Who Is Killing the Women of Juarez?

Someone is raping and killing the young women of Juarez, and leaving their bodies in the desert to rot.

Hundreds of young women have disappeared from the Mexican border city since 1993 — many of them teenagers who came to Juarez to work in the town's foreign-owned factories, known as "maquilladoras."

The official toll is 260 women killed since 1993, but local women's groups believe the actual number is more than 400. Many of the victims — the Chihuahua state government says 76 — have the hallmarks of serial killings: they were raped, some had their hands tied or their hair cut or their breasts mutilated. Bodies have been found with their heads crushed or even driven over by a car. The killers appear to prey on a certain type of young woman: slim with big brown eyes and long brown hair. Most of the victims are assaulted on their way home from work.

Downtown first went to Juarez to report on the murders in 1998. Since then, the killing has continued, with more than 70 new victims, according to activists critical of the authorities' handling of the crimes. And, the groups say, the killings are getting more brutal.

"Each time, the girls are more tortured," activist Vicky Caraveo told Downtown's John Quiñones in an interview airing tonight.

New Bodies

Last November the 1.3 million residents of Juarez got a brutal reminder of the killings when police discovered eight more bodies near a busy intersection two miles from the city center. Four of the bodies were found in a cotton field and four in a nearby ditch.

One of the victims was Claudia Ivette Gonzalez, a 20-year-old factory worker who had disappeared a few weeks earlier. Her family recognized her remains by the white blouse she had been wearing and the white rubber bands still holding her pony tail. "It was pure bones... just a skeleton," her mother Josefina Gonzalez told Downtown.

Just a few days after the bodies were found, Juarez police arrested two bus drivers, who they said confessed to raping and killing the eight women and three others. Arturo Gonzalez Rascon, the attorney general of Chihuahua, the state that includes Juarez, triumphantly told the newspapers, "Our investigation has concluded the sad episode."

But the activists were skeptical, noting that dozens of suspects had been arrested over the years — several of them detained and sent to prison — but the killings had never stopped.

The bus drivers, Victor Garcia Uribe, 29, and Gustavo Gonzales Meza, 28, later claimed that the police had used torture to force them to make false confessions. The local newspaper, El Diario, printed photographs of wounds and burn marks on the men's legs and stomachs. Gonzalez said that he was also burned on his genitals, and that police threatened to kill his family if he told anyone about the torture.

The head of forensics for northern Chihuahua, Oscar Maynez, whose staff had collected the evidence at the crime scene, resigned in frustration. "There isn't a shred of evidence connecting the bus drivers with the crimes they are being accused of," he told Downtown.

Federal Police Called In

Chihuahua state human rights officials are investigating the torture claims, and Mexican President Vicente Fox has ordered the federal police to work alongside the Chihuahua state investigators. But the state attorney general's office denies the torture allegations and continues to insist the men are guilty. Deputy Attorney General Jose Ortega Aceves, the prosecutor assigned to the latest slayings, said, "All of it is in accordance with the law." Ortega suggested to Downtown that the men inflicted the wounds themselves, possibly by burning themselves smoking.

Ortega said his office concluded there was no real chance that an American could be behind some of the attacks — something that is "a real possibility," according to Hardrick Crawford Jr., head of the FBI office across the border in El Paso. "This would be an ideal killing field for a serial murderer given the nature of the law enforcement response to these murders on the Mexican side of the border," Hardrick told Downtown, adding that the Mexican authorities had so far rejected offers of assistance from the FBI.

Ortega seemed particularly eager to tell Downtown how his party, the PRI, was doing better at solving the killings than the previous PAN administration.

Caraveo and other activists have long accused the local authorities of dragging their feet in investigating the deaths, either through negligence or incompetence. Now they fear the investigation will be further hampered by political infighting. "The local politicians want to make it a point of power for the parties," Caraveo said.

Maynez also believes politics played a role in the latest prosecution. "We have been scapegoating, framing people for political reasons," he said.

As in the past, the new arrests do not seem to have stopped the killing. Two more bodies have shown up since the bus drivers were arrested in November, the last one on Monday night.