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Murders in Ciudad Juarez

(For a more detailed look at the background and social and economic dimensions, please see: Ciudad Juarez)

Since 1993, 250 to 270 women have been found murdered (usually strangled, often raped and sometimes mutilated) dumped on the outskirts of the Mexican city of Ciudad Juarez (in the state of Chihuahua). The number might be higher with many bodies not yet found. Possibly 400 to 450 more women have disappeared in the same time span. Almost all are young (mostly between 12 and 21) and many go missing on the way home from their jobs at factories and assembly plants.

Many suspects have been questioned or arrested, each time the police claiming the killings were over. They were not. Some have blamed it on a serial killer or a number of serial killers as well as others who have turned up during the often apparently halfhearted investigation. Some probably went home or somewhere else rather than returning to the difficult and often demeaning work at the maquiladoras (plants usually owned by foreign companies, mainly the United States). Some may have crossed the border to enter the US.

Others may have been victims of drug gangs, boyfriends or relatives, or "copycat" killers. It is difficult to know for sure. What follows is an attempt to put much of the available information into some sort of chronological fashion, based primarily on newspaper coverage.

(Note: due to differing accounts and the nature of the crimes and victims, there is no exact count and it will vary.)

1995

Violence was not unknown in Ciudad Juarez, being close to the border and full of poor and/or unemployed people—gangs and drug traffickers were/are serious problems. There had been killings and there had been rapes. Sometime around 1993, the nature of these seemed to change. A criminology professor at the Chihuahua State Police Academy began noticing patterns to the killings. The victims were "poor, young, slender women with cinnamon skin and long dark hair" (New York Times, February 1999). A disturbing number had been raped and showed signs of mutilation. He thought it could be the work of a serial killer. Some of the bodies had the victims clothes and shoes laid out near them. Police were unconvinced. Others felt they didn't care.

1995 was an important year because they had captured the person they thought was responsible. An Egyptian "immigrant" named Sharif Abdel Latif Sharif.

Sharif came to the US in 1970. A 1999 Seattle Times dug up an interesting history of the man. By all accounts a very charming and extremely intelligent man, he easily found work in his occupation as a chemist—despite a long history of drunkenness and wrecking automobiles. He was so valuable to the companies he worked, sometimes their legal teams worked to help him out of his little difficulties.

John Pascoe, who was friends with him in the late 1970s and early 1980s, recalled him as personable and likable. Someone who had no trouble finding dates, preferring young or underaged girls who found his charms and older "sophistication" attractive. Sharif's craving for women seemed to be a short term thing, his "relationships" lasting a few days at a time. He was never without companionship.

Years later, Pascoe found himself talking to a woman who had known Sharif—and who informed him that the man had been arrested for murder in Mexico. This brought the usual reflection on time spent together, looking for "signs." He recalled hunting with Sharif and how after having wounded a deer, "Sharif tortured the quivering animal, poking it with the barrel of the rifle, kicking it, waltzing around it in orgasmic glee," how he "lovingly fingered his huge, red-handled hunting knife, the look of madness that sometimes came into his eyes." Not a direct quote and even if the journalist's relish for over the top prose is discounted, a frightening recollection.

Another incident involved Pescoe noticing one of the girls was no longer around. He had been in Sharif's apartment and knew her stuff was still there in a box. He was told she had left and wasn't returning. He asked about the box, thinking "she'll come back to get her stuff," to which Sharif reportedly "flew into a rage" and screamed at him to get out after the dangling threat of "if you ever do that again" (meaning enter his apartment without permission). Pescoe claims he saw a shovel with fresh mud on it near the door as he departed. Again, if true, suspicious.

From 1981 to 1984, Sharif had numerous drunk driving charges and accusations of rape, including an assault charge. In 1981, he was to plead guilty to sexual assault, getting five years probation. The night before, he tricked a women into driving him to his apartment, where he attacked her and ordered her to undress. She claimed he said he was going to kill her, though he "abruptly calmed down" following the beating, replaced her torn and bloody shirt and asked for another date. The next day, following the guilty plea, he was rearrested for false imprisonment and battery. He was found guilty of battery and got 45 days in jail.

