Since August, 1993, Mexican Federales have been baffled by the number of young women found brutally raped and murdered in the outskirts of Ciudad Juarez, an industrial border town next to El Paso with a population of 2 million. The numbers of the dead vary according to the sources. Local women's rights groups believe that since 1993 at least 187 women have met violent deaths in Juarez. Of these, many were killed by pimps, drug dealers, husbands and boyfriends. However, at least a third of the deaths remain unexplained and police have no suspects. Authorities believe that about 30 cases have the common thread of torture and rape suggesting they are the work of one or several serial killers. Independent criminologist from the U.S. believe that between 50 and 70 cases fit a similar rape-torture-murder profile. But FBI agents who visited Juarez found no evidence suggesting there was a serial killer at work. Local authorities all but dismiss the killings as a side effect to the city's mushrooming industrial sector, which brings tides of hungry migrant workers to the area desperate for work and money.
Most victims are slender, dark-haired girls between 14 and 18 years old who work in one of the numerous U.S.-owned "maquiladora" factories. Many are killed on their way to and from work. Their bodies have been found - sometimes with their blue factory-issued aprons on -- dumped in the desert or next to the roads leading to the unlit squatter camps ringing the city. In some cases, the victims are mutilated and horribly disfigured. Objects have been stuffed into their vaginas or anuses, and/or their left breasts have been hacked off. Many are strangled, then stabbed repeatedly. Others were found with their hands tied behind their backs. Some have their panties removed, even if they are still fully dressed. Several men have been arrested in connection with the killings, but the carnage continued unabated.
The "maquiladora" murders first attracted attention in 1993, when a government psychologist, Oscar Maynes, noticed an unexplainable rise in the murder rate of poor, young, slender women with dark skin and long black hair. "The authorities were just indifferent," said Irma Perez Franco, the mother of a 20-year-old shoe store clerk who was murdered in 1995. During the same week in which her daughter was killed, eight other bodies were discovered in a stretch of the surrounding Chihuahua desert. "Juarez is the ideal place to kill a woman, because you're certain to get away with it," said Astrid Gonzalez Davila, a founder of the Citizens Committee Against Violence, a group that works with the relatives of murder victims. "The failure to solve these killings is turning the city into a Mecca for homicidal maniacs." Adding to the homicidal maniacs the local heroin and cocaine distribution networks have made Juarez and its sprawling shantytowns one of the most dangerous places on earth.
While similarities between many of the murders have fueled the theory that one or more serial killers may be at work, local authorities attributed most of the deaths to the growing drug trade and the shifting of traditional values in the region. By and large, Juarez has always been a city ripe with violence, but the growing list of dead girls became too large to be ignored. "We don't believe that we do have a serial killer," said Manuel Esparza, operations coordinator for the state's Special Prosecution Unit of Female Homicides. "There are different (method of operations), different dump sites and different kinds of victims."
Some see the heart of the problem stemming from a macho backlash caused by the growing local female labor force in this sprawling industrial mecca. In the rapidly transforming social hierarchy of Ciudad Juarez women are being victimized for taking the traditional place of men in the work force. Dr. Irma Rodriguez Galarza, a forensic specialist, told The Dallas Morning News that the cluster killings haunting Juarez and its surroundings may be the result of the psychological crisis affecting Mexican men as they are being phased out of the local labor force.
"There exists a rivalry, professionally and economically, between men and women," Dr. Rodriguez said. "Women don't stay at home anymore. They have more liberty now, liberty that puts them at risk. I'm sure that the FBI, as experts, will come to the conclusion that this is not the work of a serial killer but of a social criminological phenomena - a product of a loss of values and influence of drugs and alcohol." Women's rights advocate Esther Chavez Cano, who has spearheaded the effort to resolve the killings, agrees that the violence against women in Ciudad Juarez is partially caused by the growing number of "maquiladora" factories that only hire female workers. "Women are occupying the place of men in a culture of absolute dominance of men over women," said the 65-year-old retired businesswoman. "This has to provoke misogyny."
