The slow road to hope in Juarez

Published May 30, 2005|Updated Aug. 25, 2005

Across the Rio Grande from the swanky campus of the University of Texas at El Paso, this sprawling industrial city suffers a barbaric reputation: "The capital of murdered women."

Hundreds of cases in the past decade _ and no one can agree on a cause.

Theories abound, from multiple serial killers to sadistic orgies involving drug traffickers and politicians.

City officials downplay the attacks, saying that crimes here are no different from other cities around the world.

But local women's groups highlight the unusually high homicide rate for women and the brutality of many of the crimes. They point to a violent sexual motive, calling the crimes "sexual femicide."

Many of the deaths are attributed to men killing wives and girlfriends, often the result of jealous, drunken rage. A reversal of roles in the job market has made women the breadwinners, something the macho male culture cannot abide.

Among those determined to tackle the problem at its roots are two feisty ex-nuns, Elvia Villescas and Linabel Sarlat, who call themselves Las Hormigas, the Ants.

"It's a very difficult leap in thinking," said Villescas. "Men in Mexico have forever been taught that women are inferior."

Exchanging their religious habits for jeans and work shirts, they opened a community center last year in Anapra, a dust bowl barrio of rickety homes made from cardboard boxes and wooden crates.

"We are not saviors," said Sarlat. "This is slow, underground work. It requires patience. That's why we call ourselves ants."

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Some 300 to 400 women have been murdered here in the past decade. Many were tortured and raped, their bodies dumped in ditches or vacant lots.

For years the crimes were not taken seriously, critics say, the product of a culture where violence against women was mostly overlooked.

The federal government finally intervened 18 months ago. A special prosecutor was appointed to investigate and a special commissioner was sent to Juarez to "prevent and eradicate" violence against women.

But the murders continue. At least 12 women have been killed this year, an increase over the same period last year.

"It's clear we are dealing with a situation here that is not normal," said special commissioner Guadalupe Morfin, a human rights activist.

Explaining the violence in Juarez is no easy task. "It's an extremely complicated cocktail of factors," she said. Police and judicial failures have contributed to a climate of impunity, while social conditions also play a role.

In a study last year, Amnesty International found that at least 137 women were victims of sexual predators. Many victims did not know their attackers, according to Julia Monarrez, a criminology professor at the Colegio de la Frontera Norte, a Mexican academic institution dedicated to border studies.

The brutality of some of the attacks, including disfigurement of sexual organs, fit the profile of a serial killer.

"I don't know if they are drug gangs, crooked policemen or powerful politicians," said Monarrez. "But there is definitely a pattern to some of these crimes."

Local officials say 70 percent of the killings have been solved, mostly attributed to domestic violence. But secrecy surrounding the evidence and witnesses has undermined public confidence and fueled suspicion of a coverup.

Arrests have been tainted by allegations of fabricated evidence and confessions extracted under torture. Charges were dropped last year against two jailed suspects when a judge threw out the confessions; two other notorious cases of alleged abuses by police and prosecutors are under appeal.

"It's very important that these cases be fully investigated," said Morfin, the special commissioner. "We have to learn to look at the truth if we are going to create a new way of life, safe and decent, for the women of this community."

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Decades of growth have transformed Juarez from a historic watering hole on the arid trail through this mountainous border region. Today it's a busy industrial city of 1.5-million, dwarfing its U.S. twin, El Paso (population 563,000) across the Rio Grande.

Most of the growth is attributed to cross-border migration and to low-wage factory jobs at foreign-owned assembly plants known as maquiladoras.

Most new arrivals are young men and women from poor south Mexico towns and villages. With no family on the border to support them, they are forced to find shelter in squatter communities, such as Anapra.

On the outskirts of Juarez, Anapra is home to some 25,000 migrants, many of whom work in the maquiladoras. At first sight it looks like a refugee camp, with homes constructed from cardboard and wooden factory crates. Roofing paper is tacked on the sides to fashion walls.

The maquiladora industry turned Mexico's traditional macho values on their head. Women are much in demand for the textile and electronics assembly plants. Not being the breadwinner is hard for many men to accept. Some find solace in alcohol and drugs, which lead to abuse.

"We have found this pattern repeated over and over again," said Sarlat, co-founder of Las Hormigas. "The men expect their women to be at home ironing and cleaning and cooking. They get jealous and accuse them of having other men. Then they beat them or kill them."

