February 28, 2003

Ten Years of Border Femicide: Computers, Shoes, Physical Appearance and Drugs Common Threads as Juárez-Style Women’s Killing Reach Tamaulipas State

Residents of the Paso del Norte region were greeted with more grim news in mid-February after the bodies of three—and possibly four—young women were discovered on the desert outskirts of Ciudad Juárez. Recovered from an area where up to three other murder victims were found last fall, and not far from the Lomas de Poleo site where numerous victims of sex-related serial killings were found in 1996, the latest victims bore the all-too-familiar marks of the serial killers that have haunted this border for ten years.

According to Mauro Conde, the Chihuahua State Attorney General’s Office spokesperson in Cd. Juárez, the latest victims were initially identified as Esmeralda Juárez Alarcón, 17; Violeta Mabel Alvídrez, 18; and Juana Sandoval Reyna, 17. Residents of the zone where the three young women were found said that access to the clandestine cemetery was difficult and was regularly traveled only by trucks belonging to a sand-and-gravel pit operation and police vehicles.

The disappearances of Esmeralda Juárez and Violeta Alvídrez instantly became high-profile cases when they were reported in January and February of this year, respectively. On the other hand, little—if anything—was heard about Juana Sandoval until she was reported found murdered along with Juárez and Alvídrez.

As it turned out, Sandoval was purportedly missing since September 23 of last year, according to Conde. Last September 23 was the same day Cd. Juárez was jolted by the discovery of two other suspected serial murder victims, as well as the same day Chihuahua Governor Patricio Martínez and State Attorney General Jesús José Solis Silva were in town for a meeting with women’s groups about the Cd. Juárez violence. The bodies of Sandoval, Juárez and Alvídrez were all found one day before Solis was scheduled to meet with Mexican legislators about women’s crimes and during the same week Governor Martínez was scheduled to travel to Chicago on a business trip with New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson.

Even while news broke about fresh serial killings in Cd. Juárez, evidence emerged that similar murders are spreading to other parts of Mexico. Besides Chihuahua City, recent murders in Tamaulipas state had eerie similarities to, and coincidences with, many of the Cd. Juárez cases. Standing out is the killing of 16-year-old Olga Lidia Osorio in Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas.

Although she lived hundreds of miles from Esmeralda Juárez, Olga Lidia Osorio had some important things in common with the Cd. Juárez teenager. Long-haired and pretty, both studied computer careers at privately-run schools. Almost to the very hour on the evening of January 7, 2003, both young women inexplicably disappeared, Olga Lidia in her home city of Nuevo Laredo, and Esmeralda in Ciudad Juarez. Early on the morning of January 8, Olga Lidia was found beaten, raped and strangled to death near the corners of Venezuela and Aldama streets, a heavily-traveled intersection located in a mixed commercial-residential district of Nuevo Laredo. Reportedly, Olga Lidia was last seen after leaving a cyber-cafe across town from her computer school.

Local press reports counted Olga Lidia as the 33rd woman murdered in Nuevo Laredo since 1997. At least seven of the cases, including Olga Lidia’s, exhibited similarities to sex slayings in Cd. Juárez since 1993. As in Cd. Juárez, all the victims were low-income workers or students, and their bodies had been variously set on fire, dumped in empty lots or behind PEMEX facilities or tossed onto public streets after being sexually assaulted. In 2001, the body of a Nuevo Laredo victim, Susana Díaz, who also had been abducted and raped, was left lying for several hours in daylight on Colosio Boulevard, a busy street frequented by police patrols, before being recovered by authorities. In both Cd. Juárez and Nuevo Laredo, sex-industry workers were victims in different cases.

In one Nuevo Laredo murder, a ritualistic motive was reported. Last August, police arrested a so-called Veracruz “brujo,” Enrique Sánchez Rodríguez, for stabbing to death 19-year-old Patricia Elizabeth Sánchez after having sex with her, ostensibly as part of a ritual to free a federal drug suspect held in jail.

Most recently, in early February, the body of Marilu Cedillo Zapata was found by her father buried underneath her home, making Cedillo the 34th reported victim in Nuevo Laredo in recent years. The prime suspect in the slaying is Cedillo’s husband, a former Mexican soldier.

Last fall, Tamaulipas state was the scene of yet another macabre crime when the body of 19-year-old Erika Daysi Martínez was discovered on a beach near her home town of Matamoros. A student at the Technological Institute of Matamoros and the host of local children’s television show, Martínez had been beaten and raped before being killed.

Besides the women’s murders, Cd. Juárez, Matamoros and Nuevo Laredo share other important characteristics, including intense drug cartel activity punctuated by narco-related executions and kidnappings in broad daylight committed by death squads working for the lords of the lucrative trade. An especially brutal group of hit-men on the payroll of the Gulf Cartel in Tamaulipas, “Las Zetas,” roams the state with impunity.

Like Cd. Juárez, the bodies of some of the Nuevo Laredo rape-murder victims were found on or near the same streets and roads where drug-related shootings have occurred or where suspected murder victims of organized criminal bands have been found.

Computer School Connections Link Cases

A two-year resident of Nuevo Laredo who worked in a stationary shop, Olga Lidia Osorio was studying computer technology at the Nuevo Laredo branch of Grupo Premier, a privately-owned national chain with schools in several Mexican cities. Esmeralda Juarez also studied computer programs, in her instance at a Cd. Juárez branch of Grupo Pionero, commonly known as ECCO, another private national chain with a widespread presence in the Mexican Republic. Esmeralda was the seventh young woman from Cd. Juárez who had some kind of contact with ECCO to disappear or end up sexually assaulted and murdered during the last three years.