Meanwhile, Sharif's marriage ended because, according to the wife, he "beat her senseless." An ad got him a 20 year old live-in housekeeper. In 1983, he brutally beat and raped her, supposedly threatening to kill her and claiming that "he had done it before, and promised to kill again." Then the abrupt calmness and he took her to the hospital in a cab (riding with her). The police were informed that they had had sex but that she had come on to him. Blame the victim.

The incident brought out others with claims but they were afraid to testify, because "they thought he would kill them if he found out," according to a police captain. He called that recent victim from jail and told her that he'd "get her" and that it was "only a matter of time." In 1984, he was given a twelve year sentence but was released in 1989 and found work immediately, impressing his coworkers and bosses with his charm and intellect. In Texas.

Drunk driving problems reoccurred and he swore to quit and began therapy and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. In 1992, he was arrested and was to be deported. He got out of that with legal help from his friends and employers. Despite the statement from the captain of the Gainesville, Florida police department (where he had been convicted in 1984), who wrote to the judge that

In general, Sharif attacks women while on dates or approaches them, gives a fake name and states his car is disabled. Once they are within his span of control, he physically attacks them, beating them severely, usually in the face, and rapes them.... His behavior has demonstrated him to be a predator of women and his repeated irresponsibility of driving while under the influence of alcohol or drugs endangers everyone.... The victims have been irreparably damaged. Please consider them.

The judge decided that while Sharif's employers might be "willing to assume the risk of the respondent's potential for abusive behavior" because he "contributes to their livelihood," "individuals who are not benefited by the respondent's presence may be less willing to assume the risk." A gross understatement. Sharif's high-priced lawyers immediately appealed. The case could drag out for some time—meanwhile he was out on bail.

About a month later, the charm worked again on another woman. He took her to his house and waited while she used the bathroom. When she came out he punched when she refused his advances. He "called her a whore and a bitch, and raped her." As usual, he then calmed, even pouring her some orange juice. The anger returned and he began raping her in the same cycle until the next morning. It was not only physical abuse, but mental as well.

The defense found just enough discrepancies in her testimony (initial versions of the attack had "inconsistencies" and, though married, she had cheated previously). Sharif claimed the sex was consensual. It actually appeared he was going to walk again. And he did. To Mexico.

He was offered a deal in which charges would be dismissed in exchange for him leaving the country. His employers set him up at a lab in Mexico. In Ciudad Juarez. Apparently his idea. In August 1994, the charges related to the attack(s) were dropped. He left the company a few months after moving (they refused to say why or the nature of the separation).

Now a violent and cruel rapist, who had previously threatened to kill his victims (and who very well may have done so on more than one occasion in the past) became Mexico's problem. Bringing things up to 1995.

In October, a local prostitute (19 years old) accused him of taking her (kidnapping) to his home and raping her. Further investigation made police suspect he was guilty of far worse. Within a short time, the body of a raped and murdered girl was found—bitemarks on one breast. Sharif became the suspect in at least six more that were found since a month prior to his arrest. At the time, there were reportedly five other suspects, including an American citizen, though none were arrested (it is unclear if any were subsequently considered suspects). Typically, the police began questioning whether rape had occurred, saying no evidence of it was found during the examination.

1996

March and yet another body was found. This one of a thirteen year old girl who disappeared walking home from her bus stop. She was missing about three weeks and had been raped. Robert Ressler (who will appear throughout the case), one of the men who developed the FBI's profiling program, claimed that "the number of victims attributable to repeat killers is 76" (cannot find the source of the article). At the time, the estimate of those murdered ranged from 129 to 192, making Ressler's figure around 50%, depending on where one puts the range. He also said that it was "probably the work of several serial murderers, at least one from the US."

