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Border mystery: 274 murders in nine years

An American-led coalition wants Mexican officials to get help in solving the killings of female factory workers.

By Kris AxtmanStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 2, 2002


Ask anyone in this gritty industrial border city and they'll tell you their theory of who is killing the women: a mass murderer or copycats, maybe even someone from across the border in El Paso; drug traffickers trying to put the authorities off their own trail; local police, which is why the crimes have yet to be solved; people stealing internal organs for the black market.

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Indeed, residents here have had nine uncomfortable years to get carried away by theories as murders of young Mexican women mount – 274 of them to date.

Now, an international coalition – Mexican women's groups led by American academics, politicians, and law enforcement officials – is demanding a multinational investigation into the slayings, saying it's time the local police accepted the help of US forensic experts, resources, and laboratories.

The coalition is also renewing pressure on the hundreds of Juarez-based, US-owned maquiladoras – the workplaces that draw thousands of young Mexican women who are the primary prey of the killer or killers. They want these factories to provide employees with safe working conditions – including more secure transportation for their women employees.

"We believe this is a binational crime," says Emma Perez, chair of the history department at the University of Texas at El Paso and cochair of the newly formed Coalition Against Violence Toward Women and Families on the Border.

"And because it's happening on an international border, it requires international involvement," she says. "How many more women have to be murdered for this to be taken seriously?"

Irma Josefina Gonzalez says she used to speculate on who could be responsible for the murders – until her own daughter ended up missing last October.

Now she just wants justice.

"We don't know how it will end, but we'll continue looking for who is guilty because it's not fair," she says in the small apartment she once shared with her 20-year-old daughter, Claudia.

The murders and accusations of police incompetence and possible collusion have left this Mexican border city with an acrid international reputation – and it's testing the limits of the new level of cross-border cooperation that's been touted by Presidents George Bush and Vicente Fox.

Local authorities say they've solved many of the cases and brought the killers to justice. They also contend that their city is in the spotlight unfairly; that many large cities have equivalent numbers of missing and murdered women that don't get as much attention.

"It's just bad luck that we are getting all the attention," says Elfego Bencomo Lopez, deputy state prosecutor for Chihuahua. He points to the limited media coverage in Vancouver, B.C., where police are investigating a pig farmer over the disappearance of 50 women since 1983.

But this border city is distinctive because of the sheer number of women attracted to Juarez's 340 factories that produce everything from toasters to jeans to auto parts for export north. About 70 percent of the workforce here is comprised of young women, largely coming from rural towns and with little big-city experience.

Waiting for the bus on a recent afternoon, Georgina Martinez is one such worker. She came to Juarez two years ago in search of a job and is now assembling toasters for $4 a day.

Young, skinny, and shy – with long, dark hair – Ms. Martinez has many of the same traits of the murdered maquiladora women. She says she is aware of the situation and admits she's frightened.