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.

While there is much skepticism about Sharif's involvement in murder-for-hire, it is mixed with some relief that police are making progress. Authorities are firmly convinced that Sharif and the convicted members of Los Rebeldes are killers. And it is now believed that the bus drivers are responsible for at least seven murders, perhaps as many as a dozen.

Several of the American investigators who have studied the case have privately expressed their doubts that Sharif somehow masterminded murders from behind bars. They are not alone in their thinking.

"The idea that this one man [Sharif] is responsible for all the death is foolish," Esther Chavez says, "but it is a sign of progress. There are now criminals in jail, which is good. But there is much more to do. Young women are still dying. They continue to disappear. They're still being beaten and raped."

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.

There is blame, she says, due the owners of the maquiladoras. "How in the world could they have hired such people to drive their buses?" she asks. "No background checks, no controls?"

In a strange postscript to the arrest of the bus driver Guardado, the assembly plant that had hired his 14-year-old victim filed a legal complaint against the girl. Motores Electrios, owned by Milwaukee-based A.O. Smith, alleged that the girl had provided false information about her age on her job application. The only comment on the matter from A.O. Smith officials came from company spokesman Ed O'Connor, who said only that, "It is not our policy to hire anyone under 16."

Such insensitivity only heightens Chavez's frustration. "This girl," she says, "has six brothers and sisters and lives in a shack with a dirt floor. She has only a sixth-grade education. She has been severely traumatized and needs help with medical and psychological treatment--not to have legal action taken against her.

"Her family is poor, which is why she needed a job. There are many people who believe she should have received the governor's $5,000 reward for coming forward like she did."


It is now mid-afternoon, and dust devils play in the unpaved street that winds through another of the Juarez colonias. It is a place so wretched that no human being should be forced to call it home. The residences, fashioned from scrap, are no larger than the storage sheds some Americans use to house gardening equipment. Many accommodate families of five, six, or more. Those fortunate enough to enjoy the comfort of electricity do so by stealing it, stringing electrical cords to an outlet that is several broken-down houses away. Those who live in that house have, in turn, strung cords to another. And another. No one will say where the origin point of the pirated electricity is. But neither does anyone worry that authorities will find them out. The police, they have learned, rarely venture into their part of the world.

From several open doors, toddlers clad only in diapers or boxer shorts peer suspiciously into the sunlit world but do not venture outside. Some look malnourished. All are dirty, the grime and dust of the powdered dirt street having settled into their skin.

In a neighborhood so populated with young children, there should be noise--laughter, arguing, even crying--but there is none.

Standing near her car, dressed in jeans and tennis shoes, Chavez squints her eyes against the afternoon sun, watching the steady parade of youngsters walking home from school on the dusty street and along the adjacent railroad track. The carcasses of three dead dogs, in various stages of decay, draw flies and block the children's route.

She nods at a few young passersby, then points toward a nearby pile of rocks. "There," she says, then turns away, focusing her attention on the blue, cloudless sky. She doesn't want to look toward the tracks again. And for good reason: Months earlier, the body of a young woman had been dumped there by some still unknown assailant. Chavez despises these trips to the landmarks of her city's inhumanity.

They rekindle her anger, which spreads across her face and into her voice. "This," she says, making a sweeping wave at the neighborhood she is visiting, "is not a Third World country. It is a Fourth World country."

With that she is quickly back in her car, driving away. A few children wave as the tireless little woman so determined to help them passes. They know she will be back.

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