The Angel of Juarez

Hundreds of poor Mexican girls have been abducted, raped, and murdered on the streets of Ciudad Juarez. They were forgotten and mostly ignored by authorities until Esther Chavez came along.

Jessica, her innocence showing, wants to know if there will be music.

"No," Chavez says, smiling, as she walks to her car, "but there will be people there who can tell you things important for you to know." She will be several miles down yet another dusty road before she finally comments on a brief conversation she had with the 12-year-old before leaving. "Jessica told me that she wanted to come live with me," she says. There is a palpable sadness in her voice as she describes the moment. "I hate to think what her life will be like a year from now."

Too often in recent years, Chavez has seen tragedy play out on her city's streets. Names of the young murder victims are imprinted on her memory. Like that of 13-year-old Irma Angelica Rosales, whose nude body was found in a drainage canal not far from her workplace, a plastic bag still over her head. Just weeks earlier Rosales had traveled to Juarez to live with a brother and sister-in-law, paying the going rate of $20 for fake identification papers that indicated she was 16 so she could find employment on the Electrocomponentes de Mexico assembly line. Before her death, she had earned a total of $27.

Arriving and departing in a steady stream,
buses transport assembly line workers from
the outlying maquiladoras to downtown Juarez.
Bruce Berman
Arriving and departing in a steady stream, buses transport assembly line workers from the outlying maquiladoras to downtown Juarez.
Esther Chavez serves as executive director of the only rape crisis center in Juarez, a city of 1.5 million.
Bruce Berman
Esther Chavez serves as executive director of the only rape crisis center in Juarez, a city of 1.5 million.

It was left to Chavez to comfort the girl's family, to help them in negotiations with profiteering coffin vendors, and to cut through the political red tape necessary to have the victim's body returned home for burial. "The anguish of those poor people tore at me," she recalls. "It was a nightmare. I felt a volcano of pain for them.

"Improvement," she says candidly, "is slow in coming."

Even in an atmosphere that forces her to live in a constant state of frustration, Esther Chavez continues the fight on a battleground she had only planned to visit, never to call home.

The daughter of a rancher who died when she was just two, Esther grew up in Guadalajara with five sisters and two brothers. "We all worked," she says. She had her first full-time job at age 14, working as an accountant for a group of Catholic priests. In time, armed with a high-school diploma and a few college credits, she worked her way up to a position with Kraft Foods in Mexico City as a globetrotting financial advisor, a job she held for two decades.

So focused was she on her career that there was little time for anything else. She never married. "I was always too busy to think about anything but my work," she admits. Today, the rows of photographs that sit atop a table in her Casa Amiga office are not of her own children but 43 nephews and nieces. "They are my family," she says.

The same might be said for literally hundreds of other children--offspring of many of the lost souls of Juarez--whose lives she has touched.

That she is where she is today, assuming the responsibility of spokeswoman for thousands of abused Mexican women, is the result of another kind of mercy mission made years ago.

Because there were so many children in her family, Esther was raised by an elderly aunt who, at age 90, announced that her last wish was to live her final days in her hometown of Juarez. "She wanted to come here to die," Esther says, "so I moved here with her in 1982, expecting to stay a year, maybe two."

Chavez's aunt lived to be 102, dying in August 1989. By then, Esther, the woman just passing through, had become a successful businesswoman and civic leader. Juarez had become her home--and her cause. "I will never leave now," she says, "because there is so much work to be done here. This will always be my home."

For 10 years she worked as general manager of a local business that made and sold bathroom fixtures, then opened her own small dress shop in Juarez's mercado publico. "I did nothing but lose money," she says. Not because there weren't customers, but because she found it impossible to manage her store properly. The city's needy women began drawing more and more of her attention, particularly in 1992, when the state proposed outlawing abortion.

"There simply was not enough time to do everything," she reflects. "I enjoyed owning the store, but I was always having to close up so I could rush down to the police station or the hospital to check on someone or go to a school and speak to the children about the dangers awaiting them on the streets."

Ultimately she had to make a decision: be a businesswoman or devote herself to a full-time fight against social injustice. She chose the latter.

Shutting down her shop, she organized a women's group that lobbied for tougher penalties against sexual assault and fought for abortion rights. She also began writing her controversial newspaper column, which focuses on human rights issues. Long before the nightmarish series of murders of young Juarez workers began to draw the attention of international media, Chavez was picketing police stations in an effort to convince authorities to take a more aggressive approach to the growing number of homicides; counseling distraught family members; and pleading with the owners of the factories for increased security measures and fair treatment of women employees.

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