MEXICO CITY — Responding to an international outcry, the Mexican government has sent 300 federal agents to Ciudad Juarez to bolster a local police force that has proved incapable of halting a decade-old string of rapes and killings of women in the violent border city.
The intervention is the first in which federal police will share responsibility for the security of an entire Mexican city, officials said.
It began two days after the latest victims, three women in their 20s, were last seen alive, riding in a truck Sunday with a man they knew. The women's bullet-riddled bodies were found Wednesday, buried in the desert 20 miles east of town. The man was missing.
Their deaths brought to 261 the number of slain females in Juarez listed by the Mexican attorney general's office since 1993. Some parents in the city of 1.4 million people, across the Rio Grande from El Paso, have stopped sending their daughters to school or work for fear of never seeing them again.
Mexican Atty. Gen. Rafael Macedo de la Concha and Interior Minister Santiago Creel announced the wide-ranging United Security Program on Tuesday to a skeptical audience at Juarez City Hall.
"People in Juarez, people everywhere, are ashamed of what is happening here, while you have made statements and announced programs, like this one, that have produced no results," Ramon Chaparro, a reporter for Juarez's Radio 8Z, told the officials. "What response do you have for the families of all the murdered women?"
"The response is that we are here today in Juarez," Creel replied, "assuming very clear commitments" to end "the scourge of crime against women in this city."
"We hope that Ciudad Juarez will become a city where women, men and children can live without fear," he added.
The 300 federal agents will work under joint command with the city's 1,800 police officers and the 200 Chihuahua state police stationed in Juarez. Besides protecting women and other residents, they will focus on street gangs, car thieves and drug traffickers, officials said.
New security measures, backed by 20 federal agencies, will include improved public transport, better street lighting, the creation of shelters for battered women and programs to develop the city's economy.
A special commission that includes federal representatives will investigate the slayings. Officials said it would share its findings with a citizens panel representing more than 40 community organizations.
"They are making a high-profile statement that they are going to be serious on violent crimes," said Art Werge, an FBI special agent in El Paso, whose office this year began offering training for Mexican detectives investigating the killings.
The slayings have brought Juarez worldwide notoriety and made the city the subject of numerous books, documentary films and protest marches.
Independent inquiries have been conducted by Amnesty International, the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, and the Inter-American Human Rights Commission, among other groups based outside Mexico.
While many of the cases are not related, at least 93 listed by the attorney general's office follow a pattern: A young woman is abducted, raped, killed and buried -- in a shallow desert grave, in a rail yard or at a construction site.
Just one suspect has been convicted in those 93 cases, for a single rape-slaying. At least 14 other people now in custody are suspected in 24 other rape-slayings.
Investigations by the Chihuahua state authorities have been tainted by allegations of shoddy police work, planted evidence and the framing of suspects. And the arrests over the years have not put an end to the killings.
Esther Chavez Cano, a Juarez activist who began compiling lists of slain women in 1993, said years of international attention finally spurred Mexico's federal authorities to act.
"The federal government's intervention is an important step but not a magic wand," she said in a telephone interview. "The violence that is hidden in our society and affects women the most is not going to end with edicts."
President Vicente Fox first announced in late 2001 that his government would join in investigating the killings, but he balked in the face of resistance from authorities in Chihuahua, a state governed by the opposition Institutional Revolutionary Party.
The federal attorney general's office got involved in April after an informant alleged that 14 of the victims had been butchered by organ traffickers. Federal authorities have revealed no evidence to support the allegation, but it gave them a way into the case because organ trafficking is a federal crime.