Women of Juarez

At times, it's as if Eréndira Ponce is still alive.

The 17-year-old girl keeps invading her father's thoughts, chasing away sleep in the dark of night. She sings, mimicking her favorite singers, Shakira and Gloria Trevi. She jokes with her family, placing a cigarette on each of her eyelids, holding them in place with her long eyelashes. She tells her father how much she loves him.

These are the happy memories Federico Ponce tries to focus on, but then other, more sinister thoughts overtake him.

He imagines the brutal way his daughter was killed. He thinks of the five years that have passed since Eréndira died. Five years of standing outside government offices demanding that law enforcement investigate. Five years of waiting for her killer to be arrested. Five years of nothing.

Rage builds inside him until he can no longer stand it. He gets out of bed, pulls on his cowboy boots and grabs a large kitchen knife. He wants to go after the man he believes killed his daughter, a man the authorities investigated but never arrested.

"I can find him, probably in a bar drinking," he thinks.

Then, he remembers his other children. He knows what he wants to do isn't right. And he realizes he's not going anywhere. He puts the knife back.

He returns to bed.

He will wait for justice, like all the other relatives of the hundreds of women who have disappeared or been killed in this city in the past decade.

Federico is strong in the way that I imagine a man with eight children must be. He has no reason to expect justice, but he refuses to be a man without hope.

This is what impresses me about Juárez. It is a city whose people refuse to let their spirit be tamed by the violence that's claimed so many lives.

Their courage keeps me going during my six-week stay in Juárez, where death is all around me. I've come to write about the women whose lives have been transformed by the series of killings plaguing the city since at least 1993.

I feel silly fearing for my safety in a place I briefly called home as a child. Still, it's hard not to live with fear in a city where so many women have been killed. I lock my car as soon as I get in, avoid driving alone at night, and give my hotel room number to few people. Then, I do as everyone else in the city and go about my work.

I first learn about 17-year-old Eréndira Ivonne Ponce Hernández in my search for a diarist among the hundreds of women killed, someone whose words could represent the lost hopes and dreams of all the slain women. I was certain one kept a journal, relaying her hopes and fears in her own words.

Eréndira did.

Scribbling in her spiral-bound notebook, the young woman confided her hopes for a comfortable house to live in, a man to marry and a baby to love.

Instead, Eréndira went to work one day and didn't come home. Twelve days later, she was found dead at the foot of a mountain, her underwear around her knees. She had been raped and beaten, her skull bashed in with a rock.

Her family laid her to rest near the U.S. border in the Garden of Memories cemetery, not far from the grave of another 17-year-old girl, a church choir singer who was strangled and stabbed a few months earlier.

Today, a lone metal cross marks Eréndira's grave. A simple cross for a girl I learn was anything but simple.

The gravesite, on a hill overlooking the stern, bland face of this desert city, is a desolate place.

The relentless heat beats down on Federico and me when we visit one Saturday. It is 90 degrees even though it's not yet 10 a.m. We are sweating by the time we make our way past dozens of rows of graves decorated with bright plastic flowers.

The cemetery is empty except for us and a crew digging graves. The dry ground crunches with each step we take. The cracked earth swallows the water Federico brought in a jug to freshen his daughter's grave, releasing the familiar smell of a rainy day.

Federico doesn't cry. In a calm voice, he tells me about Eréndira. She was one of his youngest, one of his babies.

The last time he saw her, she kissed him before they parted.

"Take care, mi'ja."

"Yes, Dad."

Federico presses his hand to his cheek, remembering her kiss and her voice. It is heart-breaking getting to know Federico and the rest of Eréndira's family. I am eager to know about her, and they are willing to tell her story with all its tragic details.

"The key to knowing who I'll marry is the person who gives me a rose and who dances with me to 'When a Man Loves a Woman,' or rather, all my favorite songs."
Eréndira's journal, August 1998

At first, Rosario wants nothing to do with me. She has learned that sometimes it is easier to make it through the day if she doesn't relive painful memories.

