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Juarez Killings Breed Fierce Anger

As slayings of women in Mexican city near 300, authorities are accused of collusion.

March 08, 2003|Chris Kraul | Times Staff Writer

CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mexico — With the number of women slain here over the last decade now up to at least 278, Eva Arce's disgust and sense of hopelessness have only deepened.

The discovery last month of four more victims -- raped, tortured and dumped in this northern Mexico city's desert fringes and in a rail yard -- underscored what she says is the authorities' incompetence or complicity in the homicides.

Investigators believe a majority of the slayings are unrelated and linked to robberies, domestic violence and other crimes. But of particular concern are as many as 90 young women who were also sexually assaulted and are believed to have been victims of serial killers.

Arce has reason to be outspoken. Her daughter Silvia, a 28-year-old mother of three, disappeared on a sales call in March 1998 and has not been seen or heard from since. She was one of several hundred women whom advocates say are missing and possibly homicide victims. Arce, 62, now cares for her daughter's children.

"When we demand action, all the government does is discredit the victims before they run us out of their offices," she said. "I have absolutely no hope. In five years, they have done nothing to solve my daughter's disappearance."

Countless women in Ciudad Juarez, a raucous and at times violent city of nearly 2 million in the high desert near El Paso, feel as bitter as Arce toward their government. The horrific string of killings began in 1993, when the body of a 16-year-old girl was found with its hands bound behind its back in the Loma de Polea section on the city's fringes. She had been raped.

Today, thousands are expected to vent their anger in International Women's Day marches here and in other Mexican cities during which the Juarez deaths will be highlighted as extreme cases of discrimination against women. Demonstrators are expected to march in solidarity in some U.S. cities.

Many here are still in shock from the discoveries Feb. 17 of the bodies of three young women, ages 16, 17 and 18, in the Cristo Negro area on the western outskirts of the city, near where two victims' bodies were dumped last year. Then, on Feb. 19, the mutilated body of a 6-year-old girl was found near railroad tracks in the city center. She had disappeared three days earlier while walking two blocks from her home to buy a soda. No arrests have been made in the February cases.

The day after the discovery of the 6-year-old, authorities disclosed that they had accepted a long-standing offer from the El Paso office of the FBI to provide training for Mexican detectives and other officials in basic techniques of murder investigation. Officers from Chihuahua state and the Mexican federal government began classes in the Texas city last Saturday.

But word of the FBI's involvement did little to placate Arce, who like many activists is convinced that the killings are being committed either by or with the knowledge of police or powerful government figures, or by narcotics traffickers able to kill with relative impunity.

"There is a lot of fear. People who might hear something -- a clue, a name -- don't say anything," said Jaime Flores Castaneda, a top official with the Chihuahua state human rights commission.

The climate of fear extends to investigators, who have learned not to pursue leads that might point to narcotics traffickers or powerful families in Juarez, said Gustavo de la Rosa Hickerson, an attorney representing victims advocacy groups.

As the former warden of the Juarez city jail, De la Rosa has close law enforcement contacts. His review of case files on behalf of victims' families shows that "some of these investigations reach a certain point and stop."

"There is a saying here. It's 'No se pase de listo,' which means 'Don't learn too much' or 'Don't get clever.' You'll end up dead out in the desert if you do," said De la Rosa.

Official Cites Progress

Angela Talavera, the new special prosecutor leading the investigation for Chihuahua state, denies there is any evidence of official collusion. She says the difficulty in solving the slayings has more to do with an understaffed police force and the transient and violent nature of life in the border city. Juarez is a center of narcotics trafficking and a staging area for Mexicans from the country's interior who hope to cross illegally into the U.S. or to find work in foreign-owned factories called maquiladoras.

Talavera insists progress is being made in the cases, although just one suspect has been convicted and sentenced in the up to 90 rape-slayings. Abdel Sharif, who had been in jail since 1995, was given 20 years last month for one of the murders.

Talavera says Sharif and 14 other people in custody are suspected in 24 of the killings.

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