Is this what you want in this country?

New dark mystery hangs over Juárez
2 dozen teenage girls and young women have vanished without a trace in past 18 months.

By Ken Ellingwood
Sunday, August 09, 2009

JUREZ, Chihuahua — Monica Alanis, an 18-year-old college freshman, never came home from her exams. That was four months ago.

Across town, 17-year-old Brenda Ponce didn't return from a job-hunting trip downtown. That was a year ago.

Hilda Rivas, 16, also last was spotted downtown. That was 17 months ago.

Two dozen teenage girls and young women have disappeared in this violent border city, across from El Paso, in the past year and a half, stirring dark memories of the killings of hundreds of women that made Juárez infamous a decade ago.

The disappearances, which include two university students and girls as young as 13, have some crime-novel touches: mysterious dropped calls, messages left by third parties and unsubstantiated reports of the women being kept at a house.

There is no clear evidence of wrongdoing or links among the cases, which have been overshadowed by a vicious drug war that has killed more than 2,500 people in Juárez since the start of 2008. But the young women's relatives say it is highly unlikely that they would have left on their own.

Alanis' parents say she was seldom late returning from school. That day in March, Olga Esparza says she called her daughter to find out why she was three hours late. Monica reassured her, "I'll be home later."

Desperate family members have hung missing person banners and taped fliers to telephone poles throughout the city in the hope of getting leads on the whereabouts of loved ones.

They've checked hospitals and combed dusty canyons on the fringes of the city. They've badgered state investigators but complain that authorities have no solid leads to explain why so many young women would drop from view at once.

"There is no theory. There is no hypothesis," said Ricardo Alanis, Alanis' father. "They don't have anything concrete after four months."

The vacuum has prompted parents to envision their own disturbing story lines. Several say they believe their daughters have been seized and forced into prostitution, perhaps in the United States, by the criminal bands that have turned Juárez into the bloodiest front in Mexico's drug war.

"She's in the hands of those people. I don't know who they are or where they are," said Aiben Rivas, a carpenter and father of Hilda.

Relatives and activists see common threads in the cases. Most of the young women were last seen downtown, a scruffy but bustling precinct of discount clothing stores, cheap eats and bars. Four of the missing teens are named Brenda.

Their general profile looks different from that of the more than 350 women killed during a 15-year stretch from 1993. Many of those victims worked in the city's assembly plants and came from other parts of Mexico. Their bodies turned up, often with signs of sexual abuse and torture, in bare lots and gullies.

Despite some arrests and the creation of a special prosecutor's office, those slayings remain largely unsolved.

By contrast the women and girls missing now are mostly local residents from stable, middle- and working-class homes.

"They are not only from the poorest families," said Marisela Ortiz, who directs a group representing families of the slain women that is now working with the families of those who have disappeared recently. "The characteristics have changed."

And this time there are no bodies.

Loved ones say they believe the young women are alive.

"God willing, someday I'll see her again," said Yolanda Saenz, Brenda Ponce's mother. The teen went downtown July 22, 2008, to look for a retail job to help pay for dental braces and school expenses, her mother said.

"I just want to know what happened to her so I can find peace," Saenz said.

Some families say they've gotten possible clues. Saenz said that even after a year, calls to Brenda's cell phone go to voice mail, implying that her account is still active.

Alanis' parents said someone hung up after calling their home last month from a number in the Tijuana area, where they don't know anyone. They said a friend of their daughter got a hang-up call from a number in Chihuahua, the state capital.

Sergio Sarmiento, whose cousin, Adriana Sarmiento, was 15 when she went missing last year, said the family got a phone call from a man saying she was fine and had left on her own.

"I don't believe it," said Sarmiento, a bus driver. He said that since the disappearance, the girl's mother has fled across the border to El Paso with another daughter, who is 18.

"I want to be an optimist," he said.

After Adriana disappeared in January 2008, loved ones went around tacking up posters. But competition with other missing-person fliers grew as the disappearances mounted.

"They got covered with other ones," Sarmiento said of the fliers. "Unfortunately, she wasn't the last one." ... uarez.html