She rushes inside when I come to the neighborhood to visit one of her sons, Fernando, who lives next door with his wife, Lourdes, one of Eréndira's childhood friends. Rosario invites me into her home only after she notices the hours I spend talking to the others.

"I'm her mother after all," she says. "If you're going to write about Eréndira, then you must talk to me."

With her youngest daughter, 17-year-old Brianda, at her side, Rosario sits in her kitchen with me. As the stories spill out, I begin piecing together Eréndira's short life with the bits I've gathered from others.

We start with Leonel.

At 16, Eréndira has a crush on the fair-skinned boy with light eyes. She has a soft spot for boys like that, especially if their eyes are blue, so different from her own dark eyes and skin.

When Jaime comes along, Eréndira is smitten. He, too, is fair and has blue eyes. And he wants to be her boyfriend.

She falls hard for him.

One day, she comes to her friend Lourdes in tears. "You know what? I'm pregnant."

She decides not to tell Jaime, convinced he would drop his college plans to marry her.

She doesn't tell her mom, either, even though two of her older sisters got pregnant before getting married.

Rosario doesn't need anyone to tell her. She knew, as only a mother can, that Eréndira's sisters were pregnant before they said anything. Each time, she asked. Together, tearfully, they made plans for a new baby.

Eréndira doesn't give her the chance. She confides to Lourdes and Brianda that she got an abortion after a teacher told her a baby would spoil a good future.

Her secret might have been safe from her mother, except that Eréndira begins complaining of pain in her abdomen. In their tiny home, there's no way for Eréndira to hide the stretch marks on her belly and periods two or three times a month.

Rosario confronts Eréndira.

"Why did you abort? We would have supported you."

Eréndira denies the pregnancy and abortion.

"We would never throw you out," Rosario insists.

Still, Eréndira refuses to tell her anything.

Rosario is at a loss for what to do about this growing chasm between them. She had always been proud of how Eréndira lived up to her name, which means "always smiling." Not long ago, she had trouble getting her to quiet down.

Some evenings, Eréndira sat on cement blocks stacked as high as a wall outside her house, with a guitar in hand, singing loudly.

"Eréndira! People are going to think you're crazy!"

"Ah, I don't care! I'm in my own home and can do what I want."

Rosario has long worried how her children would be affected by her separation from their father. She and Federico split up when Eréndira was 8, differences tearing them apart after 11 children and more than their share of problems. The deaths of two babies. Federico's long absences during trips to the United States for work.

Rosario took the children and moved to Colonia Villa Esperanza in the outskirts of the city, where land was plentiful, affordable and a peaceful respite from the hundreds of factories dotting the city.

But the separation means Rosario has to spend more time away from her children to work. Often, she takes jobs at maquiladoras, assembling parts at foreign-owned factories like RCA. The jobs and commutes to the city take 12 hours a day, sometimes more.

Even so, she tries to be a good mother, dispensing advice and attending parent-teacher conferences.

She remembers Eréndira singing for her in front of the entire school during a Mother's Day celebration. Only those students with the best voices were chosen.

Rosario was so proud listening to her daughter singing "Las Mañanitas" and a Guadalupe Pineda song: "I love you. I love you."

Now, Eréndira says very little to her mom. Her remorse for the abortion grows.

"What would the baby look like?" she asks her friends.

Finally, unable to bear the guilt and heartbreak, Eréndira attempts to commit suicide by taking some pills, but the pills aren't enough. All they do is make her throw up.

Her mother knows something is wrong. Again, Rosario begs her daughter to talk to her. She wraps her arms around Eréndira, slowly patting her head as she tells her how much she loves her, how scared she is for her.

Together, they cry.

One day, Eréndira says she wants to leave Juárez.

"But why, Eréndira? If we don't have any problems with anyone," Rosario responds.