Plant owners of the 330 "maquiladora" factories say they prefer hiring women because they are "more nimble and orderly." However, the standard $3-a-day minimum wage they pay might be the true reason why 70 percent of their labor force is young, female and uneducated. Many of these young women are drawn from the southern Mexican states to Juarez by the promise of work and a better life. Sadly, their hopes for prosperity are quickly dashed by a grim reality of meager salaries, shantytowns, violence and squalid living conditions. "The women here in Ciudad Juarez are expendable, disposable women," said Judith Gallarza, a women's rights activist. "It's a problem of government indifference, of impunity and of machismo."
Complicating an already complex situation, two federal investigators, Oscar Defassiux Trechuelo and Eduardo Muriel Melero, protested that their investigation was being hampered by state authorities because evidence in some of the killings implicated local police officers. Other reports paint the foreign-owned "maquiladora" factories and the rich who are untouched by the slaughter as the true culprits of this evolving tragedy. "Even the devil is scared of living here," a Juarez fruit vendor told a Harper's reporter who was in town dredging up stories about the unfolding carnage.
The living conditions for most of these women are less than desirable. Most of the 150,000 factory and assembly plant workers live in wood-and-tarpaper shacks in squalid slums surrounding the city. Many of these shantytowns have no running water or electricity. Factory owners, wishing to maximize their profits, keep their plants in operation 24 hours a day, forcing many women to return to their homes late at night on isolated unpaved roads. Some, unfortunately, never make it.
According to Alma Vucovich, president of the Mexican Congress Committee on Sexual Equality, authorities have not shown much interest in solving the cases, "because the victims are women and poor, and many times they have no family in Juarez." A federal human rights commission criticized state authorities for consistently dismissing the murders, even suggesting many of the victims invited their fate by using too much makeup or wearing miniskirts. "Girls of 11 and 12 disappear, and the first thing the police say is that they probably ran off with their boyfriends," said Esther Chavez, "That's ridiculous."
Several mishandling of events have worsened the rift between city's poor and disenfranchised, and the police. For instance, when the body of 17-year-old Sagrario Gonzalez was found 20 miles from Rio Grande, police informed the media before notifying her next of kin. And when they did finally contact her family they suggested Sagrario had been trying to earn extra money turning tricks, even though she was last seen getting on the bus after her shift in a maquiladora factory. Enraged by the apathy of city officials, Sagrario's sister, Geeyamina, started painting black crosses on the municipal lampposts to symbolize the senseless loss of her sister's life. Now, most posts in the Juarez sprawl are covered with the crosses. And many makeshift altars have been made in street corners and in police stations.
The first suspect arrested in the case was Sharif Abdul Latif Sharif, an Egyptian-born chemist living in one of the city's wealthy neighborhoods. Sharif was taken into custody in 1995 after a prostitute accused him of raping her at his home. In custody Sharif allegedly confessed to five killings. Since then he has staunchly maintained his innocence. "I am innocent," claimed Sharif in a prison interview, "they are pinning this all on me because I am a foreigner... I'm just a drunk, I'm not a murderer." In 1996 a judge dismissed six murder charges against Sharif, then prosecutors filed new murder charges and threw him back in jail. On March 3, 1999 Sharif was convicted of the 1994 rape and murder of 18-year-old Elizabeth Castro Garcia and sentenced to 30 years in prison.
A quick look into Sharif's past reveals a man of great scientific genius as well as a rapist and possible serial killer. By the time Sharif arrived to Ciudad Juarez he was no stranger to sexual violence against women. The Egyptian immigrant had several run-ins with the law in the United States before relocating to Mexico. He had two sexual battery convictions in Florida -- in Gainsville and Palm Beach -- resulting in six years in prison. A third rape charge in Brownsville, Texas pushed him across the border. He also had a history of drunken-driving arrest in New Jersey, Florida and Texas and a 1984 jailbreak charge in Florida that somehow went unpunished.
According to all who worked with Sharif, he was a man of scientific genius as well as a hard-drinking, womanizing charmer who was personable and funny. Several U.S. oil companies considered him a genius of the laboratory and sought his services, regardless of the cost. He was a chemist who, according to a colleague, "could make a bomb out of Bisquick." One Midland, Texas, company even hired him from prison, overlooking his obvious psychopathic behavior and helping him fight off deportation. Sharif, in fact, was lucky beyond belief, taking full advantage of his personal magnetism as well as the loyalty of his employers. After two rape convictions he somehow eluded deportation despite a law calling for the banishment of any legal alien who committed two crimes of "moral turpitude."
