At the turn of the 21st Century, the local municipality constructed a glaring yellow monument at the entrance of Ciudad Juárez, symbolizing hope for future industrialization in a city wrought with corruption and a dark, secretive past. However, the people of Juárez set about constructing their own “monument”—a series of pink crosses memorializing “the Labyrinth of Silence,” a desolate area where hundreds of women have been “disposed” of over the last decade. Gazing across the Labyrinth, a “massive monument of Christ on the Cross” stands erect, symbolizing faith and protection (Rodriguez xi). Locals question if the victims have looked up toward that depiction of Christ’s suffering that towers above their brutally beaten bodies and pleaded for His mercy…This Mexican border-town, founded on prosperity and faith, is estranged from its original principles and has become known as the City of Lost Women.
Ciudad Juárez has been a city of nearly two million people living in fear for over a decade; after all, the city’s yearly death toll exceeded 1,900 by June, one hundred of which were women (“100 Women”). Nearly 620 women have been murdered since 1993, although officials claim the numbers are not even half that figure (Staudt 29). According to Alma Gomez of Justicia de Nuestras Hijas, when the murders began, “a woman was killed every twelve days…” (Operación Digna). Today, Juárez averages one woman dead for every eight days that passes. According to TheAmericano.com, an online publication focusing primarily on Latino issues, Ciudad Juárez is now the most murderous city in the world.
Border-towns are notorious for violence—they are the places where worlds collide, where the roles of men and women have long remained distinctly separate. “The U.S.-Mexican border es una herida abierta where the Third World grates against the First, and bleeds,” (Anzaldúa 3). Many blame machismo, the male-dominant repudiation of everything feminine, for the increased violence running rampant in these areas. Even after the maquiladoras, or U.S.-owned manufacturing factories, changed the typical role of women in Mexico, violence reigned; in fact, women becoming providers instead of sole caretakers completely defied the status quo of many Latin American countries. A promise of a future drove the women from surrounding areas of Mexico to the City of Industry—they “[came] hoping for the best, but often [found] the worst,” (Newton 3).
Nonetheless, as industry brought prosperity to dust-laden Ciudad Juárez, an increase of murders related to drugs and human trafficking occurred. However, in 1993 the pattern of murders changed drastically—there was a dramatic upswing in the number of young women found slain throughout the outskirts of the city. These women had been “raped, mutilated, crushed, strangled…some were even dismembered or burned alive,” (Washington). Their skin was marred with bite marks & they had deep slashes across their breasts. Bound with their own shoelaces & partially clothed, their shoes would be placed almost sentimentally beside their corpses—occasionally just bones, after desert jackals picked the flesh from their fragile bodies. “If you want to rape and kill a woman, there is no better place to do it than in Juárez,” said Esther Chávez Cano, founder of 8 de Marzo, in an opinion column during the fall of 1995. 8 de Marzo is a Juárez-based woman’s advocacy organization dedicated to rousing awareness of not only the killings, but also the corrupted officials (Rodriguez 72).
Alma Mireya Chavirria Farel’s name rings in infamy just across the southern border. Her tiny, brutalized body was discovered on January 23, 1993, making her the first documented victim of the Juárez serial murders (Newton 4). Alma was a 5 year-old child, found in the Campestre Virreyes district of Ciudad Juárez with deep slashes across her chest, evidence of sexual assault, and severe strangulation. The people of Juárez were so aghast at the brutality of the crime, that the authorities were essentially forced to acknowledge the presence of a “predator”—El Depredador Psicópata, who would become known as the “Juárez Ripper” (Newton 4). Twenty-one other women and young girls would meet their end that year, including a young woman who was set on fire and left to die (Valdez Appendix 2).
