The streets of Juarez are swallowing the young and pretty.
Monica Alanis, an 18-year-old college freshman, never came home from her exams. That was more than four months ago.
Across town, 17-year-old Brenda Ponce didn't return from a job-hunting trip downtown. That was a year ago.
Hilda Rivas, 16, was also last spotted downtown. That was 17 months ago.
Two dozen teenage girls and young women have gone missing in this violent border city in the last year and half, stirring dark memories of the killings of hundreds of women that made Ciudad Juarez infamous a decade ago.
The disappearances, which include two university students and girls as young as 13, have some crime-novel touches: mysterious dropped calls, messages left by third parties and unsubstantiated reports of the women being kept at a house.
There is no clear evidence of wrongdoing or links among the cases, which have been overshadowed by a vicious drug war that has killed more than 2,500 people in Juarez since the beginning of 2008. But relatives of the young women say it is highly unlikely that they would have left on their own.
Monica Alanis' parents say she was seldom late returning from the campus. Olga Esparza says she called her daughter that day toward the end of March to find out why she was three hours late. Monica reassured her: "I'll be home later."
Desperate family members have hung missing-person banners and taped fliers to telephone poles all over the city in hope of getting leads on the whereabouts of loved ones. They've checked hospitals and combed dusty canyons in the impoverished fringes of the city. They've badgered state investigators, but complain that authorities have no solid leads to explain why so many young women would drop from view at once.
"There is no theory. There is no hypothesis," said Ricardo Alanis, Monica's father, his voice thin with pain. "They don't have anything concrete after four months."
The vacuum has prompted parents to envision their own disturbing story lines. Several say they believe their daughters have been seized and forced into prostitution, perhaps in the United States, by the same criminal bands that have turned this border city into the bloodiest front in the drug war.
"She's in the hands of those people. I don't know who they are or where they are," said Aiben Rivas, a carpenter and the father of Hilda. She disappeared Feb. 25, 2008, after chatting with a friend downtown.
Trying to find similarities in cases
Relatives and activists see common threads in the cases. Most of the young women are attractive, dark-haired and slender. Most were last seen downtown, a scruffy but bustling precinct of discount clothing stores, cheap eats and honky-tonk bars. Four of the missing teens are named Brenda.
The profile looks different from that of the more than 350 women killed during a 15-year stretch from 1993. Many of those victims worked in the city's assembly plants and came from other parts of Mexico. Their bodies turned up, often with signs of sexual abuse and torture, in bare lots and gullies.
Despite some arrests and the creation of a special prosecutor's office, the cases remain largely unsolved.
By contrast those missing today are, for the most part, local residents from stable, middle- and working-class homes.
"They are not only from the poorest families," said Marisela Ortiz, who directs a group representing families of the slain women that is now working with the families of those who disappeared recently. "The characteristics have changed."
And this time there are no bodies.
Relatives say authorities have carried out desultory inquiries, and left them to hunt their own leads. But the families say they lack investigators' power to track cellphone calls or question acquaintances of the women. Some have suggested that corrupt police may be involved in the disappearances.
The Chihuahua state attorney general's office, whose missing-persons bureau has jurisdiction over the cases, declined to make anyone available to comment, despite several requests. Investigators privately have told local journalists they suspect the young women were seized by trafficking rings for prostitution.
Loved ones say they believe the young women are alive.
"God willing, someday I'll see her again," said Yolanda Saenz, who is Brenda Ponce's mother. The girl, dressed in bluejeans and a black blouse, went downtown July 22, 2008, to look for a store job to help pay for dental braces and school expenses, her mother said.
"I just want to know what happened to her so I can find peace," Saenz said.
Some parents keep hope alive
Some families say they've gotten possible clues. Saenz said that even after a year, calls to Brenda's cellphone go to voice mail, implying that her account is still active and fueling her hope.
Monica Alanis' parents said someone hung up after calling their home in June from a number in the Tijuana area, where they don't know anyone. They said a friend of their daughter got a hang-up call from an unfamiliar number in Chihuahua, the state capital.
Sergio Sarmiento, whose cousin, Adriana Sarmiento, was 15 when she went missing last year, said the family got a phone call from a man saying she was fine and had left on her own.
"I don't believe it," said Sergio Sarmiento, who works as a bus driver and lives amid the trash-strewn gulches of northeastern Juarez.
He said that since the disappearance, the girl's mother has fled across the border to El Paso with another daughter, who is 18.
"I want to be an optimist," he said.
After Adriana disappeared in January 2008, loved ones went around tacking up posters with her picture and description (5-foot-5, thin, brown eyes, dark brown hair). But competition with other missing-person fliers grew as the number of disappearances mounted.
"They got covered with other ones," Sarmiento said of the fliers. "Unfortunately, she wasn't the last one."