On May 1981, Sharif punched and raped a 23-year-old neighbor in Palm Beach, then claimed they had consensual sex that had gotten a little rough. With the help of his boss Jim Gambale, the owner of Cercoa Inc., Sharif was able to hire Greg Scott, a highly regarded Palm Beach defense lawyer. Scott was able to plea-bargain the rape charge to five years probation. On August 13, the night before he pleaded guilty to sexual battery, Sharif attacked another woman at her home in West Palm Beach. "I was on the floor between the bed and the bathroom," she wrote in her police statement. "He began telling me to take my clothes off. I asked him please for a towel, and he said no, kicked me once or twice and said he was going to kill me, and hit me again several times." Then he calmed down, asked her to fix him a drink, then even asked her for a date the next night.
"The suspect in this case is Sharif Sharif," an investigator wrote after she reported the attack. "He... has current sexual battery charges pending, using the same motive." Inexplicably the second attack was never reported to the prosecutors handling the first rape case. That same day he was released on parole on the first charge he was arrested and charged with false imprisonment and battery. Then he was quickly released on bail so he could return to work. Eventually, on January 11, 1982, he was found guilty of battery for a second time and sentenced to 45 days in jail.
After getting fired from Cercoa, Sharif relocated with two co-workers to Gainesville where they formed their own firm. In Gainsville Sharif ended a short-lived marriage by beating his wife senseless. A few weeks later he attacked a college student who answered his ad for a live-in housekeeper. "If you try to escape, I will murder you like the rest of them," he allegedly told the terrified 20-year-old. "I will bury you out back in the woods. I've done it before, and I'll do it again." After his arrest for the Gainesville attack several other women called police to report they had been terrorized by him. "All were so frightened that they were afraid to come forward," Gainesville police Captain Sadie Darnell wrote 10 years later to an El Paso federal judge during deportation proceedings against Sharif. "Some indicated they thought he would kill them if he found out."
In light of the murder charges against Sharif in Mexico, U.S. authorities have been looking into several unsolved murders in Florida and New Jersey that might have involved the Egyptian chemist. One case on particular, the 1977 abduction-murder of 30-year-old Sandra Miller in New Jersey, points at Sharif as a viable suspect. Miller was attacked the night of January 3, 1977, when she returned home from her job with Eastern Airlines at the Newark Airport. Her killer apparently was waiting for her when she pulled up to the remote farm where she lived with her 5-year-old daughter. Evidence found outside the farmhouse suggest a fierce struggle ensued between Miller and her assailant.
Miller was eventually overpowered and driven away in a car a few miles across the Delaware River into Pennsylvania where she was either dumped on the side of the road, or jumped from the car in an attempt to escape. She died - of a single stab wound - just as a police officer reached her. After learning of Sharif's incarceration for a series of rape-murders in Juarez, New Jersey State Police Detective Chris Andreychak established that Sharif worked at a chemical plant two miles from Miller's home, and they both frequented the same bar. Considering Sharif was an obsessive womanizer and Miller a pretty brunette, undoubtedly they would have met. Comparing her case to other known attacks committed by the brilliant chemist, one cannot avoid suspecting his involvement in her untimely demise.
With Sharif in jail the killings came to a momentary halt, then continued at a faster pace. Authorities theorize that Sharif hired a gang called "The Rebels" to continue murdering women. In April 1996, police detained nearly 200 men in a raid on several bars in Juarez. Among those arrested was Sergio Armendariz, a nightclub security guard and leader of the Rebels, and six fellow gang members. Police claim Armendariz -- also known as El Diablo -- and his gang were hired by Sharif to ritually kill at least 17 girls. Fortunately El Diablo and The Rebels enjoyed the job torturing the women on a concrete sacrificial slab before murdering them. Several of the victims had bite marks all over their bodies, three of them matching El Diablo's own teeth. Most of the victims had their skulls caved in. Though investigators believe Sharif, Armendariz and the Rebels are responsible for at least 17 murders, their arrests still failed to stop the bloodshed.
