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Perla Ivonne Aguirre Gonzalez went missing July 21, 2009

May 3, 2010

I came upon a missing person flyer for Perla Ivonne Aguirre Gonzalez as I was on my way out from the Juarez Human Rights Commission. The flyer was posted on the door and immediately caught my attention as I was about to exit. The face was not one I’d seen before. She had the same physical characteristics as the others. Dark shoulder length hair, light brown skin, soft facial features. Perla had a slight smile and a soothing stare. She’s been missing since July 21st 2009.

I pulled out my notebook and jotted down the phone numbers listed on the flyer and went on my way. That was months ago. Thursday I finally got to visit her family in their home.

I first arrived in the neighborhood of Perla’s aunt, Olga. She lives in the maze of colonias underneath la sierra de la biblia, a mountain in western Juarez that is inscribed with the words: “The Bible is the truth. Read it”

Olga was wearing jeans and a black sweater vest. She wore eyeliner under her bottom lids and hoop earrings. Her hair was in a bun and had straight bangs across her forehead. Her face has a youthful aura that belies her 38 years, something I find very rare in working class Mexican women.

The two of us drove to her sister’s house about 15 minutes away in a colonia that is probably no further than a mile from the American border. Olga’s sister is Perla’s mother. I had only spoken to Olga over the phone and she seemed pretty involved in her niece’s life and in her search since her disappearance. I decided it might be a good idea to have both women sit for the interview.

Perla’s mother, Elvira,  lives in la colonia Postal, a neighborhood I recognized immediately once we turned the corner. I’d been there before with another reporter and a woman who lived there. She warned that this was dangerous neighborhood where strangers were not welcome. Some months ago a couple teenagers were shot dead during a funeral procession on the street where I was driving.

My pulse quickened and my foot released pressure off the accelerator as my eyes darted left to right. Olga noticed my anxiety and said, “Don’t worry, we’ll leave the car with our neighbor, she’ll watch it.” Yea, okay, sure, I thought tensely.

We parked my car two houses down from Elvira’s house in front of a neighbor who sold burritos from her house. Elvira lives on a rather steep, unpaved hill not ideal for parking. The road is made of dirt and rock and is very uneven. The burrito woman kindly promised to keep on eye on my shiny Corolla with Texas plates. Maybe I’m exaggerating, but I actually looked back at my car as if for the last time. I happen to really like my Corolla.

Elvira’s home is very modest. Four rooms and a bathroom behind a gray concrete wall and iron gates. Upon entering there was a stale smell in the air and a toddler with a soiled shirt grinned at us from atop a toy trike. We entered into the living room. Adjacent to that was the kitchen, which aparently doubled as a bedroom since there was a stove and sink on one end of the room and two queen sized beds on the other end. 

Perla’s mother was in shorts and a t-shirt. Her hair was pulled back in a pony tail and she wore no makeup. The three of us sat in the living room, while the toddler and another adolescent girl went into a separate room to watch cartoons. Introductions were made and I pulled out my recorder and my microphone.

The story was same as the others. Daughter 15-years-old, took the bus to get around, wanted to look for work, went downtown, never returned.

I gave a deep sigh when I finally hit the stop button on my recorder 30 minutes later. Not again. Not another one. Where could she be? Who took her? Where is that person? If someone did take her, will this person take more girls?

“My niece wouldn’t leave us by her own free will,” Olga said. “She was happy, she was dedicated to her school, she read the bible.”

For some reason, Perla’s aunt was far more emotional than her mother. Perla’s mother seemed to be in denial. Olga on the other hand, cried softly during most the interview. One of the most poignant things she shared was about a recurrent dream she has.

“In the dream I see Perla,” Olga said. “And I cry out to her, ‘Perla, where are you? Where are you?’ She starts to answer me but as she opens her mouth, I wake up and everything erases from my mind. I never hear what she says. It’s so hard, it’s so frustrating.”

My heart broke at those words. I forgot about my car outside and thought about Perla. I wish it was my car that was missing and not her.

