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Book Review: Daughters of Juarez – A True Story of Serial Murder South of the Border by Teresa Rodriguez

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The desert sky is vast and cloudless. It shelters all and hides nothing. The desert sun is unforgiving. It bleaches all beneath it. The desert breeze walks through the landscape, softening the searing sun, or freezing beneath the evening star. It is a landscape of extremes. A desert landscape can be beautiful – cactus flowers, an endless horizon, creatures which thrive somehow. But in Ciudad Juarez it is a backdrop for murder. It is a vast unwilling graveyard.

1993 brought the first reported discovery of broken bodies beneath this particular patch of sky. Some children searching the desert for scrap to sell found bodies instead. The children ran home to report the grisly find. Soon it was discovered those bodies had been young women who were raped, mutilated, and murdered. Their bodies were then dumped in the desert to rot. This unceremonious discard was not the final indignity. The final, and continuing dignity is not only that justice was never found. These murdered women had many, many sisters in years to come. In fact their number still increases, to this day. And it is not only the women of Juarez who must fear this fate, but women throughout the state of Chihuahua, Mexico as well.

A woman’s life is always shadowed by the possibility of sexual violence, even of death. But it seems nowhere on earth does the spectre loom with impunity as it does in Juarez. Journalist Teresa Rodriguez has attempted to look at why and how this has occurred – and how it continues unimpeded. Despite a few token arrests, despite task forces, including FBI involvement, despite press conferences, marches, protests – murdered bodies multiply in number in and around Juarez. At last count, hundreds found scattered in the desert sand. Some bodies even were even buried in the center of town. Clearly the monster not only prowls without hesitation but mocks its own capture. In Chihuahua City the same crimes occur with frequency as well, and Daughters of Juarez: A True Story of Serial Murder South of the Border discusses those crimes too. It is all connected impeccably in these pages.

The story of the Juarez murders has inspired countless newspaper and internet articles, television news stories, even a protest song written by singer Tori Amos. The monster, however, doesn’t flinch – it keeps stalking, it keeps killing. Unraveling what has gone wrong in this enormous string of serial murders, and why the numbers increase, seems a gargantuan task. And yet, Ms. Rodriguez’ investigatory book has done a miraculous thing. It explains what happened – patiently and factually. It explains what has gone wrong with the attempts to solve this crime. It illuminates the darkness surrounding the terrible story. Without that light the story seems overwhelming and good people might turn away. This work sheds light.

In clear, succinct prose as observant as a desert eagle, as detached as the desert sky, Daughters leads us to a conclusion as searing as that unforgiving desert sun. Complicity: persons in power involved and complicit in covering up. That is what went wrong. That is what allows this to continue and the grisly finds to increase. At first, this book seems a history. It begins with a history of the state and city itself. The state of Chihuahua, Mexico. The city of Juarez, a border town directly opposite El Paso, Texas cartographically. Juarez is the opposite of El Paso in many other ways also. On one side of the border, respect for human life. Material comfort. Potential to make dreams come true. On the other side of the border, human life disposable. Material lack. And waking nightmares as yet without escape.

Rodriguez, an award-winning journalist, has researched the book’s subject exhaustively. Her patience must be limitless. There was no central clearing house for much of this information. She does an admirable job of piecing together well-documented facts which might seem at first incidental. But piece by piece a shocking puzzle falls into place. Her prose takes us through a history of the geographical area and a history of the crimes. It outlines every stage of the ‘investigation’ from scapegoat suspects to public outcry to task forces sent from other nations. 

Daughters introduces family members and loved ones of the victims. It gives a cultural context in which this systematic slaughter persists. We hear horror stories of women who may have been victims of the same criminals but lived to tell their harrowing story. Would it surprise you that in more than one instance the rapist, abductor or thug worked in the local police station? Or was a city-paid bus driver? That families were treated with disgust and disregard by officials, even as they reported a loved one missing? That local media blamed the victims? That NAFTA-bankrolled corporations refused to help in even minor ways such as building closer housing or lighting the outlying streets? Or that at the top levels people seemed to be afraid to rock the boat and lose the NAFTA cash cow?

But those were my reactions. Ms. Rodriguez does not point fingers; instead this book takes the reader on their own journey. One by one the indicting facts stack upon themselves until the reader sees the case fall into clear focus, incident after incident in which police were tangentially or directly involved in a felony: a murdered lawyer who tried to help the victims; protesters for justice harassed or fired; obvious procurement of victims in a systematic way; bodies misidentified; evidence obscured or lost; mistakes covered up; families mocked; a witness and hero gunned down in broad daylight, his killers set free.

Yet the system and personnel stay in place unchecked, and the murders continue. How can this be? I read this book cover to cover in one sitting, filled with astonished outrage by the last page. The reader is left with feelings that — for me — built from a sense of empathy and thoughts of injustice into shocked disbelief, that finally became searing rage.

Lest that rage cauterise into helplessness, though, Daughters also outlines a hint of relief. Heroes and heroines dot the pages with relief, like cactus blooms in the Samalayuca surrounding Ciudad Juarez. Selfless angels dot the story with beauty in action. A forensics technician would not give up despite office ridicule. A woman began the area’s first rape crisis and family counseling center out of her own meager finances and from her own home. As time went on a sense of futility overtook some – but some efforts to relieve the continued suffering continue to this day. The rape crisis center, Casa Amiga, still offers counseling and education. The victims’ loved ones, the protestors and the helpers of Juarez still face public and official pressure to shut up, to go away. Casa Amiga and Amnesty International know this will solve nothing and continue to try to help. Other relief organisations involved are: Amigos de Mujeres (Friends of Women), Justica Para Nuestra Hijas (Justice for Our Daughters), Mujeres de Negro (Women in Black), Mujeres Por Juarez (Women of Juarez) and Nuestras Hijas de Regreso A Casa (So That Our Daughters May Come Home).

It is the faces of the mothers I can’t forget as I reflect on this powerful book. Their photos and others mentioned by name are included in this work. Going on with life is a necessity if they wish to survive and feed their family. But as they work their subsistence level jobs the photos show a faraway gaze. Somehow I imagine their thought: A little girl they sent out to work one day, whose photo still adorns the tar paper wall at home. A quinceanera photo of a girl who would never be allowed to grow up. Grandchildren who will never be. All because of a systematised hunting spree which continues as if by permission. For the mothers, the families, the friends of the murdered daughters of Juarez, justice waits. But its hiding place has not been found.

If you would like to help the victims’ families there are places you can try. Casa Amiga has a website. Amnesty International is tracking the case. But every voice needs to be heard. The dead cannot speak. The living must do so. You can, for instance, write letters to Mexico’s President, Felipe Calderon. One thing to ask for that is simple and concrete? Mexico currently has a 14-year statute of limitations on the crime of murder. If that statute of limitations is not changed to ‘no statute of limitations on murder’, then hundreds of murder cases will be immune from prosecution. This immunity would include the victims of this unending string of cruel murders. Their killer or killers would never have a day in court if this statute is unchanged. These women and children, treated without respect in their final hours or days, tortured and murdered, deserve at least respect in death. Give them this chance at justice. Begin with reading Teresa Rodriguez’ book, Daughters of Juarez.

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