Sharif remained in prison awaiting the decision of whether he could be tried for murder. As for the rape case, the victim did not appear in court. The victims of the killings matched the physical description of several found the previous year (in 1995, the city had 295 total murders, second only to Mexico City). But the best they were able to do was to find witnesses who had seen Sharif with four of the victims, "but none of them saw him kill the women"—spokesman for the Chihuahua State Judicial Police.

Claiming himself "100% innocent," Sharif claimed to have studied all he could about the murders and to help find the "true killer" (and above paragraph; (Houston Chronicle, 30 March 1996).

April. The count since August 1995 was up to 17. Police raided local bars and rounded up 200 people. Eight were arrested (seven men, one women—no other source lists a woman) as suspects who were allegedly part of a gang that was "kidnapping, raping, and then killing young women encountered at bars." The authorities said that they were known by Sharif, that "there has been contact between them," a charge he denied, calling it "garbage" (Associated Press, 16 April 1996). Within a month the recent string of murders hit 18.

1997

The previous year saw 24 murders. Of the last 25, only 17 had been "solved," (see below). Police stated that "we know many people believe we've not even investigating, but the fact is we have 14 officers assigned to these cases alone, and we've cleared up a number of them and are progressing on others" (Las Vegas Sun, 3 June 1997).

1998

The New York Times (18 April 1998) reported that there have been 70 rape-murders over the previous five years. It notes the gang that had been arrested in 1996 was charged with the murders of 17 women. Since the arrest, the bodies of nine more (who had been raped and murdered) were found. The governor of Chihuahua claimed that "it's been very well handled."

Not long after (8 May) CNN reported that authorities admitted the "confessions" of the gang only included rapes and beatings (in four cases there were no murders). According to Sergio Armendariz, the leader of the gang (Los Rebeldes), any murders confessed to only happened after being beaten by police (this charge will occur again). He also claimed Sharif had been paying them to commit murders from prison.

Ressler went to Ciudad Juarez and spent time investigating. He claimed to have found the Mexican police doing a job "better than many US police departments would have done." He was later quoted (Fort Worth Star-Telegram, 16 March 1999) that the police were not "just these guys in big hats, taking siestas," that they had a "pretty good operation and pretty good people in top spots. What the women's groups are saying is that these macho guys didn't give a damn about the victims. I disagree with that."

A great many disagree with his assessment of the job. Reports of missed evidence and reporters and onlookers trampling the scene, leaving cigarette butts and empty soda cans are common. In the words Suly Ponce, who became the special prosecutor for the crimes (the fifth in nine months) in late 1998: "We didn't know what we were looking for. We lost all the evidence. Everything. Absolutely everything" (Washington Post, 25 June 2000). Perhaps there was a "show" put on for the famous former FBI agent. Or perhaps inexperience and inability (or reluctance) to give the manpower and effort to work the case. Women continued to die and Ressler got to go home.

He offered a theory that it was "two serial killers and a gang of killers," "but not as a joint effort." If one eliminates Sharif and the gang, it left a single serial killer. Ressler optimistically predicted the person would be caught within six months, "actually, I think, sooner than that."

He felt the person was living in the US (El Paso) and coming over the border to do the murders, "[taking] advantage of these less sophisticated women." He also noted that 26 of the murders might never be solved because decomposition was too far along to identify them. And: "there may be some copycat work going on" (and above paragraph; San Antonio Express-News, 5 July 1998). There had been at least one instance in which a man killed his niece and tried to pass it off as one of the other killings.

1999

Ressler still felt there was a strong possibility of a serial killer who was crossing the border. In March, the FBI sent agents to aid the investigation. They were hoping to come up with a profile to help narrow the focus for the 30 or so victims that all demonstrated what appeared to be a "signature": "young, dark hair, slender women whose bodies often show signs of mutilation and rape" (Dallas Morning News, 5 February 1999). Another trait was they had no panties. Even if they had the rest of their clothes, those were missing.