 May 1, 2010

Imagine the anxiety of having a loved one disappear without warning, without a trace. Imagine what you’d feel after 24 hours of not knowing their whereabouts. Imagine a week later and still nothing. Now imagine two years without a clue. Are they alive? Are they dead? Are they suffering? Hungry? Cold? Scared?

Billboard announcing the disappearance of two university students: Lidia Ramos Mancha and Monica Janeth Alanis Esparza

In Ciudad Juarez there are dozens upon dozens of mothers living this nightmare. I know nine of those mothers. Their young daughters have vanished, almost as if they were swallowed by the streets of downtown Juarez. Their families are besides themselves with grief and desperation. Their lives will never be the same.

This is a story that I’ve felt very close to from when I was a college student six years ago. That’s when I first learned of the horrific murder of women Juarez is sickeningly famous for. In the last two years it seems a different but similar phenomenon is occurring.

I remember clearly on a chilly December day standing amongst a crowd of protesting doctors in the park underneath the giant Mexican flag. Some students from the neighboring Juarez university approached me. Pointing to my recording equipment they asked, “Eres periodista?”– “Are you a journalist?”

“Yes”, I answered.

“Here,” they said and handed me a black and white flyer with the picture of smiling young girl with dark curls framing her pretty face. Her name: Lidia Ramos Mancha, 17 years old. “She’s a student at the university. She’s missing,” her fellow students said. I remember a strange feeling of dread in the pit of my stomach. Definitely something to keep in mind.

When I was given that flyer, Lidia had only been missing 4 days. As of May 1st 2010 she has now been missing 484 days. Last time I checked, her Christmas present was still waiting for her besides the dresser in her family’s two room adobe home.

More than a year later, girls continue to disappear. As I mentioned above, there are nine whose stories I’ve come to know. Most are between the ages of 13 and 19. Most come from the humblest of barrios in the far eastern and western edges of the city. All used the “ruta” or bus to get around the city. All had a bus transfer in downtown Juarez, which is where most are believed to have gone missing. Two are university students. The rest are high schoolers who went downtown to look for work and never came back. One was a teenage mother who disappeared only weeks after her baby was born. She went dowtown to look for work so she could afford to buy her newborn diapers and milk.  

Earlier this week, I got an email from one of the fathers who’s missing daughter shares my first name. He and his wife always smile when they see me. They call me “Moni.” The email the father shared was about a meeting between the families of the disappeared and authorities at the state police headquarters in Juarez.

I sent an email to a public radio show called “The World” and pitched a piece. Then on Thursday, a day before the meeting I set out to Juarez to interview a mother who I hadn’t yet met. Her daughter, Perla, went missing July 21, 2009.

…to be continued

March 30, 2010

The arrest of Richardo Valles de la Rosa was made public late Monday morning. A military spokesman announced his arrest saying that he was a member of the deadly Azteca gang and a suspect in the murders of three people linked to the US consulate in Juarez.

Richardo Valles de la Rosa during a court hearing in Cd. Juarez

That information caused a media flurry and by Monday afternoon a good number of news sources were carrying the report. Mexican interior secretary, Fernando Gomez Mont, –President Calderon’s right hand man– made a statement in support of the news. But later the same day, Chihuahua governor Jose Reyes Baeza contradicted that statement saying there was still no concrete evidence linking Valles de la Rosa with the consulate deaths.

This all made for a good deal of confusion. To complicate matters further, late Tuesday evening another news update emerged, this one shifting the focus of the story significantly. A Mexican newspaper first broke the news on their website. Soon after, the Associated Press cited a joint statement issued by the Mexican government, saying that Valles de la Rosa had made a formal declaration stating that the attack on March 13 was targeted at Arthur Redelfs. Redelfs was a detention officer for the El Paso sheriff’s department. His wife, Lesley Enriquez, worked for the US consulate in Juarez. The two were murdered while driving back from a birthday party in Juarez. Enriquez was pregnant and the couple’s infant daughter, who was in the back seat of the car, survived the attack unharmed.

