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.

It is such images that haunt Esther Chavez. And it is the criticism of those whom locals so often refer to as the "maquiladora girls" that angers her to tears. When those in authority suggest that many of the murders could have been avoided had the young women simply gone directly to the safety of their homes, avoiding the temptations and dangers of Juarez nightlife, she fumes. "That a young woman wants to go dancing or that she chooses to wear a miniskirt should not be seen as an invitation to her death. They [law enforcement officials] are doing nothing but minimizing the crimes and placing blame on the victims."


When the first bodies of young women were found in the desert, there was little cause to consider them evidence of anything more sinister than the senseless violence that visits all major cities. But soon the number grew at an alarming rate. From 1995 until 1997 alone, the bodies of 104 women were discovered. And a pattern became obvious. The majority of the victims were young women who had disappeared after leaving their jobs on the maquiladora assembly lines.

Yet in the minds of Chavez and the women's rights advocates she had rallied, there was concern that the authorities were not taking these horrors as seriously as they should. Despite the growing number of bodies, there was little indication that the police saw the same terrifying pattern those in the women's movement did. Almost without exception, those murdered were young, pretty, and poor. And they had worked the late shifts in Juarez's industrial park.

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.

In time, the local media, bombarded by complaints from Chavez, other women's advocates, and families of victims, began to pressure the police for answers. Were they aggressively investigating the murders? Did they have suspects? When might they anticipate making arrests?

Initially, the popular assumption among both law enforcement and concerned citizens was that the city had a crazed serial killer running loose, making some demented game of abduction, rape, murder, and then tossing away the bodies like so much garbage. And at first there was resistance from authorities to the public pressure. "The press is giving too much attention to the homicides of women," Ernesto Garcia, spokesman for the State Judicial Police in Juarez, said in a 1998 press conference. "For us, homicides of women, men, and children are all important."

But as the demonstrations at the police station grew in number and volume and local media attention was followed by reporters dispatched from places such as New York and Los Angeles, the pressure to solve the crimes and stop the killings mounted. Chihuahua Attorney General Rascon began taking an active role, summoning additional manpower to assist in the Juarez investigations and publicly stating that his office had made solving the murders a priority. Clearly, the wave of crimes against the women of Juarez had become a political hand grenade, thanks in no small part to the likes of Chavez and her ranks of supporters. When Patricio Martinez Garcia took office as governor last year, it was said that he won his election by criticizing his predecessor for the mismanagement of the investigation and offering a $5,000 reward for information leading to the identification of the person or persons responsible for the murders.

Even after an Egyptian chemist named Omar Latif Sharif Sharif, a man who had a 25-year history of sexual crimes throughout the United States before he found his way to Juarez, was arrested in 1995 and initially charged with the murders of nine women, the attorney general's office sought the input of outside experts in an effort to aid the ongoing investigation and demonstrate that the crimes were being taken seriously.

First to visit and consult with local authorities was Robert Ressler, a retired member of the FBI's celebrated Behavioral Science Unit. Ressler, the agent who coined the term "serial killer," spent two weeks reviewing reports, visiting crime scenes, and talking with investigators. After helping the police set up a database on which to log all the collected investigative information, Ressler made the judgment that the murders were not the act of a lone killer. "It was my opinion," he says, "that there is the possibility of one or more serial killers who could account for as many as 20 of the cases I reviewed. There was also strong evidence that some were the result of gang activity.

"Many, however, seemed to be the random, one-on-one homicides that are almost always the end result of a rape or drug transaction gone bad."

While Sharif remained in the Juarez Ceresco prison, appealing a 30-year sentence for the 1995 rape and strangulation of a 17-year-old factory worker named Elizabeth Castro Panda Garcia, he quickly grew into something of an urban legend--even as the killings continued. Strange stories of his orchestrating unspeakable crimes from behind bars were embraced by local journalists.

In April 1996, a dozen members of a Juarez gang calling itself "Los Rebeldes" (The Rebels) were arrested following an intense undercover investigation and linked to the ongoing slayings. The gang's leader was a 28-year-old nightclub security guard named Sergio Armendariz whose street name was "El Diablo." According to the authorities, he and his fellow gang members, mostly men in their teens and early 20s, had a lengthy history of luring women from downtown streets and bars then taking them to local hotels and homes, where the women were gang-raped, killed, and dumped in the desert.

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