'Rich killers' stalk City of Lost Girls
Sandra Jordan reports from Ciudad Juarez in Mexico, where one campaigner is battling the authorities to expose the powerful men she believes to have murdered 100 women
Ciudad Juarez is known as 'the city of the dead girls'. In 10 years almost 400 women have been murdered in this city on the border between Mexico and El Paso, Texas, and the killings continue. Now a courageous Mexican-American journalist is alleging a group of six businessmen is behind the slaughter. Described as 'untouchables', their wealth puts them above the law. Their motive is said to be blood sport.
The border has always been violent, but organised crime exploded in 1993 when the Carrillo-Fuentes drug cartel, known as the Juarez Cartel, took control. It is the most powerful cartel in Mexico, and the most brutal, being responsible for trafficking most of Latin America's drugs into the US. In daylight, the narcos smuggle their loads across three bridges that link Juarez with El Paso. Law enforcers on either side have the choice, according to one former trafficker, of being 'very rich, or very dead'.
Cartel members live in garish mansions in the Golden Zone of Juarez, a far cry from the shanties where most of the city's two million residents subsist. The narcos pay millions of dollars in bribes to stay above the law and Juarez has become one of the money-laundering capitals of the world. Narco money has built 'legitimate' businesses and made Juarez the fourth-largest city in Mexico. The rise of the cartel coincided with the feminicido, the female murders. The first victim was Angelica Luna Villalobos; her body was dumped in the Alta Vista neighbourhood in 1993.
Since then, 370 women have been killed. Some deaths may be attributed to domestic violence or random crime. But more than a third of the women were raped before death. Most victims are tortured and mutilated. Sometimes the killer leaves a signature; a breast or a nipple is sliced off. The bodies are then dumped in wasteland.
The average age of the victims is 16; all were poor. Their deaths, says Amnesty International, 'have no political cost to the authorities'. Many suspects are in custody, but the killings go on.
Human rights organisations accuse the authorities of incompetence, and there have been allegations of torture used to obtain false confessions. Women are frightened to go out, day or night, reminded of danger by the pink crosses marking places where bodies were found.
Only prostitutes come out at night - to cater to the Americans from an army base in El Paso. Prostitutes can earn $100 a day compared to the $30-$60 weekly wage of a factory worker. 'This is a dangerous job,' said Sandrita, 19, 'but it's safer than working in a maquila (factory). Most of the girls who disappear have worked in the maquilas. At least we get protection from the police.'
Hundreds of factories - often internationally owned sweatshops - have drawn tens of thousands of women here from all over Mexico to seek work. The police have often blamed the girls for the abductions, accusing them of behaving sluttishly. Public pressure forced the maquila bosses to provide buses to ferry the girls home safely.
A mother of one of the victims took The Observer to a cross that marked where her 17-year-old daughter's body was dumped. The girl disappeared after leaving work to catch a bus home. Like other victims, she had been gang-raped and strangled. Her left breast had been severed and her body, covered in bite marks, was badly beaten.
Diana Washington Valdez has investigated the murders for five years for the El Paso Times. Courageous in the mould of Veronica Guerin, the investigative journalist murdered in Ireland, she has gone on the record about the killers' identities. In doing so, she knows she is putting her life on the line.
In her book, Harvest of Women, to be published next year, Washington exposes the seedy underworld of Juarez's narco-traffickers. 'The girls are carefully screened,' she says. 'They're always a safe bet. Disposable women. They are watched in advance for suitability - young and poor.'
Washington's accusations are based on her research and on leaks from the FBI and Mexican investigators.
'Mexican federal authorities have conducted investigations, which reveal who the killers are,' she claims. 'Five men from Juarez and one from Tijuana who get together and kill women in what can only be described as blood sport. Some of those involved are prominent men with important political connections - untouchables.'
The chosen victims are so young, explains Washington, to avoid sexually transmitted diseases. Underlings supply new victims: 'They capture the girls and bring them to their masters.'
Washington alleges at least 100 women have been killed by these men, of whom all but one are multi-millionaires. They have political connections going all the way to President Vicente Fox, and some have allegedly made contributions to Fox's presidential campaign. They have ties to the Juarez Cartel, and have used their drug wealth to build respectable businesses.
In March, the FBI passed a report to the Mexican authorities detailing locations in Juarez where the abducted girls are brought to. The FBI believes the Mexicans did not act on the intelligence, even though it revealed plans to capture another four girls.
Sickened that the authorities did nothing to prevent further murders, Washington campaigned to expose the killers. She does not believe they will be arrested.
'It sounds crazy,' said psychologist Dr Stanley Krippner, who teaches in Cuidad Juarez, at the Institution of Medical and Advanced Behavioural Technology. He attributes the murderers' behaviour to a mix of male bonding and wild fantasies.
'It is one aspect of men in power,' he said, 'especially in a developing country. They know they can get away with outrageous behaviour because they are more powerful than the police and the government.'
Manuel Esparza, spokesman for the women's sexual homicide department, said: 'We don't have information that links our cases to organised criminals, to the drug cartels.' He says if there was evidence of who was committing the murders they would be arrested. But Amnesty International's report, which Esparza admitted he hadn't read, said his unit had undermined the credibility of the justice system.
Now the feminicido seems to be spreading. In the neighbouring city of Chihuahua, at least 16 young women have disappeared over two years in a seemingly copycat pattern. Eight have turned up dead.
· 'The City of the Lost Girls', filmed and directed by Rodrigo Vazquez - winner of the 2003 Rory Peck award for features - is on C4's Unreported World on Friday at 7.30pm.
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