The third person murdered under similar circumstances, but in a different part of town was Jorge Alberto Salcido Ceniceros. His wife also works for the American consulate and she was driving behind her husband on their way back from the same party as Arthur and Lesley. Salcido Ceniceros was shot to death in his car. His children, who were in the backseat were injured in the attack and taken to the hospital. I think the children have since been released, but am not sure of their condition. In the declaration made by Valles de la Rosa, Salcido Ceniceros’ death was a case of mistaken identity. He drove a similar vehicle as the Lesley and her husband and because the gunmen where uncertain of which car contained their target, they hit both.

Valles de la Rosa is said to be a sergeant of the violent Azteca gang, which is allied with the Juarez drug cartel. He served 12 years in a federal prison in Texas and has an outstanding warrant for drug charges in El Paso county. His wife said they rented homes in El Paso. If there is truth to Valles de la Rosa’s statement, it would obviously confirm that the March13 killings are gang-related. The Azteca gang is the Juarez branch of the Barrio Azteca gang in El Paso. The Barrio Aztecas are originally a prison gang made up of El Paso inmates. I understand there are Barrio Azteca, and perhaps Azteca members being held in the El Paso county jail where Redelfs worked.

I was in Juarez today at a court hearing with Valles de la Rosa. The hearing was to formally charge Valles de la Rosa with a murder back in October. During the hearing, his attorney said his client had been tortured, citing a medical examiner’s report. He also charged that the prosecuting team, in this case a pair of investigative state police officers, only had his clients confession and a weapon he was carrying as evidence of his participation in the crime. In Mexico, criminal suspects are commonly tortured into confession, especially in high-profile cases.

Both the Mexican and American governments are under a lot of pressure to solve and make sense of the murders that occurred on March 13. Mexico is in the middle of a vicious fight against the country’s powerful drug cartels, has a weak investigative police force, and is undergoing a full blown overhaul to their judicial system. They need all the outside help they can get. We’ll see what all that means with regards to this binational investigation.

Sadly, there are thousands of tragic stories like that Arthur Redelfs and his wife Lesley Enriquez. The vast majority, however, will never get the same attention or international push towards justice.

Wednesday March 24, 2010

Thirteen days have past since the last mass killing occurred in Juarez and I am just now sitting down to pick up where I left off. Three days after six people were killed at a funeral wake in Paraje del Sur, a couple of other deadly shootings vastly overshadowed their deaths and consumed the attention of the international press, including myself. I’m referring to the murder of US consulate worker Lesley Enriquez and her husband, Arthur Redelfs, who worked as a detention officer in the El Paso County jail. Also killed was Jorge Alberto Salcido Cenicero, who’s wife worked for the US consulate in Juarez.

A hearse is parked in front of a home in south Juarez. This home was the site of a shooting the night before, which resulted in the death of six more people.

And this morning, there is yet another mass shooting in the Juarez headlines, unlikely to get air time or ink spent in the international press. Four young men where killed outside a funeral home they were making improvements to in their neighborhood. The news reports attribute their deaths to rival gang activity and say these were young men who were trying to reform their lives. One of dead apparently lived in El Paso.

The mass shooting thirteen days ago, occurred in a remote colonia called Paraje del Sur. From the international border it took me 40 minutes to reach the neighborhood. I put 100 miles on my car in my attempt to cover the story. Despite my efforts, though, I wasn’t able to get much insight into the attack.

Paraje del Sur is in the south eastern corner of Juarez, one of the newer neighborhoods of government subsidized housing projects meant to house employees who work the dozens of maquiladoras in that portion of the city. I often see the colonia’s name in the news as it is a common site of violence, mostly shooting deaths. This was my first visit to the neighborhood.

I arrived at about 11:30 in the morning. Despite the newness of the corner stores, and gasoline stations the colonia has a desolate feeling. In stark sunlight, there is a noticeable lack of trees as the neighborhood is built over no more than desert sand and prickly shrubs. Graffiti is everywhere.

