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Vanished

October 31, 2003|Anne-Marie O'Connor | Times Staff Writer

Ciudad Juarez, Mexico — Ciudad Juarez, Mexico

The Day of the Dead is drawing near, a time to honor lost loved ones. Vendors in this gritty border city are selling porcelain skeletons dressed as mariachi musicians or as brides in white gowns. Reminders that death is part of life.

No one here needs much reminding.

Evangelina Arce is grieving her daughter Silvia, who went to work one afternoon in 1998 and vanished, leaving behind three young children. The only suspect is a onetime federal police officer who had also been accused of kidnapping and torturing one of his co-workers. But authorities didn't question him and he slipped out of town.

"I think they're covering everything up," said Arce, 63, her eyes filled with pain behind her thick glasses.

She once grieved alone, but now she has a broad forum for her lament. Arce is at the center of a small revolution of parents of hundreds of young women who have been murdered or have disappeared in Ciudad Juarez in the last decade.

The Internet, women's groups and cross-border activists have brought this small, determined movement to the attention of the world. In the last few weeks, these mothers have met with California congresswoman Hilda L. Solis (D-El Monte), taped a segment of the popular Spanish-language talk show "El Show de Cristina," and met with human rights officials in Washington.

Beginning today and ending Sunday, which is Mexico's Day of the Dead, Juarez mothers and advocates will converge on Los Angeles for a free UCLA conference, cosponsored by Amnesty International, called "The Maquiladora Murders, or Who is Killing the Women of Juarez?"

It has been a long road for these dispossessed, powerless parents -- marked by denials, bungling and inaction by Mexican authorities -- but they have managed to keep this question alive.

In the vacant lots where bodies have been dumped, some of them within sight of prominent businesses, activists have erected tall, pink crosses painted with the names of the decomposed, burned and mutilated women found there -- Veronica, Laura Berenice, Esmeralda.

At the border, a grim timber cross looms before motorists driving into Texas, attached to an altar whose rusty nails are festooned with crucified intimacies -- ripped lingerie, stockings, a torn dancing dress, high heels. At a recent demonstration there, journalists outnumbered activists, as women in black added names of this year's victims.

More than 370 women have been murdered, at least 137 of them after being sexually assaulted, since the first mangled bodies began appearing in Juarez in 1993, according to Amnesty International. The number of women who have disappeared could run into the hundreds, the group says.

"They kill them with such hatred," puzzled Esther Chavez, 70, a Juarez activist who will be at the conference. "A good girl comes, hard-working, who wants to study. She's found raped, tortured, mutilated. Why so much hatred?"

At the heart of this movement are painfully shy, deeply humble mothers like Paula Flores Bonilla -- one of the first to organize. Flores, 46, lives with her family in this city of 1.4 million people in a makeshift home two hours by bus from downtown, where miles of rutted, unpaved roads end in rocky buttes, and a scalding sun heats the sand that pools at fence posts and blows into children's eyes.

Flores' youngest daughter, Sagrario Gonzalez, 17, taught Sunday school here and sang in the church choir. Sagrario worked making refrigerator parts at one of the light-assembly factories called maquiladoras, sharing a shift with her sister and brother-in-law. When the company reassigned Sagrario to another shift, she had to take the bus alone. Two months later, in April 1998, she didn't come home. Police told Sagrario's family that maybe she had run off with a boyfriend.

*

A blame-the-victim reflex

Parents are used to hearing this. For years, police, prosecutors and even a governor commonly suggested victims lived "double lives" -- a synonym for prostitution -- a blame-the-victim reflex that critics say puts women's lives at risk. "Women with a nightlife who go out very late and come into contact with drinkers are at risk," said onetime state public prosecutor Arturo Gonzalez Rascon. "It's hard to go out in the street when it's raining and not get wet."

So residents mounted their own search for Sagrario, singing religious songs to keep their faith. They had already found seven dead women in the rocky chaparral, and in a lonely shack they had discovered a crude drawing of supine naked women surrounded by men and a scorpion -- the symbol of the Juarez drug cartel. After the placard appeared in the Mexican press, the federal police demanded it. It was turned over and hasn't been seen by investigators since.

A body wearing Sagrario's clothes was finally found after two weeks by a passerby on a barren hillside. Flores' almond-shaped eyes crumple into tears at the memory.

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