Women are accustomed to accepting their fate. "They have grown up thinking the role of women is to serve men. That's their only value," she said.

Villescas, 43, and Sarlat, 47, came to Anapra five years ago after abandoning teaching careers as nuns. Their superiors refused to let them branch out from traditional academic work into more social and vocational fields.

Here they quickly discovered that many women are virtual prisoners in their homes, where abuse is common.

They enrolled in psychology classes. Last year, with the help of American missionaries, they opened a center to offer counseling, as well as schooling for at-risk children.

They are careful to create the right mood, with floor cushions and meditative music.

"Many of us are single women, we need help," said Marta Ramirez, 36, who earns less than $60 a week assembling electrical car parts. She says her husband was an alcoholic who beat her and their two boys and once threatened her with a knife.

She said he told her: "If I kill you, no one will ever know who did it, there's so many dead women in Ciudad Juarez."

Even after she obtained a divorce, he continued to come by the house to eat and sleep off his hangovers. A heart attack killed him three years ago, at 34.

Marta Pesina, 29, ran away from home at 9 and made it on her own to Juarez. She says her first husband beat her so badly she had to be hospitalized. She never pressed charges.

"I was too frightened," she said. Pesina says that her current relationship was also turning abusive when she sought help from Las Hormigas.

She says their relationship has improved since beginning therapy together. "If it wasn't for Las Hormigas, my marriage would be over and I don't know where I would be," she said.

Las Hormigas helped a group of neighborhood women set up their own transport cooperative, ferrying shoppers to the large downtown supermarkets in Juarez, where prices are cheaper.

But they were quickly muscled out by male bus drivers from the local bus company serving Anapra, who threatened the women with rocks. Las Hormigas took the bus drivers to court. For now, the van operates a mobile meals service. Each morning the women prepare a lunch, then they tour the streets selling meals from the door of the van for $1.80.

"We're lucky because our husbands let us work," Berta Ibarra, 45, proudly told a curious customer as she passed out a plate of beef and chili stew with beans and tortillas. "We're an all-women team."

Julia Caldera's husband, Daniel, hasn't been able to find a regular job for months. A carpenter, he does odd jobs in the neighborhood.

By all accounts a good husband, he understands why some men become abusive. "We are supposed to provide for our families," he said. "That's how we were bought up. Men are the ones who lead, who make progress."

Like many migrant families, the Calderas moved to the border looking for work six years ago from their home state of Durango. The 11 family members sleep in one room, with three beds and mattresses on a concrete floor. The walls of the house are made from roofing paper.

The four oldest children work in assembly factories in Juarez. The youngest, 18, earns barely $100 a month in a factory cutting leather for Toyota car seats. A company bus picks her up at 5 a.m. and drops her off at home around 4:30 p.m.

Another daughter, Maria Elena, is one of the murder victims. Her case is one of those that does not fit the pattern of domestic abuse. She disappeared five years ago when she was 15 years old after leaving work as a house cleaner in Juarez.

"When she didn't come home, we reported her missing the very next day," said her mother, sitting on a bed under a photo of her murdered child. The local authorities did not investigate. "No one came to speak to us. Not even a phone call."

After four months the family was informed that Maria Elena's body had been found. Two early DNA tests were inconclusive. Only after the family joined protests by the relatives of other victims was a proper investigation into her death opened last year. A third DNA test was declared positive. The Calderas finally buried their daughter last June.

Some families are still waiting for their loved ones to be found. At least 50 bodies remain unidentified.

Local women's groups have become a force to be reckoned with. Constant marches in the streets of Juarez have kept up the pressure, drawing media attention and support from around the world.

Last month the state opened the first victims shelter for battered women. The ceremony was attended by the governor of Chihuahua state and the attorney general. But the social challenges remain enormous. Nowhere is that more evident than in Anapra.

Looking north across the sun-baked valley, its residents can only gaze at the prosperity out of reach across the border, where neat rows of three- and four-bedroom homes dot the hillside of El Paso.

Though the barrio has stood for some 15 years, a main road is only now being paved. Side roads are still tracks through the desert sand. Water and electricity were only recently introduced. Two primary schools and a middle school have been built, but there's no secondary school.

But Sarlat and Villescas are not discouraged. They're ants, after all, used to making slow progress.

David Adams can be reached at