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

The Angel of Juarez

CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mexico--The fine-powder caliche dust rises from the road, forming a suffocating haze that clears only when Esther Chavez slows her car to avoid ruts and rocks or to yield right of way to the dozens of stray dogs trotting aimlessly through the colonia located on the northern edge of Ciudad Juarez. Without comment, she passes row after row of homes fashioned of crumbling adobe, discarded plywood, and cardboard boxes; she says nothing of the piles of fly-blown garbage that fill the gullies along her route.

Here, literally a stone's throw from American prosperity, where the lights of El Paso wink down from the Texas side of the Rio Grande, a brand of pain and suffering thrives. This Mexico border city of 1.5 million people is a world of poverty and death, human injustice and lost hope. And it is this environment that drives the 66-year-old Chavez through 14-hour days focused on gaining new recognition for the rights of the downtrodden, seeking justice for the hundreds of young women who continue to travel here in search of the $4-a-day dream the maquiladora assembly lines promise, only to wind up dead and discarded in the isolated canyons of the nearby Chihuahua Desert.

Those who live in the outlying colonias quickly recognize the red-haired visitor, waving as she passes, calling out for her to stop and visit. Though she stands only five feet tall and weighs but 90 pounds, it is clear Esther Chavez is viewed as larger than life by the people she champions. A woman who never planned to make Juarez her home, she is today the most recognized voice of the city's poor, the last hope of the abused and those grieving for murdered loved ones.

It was Chavez who first spoke out about the endless string of murders of young female maquiladora workers, publicly criticizing what she viewed as police indifference and lobbying for more aggressive investigations into the deaths. She also demanded that managers of the factories provide better security for employees. "For a long time," she says, "the managers of the plants didn't want to talk to me. The police didn't like me. But I have to say what is true."

Helenmarie Zachritz, executive director of the nonprofit Mexican Federation of Private Health and Community Development Associations, is among those who applaud Chavez's efforts. "She's one of those incredible people who draw others to her and her cause. The government, I'm sure, still looks at her as a bothersome fly in the ointment. And, yes, she drives people crazy with her persistence. But believe me, she drives them crazy in a way that is good and positive.

"When you see her out front in the women's marches, carrying a cross bearing the name of one of the murder victims, you immediately know she is a sincere, concerned person who wants nothing more than justice and a better way of life for women. I've known her for years and have grown to admire her more and more with each passing day."

So, too, have those for whom she fights.

They hear her speaking out in their behalf on the radio. They read her weekly column on human rights in El Diario de Juarez, the city's highest-circulation newspaper. They see her on television, lashing out against what she views as corrupt government, chauvinistic mindsets, and shoddy police work. They see her at the front of marches and rallies. And they see her walking their dusty, unpaved streets and visiting their homes, where there is no running water, no electricity, no sewer system. And while the horrible living conditions trouble her, it is the lack of hope she sees all around that causes her the greatest pain. Progress, she admits, comes in increments almost too small to measure.

As Chavez stops and steps from her car, a pretty girl named Jessica, just a few months past her 12th birthday, stands outside her ramshackle house with a small black kitten clutched to her chest. The girl smiles shyly as she moves toward the woman she's heard of but never met. In a matter of minutes she is joined by her older sister, Monica; 7-year-old brother Angel; and, finally, their 33-year-old mother, Maria Elene Vasquez-Lopez. The magnetism of their visitor is quickly apparent. Within minutes they are talking like old friends and exchanging smiles and embraces. Chavez learns that the children's father lives in Durango and is unwilling to join his family on the border. Maria explained that she had previously worked for the maquiladoras but, frightened by the stories of rapes and murders, recently quit. Friends, she says, lend her financial help, and occasionally her husband sends money.

Chavez gives her a card and tells of the Casa Amiga Centro de Crisis, where she serves as executive director. As the only rape crisis center in Ciudad Juarez and one of just four in Mexico, it offers a wide spectrum of services to women, young and old.

"On Saturdays," Chavez explains, "there are day-long seminars given by our staff psychologists and volunteer workers." Maria and her children, she says, are welcome to attend.

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.

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.

That females applying for jobs were forced to take physical examinations that included pregnancy tests was another wrong she vowed to right. "Of course," she says, "the women are not told that a pregnancy test is a part of their physical, but the fact is, if they are pregnant they simply are not hired. That is not right."