On March 1999, a team of FBI specialists joined Mexican authorities in the investigation. The involvement of the FBI came after months of meetings between Chihuahua state officials and bureau officials in El Paso. Though FBI profilers have worked regularly with Canadian authorities, the bureau's involvement in the Juarez killings marked the first time federal agents have been asked to assist with an internal investigation in Mexico. The three profilers sent from the National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime in Quantico, Virginia, visited several of the recent crime scenes and analyzed crime photos and other evidence. After a week of investigation, the team of FBI agents concluded there was no serial killers at work in the area. "The team determined that the majority of cases were single homicides," said a statement issued by the FBI in El Paso. "It is too premature and irresponsible to state that a serial killer is loose in Juarez."
Contradicting his former employers famed serial killer profiler Robert Ressler said there could be up to three different killers in action. Ressler was invited to Juarez in 1998 to look into the cases. Chihuahua Attorney General Arturo Chavez said his office sought Ressler's help because "we have no one with that kind of experience" in Mexico. During his first of three visits to Juarez Ressler found that of then 187 deaths, 76 victims seemed to fit a pattern. Most were women between the ages of 17 to 24, most had been raped and strangled, more than a dozen had disappeared going to or from work at the city's assembly plants.
"I determined that it wasn't one person who was responsible," said Ressler, who heads the Virginia-based Forensic Behavioral Services, a private company that focuses on profiling, investigations and law-enforcement consultation. "It's not one serial killer. I think it's probably two or three." Ressler theorized that an American may be crossing into Juarez and taking advantage of the border's anonymity. He noted that Juarez offers serial killers plenty of dark streets, abandoned buildings and a transient population from which to choose victims: "It's an ideal situation for an American with money. The environment for trouble is there."
Another famed criminologist Candice Skrapec, who is best known for profiling the New York's "Zodiac Killer," spent 10 weeks in the summer of 1999 working with Juarez police. Skrapec, a professor of criminology at California State University at Fresno, said she had identified 67 cases in which she believes serial killers were involved. "Nothing jumped out at me in terms of Satanic rituals or specific torture, as in cutting off someone's fingers or breasts," she told The Toronto Star. Skrapec's findings suggest that there could be up to four different serial killers at work on the streets of Juarez. The Canadian criminologist said there may be even more murders happening before 1993 that could be tied to the suspected serial killer sprees.
Because of his strong family ties to Ciudad Juarez, Skrapec considered Angel Maturino RÈsendez, the feared "Railway Killer," a possible Juarez serial killer. "We are especially concerned because he has lived in two barrios here," said social activist Chavez Cano. In fact, most of his family lives in Juarez including his uncle, Rafael RÈsendez-Ramirez, whose name he used as one of many aliases. On July, 13, 1999 -- urged by his sister and brother -- Maturino RÈsendez crossed the Ysleta Bridge over the Rio Grande into the United States, shook hands with Texas Ranger Andrew Carter, and surrendered, thus a six-week televised manhunt that made him, at the time, the most wanted man in America. Authorities speculate that the suspect feared that bounty hunters, hoping to cash in the $125,000 reward offered for his capture, would gun him down. Instead, family members who brokered the surrender, claimed the reward for themselves.
In custody Maturino RÈsendez was charged with allegedly bludgeoned to death nine people. Most of the attacks occurred in the homes of the victims located near the same railway lines he used to travel from state to state. His murderous rampage spanned from Texas to Kentucky, Illinois His alleged rampage started August 29, 1997, with the slaying of a 21-year-old college student in Kentucky who was attacked while walking with his girlfriend along railroad tracks. The rest of the killings occurred between September 1998 and June 15, 1999. His last two victims were a 79-year-old man and his 51-year-old daughter who were found dead in their home in Gorham, Illinois, near the train tracks. Fearing the Mexican government would block the suspect's extradition if he could be handed the death penalty, Texan authorities waited to charge RÈsendez with any killings until he was in custody in the U.S. If convicted as a serial killer in Texas, Maturino RÈsendez is likely to receive death by lethal injection. Because of his familial links to Juarez and the brutality of his murders, the rail-hopping hobo is being looked at as a suspect in at least some of the Juarez killings. All other characteristics of his alleged murders and his victim profiles make him a highly unlikely suspect in a majority of the unsolved Juarez cases.