In 1994, police claimed there were eight murders in Ciudad Juárez with a similar modus operandi, and advised local women not to venture out alone (Newton 5). Just as had occurred during the previous year, an unidentified victim’s smoldering body was discovered semi-nude and strangled. Her shoes were placed “tenderly” beside her charred remains. The families of the murdered women were incredulous that authorities were not taking the cases more seriously. When a woman would go missing, the police would simply ask the family to come back in forty-eight hours and fill out paperwork…the investigations largely “concluded” at that point and the families were left to their own devices. Even after Chihuahuan officials were warned by their very own criminologist, Oscar Maynez Grijalva, that a group of serial killers were responsible for the slayings, police refused to take direct action. Between March and September of 1995, nineteen young women were found brutally raped and mutilated; consequently, the police department and Federal prosecutors came under extreme scrutiny from local families for “brushing off” the cases as the numbers continued to rise (Newton 5). Oscar Maynez Grijalva, who previously warned of the danger in ignoring the “signs” of serial murder, began to notice a distinct pattern in the bodies of the victims he was examining—in eight of the nineteen cases prior to September of that year, the victims’ right breast was removed and their left nipple bitten off (Newton 3). In the remaining months of 1995, another twenty-nine women would be murdered, bringing the grand total to forty-eight. As of July 2009, eight of the victims from 1995 remain buried in graves simply marked “Unknown,” (“2009-Femicides…”).
As pressure mounted, authorities made a stunning announcement in December 1995, sending a ripple of relief, although short-lived, through the communities of Juárez. Officials boasted to news outlets that an Egyptian-born scientist had been arrested for the murder of young Elizabeth Castro whose body had been found on August 19 alongside the Casas Grande Highway, just outside of Lote Bravo. They would subsequently name him as the “intellectual author” of at least thirteen other slayings (Rodriguez 43). Seventeen year-old Elizabeth Castro’s autopsy revealed wounds congruent with the previous victims’ injuries, as well as ligature marks from being bound with her own shoelaces. Sharif was charged with Castro’s rape and murder—authorities would announce that the female slayings were “solved.” Unfortunately, less than a month after “solving” the case of the Juárez Ripper, a stunning statistic was released to the media: in the past eleven months, 520 people had vanished from Juárez and an alarming, yet “important percentage of them [were] female adolescents,” (Newton 4).
By April 1, 1996 at least fourteen more girls were slain, including a fifteen year-old, again with identical injuries to those of the previous victims: a right severed breast, bitten-off left nipple, and a broken neck which had literally been yanked apart (Valdez 11). Police scrambled for answers as the people of Juárez grew impatient and they soon opted for placing additional blame on Abdel Latif Sharif, implying that he was the “mastermind” behind the murders. Curiously enough, a young woman identified merely as “Blanca” came forward to accuse Sharif of raping her in his home and threatening to “dispose of her corpse in Lote Bravo,” (Rodriguez 44). Unfortunately for Sharif, Lote Bravo was the “dumping ground” for multiple mutilated women in 1995, forty-five to be precise (Valdez 11). “Blanca” stood before the media and claimed to have been held hostage in Sharif’s home for at least three days. She described being raped repeatedly and later escaping through an upstairs window to contact authorities from a neighbor’s home (Rodriguez 13). Her story was never verified. Evidence against the Egyptian-national continued to mount when another woman, Erika Fierro, told police she’d introduced Sharif to nine of her girlfriends and hadn’t seen or heard from any them in months. Fierro would go on to claim that Sharif later told her he’d murdered them all, burying their bodies at Lote Bravo and threatening to do the same to Fierro if she disclosed his secret…(Valdez 215). Both women would “disappear” within a few weeks of releasing their statements, never to be heard from again.
As families of the missing women began to question the validity of the authorities’ sources, the local police grew frantic. They were struggling to maintain their story’s plausibility, not wanting to come across as incompetent investigators, but their efforts to calm the population would quickly be snuffed out. On April 8, 1996, Rosario Garcia Leal was found raped, strangled, and mutilated in a vacant lot. During the course of the investigation, Hector Olivares Villalba, a member of the local street gang Los Rebeldes, was brought in for questioning. Within a few short days Olivares Villalba would confess to the young woman’s murder. Only later would it come to light that rather than endure the “torture” that ran rampant through the police forces, Olivares would confess and claim that six other Rebels helped him “dispose of her body,” (Rodriguez 60). His confession would ultimately land El Diablo, the leader of the Rebels, in Mexican Federal prison. Sergio Armendariz Diaz, El Diablo, would remain in police custody for almost nine years, “awaiting trial” (Rodriguez 122). Eventually, two of the eight Rebels were released and in January of 2005, the six who remained were convicted of the murders of eight women who had been found in 1995 (Newton 8). The authorities also informed the media that Armendariz, whose bite impressions matched those found on multiple victims, plotted and conspired with the imprisoned Sharif to make it seem as if the Juárez Ripper was still at large (Rodriguez 123).