The plan was to analyze all aspects of the crimes that they could, time of disappearance, age of the victims, their social status. (That some of these things were fairly well known, and given the fact that they were primarily young Latina maquiladora workers, the youth, weight, and hair color should have been little surprise.)

Making determination of anything more difficult was a widespread reluctance to come forward, given a general mistrust of the police and fear of gang reprisal. Less than a year prior to the article, three girls (13, 15, 18) asked some officers in a patrol car for directions. They were offered a ride, then held four days at the police stables where at least two were repeatedly raped. Numerous arrests were made and the unit shut down. Those not directly involved were put under house arrest. The article (AP, 30 July 1998) does not give the location of the events.

Before the FBI arrived, at least one more victim was found. A 14 year old (most sources say 13) was "found in a vacant lot strewn with garbage and weeds behind a middle school, was apparently raped and suffocated with a plastic bag on Tuesday morning during daylight hours" (Reuters, 17 February 1999). A later article (Fort Worth Star-Telegram, 16 March 1999) notes she had her "pants pulled to her knees."

She had worked at one of the factories (minimum age is supposed to be 16) and been suspended for "talking" on 10 February. On 16 February, she quit the job (family members say she was fired) and went to take the bus home. She left around nine in the morning and was found six hours later. She was the sixth rape-murder that year. And only mid February.

In early March another girl was found, this one "burned beyond recognition and protruding from a brick kiln next to the highway leading out of the city." An interview with Esther Chavez Cano (activist and founder of the Casa Amiga rape crisis center) reveals her list of 145 women who had been killed since 1993 (all killings). Thirty involved women who were raped and either strangled or stabbed. Fifteen were mutilated or burned. Twenty have yet to be identified.

The journalist was taken to a place outside of town that had been used as a "dumping ground"; vacant, full of trash, and looking like a "landfill." Eleven bodies, including the "charred bones of three women" that were "found in one day," had been found there. He was told by guide Vicky Caraveo ("a lawyer and housewife who heads an advocacy group called Women for Juarez")

I think we've got more bodies hidden in the desert. They rape them, they kill them, and they throw them away, like this bucket, like this paper.

We try to imagine the horror. They can scream at the top of their lungs, and no one—no one—is going to hear them.
(source given as "Austin," 7 March 1999)

The up-to-date figure, according to an Amarillo Globe-News article (11 March 1999) is "at least 54 sex murders" and "at least a dozen [who] worked in the booming assembly plants known as maquiladoras." Twenty-three were still unsolved. The figures came from the state prosecutor. Others give higher estimates. A 16 March Fort Worth Star-Telegram article has the "Mexican authorities" giving a total number of deaths since 1993 as 174. The Seattle Times reported the same day that the total number of unsolved murders, estimated by "Mexican authorities," was 80 (victims' groups put it at around 150).

The team of FBI investigators, after reviewing the evidence, decided "the majority of the cases were single homicides," and that "it would be irresponsible to state that a serial killer is loose in Juarez" (Nando Media, 12 March 1999). While they disputed Ressler's evaluation, he continued to maintain it was correct, in fact, finding it not as unusual as it appeared, calling it the "law of averages," that not meaning to "minimize the tragedy, but for a city of its size, it's really not that unusual. Look at Chicago with (John Wayne) Gacy or the Zodiac Killer in San Francisco or the Green River Killer in Seattle. These things happen all over the place" (Seattle Times, 16 March 1999).

Despite Ressler's claims of how hard and concerned the authorities were about the case(s), victims continued to be blamed. The attorney general stated before reporters that "because of life conditions, the places where they go about their life, they are at risk" (for instance, work and the areas they are forced to live, often referred to as "slums") and that "it would be very difficult for someone to go out in the street when it's raining...it's very hard not to get wet."

Esther Chavez Cano's reaction was unsurprisingly outrage: "He's not an attorney general. He talks like an old priest. He has to respect women. He's stupid, and I'm going to tell him" (and above paragraph; Fort Worth Star-Telegram, 18 March 1999). The same day the article came out, women's rights advocates, activists, and other protesters gathered and surrounded the Interior Ministry building in Mexico City demanding something be done.