The next big break in the Juarez case came March 18, 1999 when a 14-year-old girl was raped strangled and left for dead in a secluded stretch of the desert. The young victim, called Nancy, miraculously regained consciousness and was able to make her way to a nearby ranch to summon help. Now Nancy is talked about with a reverence generally reserved for saints. Young Nancy instantly became a symbol for all those who lost their lives in the surrounding desert, as well as a sign of hope for the surviving women in Juarez. Nancy told police that she had been attacked by the bus driver who had picked her up after leaving her job at a "maquiladora" factory at 1 a.m. Once all the other passengers left the bus she noticed the driver headed in a strange direction. He then told her he was having mechanical problems, stopped, grabbed her by the neck and asked if she had ever had sex. The last thing she remembered before regaining consciousness covered in blood was the driver saying he was going to kill her.
On April 1, 1999, police arrested Jesus Manuel Guardado Marquez,the bus driver who drove Nancy back from work the night she was assaulted. The driver, accused of rape and attempted murder, said he was innocent and blamed the attack on a group of fellow bus drivers. In yet another ghoulish twist to this already ghoulish murderous tale, the drivers hired by the factories to provide safety for the workers, turned out to be their predators. Marquez, 26, known as Dracula, three more drivers and U.S. national who was the ringleader, were arrested and charged seven murders and one rape. "The belief is that together, they assassinated several young women," said Fernando Medina, spokesman for the state of Chihuahua. Chillingly, the bus drivers also claimed to be in the payroll of Sharif Sharif. Finally, with the April arrests, residents of Ciudad Juarez feel their murderous apocalypse might be coming to an end. With the survival of Nancy, authorities believe they may have an answer to one of Mexico's greatest crime mysteries. "We can't say we've resolved all the cases," cautioned Suly Ponce. But, she added, authorities are starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel.
Police confirmed that Dracula admitted having sex with the teen-ager who accused him of rape, but said it had been consensual. Another victim came forward saying she too had been raped by him. Police also blamed Guardado for the murder of Cargrario Gonzalez Lopez, 17, who was found in 1998 in a remote area in northwest Juarez. The driver allegedly also admitted to having sex with Lopez but identified another driver as her killer. Evidence indicates the bus drivers acted together as a gang in their murderous escapades. Prosecutors estimate between 20 and 30 girls may have been killed by the deadly bus cadre. One driver, Jesus Guardado, re-enacted the crimes for prosecutors and police. "He demonstrated how two of them would grab the victim by the neck and strangle her between them, often until the vertebrae cracked," said Juan Carmona, spokesman for the state prosecutor's office. The lethal bus driver added, "That made such a nice cracking sound."
According to prosecutors, the drivers said they had been contracted by Sharif from jail so they would kill two women a month and continue the string of killings he was suspected of orchestrating. Sharif allegedly paid them $1,200 a month in exchange for two pairs of panties representing two murders. Since the bus drivers were allegedly addicted to cocaine and desperate for money, they accepted the offer. "His accomplices say Sharif's idea was to distract attention from himself. With this (plan), he would make authorities and the citizenry think he had nothing to do with the other homicides, since he was in jail," Ponce said. Sharif, of course, proclaimed his innocence. "I've been fighting for my freedom for 3 1/2 years. They accuse me of everything," he said. Authorities are also trying to trace the origin of the money used by Sharif to pay them. It is believed it came from patents the Egyptian chemist owns in the United States on several scientific inventions.
Though charged with seven murders, the five suspects allegedly confessed to committing twenty. Then, in a press conference the suspects claimed their confessions were beaten out of them. "Torture is more likely when there is political pressure to solve a case," said Adriana Carmona of the Fray Francisco de Vitoria Center for Human Rights. Victor Moreno Rivera, the alleged ringleader and only U.S. citizen of the deadly bus ring said police wrapped him in blankets and nearly drowned him with water. "I felt death was near," he said, "so I told them what they wanted." At a news conference the five suspects raised their shirts and revealed bruises, abrasions and circular marks they claimed were caused by cattle prods. The prosecutor for the case, Suly Ponce, denied the suspects had been tortured and gave local reporters a videotape of the interrogation to prove the men confessed freely. A spokesman for the government's National Human Rights Commission and the attorney general's office declined to comment on the alleged police brutality.
