As death toll reaches 274, Mexican women fear macho murder is becoming a way of life

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It is remarkably easy to disappear in Ciudad Juárez. At least 274 women from the grimy industrial city separated from Texas by the Rio Grande have been violently killed over the past nine years.

Their bones have been found bleached in the desert scrub, or their mutilated bodies tossed into sewage ditches to decompose. The body of the latest victim, a female factory worker, was found on a desolate hill just two weeks ago.

But as the number of victims continues to climb, anger is growing at the failure of the country's leaders to order a serious investigation into a crimewave some campaigners blame on a macho culture that makes it acceptable to hate and murder women.

As well as a serial killer, whose victims were all physically alike, women's groups believe there are other predators in Juárez. Many of the women are young factory workers picked off from among the hundreds of thousands who make their way home to shanty towns from late shifts at the assembly plants of foreign companies, called maquiladoras.

Police recently called one Mexican housewife in to watch a videotape they had seized during a raid. Did she recognise the victim shown in the grainy footage? The woman was devastated to watch the teenager being sexually tortured and executed in a "snuff film"; it was her missing daughter. Local newspapers reported that copies could be bought on the black market for $5000 (£3,500).

But even this disturbing case has failed to shock officials in a city of 1.3 million people, rife with rival drug gangs and revenge slayings.

The funeral of another victim, Lourdes Ivette Lucero Campos, was the unlikely scene for an outpouring of political protest. As relatives grieved for the doctor whose body had been found in a ditch, the priest lambasted Mexican leaders: "When are they going to do something? We care only if they do something to halt this. We can barely hold back our anger and fury."

A dozen advocacy groups have raised complaints about the incompetence or collusion of local police. Investigators seem to prefer extracting confessions through torture than gathering forensic evidence which might solve crimes.

In Juárez the young women are so plentiful, so anonymous, and so transient, that it took years for any pattern of disappearances to be noticed. After all, Mexicans frequently vanish without a word across the Rio Grande to seek their fortune in the US. The slain bodies add up year after year, even though they don't seem to count for much. Nearly 80 of the victims, each one slim, with coppery skin and long black hair, bear a striking resemblance to each other. These lookalikes, aged from 13 to 30, were all raped, strangled, then ritually mutilated, all presumably by the same killer.

An Egyptian chemical engineer, Abel Latif Sharif, confessed to committing five early murders of women and was convicted of one case in 1999. Several bus drivers, believed to be hired by this Egyptian, were locked up for harming the factory girls they transport to Juárez shantytowns. But it turns out police tortured most of them into confessing, and there has been no let-up in the gruesome killing spree. Nine more bodies were found at the end of last year.

Claudia Gonzalez's parents searched the badlands near the city limits for weeks, but found no trace of her. A passerby chanced across Claudia's body, alongside half-a-dozen other corpses, dumped bruised and half-clad in a vacant lot last November. It was a casual mass grave, opposite the headquarters of the maquiladora industry trade association which hired so many of the victims.

Esther Chavez, who founded the women's rape counselling centre, Casa Amiga, suggests this was a deliberate message: the killer was taunting women who demanded action. Death threats have not deterred them, and so the bodies are flaunted in their midst.

Big billboards, displaying a sample photograph of a slender brunette, the serial killer's favoured prey, are now erected around Juárez and warn that a killer is on the loose. Yet the unschooled village girls, desperate to work at the plants for a dollar an hour, keep arriving.

On lamp posts in the city centre, more than 800 black crosses are painted on vivid pink backgrounds in memory of the young Juárez martyrs. Gullermina González, whose 17-year-old sister, Sagrario, was murdered in 1998, daubs more crosses each day, and sees them as a warning as well as a memorial.

"I believe that the simple fact of being a woman here is a grave danger," she said somberly. "But we have to work." Ms Gonzalez runs Voices Without Echo, a self-help group for bereaved families.

Chihuahua state's former governor, Francisco Barrio, who now serves as President Vicente Fox's anti-corruption czar, shrugs off the number of women slain in Ciudad Juárez. The murder rate is not abnormal for a city of its size, he said.

Margarita Torres, a shiftworker, said: "We get no information about how to act against these crimes. The police only recommend that if you are attacked sexually, you should make yourself vomit, so that the aggressor is likely to feel disgusted and run away."

Drawing attention to the kilIings continues to be considered bad form by some of the city's élite. Adverse publicity risks further damaging the reputation of Ciudad Juárez and could scare away investors.

After Amnesty International entered the campaign, there was concern that Mexico might appear callous. A year after taking office, President Fox finally appointed some new federal investigators, who plan to ask FBI officials in Texas for cross-border co-operation. An FBI profiler, Robert K Ressler, who once worked as a Hollywood consultant for the film, The Silence of the Lambs, has described Juárez as a "serial killer's amusement park". Roving perverts can cross the border without a passport and kill for kicks, selecting their prey amongst thousands of unescorted women with little chance of being caught.

Esther Chavez derides this as "something out of the movies" She's convinced that this crimewave is is a murderous macho backlash. "All the city survives on women's work, because 70 per cent of the active population is female" she says. "The maquiladoras have transformed the life and traditional role of women in Mexican society. From stay-at-home wives, they've gone on to become workers; from the guardianship of their father, brother or husband they now answer only to the supervisor."

It rankles the machos to see young girls earning their own money, and treating themselves to trendy clothes. On weekends, they sample the nightlife and flirt with gringo tourists. Away from the rigid scrutiny of their families, they have new-found freedom.

Ms Chavez says that with the influx of young women, middle-aged men have become almost unemployable in Juárez. The factories prefer girls who work for less money and don't demand benefits such as health care or union membership. The 300 companies that manufacture car parts or electrical goods often treat their hirelings as expendable. So, it appears, does Mexican society.