"I just don't like being here anymore."

With Rosario and the older children working, there is enough money to supply basic necessities such as food, electricity and indoor plumbing.

But there isn't much left over for the luxuries Eréndira dreams about. Her reality is far from the romantic, tender world she thinks about as she listens to her favorite songs on the radio.

Eréndira's life on the southern fringes of Ciudad Juárez seems as barren to her as the brown landscape surrounding her home.

"Clothes I need: Strappy blouses, black, white, green, dark blue, brown, beige, red. Short skirts, black, dark blue, brown, beige, white, sky blue, mixed. Long dresses ..."
Eréndira's journal, 1998

Araceli Montes is surprised to see me when I come calling one afternoon.

She rubs the sleep from her puffy eyes, apologizing that her hair is a tangled mop. She works the graveyard shift at a maquiladora, so she sleeps during the day.

It has been a long time since someone has come wanting to know about Eréndira, her best friend at school. Already, like many young women her age in Juárez, Araceli is a working mother. She looks tired, temporary wrinkles from her pillow embedded in her face, making her look older than her 22 years.

It's an image that haunts me for weeks. I imagine this might have been Eréndira's life. I've come to Araceli knowing that a girl's best friend knows things about her that no one else does.

Araceli smiles thinking back on their school days.

She sees Eréndira sitting in the back of the classroom, cracking jokes. Instead of hitting the books, Eréndira hangs out with friends, gossiping about boys and clothes.

One day, a teacher tells her she can be anything she wants. All she needs to do is study. He will help her.

Eréndira is flattered. She likes the way he talks, in a direct and proper manner.

Jose Luis Franco is a history teacher at State School No. 8358, an educated man who is admired for his skill in weaving facts into stories that drill his lessons home.

Until now, Eréndira has had fantasies about becoming a singer and somehow getting out of here. She wants to help the family she so adores and have a closet full of clothes. But Eréndira isn't sure how she's going to earn the money to buy a dress, much less help her family. Her teacher's offer seems like a way out.

Jose Luis also offers to pay for other students' textbooks, helping the poorest students stay in school.

Two of Eréndira's closest friends turn down the offer. Lourdes and Araceli are suspicious and feel uncomfortable around him.

They don't like it when he touches them on the shoulder. They hear stories about him taking young girls to motels. They feel his eyes on their legs so they avoid wearing skirts.

"Eréndira, don't get involved with him," Araceli tells her. "He's a strange man."

Eréndira wants to become a secretary, but her parents can't afford the classes.

"He's a good person."

"You're wrong, Eréndira."

Eréndira doesn't listen.

Her friendship with her teacher turns into a part-time job, first at a school cafeteria he manages, then at a car wash, and finally, as a secretary for a recycling business Jose Luis runs out of his home.

By then, she's quit school and taken a second job working the graveyard shift at a maquiladora.

For two months, she goes to work at the Howe factory, cutting leather for $35 a week. In the mornings, tired and sleepy, she heads to work at the recycling business.

Already suspicious of the teacher, her sisters begin asking questions, insinuating that the teacher might be interested in her as more than an employee.

Rosario implies there is something improper about her daughter's relationship with Jose Luis, but Eréndira screams in protest.

"No! No! That's not true," she says, falling to the floor, flailing her arms and legs. She pulls at her hair until her mother stops questioning her.

To Araceli and Lourdes, Eréndira confesses that she's in love with Jose Luis. She tells them he has promised to marry her and take her to Chihuahua to live with him.

Lourdes is disgusted.

"Why would you want to be with him? He's so old, and he has a paunch."

Eréndira says she loves him and quits her factory job.

On Saturday, Aug. 8, 1998, Eréndira shows up at her best friend's house in a panic.

She tells Araceli she no longer wants to work with her former teacher. In tears, she says she's found a stash of photos of naked dead women. She is frightened and doesn't know what to do.

"I think you need to get out of there. If you don't, something will happen to you."

