The Disappearing Women of Chihuahua City

The hills of Sierra Nombre de Dios are rocky and hard to climb. "The last journalist didn't make it to the top," says Patricia Cervantes as she parks her pick-up truck at the base of the hills. This is her second trip to the site where two female bodies were found over a week ago by a group of teenagers on a hike. The police claim one of them is her 19-year old daughter, Neyra Azucena.

The dead women are just the most recent victims in a complicated story of murder and corruption that has enveloped Chihuahua City. While the world's attention has been fixed on the mass murders in Juarez, few have paid attention to the 16 women who have vanished into thin air in this Mexican state capital less than five hours south of the border.

The Disappearance of Neyra Cervantes

Neyra Azucena Cervantes disappeared on May 13, 2003, while returning home from her job at a downtown clothing store called Condor High in Chihuahua City. The police had no leads and added no information to Neyra's report until two months later, on Jul. 14, when the bodies were discovered. The family went to identify the corpse the following day at which time the police detained Neyra's cousin, David Meza Argueta, and her father, Jesus Argueta Vargas for questioning.

At the end of the interrogation, David was accused of committing the murder. According to Jesus, the men were submitted to physical and psychological torture: "They gave us electrical shocks, beat us, put water with gas up our noses, and threatened to kill me if David did not sign the pre-written confession. David was afraid and signed, but it is all a lie fabricated by the police." Neyra's uncle, Carlos Azucena, also speaks of psychological intimidation. He says, "They asked me if I liked Neyra's body, if she had ever let me touch her, things like that, sexual questions. I said that I wouldn't answer any more questions because they were offending me. How could I think of her body like that if she is my niece?"

Police officials say they detained David based upon his "behavior," according to an interview with police chief Vicente Mayorga printed in the local newspaper, El Diario. They claim that David, who is originally from the state of Chiapas, hired two men from the same state to kidnap Neyra and then murdered her in Sierra Nombre de Dios. The investigators have not, however, performed any DNA tests or presented any circumstantial evidence to bolster their claims.

The Cervantes family believes that the police are targeting David for speaking out against police negligence and corruption in his cousin's disappearance. The bodies were the third and fourth in a series of corpses discovered at the same site. Astoundingly, not one of the corpses was discovered by the police themselves, even though the site is no more than a 15-minute walk from a recently built $365 million government testing facility overseen by the Mexican justice department. Eight bodies have been found so far in Chihuahua, all in deserted areas around the city.

On this most recent trip to the site on Sunday, July 27, the Cervantes family finds bits of clothing, teeth, strands of hair and decomposing bones at the top of the hill -- even though the police claim to have already searched and removed all pertinent evidence from the location. An inspector's latex glove and bits off garbage litter the area, contaminating the crime scene.

The Lost Women of Chihuahua

While the case of Neyra Cervantes is tragic, it is hardly unique. She is only one of at least 16 young women who have disappeared over the past three years in Chihuahua City. Each was abducted downtown in broad daylight, while returning home from their jobs or computer classes. They also share a common socioeconomic profile, coming from poor families who live on the outskirts of the city. Many of them worked in maquiladoras alongside their mothers to help support their families. The women also look uncannily similar. They are all tall and slender, attractive, dark-skinned and between the ages of 14 and 19.

Their disappearance is still a mystery. Popular theories about their fates abound. Some claim the women have been forced into prostitution by narco-traffickers or snuff pornographers, while others suspect roving bands of serial killers or organ traffickers. Also under suspicion is a computer school located in downtown Chihuahua called ECCO, where at least six of the young women attended classes.

The school hires young, good-looking men to approach young women like Neyra and offer them scholarships to study at the school. They then make an appointment to visit the woman's home, where they compile information on their schedules and whereabouts in order to place them in a course. Since its representatives approached many of the missing women at one time or another, ECCO is widely suspected of being involved in their disappearance -- forcing the school to change its name to ERA. The school has 36 branches in 10 states in Mexico, and the branch located in Ciudad Juarez is also under suspicion. But despite the seemingly obvious connection, ERA remains open and is not under police investigation.

Aside from blatant corruption, department policy of the Mexican police makes the prospects of recovering the women nearly nonexistent. Officials do not have to file a report before 48 hours, and even then, they are not required to look for the girls since their disappearance isn't a crime until it can be proven that they were kidnapped. In some cases, officers have turned up as late as 26 days after the disappearance to get descriptions of the girls.

This willful apathy may explain why the kidnappers are seemingly fearless despite the increasing furor in the community. In the past few weeks, two 13 and 16-year old girls separately reported attempts to kidnap them to a local NGO. Both girls described masked men in an expensive vehicle who drove up to them in broad daylight. One girl was walking to school in her neighborhood, while the other was on her way to the supermarket downtown.

A Pattern of Police Brutality

Rastreos, or area searches for the missing women, are becoming as common here as in Juarez, the city where human rights activists are demanding an investigation into the disappearance of nearly 450 women over the past decade. The experiences of victims' families in the two cities are almost exactly the same. "It is the helplessness, the inability to give our daughters justice," said Jose Cirilo Rayas.

Rayas is the father of Viviana who disappeared on Mar. 26, 2002 and was found dead on May 28 of the same year. As with David Meza Argueta, the day after Viviana's body was found, 43-year-old Cynthia Kiecker, an American woman living in Chihuahua City was charged in Viviana's murder. Kiecker and her partner Ulises Parzabal also claim that the police tortured them into signing a confession by threatening to sodomize Kiecker with a wooden stick. The confessions state that Kiecker murdered Viviana Rayas during a "satanic ritual."

As a result of these incidents, many families are now afraid to give information to the police as it may be used to frame them or other innocent people. Policemen are also known to plant clothing similar to that described by family members in order to falsely identify bodies as one of the missing women. The women's police files, made up of no more than a few pages, often contain contradictory statements, false declarations discrediting the women and their families, statements given by minors without supervision, and do not include DNA testing or proof of sexual assault.

At present, the Cervantes family has refused to bury the body assigned to Neyra. They hope to send the articles discovered at the scene to a lab in the United States, but do not currently have the financial resources to do so. "We can follow other paths," says Patricia. "We can go to Juarez and explode our story there. We aren't going to continue hiding anything that is happening. [The police] say they have evidence. Well, I have my own evidence and they aren't going to get their hands on any of it.

We have lost all trust."

Victims' families have had to face the bitter truth that the Mexican police have little or no interest in locating the disappeared, even though increasing numbers of young women vanish off the city streets. In the past week, at least three young women have been reported missing. "I believe there are even more missing girls. There are more but (the families) are afraid to unite with us because the police tell them that if they do they will not look for their daughters," says Norma Ledesma, a member of Justicia Para Nuestras Hijas (Justice for our Daughters). The mothers of the disappeared have testified before a number of national and international human rights conferences, seeking justice for their children. "The work we do isn't just for one girl, but for the all the girls and all the mothers," Norma says.

Meanwhile, Neyra's family has not given up their hope of finding her alive. "We want her to know that we are here waiting for her," said her 18-year old sister. "We won't stop struggling. What should we be afraid of? What more could we lose?"

Emily Price is a writer and activist currently in Chihuahua City, Mexico. If you want to find out more about Justicia Para Nuestras Hijas and the women of Chihuahua City, email

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