eight victims. The drivers, who confessed to those murders, showed signs of having been tortured, and one of them was found dead in his Chihuahua jail cell last month under suspicious circumstances, says Oscar Maynez, a former state police investigator who resigned citing "personal reasons."

"There are extreme irregularities in the case files of the two bus drivers," charged Maynez, who is pursuing a doctorate in criminal psychology at the University of Texas at El Paso, referring to alleged gaps in the evidence.

Because they believe local police are compromised, many victims advocates think that the FBI's role giving classes is not enough, that U.S. detectives, forensic specialists and attorneys should join the probes.

"Every day, we are more desperate and more disappointed," said Esther Chavez Cano of Casa Amiga, a women's crisis center here. "We have lived in this climate of impunity for 10 years. Enough!"

FBI personnel are prohibited by the laws of both countries from direct involvement in criminal investigations in Mexico except under special circumstances, such as terrorism, and only at the invitation of the Mexican government. Such an invitation has not been extended.

Rights Groups Look On

Several international groups, including Amnesty International and the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, are conducting their own investigations. In Washington, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, or ICHR, an agency of the Organization of American States, held hearings on the slayings last week and will issue recommendations at the end of next month.

Marta Altolaguirre, the ICHR president, believes there may be a tie between some cases and organized crime.

"Common characteristics of the murder victims with those found dead after apparently being executed by organized crime lead us to think there may be some sort of involvement of some illicit network," Altolaguirre said. "The killings are too difficult to explain as spontaneous actions by different people."

Altolaguirre said the commission recently received a request from the family of the bus driver who died in prison to look into his death.

But outside agencies like the ICHR can do little more than urge Mexico on to action. Talavera emphasizes the difficulty of solving killings in a border city with a growing and highly transient population.

"Family disintegration is very serious here, as is the loss of family values and all the social problems that creates, including robberies and narcotics trafficking," she said. "The only way we will solve this is to work together, communicate better. We are committed 100% to solving this."

Victims of the rape-killings typically were slender, attractive women between the ages of 16 and 20 who lived in poor barrios. Often, they worked in the maquiladoras, but some were students or saleswomen.

Arce's daughter made a living selling jewelry door to door in Juarez's well-to-do neighborhoods.

"I have lost hope of finding her alive. But I want to help bring the people responsible to justice. I owe that to my grandchildren," said Arce, a disabled factory worker who has become a sort of freelance detective, gathering bits of information on the killings.

"All the victims' families do their own investigation. Better them than the police, who have no desire, will or minimal intention of resolving anything," said Marisela Ortiz, founder of May Our Daughters Return Home, a support group.

Meanwhile, the recent discoveries of more victims have heightened the climate of fear. Many young women at auto parts manufacturer Delphi Automotive Systems, one of Juarez's largest employers, say they have changed their living habits and rarely go out at night.

Businesses are adapting too. Delphi has added three bus routes to its employee transportation network to drop off women closer to their homes.

"My husband waits for me where the bus stops at midnight, to walk me home, even though it's just a few steps away," said Maria Teresa Ibarra, 20, who rides a Delphi bus to and from her house near the Cristo Negro area where three of the bodies were found last month. "Yes, I'm scared."

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