Francisco Moreno Villafuerte, director of the Cd. Juárez ECCO branch where Esmeralda Juárez attended, says ECCO is concerned about reports tying the school to murdered and disappeared women.

Moreno insists that ECCO is a serious institution that provides a safe environment for its students, and to the best of his knowledge, no school personnel are under suspicion.

Chihuahua State Attorney General spokesman Conde declined to comment on whether ECCO is being actively investigated in Esmeralda Juárez’s case.

However, ECCO’s name surfaces in cases outside Cd. Juárez. In March of 2002, 17-year-old Paloma Angelica Escobar, who studied at the school in Chihuahua City, disappeared. She was later found raped and murdered on the Chihuahua-Aldama Highway, about 400 yards from Chihuahua State Police offices.

According to Paloma’s mother, Norma Ledesma, at least three other missing young women from Chihuahua City had ties with ECCO. Ledesma charges that an ECCO promoter from Chiapas state named Francisco Ramirez was the last person spotted with her daughter before she disappeared. She says that Ramirez, after being initially questioned by authorities, has not appeared for a further round of questioning with Paloma’s family.

Strangely, both Paloma Escobar’s body and Olga Lidia Osorio’s body were found on thoroughfares bearing the name of Aldama, though in cities hundreds of miles apart. Like Esmeralda Juárez’s case, in which an official with the Chihuahua State Attorney General’s office was quoted as saying that witnesses had seen Juárez alive after her disappearance, Ledesma contends that Chihuahua state police agents once told her, in the presence of Francisco Ramirez, that they had just received a report that Paloma was alive.

Bearing different names, the ECCO and Grupo Premier chains are nevertheless alike in many ways. Both target young working-class women and men for enrollment, and locate their schools in busy downtown areas of Mexican cities where bus lines whisk passengers to and from working-class districts. The computer schools have a large student turn-over, feature flexible enrollment and charge fees on a weekly basis. In both instances, company philosophy is based on almost identical tenants. Even their names are similar: in Spanish, “Pionero” and “Premier” imply first or best.

Grupo Pionero’s and Grupo Premier’s schools are almost always situated very close to shoe stores like Tres Hermanos which attract a steady clientele of young women. Many of the shoe retailers constantly advertise for new, young female workers. Since 1995, at least 7 women who have worked at or visited Tres Hermanos outlets and another shoe store, Zapaterias Paris, have been disappeared or been murdered in Ciudad Juarez and Chihuahua City. In Ciudad Juarez, an ECCO branch is situated within one block of two stores belonging to the Manualidades de Estrella chain, where two other apparent victims worked: Gloria Rivas Martínez, who disappeared last year and was later supposedly found murdered close to the place where Esmeralda Juárez’s body was recovered, and Maria Isabel Mejía Sapien, who is still officially listed as missing.

It is also very worth noting that near the two ECCO branches in downtown Cd. Juárez is a private school, Prepatoria Ignacio Allende, where both Laura Berenice Ramos and recent murder victim Violeta Mabel Alvídrez attended. Ramos was originally identified by Chihuahua State Police as one of the 8 serial killer victims found in a field in November 2001 across the street from the offices of the maquiladora trade industry association in Cd. Juárez, but subsequent DNA tests failed to establish a physical link between the body identified as Ramos’ and her relatives.

Perhaps significantly, Juana Sandoval was reported last seen September 23 just down the street from one of the Cd. Juárez ECCO school branches.

A computer school-shoe store tie in the backgrounds of suspected serial killer victims stretches back almost 8 years. Seventeen year-old Elizabeth Castro, who was mentioned as one of the victims of the infamous 1995 case in Ciudad Juarez , attended an ITEC computer school in downtown Cd. Juárez not far from the present-day ECCO schools. Shortly before her disappearance, she was reported to have shopped at a Tres Hermanos store where Silvia Elena Rivera Morales, another Lote Bravo victim, worked.

Egyptian national Abdel Latid Sharif Sharif was later convicted of Castro’s murder, but maintains his innocence. He remains locked-down in the same Chihuahua City prison where a suspect in the November 2001 cotton field case, Gustavo González, was unexpectedly found dead on February 8 after undergoing a hernia operation. Prior to his death, González’s lawyer and family members had asked Amnesty International to declare the suspect a prisoner of conscience. González and his wife had earlier complained about being threatened to shut up about the murders.

Reprinted from Frontera NorteSur On-line news coverage of the US-Mexico border.

“Señorita Extraviada” Opens February 28 at Landmark’s Ken Cinema in San Diego

A special one-week exclusive engagement of the chilling new documentary Señorita Extraviada from award-winning director Lourdes Portillo at Landmark’s Ken Cinema opening Friday, February 28.

Winner of a Special Jury Prize at the 2002 Sundance Film Festival, Señorita Extraviada tells the story of the over 200 women from Juárez, Mexico who were inexplicably kidnapped, raped and murdered. The deaths first came to light in 1993 yet to this day young women continue to “disappear” without any hope of bringing the perpetrators to justice. As recently as this week the bodies of three more young women were discovered buried amid garbage and concrete in the Cerro del Cristo Negro*. Portillo’s film investigates this ongoing, unsolved mystery through the horror, fear and courage of the families whose children have been taken and discovers a gripping tale about the underbelly of our global economy.

Señorita EXTRAVIADA (78 min) a film by Lourdes Portillo in English and Spanish with English subtitles will have an exclusive one-week engagement at Landmark’s Ken Cinema located on 4061 Adams Avenue (at the 15 freeway) in Kensington. For Showtime information please call (619) 283-5909 or visit our website at www.LandmarkTheatres.com

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