Also in March, Sharif was sentenced to 30 years for the rape-murder conviction.

In New Mexico, a couple were arrested for kidnapping, rape, and torturing two women in their trailer. It was thought they had killed, mutilated and dumped at least four people, probably others. Interestingly, one of the many cities they were linked to was Ciudad Juarez.

Another "break" came in April. Jesus Manuel Guardado Marquez, a bus driver, confessed to raping and almost killing a 14 year old girl. She had been choked and left for dead. The previously convicted rapist also confessed to killing four others and named eight other bus drivers who had killed women. They all worked as drivers who transported the women and girls to and from the maquiladoras. Another demonstration of the hard work and concern of the police in the matter comes when one sees how he was caught: Marquez was arrested for beating his wife—in the course of that case, he was identified by the girl.

As for the danger of the buses, Ressler pointed out that the girls should have friends and family waiting to meet them when they get to their stop. He observed them getting off the buses and walking off alone. It is too easy to blame only the drivers (however culpable they are). Even given what seems to be lack of attention, foot dragging, and lack of concern (Ressler's comments notwithstanding), it seems difficult to accept that nine men (five were arrested, four of them drivers) had been managing the reign of terror for over six years. In another twist, the driver claimed they had been paid by Sharif to continue the killings.

They also claimed to have been beaten by police. At a press conference on the subject, the men lifted their shirts revealing "bruises, abrasions and circular marks the men claimed were from cattle prods." One suspect, a US citizen, claimed that the police "wrapped him in blankets and poured water on him, nearly smothering him" (Seattle Times, 9 April 1999). The police denied the accusations, producing a videotape of the confessions to "prove" it.

It isn't entirely clear which side is telling the truth but these are not new allegations relating to police methods in Mexico. As noted in the Seattle Times article, these police ("underpaid, underequipped and ill-trained") "are under pressure from Mexico's legal systems to work fast and seek quick confessions because the law requires that all evidence in a trial be presented within five days of the arrest."

From Human Rights Watch's 1999 Human Rights Development report on Mexico:

Human Rights Watch continued...to document cases of human rights violations committed in the context of criminal prosecutions. ...a two-year Human Rights Watch study found that despite numerous legal and institutional reforms...human rights violations—including arbitrary arrest, torture, and even "disappearance"—continued to take place as part of the judicial process in Mexico. ...not only from official toleration of abuse but also from the justice system's ineffective protection of individual guarantees and its lax approach to human rights violations. Prosecutors routinely used evidence obtained through human rights violations, and judges availed themselves of permissive laws and legal precedent to condemn victims while ignoring abuses.
(www.hrw.org)

And from Amnesty International's Annual Review 2001:

Arbitrary detention, torture and ill-treatment is commonly used by federal, state and municipal police forces and military personnel carrying out policing operations in Mexico. Legislation preventing and punishing such abuses is inadequate and seldom invoked. The courts routinely fail to challenge prosecution evidence reportedly extracted under torture, or to investigate those allegedly responsible.
(www.amnesty.org)

Regardless, the men were only charged with the deaths of seven women and the authorities cautioned that more may be out there. They were right.

The drivers claimed Sharif requested they rape and kill two women a month, reportedly offering $1,200 a month for it. As evidence, they were to provide newspaper articles of the crimes and two pair of the victims' underwear (if Sharif is what he appears to be, the undergarments would function as more than mere "evidence"). It is also thought to be a way to get himself out of the rape-murder conviction for which he was serving 30 years. On the other hand, even with his reputed intellect and cash resources from patents, it seems quite an orchestration in either case (the gang and the drivers), let alone both. As yet, it hasn't been proven that he masterminded from behind bars. No evidence of payments or cellular phone use as yet has been offered.

