By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Police, saying they believed "Los Rebeldes" might be responsible for as many as 50 unsolved murders, added a new twist to the already bizarre story: The jailed Sharif, investigators suggested, was the mastermind of the gang and had, even while in custody, been paying its members to commit murders so it would demonstrate that he was not responsible for the killings authorities thought he might have committed.
From his jail cell, where he was awaiting appeal of his sentence, Sharif denied involvement with the street gang and labeled the police's theory absurd.
Ultimately, "El Diablo" and several of his fellow gang members were arrested in connection with 17 homicides.
But since then an additional 50 Juarez women have been raped and murdered. In fact, more women were killed in 1998 than in any year since 1993. And the homicides continue. The problem, clearly, is far from resolved. And so Chavez and her feminist counterparts--bearing organizational titles like the Citizens Committee Against Violence and Mujeres por Juarez (Women for Juarez)--continue to speak out, gathering each Monday at police headquarters on the southern edge of the city to sit in the lobby in silent protest. Once a month they are joined by family members of victims to walk in the desert, searching for bodies of those still missing.
Even the grieving relatives have a collective name: Voces sin Eco (Voices Without Echo). On the telephone and light poles along Juarez's main streets they leave their mark--a black cross painted on a pink background--as a public reminder of the dead and missing.
"It is necessary," says Mujeres por Juarez leader Victoria Caraveo, "for us to work harder and scream louder so that the community will not see these killings as something to ignore."
Last spring, five experts from the FBI's National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime were summoned from Quantico, Virginia, by Mexican authorities, this time to attempt to provide local authorities with a profile of the killer or killers still on the loose. After four days of reviewing 78 unsolved cases, they released a prepared statement to the press: "The team determined," it read, "that the majority of the cases were single homicides, each committed by a different individual. It is too premature and irresponsible to state that a serial killer is loose in Juarez."
Less than a month after the FBI's visit, the most shocking twist in the already serpentine case occurred. A maquiladora bus driver, Jesus Manuel Guardado Marquez, sexually assaulted a 14-year-old factory worker and left her for dead. The girl, who admitted she had used falsified documents indicating she was older to get her job, survived to report her attack to the authorities. Like many earlier victims, police later said, she had been the last passenger on the bus when her attack occurred.
Guardado came to the attention of police after his pregnant wife filed abuse charges against him. While giving her statement, Maria del Carmen Flores told authorities that her husband had talked with her about killing other women and had, in fact, kept some of his victims' clothing.
Once in custody, Guardado wove an incredible story that implicated others in the murders. He and three other bus drivers, he said, had killed seven young women at the urging of a 28-year-old El Paso resident named Victor (El Narco) Moreno Rivera. Moreno was immediately arrested along with drivers Agustin Toribio Castillo, Jose Gaspar Ceballos Chavez, and Bernardo Hernandez.
And again the already jailed Sharif was labeled as the ringleader who set the murder plots in motion. Authorities say that Sharif paid for murders carried out by the drivers between June 1998 and March 1999. The exchange of money--$1,200 for two murders each month--was allegedly made when Moreno visited Sharif in jail.
Once more, the theory was that Sharif paid the bus drivers to commit the murders in an attempt to steer suspicion away from him.
Quick to shoot down the bizarre theory was Sharif's attorney, Irene Blanco, who pointed out that her client did not even have money to pay for the copying of legal documents, much less thousands of dollars for murders. There was also no record indicating that Moreno had ever paid a jail visit to Sharif. "He has become the police's scapegoat," Blanco says.
"We're still investigating how he [Sharif] was able to obtain the money," Chihuahua prosecutor Manuel Esparza told the media. As for the suggestion that Moreno's jail visits to Sharif never occurred, authorities surmise only that he might have used another name.
It has, then, become increasingly difficult to distinguish between fact and fantasy.
Just like the gang members arrested earlier, the bus drivers and Moreno would later tell the press that their confessions had been made only after severe beatings from their interrogators. Sharif again summoned the press to scoff at the new theory. "They accuse me of everything," he said. "I am not a psychopath. I am not a criminal. I'm only a scapegoat from Egypt." He insisted he knew neither Moreno nor any of the jailed bus drivers.
Still, Steve Slater, a public safety advisor for the state of Chihuahua, is among the believers. "This character, Sharif, is an evil man," he says. "He wanted to continue the killings, but since he was in jail he couldn't. So he hired others to do them for him. That's how he got his thrills."