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.

Feminism, once viewed as a curse word by much of Mexico's male population, is, it seems, finally gaining some degree of acceptance. "We're no longer the enemy," Chavez says.

"Esther gets on people's nerves, but she's respected," says Brian Barger, 47, a former CNN investigative reporter who quit his job in 1998 to establish his nonprofit Silver Spring, Maryland-based International Trauma Resource Center (which is dedicated to the establishment of trauma facilities like Casa Amiga in all Mexico border towns) after viewing the conditions in Juarez. He had become weary of "parachuting" into troubled areas, reporting the story, then moving on to the next assignment. Listening to Chavez's woeful stories, he decided to see if he could help her make a difference. "The politicians and police might not like everything she does and says, but at least privately, they admit that they have a great deal of respect for her.

"I've been in constant contact with her since we began to formulate the idea for the rape crisis center, and as I have come to know her, I'm more convinced than ever that she is a woman uniquely qualified to play the advocacy role for the women of Juarez."

Along the streets of Juarez, black crosses on pink backgrounds serve as a reminder of the city's murdered and missing women. These young victims have become the cause of Esther Chavez.
Bruce Berman
Along the streets of Juarez, black crosses on pink backgrounds serve as a reminder of the city's murdered and missing women. These young victims have become the cause of Esther Chavez.
Along the streets of Juarez, black crosses
on pink backgrounds serve as a reminder of
the city's murdered and missing women. These
young victims have become the cause of
Esther Chavez.
Bruce Berman
Along the streets of Juarez, black crosses on pink backgrounds serve as a reminder of the city's murdered and missing women. These young victims have become the cause of Esther Chavez.

By Mexican standards, the advancements Chavez has nurtured seem remarkable. To date, more than 80 volunteer workers have been trained to counsel abused women and children and are available 24 hours a day to respond to police calls involving domestic violence and sexual abuse. The staff psychologists conduct daylong group counseling sessions for victims each Saturday. Local attorneys have begun offering legal aid to victims and churches, and hospitals have joined the cause. Alcoholics Anonymous chapters throughout the city now offer help to those accused of drunken abuse of spouses and children.

And twice a month, Juarez municipal police officers gather for daylong sensitivity workshops conducted by volunteers from the El Paso Police Department's Crimes Against Persons Unit. "What we do," says El Paso detective Millie Hinojos, "is ask that they [Juarez officers] examine their own views about criminal sexual conduct, then work toward building new trust between victims and the police." Adds her training partner, detective Peter Ocegueda, "The point we're trying to make is that the police department needs to start reaching out to the public, not wait for it to reluctantly come to it."

Casa Amiga has provided help to more than 1,000 sexually abused clients since its opening.

Says Guadalupe Ramirez Lopez, director of a Juarez human rights group: "Years ago, Esther was the only one with the courage to speak out. She was the only person who dared to demand equal treatment for women and better investigations into the horrible crimes being committed. Now, that remarkable courage has rubbed off on others who are involved in her efforts."


Every day, 600 to 1,000 new people arrive in Ciudad Juarez, many lured by hope of finding prosperity in the sprawling montage of maquiladoras on the outskirts of the city. And even though the manufacturing plants employ more than 160,000 people--60 percent of them women--jobs always seem available. Production goes on around the clock. Twenty-four hours a day. Three eight-hour shifts.

These factories, where everything from sandals to jeans and television sets to automobile cruise-control systems are produced, are a byproduct of an agreement that allows foreign-owned companies to avoid paying tariffs on the goods they produce.

At the end of each shift, thousands of workers, many of them teenage girls still wearing their maquiladora smocks, climb onto the buses provided by their employers for the ride back into the center of Juarez. While there is a rule that one must be at least 16 to work in the factories, it is not uncommon for girls two and three years under age to have made arrangements to purchase fake IDs even before leaving their farms and villages to seek a job.

It is when the buses reach the plaza in the heart of the city that danger arises. From there, the young women can catch connecting buses to the colonias, but to do so requires that they walk several blocks past brightly lit cantinas and discos and corners where men with too much time on their hands and too much alcohol and drugs in their system stand in wait.

For many of the young women, experiencing the lifestyle of Mexico's fourth-largest city for the first time, the urge to stop in for a drink, a dance, and flirtation is understandably strong. For a brief time they can forget the long hours of work and the dismal homes to which they must return; they can have fun for an hour or two before they step back onto the treadmill.

Innocent about city life, most don't know much about the society of pimps and prostitutes, or the street gangs and drug dealers they walk among. Nor are they aware that it is their naiveté, their vulnerability, on which such people prey.

And so, in recent years, many of them have suddenly disappeared, only to be found long after their deaths, the tattered remains of their work smocks covering nothing more than sun-bleached bones left after packs of coyotes and wild dogs have had their fill.

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