The killings happened just a few blocks from the entrance of the colonia, which is marked by a large sign in blue lettering that says Paraje del Sur. When I arrived there were already other media there. A black hearse was parked in front of the house as the family was preparing to bury the 18-year-old boy whose wake the night before resulted in six more deaths. The family was visibly annoyed by our presence and did not want to talk, something I can sympathize with. I took a couple shots and talked with neighbors who had gathered around on the same block. I didn’t get much more than second-hand accounts, but the note of of frustration and desperation present in so many of the interviews I do was unmistakable.

The family left in a small sedan behind the hearse and the media began clearing away. I asked some of the local reporters whether there would be a press conference later on. Some of them actually chuckled at my question. “No,” they said. The only response to the media from authorities was to send us a police report with basic details. This time there would be no denouncing by the mayor, the attorney general, the federal police or military, like there was in the last massacre. The realization felt surreal to me. It felt like even mass killings, like this one– the second in seven weeks, had become just another example of the daily violence in the city.

Friday March 13, 2010

Thursday night a family was gathered at their home in a remote south eastern corner of Ciudad Juarez. They were having a funeral wake for their 18-year-old son who was shot dead two days earlier in the same neighborhood. Close to ten o’clock friends and relatives outside the home were attacked by gunmen who fired at them with 66 rounds. Five people between the ages of 18 and 30-years-old lay dead in the front yards of neighboring homes, perhaps in their attempt to flee. A sixth person, a 21-year-old woman later died at a hospital from her wounds. Four others are still hospitalized with injuries.

This was the news I woke up to Friday morning. My plans that day did include a visit to my sister city, but not to cover yet another massacre. A sick feeling slowly bubbled in my stomach. I remember the emotional ordeal of the last mass killing– the wailing relatives, the coffins, the rain, dozens of funeral wreaths. Why more, why again, I asked myself? Where is the humanity in people? I didn’t want to cover this again, hadn’t the city gone through enough already?

But these are things beyond my control or opinion, I had a duty to carry out.  I made some calls to get directions to the neighborhood and rescheduled my previous appointments for that day. I packed my gear, hid away my passport together with a twenty and my driver’s license and left my house heading south towards the big Mexican flag flapping in the distance.

…to be continued

Thursday February 11, 2010

Two hours before I have to be on a flight to San Antonio NPR emails me: Did you know President Felipe Calderon will be in Juarez tomorrow? Are you available for a piece maybe a live two-way with All Things Considered?

Yes, of course I know the president is coming! And if I get on that plane, then no, I won’t be available. Begin predicament: should I stay or should I go?

After about 30 seconds of OMG mentality I started to think reasonably. If my goal is to work full time for this news network then I darn well better be willing to postpone my work/fun trip and cover the president’s visit. It’s one thing to call and pitch. It’s quite another to be called and requested!

The other side of things was that I was really looking forward to my San Antonio trip. I’d worked hard in the last week and was eager to see my friends. My luggage and audio gear was packed and I was afraid I’d lose $230 along with the flight. But there went that little persistent voice: if you want ’em to keep knocking, you better answer the door. Okay, okay I thought and hit “reply” on the menu bar. After a few emails and calls with the foreign editor it was a given that I’d be at the president’s address the next day.

Neighborhood children protest outside a barricaded area where Mexican President Felipe Calderon met privately with Juarez residents.

I emailed my “credentials” to the state government people so I’d be allowed into the president’s event. I also emailed a professor about getting a student photographer from Juarez to join me. I did my best to prepare ahead of time, looking for useful stats, calling people to see what they knew and their availability the next day. In all that frenzy I forgot to charge my camera battery. Also, I would end up leaving my Press ID behind in the scanner.

The next day I was in Juarez by 9 am with a UT El Paso student in my passenger seat. The student had emailed me at 1 am saying he could come. But the guy had no camera, and no phone. He had a Flip, but that doesn’t do me much good. No matter, there were little things he could do, and the mere company is always welcome. Our first stop was Casa Amiga which was where the president was rumored to meet with family members of fifteen people who died in a gruesome massacre 12 days earlier.

We didn’t get very far, as I feared. Two hours before the meeting, the streets surrounding the center were barricaded and well guarded with armed federal police and military. So we spoke with some Juarenzes who’d gathered outside the barricades to see what was up. Right away I spoke with one woman whose brother had been murdered. She wore an Eeyore hoodie and held her 5 year old grandson by the hand. She wasn’t impressed by the president’s visit. “If he lost all the soldiers and police,” she said “he wouldn’t last a minute out here.”

