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Former nun helps Mexico 'femicide' victims recover

Linabel Sarlat runs a support center to help bring economic and spiritual renewal to the women of Anapra, Mexico.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 6, 2008

'The Ants': Linabel Sarlat runs a center to help women victims of violence in Anapra, Mexico.

Sara Miller Llana

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Anapra, Mexico

Life in Anapra has never been easy.

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Many of the hundreds of local women murdered in the past 15 years hail from this border town, one of the most violent and marginalized communities in Mexico. And while international attention on the "femicides" abates, the psychology of fear, the cycle of poverty, and a stubborn macho culture are now stirred by a wave of drug-trafficking violence in nearby Ciudad Juárez.

It's in this atmosphere that Linabel Sarlat, a slight woman with boundless energy, works to bring economic and spiritual renewal to the women of this gruff, gray desert community.

The former nun is the first to concede that her group – which calls itself "The Ants" – is not revolutionary. But the name itself, she says, reflects their deliberate approach to the enormous task.

"Against hopelessness, there is always hope; there are always spaces of hope," says Ms. Sarlat, driving around Anapra in a white pickup truck. "And our goal is that the women pick themselves up, and with a clear heart, we create a new social fabric of equality."

Brutal history of the 'femicides'

Women from all over Mexico, mostly from deep valleys and rural towns where men had long emigrated to the US, have found their way to Anapra over the decades, drawn to US factory jobs assembling toys, shoes, and electronics.

While life was never easy – they were poor, and often alone – their lives changed forever in 1993 when bodies of raped women started appearing in ditches and vacant lots across Ciudad Juárez.

In the past 15 years, some 450 girls and women have been murdered in and around Ciudad Juárez and the state capital, Chihuahua, with nearly a quarter of them first sexually assaulted, according to Amnesty International.

Mexico has been widely faulted for inadequate investigations, prompting scathing, international criticism – and leaving a culture of defenselessness among women here.

Amelia Gomez says that for years she felt spiritually dead – from the moment she believed she was about to be killed until she heard about the "The Ants."

Ms. Gomez – whose name has been changed to protect her identity since not even her family knows of her ordeal – moved to Ciudad Juárez 12 years ago, at the height of the femicides.

Her husband, like so many in the community, blamed the victims themselves: their supposedly provocative clothes and flirting eyes.

So, seven years ago, after she was picked up for her night shift at an electronic parts factory, when the bus driver drove her up a deserted road of Anapra, pulled her out of the bus, and raped her – a pattern that fit the profile of so many murders she had heard about – she never told anyone, not even her husband. "I want to tell him," says Gomez. "But instead of understanding me, he'll blame me."

She never reported the crime. She quit her job. She could barely care for her kids. And then someone told her about a new therapy group, a notion she'd never even heard of. Tepid at first, she has since become a leader within the group and enrolled in high school classes with dreams of becoming a psychologist.

Simply sharing her story – and hearing so many others just like her own – is what has given her strength to move forward.

"Here I can express myself as I am," she says. "I truly feel like I am a miracle."