August 25, 2003 12:00 PM

The last time they were seen alive, the three women, all in their early 20s, were heading out into the desert in a pickup truck near the Mexican border city of Ciudad Juàrez. A few days later, on July 23, the three friends were found murdered, shot through the head execution-style, with the burned-out hulk of the truck near-by. As for suspects, police quickly zeroed in on one victim’s husband as the prime suspect; two years earlier he had been implicated, but never charged, in the murder of another woman during a bar brawl.

Savage as those murders may be, they’re only part of a larger story of carnage—one that has begun to provoke outrage in the U.S. as well as Mexico. In Juàrez, which lies just across the Rio Grande from El Paso, at least 310 young women have been killed since 1993. At times it has come to resemble a wholesale slaughter, with victims’ bodies often dumped in refuse areas or buried in shallow graves on the outskirts. In February the remains of three teenage girls were discovered together in the desert, followed in the next few months by three other corpses. With all the carnage, rumors are rampant that one or more serial killers may be at work. The situation has become so dire that in July, after the three girls in the pickup were killed, the government in Mexico City announced that 300 federal agents and police had been dispatched to Juàrez to provide security for jittery residents, many of whom have refused to let their daughters walk to school. “It’s horrible to go out to the street and not know if you’re coming back,” says Lluvia Flores. “I’m 20 years old and I can’t go out at night.”

The plague of homicides has reached such proportions that, in addition to Mexican and U.S. feminist groups, a growing number of American celebrities have taken up the cause. In April an open letter signed by, among others, Meryl Streep, Calista Flockhart, Glenn Close and Anjelica Huston called on the Mexican government to use all its power to “take swift and direct action to find the murderers.” At a recent briefing at the Creative Artists Agency in Beverly Hills, which drew Dylan McDermott and his wife, actress Shiva Rose, and 75 activists and journalists, playwright Eve Ensler, who has helped to spearhead efforts in this country to bring attention to the killings, detailed the grim toll. “It makes me insane about Juàrez,” said Ensler, author of The Vagina Monologues. “It is a free-for-all there against women who are poor.”

Even its most ardent boosters acknowledge that Juàrez is a tough, and often violent, place. For one thing roughly half of the population of 2 million are transients, many of them coming from all over Latin America in hopes of slipping across the border into the United States. Typically, though, they exhaust all their money by the time they arrive and are forced into a dead-end existence, living in one of the teeming slums that blight the area. Though 190 of the murders have been solved, the balance continues to baffle police. Authorities are reluctant to discuss specific leads, but it is known that at least 93 of the cases bear some similarities—the victims, who tend to be between 15 and 25, are abducted, raped, murdered, sometimes with signs of torture, and then buried.

The pattern has led to the speculation that a serial killer is at work, or at least a predator with one or more copy-cats. But cops say they’re unsure about who or what they’re up against. “We do believe that some of the crimes are similar in nature, but I don’t have any evidence to say that it was or was not a serial killer,” says Stephen Slater, a veteran American law-enforcement official and expatriate who was recently brought in to help special prosecutor Angela Talavera solve the crimes. “There’s no limit to the theories.”

One thing Juarez residents are quite sure of is that their police force, which like many others in Mexico is widely seen as inept, indifferent and often corrupt, is part of the problem. “I went to the police station over and over again,” says Ester Luna, whose 15-year-old daughter, Brenda Alfaro, was found dead on Oct. 13, 1997, three weeks after she was abducted. “I was only ridiculed by the agents, who would suggest my daughter was a runaway or a prostitute.” In another instance, according to local newspapers, police picked up several bodies at a crime scene but left human remains behind. Then there was the time mothers combed a site three weeks after their daughters’ bodies had been found and managed to turn up shorts and other clothing belonging to the victims that had been overlooked by the police. “At the beginning there wasn’t enough importance put on these cases,” concedes Oscar Valadez Reyes, the deputy attorney general for Chihuahua State. “Some mistakes were made.”

As activists see it, the killings also reflect the culture of machismo in Mexico, in which violence against women is often taken for granted. “There had to be 300 women murdered here for the authorities to start paying attention to this,” says Lilia Flores, a social worker at the Casa Amiga shelter for battered and sexually abused women in Juàrez. “It shows we are a people without law, that the life of a woman is worth the same as an animal.” In March, on International Women’s Day, 300 Mexican marchers were joined by 200 Americans for a protest rally that temporarily shut down the Santa Fe International Bridge, which links Juàrez with El Paso.

After so many years of frustration, the citizens of Juàrez are understandably skeptical about official claims that major progress on the killings is at hand. But there are some grounds for optimism. The addition of the 300 federales, who are generally considered more capable than local cops, will help. And Stephen Slater, whose official title is public safety adviser, is confident that he will be able to bring greater focus to the investigation. A former head of the New Mexico Law-Enforcement Academy, Slater, 59, has lived in Mexico for more than 10 years and is close to the governor of Chihuahua State. Among other things, Slater has helped install, a system in Juàrez similar to the Amber Alerts north of the border, which trigger immediate police action when a girl goes missing. “We’re right on the missing-persons reports and aren’t waiting three or four months until we find a body,” says Slater. In the meantime, says Ester Luna, it is a daily effort to keep up hope that the terror will end soon. “I try hard not to instill fear in my other children,” she says, “but fear is what surrounds us.”

Bill Hewitt

Anna Macias Aguayo and Adrienne Bard in Juarez and Vicki Sheff-Cahan in Los Angeles

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