Mexico shamed by 300 women's deaths in the borderlands

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The Independent US

In the industrial Mexican town of Ciudad Juarez, across the border from Texas, women look at every man as a potential rapist or serial killer.

In the past decade, more than 300 women have been raped, battered and strangled to death here, their bodies dumped on stretches of wasteland alongside abandoned cars and scraps of rubbish.

Most were under 25 and all were poor, which may explain why many of the cases remain unsolved. In virtually any other city, a massive manhunt for the killer or killers would have been launched years ago. But in macho Ciudad Juarez, where the men strut around in Stetsons and cowboy boots and regard women as playthings, the deaths are often explained away with a shrug as the result of domestic violence or score-settling by drug traffickers.

A handful of men have been convicted for the murders but the investigation by state police has been shoddy. The supposed culprits say they confessed under torture and victims' families have doubts whether the right men are behind bars.

This week a group of American law makers representing Hispanic communities visited the city to talk to victims' families and human rights groups and urged the Mexican government to solve the murders and bring closure to the families, many of whom are still not sure the remains they have been given belong to their loved ones. As if in mockery of their efforts, another woman's corpse turned up in a plastic bag on Tuesday. She died from punches to the head, liver and chest.

Local press reported the woman was a drug addict who hung out with disreputable characters.

Paula Flores hopes the law makers' visit and one by a UN team earlier this month will force the authorities to bring her daughter's killer to justice. Like many other Mexicans, Ms Flores and her husband, Jesus Gonzalez, moved to Ciudad Juarez from a poor state, lured by the promise of jobs in one of the many factories called maquiladoras that churn out televisions, cars and textiles for export 24 hours a day. Their daughter Maria Sagrario Gonzalez, one of five children, had hoped to study computing but left school at 16 to join her father and sister working in a factory to put food on the table.

In their house in the Lomas de Poleo district on the edge of town, large photos of Maria, aged 17 with long dark hair and a dreamy smile, stare out from the wall. The couple last saw Maria alive on 16 April 1998, when they kissed her goodbye as she headed to work. When she didn't return, the family went to the police who said they could not by law report Maria as missing for 72 hours. "We looked for her day and night, in the hospitals, in the Red Cross, everywhere," said Ms Flores.

Maria's body was found 14 days later in the desert outside the city. She had been stabbed and strangled. Police never told the family they had found the body. They learnt of their daughter's death from a reporter. "I only saw my daughter in a sealed bag," Ms Flores said. She and her husband believe the authorities have deliberately obstructed investigations and that someone high up in government is involved.

Theories abound as to who is behind what women's groups have dubbed the feminicide - from serial killers, drug cartels and gangs to satanic cults and organ traffickers. Life is cheap in this city of transients, used as a base for drug traffickers smuggling cocaine into the United States and for desperate migrants hoping to slip across the Rio Grande in search of the American Dream.

Mexico's President, Vicente Fox, sent federal investigators earlier this year to help state police. Seven hundred federal police now patrol Ciudad Juarez's streets armed with machineguns, but women say they feel no safer. "It's just the same, there's been no improvement. I'm scared to go out," said Julieta Renteria, a 23-year-old who works at a factory. Julieta lives in fear in Lomas de Poleo, where Maria lived. Several young women from the area have turned up dead, abducted as they walked home from work along unlit dirt roads.

Esther Chavez, who runs the Casa Amiga shelter for battered and sexually abused women, said there were numerous tales of police failing to carry out proper scientific tests, tampering with the crime scene and planting evidence. Mothers had to suffer police insinuations that the victims had invited trouble from the clothes they were wearing or that they had secret lovers. "The treatment given to the mothers shows the lives of their daughters are worth nothing," she said.