With the help of local women’s groups, poor practices in evidence collection were exposed and the Mexican government writhed under the pressure, blaming anyone they could. As the brutal killings continued, news outlets found their hands “tied” when they covered the murders and they were ultimately forced to report lower body counts for fear of retaliation by high-ranking members of the Mexican government (Newton 8). The media published each story with a statement declaring that an “unspecified number of women were still missing,” affectionately naming them Los Desaparecidos, or the Disappeared (Newton 8-9). Officials, thoroughly defensive, refused to allow the families of the Desaparecidos into view the bodies and identify their loved ones…Meanwhile the “corpses continued to pile up like cordwood,” (Rodriguez 69).
The stultifying desert heat and hellacious sand storms made searching for the missing women extremely perilous, but dedicated family members and concerned citizens continued to push forward. While conducting a community-organized searche during the summer of 1996, a small group made a stunning discovery when they stumbled upon a “wooden hut” in the middle of the desert (Rodriguez 134). The search party entered the shack to discover red and white candles, several women’s undergarments, and fingerprints which had been left behind in fresh blood. They also discovered a large wooden board with sketched pictures depicting gruesome scenes of torture and blood-letting of “naked women with flowing, dark hair.” An additional “shrine backdrop” depicted a group of “officials”—most prominently policemen and soldiers—surrounding a group of exposed women in a menacing fashion (Rodriguez 135). Their discovery would again shed light on a secret world within Mexico, a world America had long forgotten. In 1989, a Texas pre-Med student, Mark Kilroy, who had been vacationing for Spring Break, was found “sacrificed,” dismembered, and publicly displayed at a “cult ranch,” (Rodriguez 138). Authorities would later capture the killers only to discover that they were just the beginning…Ritualistic killings in Mexico, and most superstitious cultures, include switching the victims’ heads as well as mutilating their hearts and unfortunately, what was discovered in that tiny shack did nothing to disprove that horrifying reality (Rodriguez 140).
The young victims of Juárez were all petite and pretty with full lips and flowing dark hair. Their abductions, some during broad daylight, continued to frighten the people of Mexico’s leading industrial city. As investigators and families began to search for more distinct patterns in the disappearances, they noticed additional similarities between the cases…A sizable amount of the victims had been abducted from the lines of workers waiting to gain entrance to the maquiladoras. So was the case with a 22-year-old mother of two, Silvia Guadalupe Díaz (Rodriguez 69). She left her home on March 7, 1997, never to be heard from again. While her young husband tried desperately to involve authorities in her disappearance, four young girls were found raped, beaten, and strangled in the following ten days. Then, on March 29th, an agricultural worker discovered Díaz’s body just beside the Juárez Porvenir Highway in the Lote Bravo area. An autopsy would reveal that she had been dumped just a few hours after disappearing from her new job at a local maquiladora (Rodriguez 70). Unlike past months, the women found in March of 1997 all were found to have multiple puncture wounds across their necks; subsequently, investigators would begin to notice the already horrendous violence, escalate.
As the years passed with no significant strides of progress, frustrations grew astronomically among the families. They began to reach out to media sources, loudly expressing their belief that “…some people in power [were] more interested in covering up the crimes and shielding the perpetrators than in resolving the cases in any way that [could] bring peace of mind to the…bereaved,” (Rodriguez xi). The families also began to contact non-governmental organizations (NGO) outside of the State of Chihuahua, really stepping up the pressure for international recognition. Their efforts would prove partially rewarding on March 9, 2002, when a bi-national protest was organized by Texas lawmakers. The march began in the United States and continued over the Paso del Norte Bridge (Rodriguez 224). Nearly 2,000 people would participate…
In 2004, the number of slain women increased over 58% from the previous year drawing outrage from women’s organizations across the globe. On Valentine’s Day, “big-name stars from Hollywood” marched with thousands of Mexican protestors across the Santa Fe/Paso del Norte international bridge. “V-day…had been a worldwide event staged in tumultuous countries…to call attention to violence against women,” (Rodriguez 262). More astounding than international recognition alone, however, was that this protest involved two of Mexico’s top Federal prosecutors—Guadalupe Morfín and María López Urbina. The V-Day March was the first time two officials would publicly display their support for the people they were supposed to represent. As an active Federal prosecutor, María López Urbina would later identify “more than 125 former and current Chihuahua State Police officers…guilty of torture, abuse of power, and negligence” throughout the course of the investigations they conducted for the Juárez murders (Rodriguez 264). While reviewing 233 cases (104 of which had gone to trial), Urbina named only mid-level officials, twenty of whom quickly lost their jobs or were reassigned. As disappointing to the families as it was, Urbina would still fail to name any “high-ranking officials” who were, by law, responsible for “negligence” oversight and all other aspects of active investigations (Rodriguez 265).
The American media has largely neglected to mention the femicide occurring so close to home over the past decade. On October 16, 2009, TheAmericano.com published an article announcing the first “publicly displayed female decapitation” in the “City of Violence”—Ciudad Juárez. As horrifying as the recent events have been and even after desperate pleas for help from Mexican women’s groups, calls for aid have remained largely unnoticed. “We are asking for help…from experts who can create portraits of what the missing women would look like now…some of these women and girls have been missing for longer than two years,” said Alma Gomez of Operación Digna, during an interview in 2003. Gomez continued on to say that the Mexican people “would like the portraits of [their] missing daughters to be posted around…U.S. [cities],” so everyone would feel the terror [our] Mexican neighbors feel. Perhaps then something will be done… Additionally, within TheAmericano.com article was an admittance of the potential for ritualistic murders in Mexico. La Santa Muerte culture is a corrosive reality to anyone with an intimate knowledge of Mexico’s superstitious tendencies. Its practice encompasses a diverse mixture of twisted versions of Santería and the Aztec deities.
Nearly every street corner in Juárez shows signs of lost souls…Even the Paso del Norte Bridge bears the weight of hundreds of dead women. The massive wooden cross at the bridge’s entrance stands erect against the pale pink backdrop, punctured with more than a hundred nails. Each nail fastens in place a scrap of worn material with a name printed upon it, serving as a make-shift “missing person” poster. The sign—hanging just above the rugged cross—reads, “Ni una más…”—“Not one more…” (Valdez 75). Locals say that the Mexican revolutionary hero Benito Juárez weeps as he watches the beloved city he built as a symbol of prosperity and faith fill to the brim with injustice and mass slaughter. The cross at the bridge couldn’t be a more poignant reminder. Even as the number of victims continues to grow, seemingly unnoticed by the rest of the world, the families of the “daughters of Juárez” wonder if anyone is really listening…(Rodriguez xi). Some have even concluded that God has abandoned Juárez, but I would say that He watches with tear-stained cheeks, for it is not He who is lost in the hearts of the people of Juárez, but justice. Justice has abandoned Juárez.
Anzaldúa, Gloria. Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza. San Francisco: Aunt Lute, 1987. Print.
Chavez, Esther. “Violence Against Women in Chihuahua and Juárez.” Operación Digna. 19 Oct. 2003: n. pg. Print.
Newton, Michael. “Ciudad Juárez: The Serial Killer’s Playground.” TruTv. Turner Broadcasting Systems, 2009. Web. 21 Nov. 2004.
Rodriguez, Teresa. The Daughters of Juárez: A True Story of Serial Murder South of the Border. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2008. Print.
Staudt, Kathleen. Violence and Activism at the Border: Gender, Fear & Everyday Life in Ciudad Juárez. Austin: Texas UP, 2008. Print.
Valdez, Diana Washington. Killing Fields: Harvest of Women. Washington D.C.: Peace at the Border, 2006. Print.
Washington, Diana. “Cosecha de Mujeres: El Safari mexicano.” La Jornada. DEMOS, 8 May. 2005. Web. 22 Nov. 2009.
“100 Women Killed in Ciudad Juárez in 2009.” TheAmericano.com. The Americano, 16 Oct. 2009. Web. 20 Nov. 2009.
“2009- Femicides in Ciudad Juárez.” Mexico Solidarity Network. Promet Host, 2009. Web. 18 Nov. 2009.
 es una herida abierta – “is an open wound”
 Ni una más– Not one more