What Araceli says about this teacher confirms what others have said. Eréndira's friends and family believe the relationship with Jose Luis went far beyond mentoring.

But to the point of murder?

The family thinks so. They believe he's gotten away with it all these years because he has buddies in high levels of the state government.

Old newspaper clips say Jose Luis was the lead suspect for a time as the last known person to have seen Eréndira alive.

Law-enforcement officials tell me their investigation on this case is active and they have a suspect. As a matter of fact, I'm told, they were ready to arrest the suspect until the state Attorney General asked them to build a stronger case. I don't know what to believe, but I know I must talk to Jose Luis Franco.

Long retired from his teaching career, Jose Luis works for the state government. He invites me into his office when I tell him I want to talk about Eréndira.

His hair is mostly gray, and his cheeks are giving way to the gravity of time. I begin by asking basic questions about Eréndira, her writing abilities and her job with him. Then, I move on to more difficult ones.

Did he ever touch any of his students on the legs or other inappropriate places? No.

Were he and Eréndira intimate?

Of course not, he says.

His hands play with the items on his desk and he smokes one cigarette after another as he tells me there was never anything improper about his relationship with any of his students. He says he is saddened by Eréndira's death, that it's painful to be named a suspect in her killing, but that he understands everyone can be a suspect in the early stages of an investigation.

I ask about his political affiliations. He mentions a group of teachers he joined once and nothing more.

I am getting ready to leave, when suddenly a woman walks into his office.

"Oh, sorry, I didn't know you had a visitor," she tells Jose Luis as she sees me and quickly walks out.

I sit, frozen, as I realize who she is. It is Suly Ponce, who, despite her last name, is not related to Eréndira's family. She was in charge of the investigation into Eréndira's death and now heads the department where Jose Luis works.

Why is Jose Luis working for her? Isn't it odd to work for the person who once interrogated him in connection with a killing? Does it speak to his innocence or does he really have friends in the government?

My mind reels with questions, but Jose Luis is vague about what he does for the government, even what his title is.

I walk away not knowing what I want to know. In Mexico, government officials don't have to abide by the same public-disclosure laws as in the United States.

As usual, there are too many questions and no adequate answers.

"She was found naked, face down with her hands tied behind her back and a blow to the left side of the head. Victim had black, wavy shoulder-length hair. In the same place, authorities found a blue-green flowered dress."
Case No. 171, Aug. 31, 1998

The little cement house is tucked below a hill in Colonia Lopez Mateos, where young men play soccer outside until dusk and the faithful gather at a storefront evangelical church to pray on weeknights.

This is where Eréndira moved two weeks before she was killed, hoping that being closer to the city would make her happier.

This is where I find Gloria Ponce five years after her sister's death, still using Eréndira's Winnie the Pooh lamp to light her bedroom.

She tells me about the day Eréndira came home to show her a new dress. The knee- length cotton dress stamped with tulips shows off Eréndira's shapely legs and slim waist.

But the fabric is an unpleasant shade of blue, almost gray, a color Gloria thinks is too gloomy for a 17-year-old girl.

"Oh, Eréndira, that color is too morbid! It's an ugly dress."

Eréndira doesn't care. She loves dark colors, even if her friends make fun of her.

She bought the dress with her earnings. It's a symbol of her newfound independence, one of many outfits she plans to buy.

Eréndira twirls and dances for her older sister in the small house where they live with their brother Fernando.

"Look how good it looks on me!"

Eréndira seems happy at times, but her family begins noticing a sudden preoccupation with death.

"What would I look like dead, lying in a ditch?" she asks Gloria.

To her younger sister Brianda: "You're going to do my makeup when I die."

"You're crazy," Brianda responds.

"C'mon, do my makeup. I'm going to look real pretty when I die."

Eréndira writes an even more detailed account of her life. She makes lists of everything from her favorite songs to the names of her siblings.

