Life in Anapra has never been easy.
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."
Gender roles turned upside down
It is not just public violence against women that The Ants must contend with. Sarlat says almost every woman here has suffered some type of physical or sexual abuse.
It is a crisis that dogs Mexico, but one that is perhaps heightened in Anapra, where rural women suddenly found themselves with financial independence, a situation that turned gender roles upside down.
That is exactly what happened in Gomez's family, which migrated here from rural Mexico.
"When I started bringing money home, I brought problems to our marriage," says Gomez, who married as a teen and never had independence apart from her father or husband. "My husband wanted to control me."
But instead of returning to traditional patterns, The Ants push for more independence through microenterprises.
The group has helped women set up a small day-care center and restaurant, as well as a small business delivering prepared meals to entire families when women are working in factory jobs and don't have time to cook.
When the men disagree, The Ants invite them to therapy. Few have shown up. But some have, including domestic abusers seeking recovery, says Sarlat.
Their work is not always successful. Three years ago, during their first microenterprise project, they set up a van service to transport women to the nearest supermarket, seven kilometers away. But the drivers of the traditional routes intimidated the women, first verbally, and once by surrounding the vehicle and scratching it. The women gave up the project.
"Through all of this," Sarlat says, "our hardest task is to teach them that they are not victims. They are used to feeling like victims; we want to show them their potential, that we women can work together and have our own money, that we are worth something and are dignified."
Sarlat spent more than 20 years as a nun, mostly in front of classrooms at Catholic schools for upper class kids. When she was sent to Ciudad Juárez, teaching wealthy children there, it was the neighborhood across town that kept calling her – in Anapra, where there was no running water, no telephone service, a shantytown where migrants from across Mexico poured in daily. She and her colleague Elvia Villescas left the church, enrolled in psychology training, and started The Ants.
"They are like an oasis in the middle of the desert," says Emilienne de León Aulina, the executive director of a Mexico City-based organization called Semillas, or Seeds, which gave The Ants a grant to launch their project. Semillas is also fighting for legal justice for the women who have died or disappeared in Ciudad Juárez. "They are true catalysts of change because what they are doing is changing the behavior of people."
Sarlat downplays her work, but women like Angela Aurora Reyes don't. Ms. Reyes, who moved to Ciudad Juárez 12 years ago, says that violence among women is so commonplace that they don't even realize it's a problem. "We have lived like this our whole lives," she says. "We all have the same story."
She visited the new community center three years ago not for herself, but to get help for her daughter, who is disabled. But it opened up a new world – first of pain and then of healing.
Now she is taking adult education courses in gender, violence, and women's rights at the local university, and imparting those lessons in workshops she runs in women's homes throughout the neighborhood. "We have learned," she says, "we do not need to live like this."