And she saw a need to speak out about the cramped living conditions in the city's colonias--the collections of one-room, dirt-floor shanties wherein an epidemic of abuse and family violence festers.

Yet today, as the war continues, victories remain few. "We have to fight very hard to alter society," she admits, "to get past the 'macho' attitude that has been passed down for generations. For instance, in our culture, marital rape is considered a man's right. If a woman does go to the police or a doctor to report what has been done to her, she can only expect to receive a rape of a different sort. She is criticized for the way she dresses, the places she goes, or for not treating her husband with proper respect.

"These are the attitudes we are fighting, step by very small step."

To date, she points out, rape convictions--a rarity--result in a penalty of only two to eight years in prison. Nowhere in the laws of her land is there any penalty for the crime of domestic violence.

Her latest battlefront is Casa Amiga, opened in February 1999 when Juarez Mayor Gustavo Elizondo agreed that the city would pay rent for the building and modest salaries for Chavez and two assistants. The Mexican Federation of Private Health and Community Development Associations provided $25,000 in grant money, and the neighboring Texas attorney general's office agreed to fund the training of rape crisis volunteers.

With $64,000 raised from a recent telethon, Chavez has been able to add two psychologists and another social worker to her paid staff. A businesswomen's organization in El Paso donated $5,000 for the printing of needed educational materials.

It hasn't always been easy going. She reflects on a time shortly after the facility's grand opening when it was burglarized and its new computer, the most vital and valuable piece of equipment in the small adobe building, stolen. But for her, a lost computer is a trifling setback. Machines can be replaced. Lost lives and dignity can't. "We are," the energetic director proudly says, "here to stay."

"Here" she gets a firsthand view of the parade of abuse in Mexican society. "Women come to us," she says, "with bruises and cuts, cigarette burns on their arms and breasts. Often they bring their children, who have also been badly abused. In this center we see the hatred every day." And she and her co-workers reach out to help.

"This is the first time someone has listened to me," says a 20-year-old client who did not wish to have her name used. Her story is heartbreaking. Her two young daughters, she says, are being raped by their father.

"It is not at all unusual," Chavez says later, "for women to stay with the men who abuse them and their children...Why? In much of Mexico's society, a woman who has been raped immediately becomes an outcast, wanted only by the man who committed the crime against her."

Such is the insanity she and her associates battle.

The women of Juarez are afraid. Particularly the young girls, some barely teenagers, who have migrated north from their poverty-immersed towns to seek the meager wages offered in the maquiladoras, the 300 assembly-for-export plants, half of which are owned by companies with corporate headquarters in the United States (3M, DuPont, Honeywell, Amway, etc.). Since 1993, a year after the maquiladora program was established, allowing manufacturers to take advantage of cheap Mexican labor, local law enforcement officials have counted more than 200 women workers who have been murdered. Most were raped before they were killed, their bodies discarded in the sand-blown desert outside the city, in foul-smelling vacant lots adjacent to the city's night spots, or along the railroad tracks that wind through the most squalid parts of town.

Chavez, who keeps a list of every victim in her computer and quickly e-mails members of the media each time a new body is discovered, is convinced the death toll is far greater than the official law enforcement count. And as she lobbies for more aggressive investigations of the deaths, she routinely angers and embarrasses people in high places.

One of Chavez's primary targets has been Arturo Gonzalez Rascon, attorney general of the state of Chihuahua, who has, in the past, seemed to place at least some of the blame on the victims themselves, suggesting they have put themselves in harm's way by dressing provocatively and frequenting unsavory after-hours nightclubs. Rascon's comments infuriated Chavez. "He is not an attorney general," she once said. "He talks like an old priest. He's stupid. He has to learn to respect women."

Plain-speak is, in fact, Esther Chavez's sharpest sword. And it has reaped results. Owners of the maquiladoras now work with her, even briefly shutting down assembly lines when she arrives to conduct seminars for the workers. The attorney general whom she has lashed out against recently paid a visit to Casa Amiga, leaving the center with positive comments and a promise of help. The police have begun to embrace her efforts. And last month, after Mexico's new president, Vicente Fox, took office, Chavez and several other women's leaders were summoned to a meeting with him in Mexico City to discuss the problems of equality for women. "He assured us that he planned to work hard against the violence," she says.

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."

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.

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.

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.

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."

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."

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.


All-access pass to the top stories, events and offers around town.

  • Top Stories


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >