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'I try to avoid leaving the house'
The mysterious murders of hundreds of young maquiladora women are subsiding, PAUL KNOX reports from Ciudad Juarez. But a star-studded protest march to mark Valentine's Day highlights the public's fear that justice has yet to be done

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Saturday, February 14, 2004 – Page F2

This much we know about Claudia Ivette Gonzalez: She was tall and slender, with lush brown hair. She loved the Dallas Cowboys. She spent a lot of time playing Nintendo with her next-door neighbour. She was 20 years old on Oct. 10, 2001, the day she was a few minutes late for work at a car-parts factory in this dry, cheerless metropolis across the Texas border from El Paso, and was turned away.

We're also fairly certain that Claudia was one of eight young women whose bodies were found the following month in a windswept field once used to grow cotton and now home to nothing but garbage, rubble and eight pink crosses with a little thatch-roofed shrine. Cotton used to be an important crop before the city became known for assembly plants, drug traffickers and hundreds of slain young women.

But ask her mother, Josefina Gonzalez, if she thinks we'll ever know what happened after Claudia left the Lear Corp. wire-harness factory that day, and she replies: "I don't have any hope at all."

She believes that "some big shot" is responsible, and in Ciudad Juarez, if some big shot is involved, you can kiss the truth goodbye.

"There's no willpower," says Evangelina Arce, whose daughter, Silvia, disappeared at 29 in 1998. "They don't pay attention to complaints. They ignore them, the investigations move slowly, and nothing happens. Because they're all people in the same government, they don't do anything."

By any reasonable standard, Ciudad Juarez is a fearsome place to be female. In a city of 1.4 million, more than 300 women have been murdered since 1993. Scores, if not hundreds, remain missing. State investigators describe 92 of the deaths as "sexual homicides" -- killings that combine sexual aggression and deadly force.

Many victims looked alike. They were in their teens or early 20s, with slim bodies and long dark hair. The way they died hinted strongly at hatred of women as a motive. A fair number had been strangled and mutilated; several had slash marks on their breasts. Most had been raped, and were found clothed, but with their groin areas exposed. Most are believed to have been held for days or weeks.

There are at least half a dozen theories about motives for the killings. There is talk of "narco-satanic" cults, of killing as an organized-crime initiation rite, of pornographic film sessions, of sex orgies orchestrated by prominent drug traffickers, of gang rapes by joyriding rich kids, of protection by powerful local figures. For a time, there was speculation about an international organ-transplant ring.

In some cases, the killer appeared to have no fear of being captured. Instead of being concealed, bodies were dumped on open ground. "They have to have one of two things -- either money or power," says Clara Torres, a lawyer and former state legislator.

Botched investigations complicate the picture. The Mexican government's own National Human Rights Commission accuses state authorities of "incompetence, negligence and laxity."

Investigators say that, of the 92 sex-related cases, 49 are still unsolved. Victims' relatives and international human-rights groups say both figures are too low. Amnesty International, which produced a detailed report on the homicides last year, says 137 killings actually fit the sexual-homicide pattern.

Rights activists say the killings made little news for so long because the victims were mostly unattached women working in the free-trade maquiladora plants.

Today, to draw attention to the situation, Amnesty International and V-Day, which combats violence against women, will mark Valentine's Day with a protest march through the city, followed by a special performance of The Vagina Monologues featuring its playwright (and V-Day co-founder) Eve Ensler plus Jane Fonda, Sally Field and Christine Lahti.

But business leaders say they are fed up with the international publicity already. They contend that the city is no worse than others its size. "Speaking ill of Ciudad Juarez has become big business," complains Carlos Murguia, president of a commercial-development group.

As well, the Chihuahua state Attorney-General's Department says the rate of killings has eased in Ciudad Juarez. Chihuahua city, the state capital four hours' drive to the south, has seen 16 women killed or missing in the past four years, but Manuel Esparza, co-ordinator of a group of special prosecutors, says there hasn't been a case in Juarez for nearly a year that fits the sexual-homicide pattern.

But local women say that a pall remains over the city. "You can't help but pay attention to it," says Veronica Herrera, 30, who used to work in a maquiladora assembling electronic equipment. "In fact, I try to avoid leaving the house -- I only go out with my husband."

Marisela Ortiz, a teacher who helped to organize a group of victims' relatives after one of her students was killed, says some parents have pulled their daughters out of her secondary school because they can't drive them there and back, and don't want to send them alone. "It's creating conflict between parents and their children," she adds. "The kids can't go out at night, and then they get angry."

The sense of fear is heightened by widespread knowledge of shoddy investigations. Police have failed to seal off crime scenes, misidentified bodies and lost track of gravesites. According to a report in the Dallas Morning News, an investigator washed and deodorized one victim's blood-soaked clothing because it was spreading a foul odour.

Larger-than-life stories also surround prisoners being held in connection with the killings. There are more than a dozen of them, but only one has been convicted. Abdel Latif Sharif, 57, an Egyptian-born chemist who came to Juarez from the United States to set up an assembly plant, is serving 20 years for the 1995 murder of 17-year-old Elizabeth Castro Garcia.

At first, authorities said Mr. Sharif was the prime suspect in several deaths. But the killings continued while he was in jail. That led to a new theory: Mr. Sharif was paying others to carry them out. Supposedly, the hired killers included four bus drivers and six members of the Rebels motorcycle gang. All are in custody, and several say they were beaten to force them to confess.

Mr. Esparza, a stocky young investigator in a black jacket and shaggy brush cut, admits that forensic rigour has not always been the hallmark of local police work. Last month federal authorities arrested 13 state policemen in connection with the execution-style killings of 11 people whose bodies were found buried near a house linked to the notorious Juarez drug-trafficking syndicate.

But he dismisses the more sensational theories, doubts that the killers are wealthy, and says flatly that Juarez's powerful drug lords wouldn't let any of their people get mixed up in killing women for kicks. "Anything that brings heat on these people, they deal with it themselves immediately."

Mr. Esparza is a disciple of Robert Ressler, a U.S. criminal-profile expert retained by Chihuahua who says the killers could be sex criminals from across the border. That fits the story of Mr. Sharif, and Mr. Esparza believes that he -- together with the bus drivers and the Rebels -- may be responsible for more than half the unsolved cases.

But other Mexican authorities have doubts. "In the cases where a pattern of hatred toward women is implicit, especially the violent ones, there are fewer results," says Guadalupe Morfin, an Interior Ministry official who was appointed last fall by President Vicente Fox Quesada to lead federal initiatives for women in Juarez. "There's still doubt as to whether the ones who are accused are really guilty." Recently, Mr. Fox also named Maria Lopez Urbina, formerly a federal attorney-general's representative in Coahuila state, to take control of the Juarez investigations.

Mr. Esparza believes that most of the slain women were not taken against their will. He won't disclose details, but contends there was "an element of seduction" involving a handsome, well-dressed man.

That squares poorly with the victims' personalities, says Alfredo Limas, who works closely with victims' families and directs the gender studies program at the Autonomous University of Ciudad Juarez. Most were homebodies, not high-mileage habituées of Juarez's seedy club scene. "They weren't vamps. They gave the impression of being so fragile that you could do whatever you wanted with them."

Prof. Limas also believes that it's wrong to say the maquiladora industry is responsible for the killings, as some critics suggest. "What happened here happened because there is a criminal mafia that was killing young women and has the protection of the authorities," he says. Yet he points to a symbiosis between the killings and the city's peculiar social geography.

On the east side of town, the wealthy live in suburbs with names such as Country Club and Champs Elysées. But the west side, where Ms. Torres tries to raise money for social-development projects, has 700,000 residents and only three high schools, 200 daycare spaces and not a single hospital. "There's a lot of foreign investment here, but it's one of the most neglected areas of the country," she says.

Most maquiladoras are located in the centre and the south, interspersed with shopping centres, fast-food outlets (Denny's, Wendy's) and vast multitiered auto junkyards known as yonkes. The patchy bus system often leaves workers walking for blocks during the trip to and from work. (One of the slain women disappeared after crossing a vacant lot at night to catch her ride home, as was her custom.)

Josefina Gonzalez's home sits along a dusty, rutted west-side road. In her sparsely furnished living room, a curved plastic frame holds a Dallas Cowboys logo and a photograph of Claudia. It shows her by a cedar tree, wearing light-coloured, low-slung cotton pants and a skimpy black top with white stripes. "She was a very serious person," says neighbour Ana Suarez, Claudia's best friend and video-game partner. "She was quiet, she hardly spoke to anyone. She was very sincere; she did what she said she'd do. A real hard worker."

After Claudia's death, the police returned little more than a pile of bones. DNA tests weren't conclusive, but Ms. Gonzalez believes the remains were her daughter's. Who does she think was responsible? "I've always said that, as far as I'm concerned, it was the police."

Two bus drivers were arrested and charged with the eight cotton-field killings. Both said they had been tortured with lit cigarettes and electric shocks to extract confessions. One later died in jail, and a lawyer connected to the case was shot to death by police who said they had mistaken him for a homicide suspect.

And, Ms. Gonzalez says, three weeks before she disappeared, Claudia reported that a group of men had asked her to get in their vehicle and then taken her for a ride around the block: They were police.

Ms. Suarez, meanwhile, says she's glad her three children are all boys. Street gangs pose something of a threat, she says, but "if I had a girl, I wouldn't let her go out.

"I wouldn't even let her sit at the window."

Paul Knox writes on international affairs for The Globe and Mail.

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