Since the five bus drivers were charged with 20 murders, there have been no more killing of young girls that fit the established rape-torture-murder profile of the past. "Since March, there hasn't been a single case... of what we classify as sex murders," said Juan Carmona, spokesman for the state prosecutor's office. Though women are still being killed in Juarez, the victims are now older, their bodies are being found in a wider variety of places like houses, hotels or cars. In some cases the killer or killers try to cover up the evidence by burning the bodies rather than simply leaving them in the desert, suggesting they might have connections to the victim. Instead of the strangling and skull crushing involved in the previous deaths the bodies now found have knife and gun wounds.
Washing the blood off their hands, factory owners claimed the bus drivers were subcontracted to them by a third party, and therefore they could not be held accountable for the killings. However, after six years of carnage local industry leaders demonstrated their "heartfelt concern" for the surviving workers by distributing whistles and pepper spray to their employees. But these measures do not provided much comfort for those who find themselves alone on a bus on one of the region's many isolated desert roadways. With 187 women confirmed dead and 95 more missing, life seems to have lost its value in this city of the dead. Unknown, still, is how many more predators are roaming the Chihuahua desert waiting in the dead of the night for their next innocent victim.
November, 2001 - The decomposing bodies of three women and the skeletal remains of five more were found in a cotton field near the Anapra shanty town in the outskirts of Ciudad Juarez. Less than a week after the discoveries, ex-Chihuahua Attorney General Arturo Gonzalez Rascon fingered two bus drivers -- Victor Javier Garcia Uribe and Gustavo Gonzalez Meza, both 28 -- as the culprits. Police arrested them and they promptly confessed to raping, torturing and killing the women for pleasure.
Two months later, the attorney representing one of the accused bus drivers was shot to death execution-style. The lawyer had claimed that hisd client had been tortured into confessing. Others, including the then Chihuahua state forensic chief Oscar Maynez Grijalva, also brought to question their guilt. Maynez Grijalva himself resigned his post after being presured to fabricate evidence against the drivers. And the head of a local prison was forced from office when he documented signs of torture on the accused men after they had returned from Rascon's office.
Garcia Uribe and Gonzalez Meza are the latest of about 20 suspects arrested and accused of serial murder in Ciudad Juarez. Previously a gang of bus drivers, a group of drug traffickers called Los Rebeldes and an Egyptian chemist have been charged with some of the murders.
February 23, 2001 - Dallas police announced the arrest on unrelated charges of a man who Mexican authorities suspect may be a possible serial killer preying on young women in Ciudad Juarez. The suspect, 24-year-old Jose Juarez Rosales, is believed to be a member of a street gang, Los Rebeldes (the Rebels), who are allegedly responsible for the 1996 kidnappings, rapes and murders of at least seven women.
Juarez, an undocumented immigrant, was arrested at his sister's East Dallas apartment by sheriff's deputies on a bond forfeiture charge from a DWI (Driving Under the Influence) case. In custody, authorities matched his fingerprints to a man named in a 1996 arrest warrant for rape, murder and kidnapping of Rosario Garcia Leal.
Alleandro Medina of the Mexican attorney general's office in San Antonio said Mexican authorities expect to charge Juarez with several more slayings once he is deported back to Chihuahua: "When he arrives in Mexico, he will be a suspect in many crimes." According to Dallas County Sheriff's Department Investigator Don Peritz, Juarez has not been linked to any crimes in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, but police are searching unsolved cases similar those in Mexico. "We're looking at all of our unsolved murders and sexual assaults that were similar to those," Investigator Peritz said. "We're encouraging other agencies to do the same and look at their unsolved murders and sexual assaults."
Juarez's sister, Sara Rosales, said her brother did not kill anyone and was arrested because Mexican authorities are under intense pressure to find those responsible for the Ciudad Juarez killings. Mexican police arrested Juarez in 1996 in connection with the slaying of Rosario Garcia Leal. After spending about a year in jail, he was released by a judge who determined there wasn't enough evidence against him. Authorities appealed the ruling and a different judge issued a new arrest warrant for him, but by then Juarez had fled across the border to live at his sister's house.
Esther Chavez Cano, director of the Casa Amiga rape crisis center in Juarez, acknowledged that although Mexican authorities have arrested three sets of suspects in relation to the killings, the pandemic violence against women in Ciudad Juarez continues unabated. "The deaths continue and the authorities keep telling us the same thing -- that it's Sharif. They have no credibility." she told the El Paso Times.