As we wrapped up the interview my ears caught the sound of young laughter and the unmistakable sound of a bus engine. I turned to see a crowd of tweenage girls crowding the sidewalk across the street. Let’s go chat with them, I told my student. Turns out the girls were good friends of one of the boys killed in the massacre. We were also right in front of their school. I interviewed a girl with glitter lip gloss and long bangs slicked over one side of her forehead. “We miss him,” she said. “We wish we could leave this city. We don’t go out anymore.”

I thanked the girls, expressed my condolences and told them to stick to their studies. It was time to head over to the convention center for the president’s public presentation.

Security outside the president's meeting.

The convention center was respladado times ten. Hundreds of police in riot gear. Helicopters. Soldiers in camouflage. I had some trouble getting through at first because I was missing my ID but was finally successful. The convention center is the most high brow meeting place in the city. Marble floors, chandeliers, and intricate staircase hand rails. There was press from all over Mexico and some foreign media. Everyone was a little testy because the president was nearly 2 hours late. I found my fellow radio colleagues, most from Mexico City, and plugged my gear into the sound box.

President Felipe Calderon arrived within half an hour. Reporters were off to one side and on a platform towards the back. An audience of city and community leaders was up front. Local activists, family members of the massacre victims and mothers of disappeared daughters were off in another corner in front of the press. This was the attention that Juarez has been clamoring for over the last two years. For many Juarenzes, though, it was already too late.

In two years of unprecedented violence President Calderon had visited the city only once, and that visit was strictly to fire up soldiers just before an immense military surge to the city. This was his first visit facing Juarez’s massive insecurity issues. It took the death of 15 people, 13 teenagers among them, to at last drag the president to ground zero in the battle against drug trafficking– a battle which he began.

“I come not to give orders,” the president said, “but to listen to the needs of Juarez and the city’s own proposals for solutions.” From that it was evident he would unveil no grand master plan. A long list of civic, education, and religious leaders then spoke. Among the things they proposed were anti-kidnapping and anti-extortion police units, permanent security committees with citizen input and of course youth-targeted social programs.

The climax of the meeting was when a mother, who lost her only two sons in the January 31st massacre, confronted the president. Luz Maria Davila, dressed plainly in navy blue, managed to get past security and stand face to face with Calderon and his wife. Even without a microphone her voice shook the room with grief and anger. The press all strained to get a glimpse. Those with recorders held them with their arms outstretched as far as possible. Me and my fabulous shot gun mic faired better than most. I stood up on a my chair and pointed my mic up and over the heads of the other reporters in the direction of Ms. Davila. Through my headphones I could hear her words quite clearly.

“I can’t give you my hand in welcome, Mr. President, because for me you’re not welcome.”

“I want justice, not just for my two boys but for all the children.”

“If it was your son who was murdered I bet you’d turn over every rock searching for the assassin. But I don’t have the means to search for the assassin.”

Mexican President Felipe Calderon addresses an audience in Juarez.

I was unquestionably moved. One more suffering mother added to the legions of suffering mothers in Juarez. I couldn’t see the president’s expression, but from what I’m told it was blank. The mother retreated without the president having responded. I read the next day that after the mother took her seat the first lady approached her and hugged her.

I think President Calderon was trying hard to not let his emotions overcome him. He took to the podium shortly after the confrontation and gave an unscripted speech. His tone was no longer steady and paced and I could hear his voice quiver. His speech became more passionate and his volume more forceful. His forehead glistened.

At no moment did he apologize specifically for the deaths of those massacred or address the mother who confronted him. He’d apologized earlier for having suggested the students were gang members. But he never apologized for the deaths themselves. He said he was sorry for the deaths and the state of things in Juarez. Then he continued to give a mini history of Juarez and how the city came to this tragic point. He acknowledged the historical flaws of the country including it’s poor judicial system, where the true criminals are rarely brought to justice and a poorly trained police force that is commonly infiltrated by organized crime. We need to work on all of this, he said, the results are not going to happen overnight and people will continue to die.

