June 6, 2003

A Grieving Mother Who Will Not Stop Combing The Sand

By Mary Jo McConahay

CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mexico—On the far west side of town, where the last scrappy houses meet open desert, Paula Flores Bonilla looks beyond a row of pink crosses into the scrub she has just searched for perhaps the hundredth time. “In the rainy season there are snakes out there,” she says. But these are rainless days, so looking for the remains of young women means fighting only sun, blowing sand and the fear of actually finding what you are looking for.

Of some 270 documented murders of young women here in nine years, more than a third show evidence of having been committed by serial killers, investigators say. Though suspects are jailed, advocates for the disappeared say these men are scapegoats and that local police are ineffective or on the take. The Mexican Attorney General’s office announced in May it would join the investigation because a federal crime — human organ marketing — might be in play.

Paula Flores and her neighbors shake their heads and sigh. They don’t trust outsiders or the police from Juarez or Mexico City. They come together early on holiday mornings to comb the sand with sticks. They call themselves Los Zorros de Desierto, the Desert Foxes.

“The authorities throw the ball back and forth and no one does the work —no one but us, the community,” said Flores, 45, looking freshly burned by the morning’s sun.

Flores’ 17-year-old daughter Maria Sagrario, the fourth of six daughters, was found by others two weeks after she disappeared in April 1998. Nevertheless, Flores searches on, a woman quietly obsessed. Looking for the vanished, she says, helps to bear her loss. Most of the young women, typically slim with long dark hair, were employed at U.S.- or other foreign-owned assembly plants in Juarez, and lived in dirt-poor neighborhoods like this one, called Anapra. Newcomers from the countryside arrive to cobble houses together with old tires, car hoods and packing crates, and seek work in the factories, called maquilas. There is no permanent police presence.

On some days, other mothers of the disappeared join the Desert Foxes to fan out across the sand. The band has found no bodies yet, but it is the search itself, they say, that gives some days meaning. “I personally don’t know what would be better — to find them or not,” says Flores. “Because if there are girls thrown out there and we don’t find them, we feel sorry. But when we finish a search and we find nothing we say, ‘Well good, there are no new crimes.’”

Flores’ husband Jesus Gonzalez, 52, and a neighbor with an eagle emblem on his baseball cap, look tired. The pink crosses, they say, like the ones planted here naming their daughter and other found girls, and planted or painted elsewhere all over Juarez, give comfort.

Suddenly a call comes over the citizens’ band radio in Jesus Gonzalez’ truck. Three men are harassing customers at a corner store, demanding drugs. Gonzalez and others recently formed an unarmed community police patrol to capture offenders until officers from Juarez arrive. Quickly the neighbor —called “Aguila” for his eagle hat— jumps into his car. Gonzalez deputizes a tall and muscular visiting driver on the spot and speeds off. When they return to the house where the women wait nervously, the men report catching the bullies. The offenders promised they would be gone by sunrise, Gonzalez says, and points to the chain-link fence that runs through Anapra, marking the border with the United States.

Whether seeking disappeared daughters or policing their own, residents here appear to rely most on themselves. “I started working for the community because of Sagrario’s death, because she would not want me to be here with folded arms,” says Flores. She has joined to pressure authorities to bring electricity and water to the sprawling, unplanned streets, which carry unpretentious names like “Carrot,” “Tomato,” and “Shrimp.” Flores and surviving daughters, who quit their factory jobs, are trying to organize construction of a kindergarten for the neighborhood. It would be named for Sagrario, they say, who taught catechism and played guitar for 5- and 6-year-olds at church.

Elsewhere in Juarez, maquila workers, advocates, psychologists and downtown residents describe an atmosphere of fear and helplessness in the face of the unsolved killings. Here in Anapra, however, one of the poorest and least served neighborhoods, some say they feel they are facing the beast of violence, publicly refusing to cower.

Flores also seeks small, private ways to defy the death of Sagrario. Two years ago, another daughter married, and the four surviving sisters lined up alongside bride and groom for a traditional photo. Flores sought out a friend outside Anapra with computer skills, and gave her a picture of Sagrario taken in the months before she died. The family house is tiny, with a carpet so threadbare the cement floor shows through, but on the wall hangs a lovely wedding portrait. All six of Paula Flores’ daughters smile at the camera.

Return to the Frontpage