Times Staff Writer

Ciudad Juarez, Mexico

The Day of the Dead is drawing near, a time to honor lost loved ones. Vendors in this gritty border city are selling porcelain skeletons dressed as mariachi musicians or as brides in white gowns. Reminders that death is part of life.

No one here needs much reminding.

Evangelina Arce is grieving her daughter Silvia, who went to work one afternoon in 1998 and vanished, leaving behind three young children. The only suspect is a onetime federal police officer who had also been accused of kidnapping and torturing one of his co-workers. But authorities didn’t question him and he slipped out of town.


“I think they’re covering everything up,” said Arce, 63, her eyes filled with pain behind her thick glasses.

She once grieved alone, but now she has a broad forum for her lament. Arce is at the center of a small revolution of parents of hundreds of young women who have been murdered or have disappeared in Ciudad Juarez in the last decade.

The Internet, women’s groups and cross-border activists have brought this small, determined movement to the attention of the world. In the last few weeks, these mothers have met with California congresswoman Hilda L. Solis (D-El Monte), taped a segment of the popular Spanish-language talk show “El Show de Cristina,” and met with human rights officials in Washington.

Beginning today and ending Sunday, which is Mexico’s Day of the Dead, Juarez mothers and advocates will converge on Los Angeles for a free UCLA conference, cosponsored by Amnesty International, called “The Maquiladora Murders, or Who is Killing the Women of Juarez?”

It has been a long road for these dispossessed, powerless parents -- marked by denials, bungling and inaction by Mexican authorities -- but they have managed to keep this question alive.

In the vacant lots where bodies have been dumped, some of them within sight of prominent businesses, activists have erected tall, pink crosses painted with the names of the decomposed, burned and mutilated women found there -- Veronica, Laura Berenice, Esmeralda.

At the border, a grim timber cross looms before motorists driving into Texas, attached to an altar whose rusty nails are festooned with crucified intimacies -- ripped lingerie, stockings, a torn dancing dress, high heels. At a recent demonstration there, journalists outnumbered activists, as women in black added names of this year’s victims.

More than 370 women have been murdered, at least 137 of them after being sexually assaulted, since the first mangled bodies began appearing in Juarez in 1993, according to Amnesty International. The number of women who have disappeared could run into the hundreds, the group says.


“They kill them with such hatred,” puzzled Esther Chavez, 70, a Juarez activist who will be at the conference. “A good girl comes, hard-working, who wants to study. She’s found raped, tortured, mutilated. Why so much hatred?”

At the heart of this movement are painfully shy, deeply humble mothers like Paula Flores Bonilla -- one of the first to organize. Flores, 46, lives with her family in this city of 1.4 million people in a makeshift home two hours by bus from downtown, where miles of rutted, unpaved roads end in rocky buttes, and a scalding sun heats the sand that pools at fence posts and blows into children’s eyes.

Flores’ youngest daughter, Sagrario Gonzalez, 17, taught Sunday school here and sang in the church choir. Sagrario worked making refrigerator parts at one of the light-assembly factories called maquiladoras, sharing a shift with her sister and brother-in-law. When the company reassigned Sagrario to another shift, she had to take the bus alone. Two months later, in April 1998, she didn’t come home. Police told Sagrario’s family that maybe she had run off with a boyfriend.



A blame-the-victim reflex

Parents are used to hearing this. For years, police, prosecutors and even a governor commonly suggested victims lived “double lives” -- a synonym for prostitution -- a blame-the-victim reflex that critics say puts women’s lives at risk. “Women with a nightlife who go out very late and come into contact with drinkers are at risk,” said onetime state public prosecutor Arturo Gonzalez Rascon. “It’s hard to go out in the street when it’s raining and not get wet.”

So residents mounted their own search for Sagrario, singing religious songs to keep their faith. They had already found seven dead women in the rocky chaparral, and in a lonely shack they had discovered a crude drawing of supine naked women surrounded by men and a scorpion -- the symbol of the Juarez drug cartel. After the placard appeared in the Mexican press, the federal police demanded it. It was turned over and hasn’t been seen by investigators since.