Calderon defended his administration’s fight against the cartels and gave an especially passionate defense of the Mexican military presence in Juarez. The bad guy is not the government he said, the bad guys are organized crime.

The electricity in the air slowly but steadily dissipated after that speech. My fellow reporters buzzed around me phoning their distant editors with the details of what transpired. I left soon afterward not knowing if I’d be on a strict deadline soon, but also not knowing how much time I’d spend crossing back into the United States. Miraculously, the line was only about 25 minutes.

I had my student drive across the bridge and fed him chocolate while I phoned my editors. Turned out former president Bill Clinton nearly had a heart attack and both shows for tomorrow were full. No matter, I still had a piece to get into Radio Bilingue and two news spots for NPR, which would take about two hours to complete from start to finish.

Twenty four hours later, I still haven’t unpacked my bags originally meant for San Antonio. Oh yea, and Southwest credited the full amount of my missed flight for a future trip. California anyone?

The Funerals

Wednesday February 4, 2010

The heavens over Ciudad Juarez weeped today. The sky rained on a neighborhood where four days ago fifteen people, mostly high school teenagers, were massacred while they celebrated a friend’s birthday. It’s a terrible, terrible tragedy and already far too much than this city can take.

A line of hearses wait to pick up the coffins of four murdered teens.

“We beg for justice. We scream for help and no one will answer,” an uncle told me as his nephew was being carried off in a coffin from his living room to a hearse.

The man broke up in sobs, “Chuyito, Chuyito,” he called to his dead nephew. “Dios mio!”

Behind him the boy’s mother wailed painfully, “Don’t take him, don’t take him. He’s mine, mine. He’s my son.”

Vigils for four of the teens where held this morning at three homes on the same street where they were killed. As the hearses arrived and family members carried out the coffins, the rain feel harder.

“Es Dios mostrando su tristeza,” said one man. “This is God showing his sadness.”

I held back my own tears and held out my microphone, which was shielded from the rain by a hotel shower cap. The scene was so surreal, how could there be so much tragedy in one place? I couldn’t imagine, couldn’t begin to phantom these people’s pain. Life is so unfair for them. To bear the pain of the crime itself and then on top of that live with such injustice. One mother lost her only two sons. One was in high school, the other a university student.

“Please,” the uncle told me. “You are from the United States. We need help. We want this to stop, we can’t take anymore. Estamos artos!”

Neighbors in Villa de Salvacar wait for the funeral procession of four teens to begin.

Chihuahua governor Jose Reyes Baeza arrived in the neighborhood shortly before the coffins were carried out. His caravan of giant white SUVs looked larger than most of the houses lining the street. He spent some time in each of the homes. I think it was absolutely the very least he could do. For many families it was far too little, far too late.

A photographer from the Dallas Morning News and I were allowed to enter one of the homes where a boy was being kept. Under the dim yellow light the tiny living room felt like a humid jungle surrounded by so many memorial wreaths. A photo of the boy as a baby hung on the wall and on his coffin lay his soccer uniform. The elder women sat around the casket their wrinkled faces wrought with hurt. Children sat about with sad eyes, some slurping the soup from a bowl of menudo.

Outside people created small fires out of sticks of plywood to stay warm. The weather was gray, rainy and cold. The street was full of people, young and old. Ironically, I don’t think the neighborhood had ever been safer than it was that very moment. Police and army were everywhere. I roamed around the block taking pictures of abandoned homes and graffitied walls.

I even spoke briefly with a female police officer. She had just graduated the police academy in September. I asked her somewhat baffled, “What motivated you to become a police officer in this city?” She smiled a little and said, “Just like everyone else I was sick of seeing the city being taken over by so much violence. I felt I could do something, take action so I joined the police.” But now that she’s an officer, she says it’s not what she imagined. There are a lot of limitations to what she can do. She can’t make like Batman and clean up the streets.

Wouldn’t it be nice if there was a Batman? Frankly, I can’t think of any better solution.