Under the heading "What I eat," she records even the water she drinks. One day's entry reads: "8:30 1 cup of orange juice, 2:15 1 cup of chocolate ice cream, 4:50 1 glass of soda, potato chips, 1 glass of soda, 6:45 1 glass of soda, 2 chunks of chicken with lettuce salad and tomato, 4 roasted chilies, mayonnaise."

A few days later, on Aug. 18, Eréndira leaves her house shortly before 10 a.m. wearing her new tulip-pattern dress.

She plans to quit her job and get a copy of her birth certificate so she can get a visa to work in the United States. She and Gloria hope to get jobs at a factory in El Paso. Juárez has plenty of maquiladoras, but none pay as well as those across the border.

"May things go well for you today," Gloria tells her sister, as she does every morning. "May God help you. Be careful."

Eréndira doesn't come home that night. Or the next day. Her family takes to the streets, looking for her friends and schoolmates. They hope one of them will know where she is.

No one does.

Eréndira's mother, Rosario, is scared. Young women have been disappearing from Juárez. Many are turning up dead, a couple not too far from their home.

"Don't worry. She probably just ran off with her boyfriend," Rosario recalls investigators telling her when she reports her daughter missing.

Eréndira's boyfriend says the two broke up months before. He doesn't know anything about her disappearance. Eréndira's family is unable to rest, eat or sleep.

On the 12th day, investigators summon Gloria to the morgue. They've found another body.

The young woman with dark, wavy hair was found with her hands tied behind her back with a purse strap, an elastic bandage and a shoelace. She was lying face down near the road out of town.

Gloria and her brother Fernando arrive at the morgue, their hearts clinging to hope. They know that Eréndira dreamed of life beyond Juárez.

Maybe she went to Guadalajara like she told a friend.

Maybe she ran off with a boyfriend no one knew about.

Maybe she's still alive.

Investigators aren't sure how long the body they found has been in the sandy ditch. Rain, animals and 100-degree August heat make the task of identifying the woman even harder.

Her face and much of her body are disfigured.

But the flowered dress is unmistakable.

Gloria flashes back to the day Eréndira first modeled the dress for her, picturing her sister dancing and twirling in their home. She can hear Eréndira's laughter bouncing across the room as she faints.

"I'm going to take a walk, and although the city is very big, I think we're going to find each other."
Eréndira's favorite song, "Same As Yesterday" by Enanitos Verdes

The family is afraid.

They believe authorities are angry because family members have said publicly that investigators failed to go after Eréndira's killer.

For five years, they wait.

One day, investigators come knocking on Rosario's door.

Brianda, the youngest of the Ponce children, opens the door. Investigators want the family's copy of the police file. They tell her it's the only complete version, that the files from former investigators are missing key testimony and evidence.

Brianda is torn.

She has spent hours poring over the file, searching for clues to her sister's killing. She says she's seen signed statements from people with evidence against the teacher.

She has studied the autopsy shots, inspecting up close her sister's hands, recognizing Eréndira's trademark pearly white nail polish. The tips of the nails are square just like Eréndira liked them. Her sister's teeth are just how she remembers them, perfectly aligned, with only one cavity.

She doesn't want to give up the file. It's all the family has left. But the investigators are persuasive. "We're close to an arrest," they tell her.

She gives them the file.

Right away, she regrets it. The little evidence they had is gone. The little they had left of Eréndira is gone. Their trust in law enforcement torn to shreds, they continue to hope for an arrest that now seems impossible.

Brianda thinks about her own future. She is the same age as Eréndira was when she was killed. She likes school and wants to continue her education past high school. She tells me she knows it's the only way she can ever leave the colonia.

Still, this is Juárez, and she is scared. I look at her, examining her features, trying not to see the obvious.

She fits the profile. Pretty, young, slim and poor.

Soon, it will be time for her to go to school, and she'll have to go into town, where young women just like her continue to disappear, to turn up dead.