A body wearing Sagrario’s clothes was finally found after two weeks by a passerby on a barren hillside. Flores’ almond-shaped eyes crumple into tears at the memory.


One of the grieving family’s comforts was a friend, Claudia Ivette Gonzalez, who worked with Sagrario’s older sister, Juana, at a Lear maquiladora. One day, in October 2001, Claudia Ivette arrived two minutes late to work and was turned away. She never made it home.

“We imagined the worst,” said her mother, Josefina Gonzalez, 49, a prim-looking woman in a matronly dress and high heels.

A month later, a laborer smelled a fetid odor as he crossed an urban lot across the street from the Maquiladora Assn. In the next two days, police found the bodies of eight young women there -- some appeared to have been refrigerated -- and identified one as Claudia Ivette. Months later, concerned that police had not gathered key evidence, the mothers themselves found her underwear, her pants, her ID card. Like Sagrario and Claudia Ivette, the other women turning up dead were young, poor and often pretty, with long hair and brown skin.

With the numbers climbing, Norma Andrade co-founded “Nuestras Hijas de Regreso a Casa,” or “Our Daughters on the Way Home” after her own daughter’s disappearance. Like the other groups, these women helped each other pressure authorities for a resolution of the cases, and provided emotional support.


Andrade’s daughter, Lilia Alejandra Garcia Andrade, 17, was last seen in February 2001 walking across the trash-strewn downtown lot between her maquiladora job and her bus stop. On Feb. 19, four days after she disappeared, neighbors of the lot called the police emergency number repeatedly to report that a naked young woman was being raped and beaten by two men in a car. Police did not arrive for more than an hour, and the men had gone, the residents told Amnesty International investigators. Two days later, Lilia Alejandra’s body was dumped in the lot.

U.S. officials are blunt about those they suspect are behind the killings of Lilia Alejandra and some of the others: members of the Juarez drug cartel, who have allies in the business and political worlds and whose bloody torture-killings and narco-cemeteries are the stuff of nightmares. The officials asked that their names not be used for fear of jeopardizing relationships with Mexican law enforcement.

Corrupt police could also be involved, they said, along with other opportunistic or copycat criminals -- perhaps sex criminals from El Paso -- emboldened by the climate of impunity.



‘The most vulnerable’

This year, 17 young women in Juarez and the once-placid state capital, Chihuahua, 200 miles to the south, have turned up dead. At least nine of them show signs of sexual violence.

“If you look at Bosnia or Nazi Germany, you see what is unleashed when you have no rule of law,” said former state criminologist Oscar Maynez. “The most vulnerable are victimized. And these young, poor, brown-skinned women are the most vulnerable people in our society.”

Maynez said he left his job in 2001 because a prosecutor ordered him to plant evidence to implicate two bus drivers in the murders of eight women found in a cotton field. One bus driver’s lawyer was shot dead by police (who said they mistook him for a criminal), then his client died in prison after surgery.


Investigations over the years have been tainted by similar allegations of bad police work and faked evidence. The few arrests that have been made have not put an end to the killings.

“The prosecutors have gone nuts,” Maynez said. “In their zeal to minimize the problem, they have created scapegoats in the crudest fashion.”

Top Chihuahua federal prosecutor Hector Garcia blames a male backlash against working women in Juarez for many of the killings. “Their triumphant air of women who want to be more than beaten-down wives, who want a better life -- well, some men will tolerate that and some won’t,” Garcia said, repeating what is now a civic mantra. “Men who lack education will resort to machismo. And the ultimate expression of that is to force a woman into a sexual relationship and kill her.”

Garcia said he has information that Silvia Arce disappeared in the company of the former federal officer. But he offers a new hypothesis: Arce went with the man voluntarily, as his paramour.


Manuel Esparza, 32, a baby-faced man who is coordinator of the Juarez special unit of crimes against women, tells a different story: Authorities are doing everything to locate the former federal officer linked to the disappearance of Arce and another woman.