In October, an interview with the Ciudad Juarez forensic dentist (whose job is to identify the bodies) revealed the evolution of the murders. The victims were becoming older, the dump sites becoming more varied, and the killers becoming more concerned with covering up the crime (burning the bodies, for instance). Earlier methods such as "strangling and skull crushing," (AP, 10 October) were seen less often, in favor of guns and stabbings. The article notes that there hadn't been a "sex murder" since March, just before the bus drivers were arrested.

While the factories claimed that there are now guards on the buses, there is little or no security outside the factories when the women come and go (so unless on a bus, no protection). Women still get turned away for slight tardiness and leave at night.

A December article gives a more explicit description of the "sex murders":

Scores were abducted while going home from work and taken to the badlands outside the city, where they were raped and strangled with belts, ropes and shoelaces.

Some had their breasts slashed. A few were found tortured with sticks or poles. Several corpses were mutilated with acid or burning tires, and left to hungry coyotes.
(Toronto Globe and Mail, 13 December 1999—date may be wrong)

Also of note: the notorious "Railway Killer," who some suspected of crossing the border to kill in Ciudad Juarez, surrendered to US border authorities. He was never linked to any of the killings.

2000

The killings didn't end for long. During the first five months of 2000, there were thirteen deaths, four that fit the "pattern: killed and dumped in the desert or abandoned lots" (Washington Post, 26 June 2000). On 2 April the nude body of a 17 year old maquiladora worker was found in the hills near the city. That same month, Sharif's conviction was overturned (he remains in custody during the appeals process).

2001

In November, eight more bodies were discovered. Again, bus drivers were suspects. Two were arrested and confessed (with the police videotapes for "proof" of uncoerced confession). At a news conference, the men lifted their shirts to reveal what appeared to be burns on their stomachs and legs. One claimed he was "even burned on his genitals and the lives of his family were threatened if he were to tell about the torture" (itec.gc.peachnut.edu). Later the prison doctor released documents that do suggest torture, possibly with cattle prods. He resigned two days later.

As of this writing, no substantive evidence has been produced against them for the deaths of the several women they are charged with killing.

2002

In February, an attorney for the two bus drivers was chased by police and "accidentally" shot and killed, mistaken for a fugitive. He had announced a few days prior that he was going to file charges concerning the alleged torture. The same month, volunteers and family members made their own "sweep" of a field where the November 2001 bodies had been found. They were upset at the job the police had done, after some boys found what appeared to be the clothing of a victim in a plastic bag.

In what Ressler, would no doubt call a "pretty good operation," they found "ripped or cut women's underwear, at least four pairs of shoes, a dress, human hair, and a newspaper article that had photos and descriptions of missing women from Cd. Juarez." Police (who were watching) called in the state people to examine the evidence. Who then reprimanded the volunteers for "contaminating the evidence by touching it with their bare hands" (www.nmsu.edu, story dated 24 February). Evidence the police had neglected to find.

In March, at least three women escaped sexual attacks (not necessarily related). Later in the month, a man who had once lived in Ciudad Juarez was arrested in his new location (the state of Durango) for the murder of a woman. Chihuahua police went to investigate (that was the latest report seen). Another man was charged for stabbing his wife to death outside Casa Amiga (she was a receptionist) in December.

In May, another body was found. A thirteen year old girl who had been strangled. There was no evidence of rape. As of that report, the police where looking to question her boyfriend, suspected of fleeing to El Paso.

As of this writing, there are no answers for the families of the dead or missing. They continue to wait.

Sources:
Mother Jones, June 2002
eclipse.barnard.columbia.edu/~vhm2/juarez.html
itec.gc.peachnut.edu/c1/cg
The majority of the newspaper articles were taken from a site that had collected them. Shortly after printing them out for research, the site moved or was discontinued. I include papers and dates whenever possible Several of the articles are still available at www.escapinghades.com/juarex-articles.html
News after 2001 was found at www.nmsu.edu/~frontera
www.amnesty.org, www.hrw.org

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