“I can’t tell you exactly what went down with that case in the beginning, but I can tell you straight off -- you wouldn’t believe all the mistakes that were committed, not just with that case,” Esparza said. “There was evidence not collected, family members not interviewed, police officers not even here anymore.”

Until 1998, “we didn’t even have a sexual homicide category,” he said. “They would be thought of as crimes of passion, or a lover’s quarrel.”

Faced with such prosecutorial lapses, families banded together with activists in Juarez and El Paso. Fathers erected crosses. Brothers and sisters marched in protests. Mothers posted signs, with photos of their young daughters, bearing the message, “she was alive when they took her.”


Women’s groups took notice and the foreign press showed up. The city became a strange mecca for academic gender specialists and criminologists, and inspired grim Web pages with such names as “City of Death.” The mothers met with the governor.

“We must find those responsible,” said Josefina Gonzalez, Claudia Ivette’s mother, at one of the mothers’ meetings. “This is what we want: justice.”

Amnesty International Secretary General Irene Khan, who has traveled to Juarez, has called for such reforms as police searches as soon as women are reported disappeared.

The special prosecutor for crimes against women, Angela Talavera, said the office doesn’t have enough staff to do that.


“Reports of disappearances occur every day,” Talavera shrugged, drumming her nails on the desk. “Usually it turns out to be family problems, and they left voluntarily,” she said, before pulling a compact mirror out of her purse and inspecting her makeup.

Outside her office, an elderly woman cried as she reported her niece’s disappearance. A clerk helped the family make 10 fliers and sent them on their way.

On the streets outside, the families face another obstacle -- deeply ingrained social prejudices.

“Those girls come from all over, and when they get here they prostitute themselves,” said Jose Manuel Moral, 44, a vendor at the Mercado Juarez, repeating a common refrain. “Of course things end badly.”


“However they might smear them,” said one of the mothers, Ramona Morales, 64, “no one had the right to take their lives.”


Intensified outrage

The maligning of the victims has only intensified the outrage of those -- from Mexico City artists and intellectuals to Hollywood notables -- who have adopted the murders as a cause celebre.


“They are being kidnapped, tortured, and we have the means to stop it,” Bonnie Abaunza, a Hollywood liaison for Amnesty International, told a crowded meeting in July at Creative Artists Agency attended by Tom Hayden and directors Moctezuma Esparza and Gregory Nava.

“I feel every day I don’t do something to stop the tortures and murders, I’m really responsible,” echoed playwright Eve Ensler, who will speak at UCLA.

Also present was Alicia Gaspar de Alba, the associate director of the UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center, who said she organized the UCLA conference “to throw the gauntlet down to my colleagues to use our research skills to analyze why this population is being killed.”

The conference paid the way of three mothers scheduled to speak. Juarez sociologists are trying to send other mothers, such as Evangelina Arce, who has complained that strange men have followed her in recent months, staked out her home and kicked her on the street.


But most of the mothers -- isolated by poverty and their own grief -- console themselves alone. Simona Reyna, the mother of 17-year-old Juanita Sandoval, bowed her head and prayed at a church perched on the edge of a deep ravine, as an evangelical pastor exhorted the congregation to “witness the presence of God!”

The youngest of her eight children, Juanita, 17, applied for a job at a maquiladora in October 2002. The next day, Juanita said she was going to a beauty school downtown to meet friends and vanished.

On Feb. 25, some children stumbled upon Juanita’s badly decomposed body across town, in a rocky badlands area called the Mount of the Black Christ, her pink barrettes still in her hair. Nearby were two other bodies, also church-going girls from Juanita’s neighborhood. Three female skeletons were found here a few months before, under the looming statue of Christ.

On an outcropping nearby, someone has carved a devil into the rock.



‘The Maquiladora Murders’

Where: UCLA campus, Ackerman Grand Ballroom

When: Today through Sunday


Price: Free with registration

Contact: Register online at