Women of Juarez
She agonizes over her decision long after she's made it.
Continue the door-to-door search for the missing 13-year-old girl, or call it off? This is the kind of dilemma Angela Talavera Lozoya knew she'd face when she took the top job in this homicide unit. Years of law-enforcement experience have helped prepare her for this. Still, if she's wrong, a young woman could die.
"You're always unsure. You want to exhaust every lead, make sure you do everything you can to find her alive," Angela says.
At work, she spends hours poring over the material that she and her investigators have gathered since Perla Guzman disappeared. At home, questions and doubts about the case plague Angela.
Today is Day 8 since Perla was reported missing. Each hour, each day, in the initial stages of someone going missing is crucial.
Angela emerges from her office wearing a body-skimming dress, her hair the color of rust. The 29-year-old is 5 feet 9 inches tall without her trademark high heels. She smiles frequently and easily, even in the midst of crises. She is young and friendly, traits that I hadn't expected to find in someone with her responsibilities and reputation.
I'm here to document the stories of the women caught in the wave of violence in the Mexican state of Chihuahua. Women who have lost their lives. Women fighting injustice. Women with power.
Angela's title is simple but carries enormous responsibility: She is a fiscal, or prosecutor. She runs the state's Special Prosecution Unit for Women's Homicides.
Here in Ciudad Juárez, where the daily headlines blare the latest on the hundreds of slain and missing women of the city, her job is anything but easy. Everywhere I go, the people of Juárez speak of the ineptitude of local authorities, years of mistakes and incompetence staining the office's reputation despite some improvements.
In this city, many women can't help but constantly look over their shoulders, resigned to walking around with more than the usual apprehension of living in a big city.
Campaigns warn women to avoid walking alone at night. Some factories provide buses for their employees. And hundreds of federal police officers have been dispatched to help patrol the city.
But the need to go out and earn a living can open a woman to danger, despite precautions and safety measures.
I wonder how the women of Juárez, who typically don't have the luxury of access to a car, cope with their reality. Do they push aside their fears to get on with life? Do they simply not dwell on the dangers of their drug-torn city?
Even Angela, a single mother of a 5-year-old boy, confesses to feeling vulnerable. If anything, her job makes her all too aware that it's a place where violence goes hand in hand with a thriving drug trade, a place where driving home takes on an even more ominous cast.
"At that point, I'm just a woman driving alone late at night," says Angela, whose staff of about 30 is mostly men. "But really, you can't worry about this. I've always figured that when it's your time to die, it's your time."
WHO CALLS THE SHOTS?
I meet Angela by chance.
My first contact in her office is Manuel Esparza, the official spokesman for the Special Prosecution Unit for Women's Homicides. To get to Angela, I must speak to him.
At 7 p.m. on a Friday, one of those rare times when the department is quiet, I arrive at the brick building next to the state prison in Juárez. Manuel meets me in the empty reception area and leads me to his office just as a colleague is locking her door.
It's Angela. She smiles warmly, then she's off.
I'm left with Manuel, who gets interview requests from the foreign media almost daily. He answers several of my questions before I ask them, reeling off statistics and information like a contestant on a game show.
He bristles, his green eyes flashing with anger, as he deflects public criticism that the office has too many unsolved cases. He says an FBI toll-free number, which can be reached from Mexico, has failed to garner tips of any value.
"Scotland Yard could be here, but if the people of Juárez don't come forward, we can't solve the crimes without witnesses."
It turns out Manuel, 32, is no mere spokesman. He and Angela together manage the office, he tells me. He is the prosecution coordinator, a title that merits mention on the department's glass window, just below Angela's name. Because Angela doesn't speak fluent English and he does, he's the main liaison with the FBI and other foreign investigators.
His buzz cut and cherub cheeks accentuate his youth, which he proudly notes. He and Angela, Manuel tells me, are part of a new crop of department heads in government throughout Mexico.
Manuel seems eager to talk about old cases unrelated to the possible serial killings, but brushes away my request to interview Angela. It is out of the question. All department information comes from him.
I persist, explaining that Angela's story will help me understand the inner workings of their office and explain the challenges that their workers face.
Manuel phones her. "Angela, what are you doing Monday morning? I have the reporter from California here who wants to talk to you. I'll explain the whole mess to you later."
I knew Manuel would be a hurdle to overcome to get to Angela, but I'm surprised that he has the power to put me on her agenda so easily.
It's the first indication I get that Angela might not make all the decisions in her office.
EVERYONE'S A CRITIC
Angela reschedules my original appointment with her, and a week passes before we sit down to talk.
When I arrive, Manuel is standing in her office, a cramped room that barely holds a large desk, a bookcase and a couple of filing cabinets. Angela seems not to mind, and he remains standing behind my chair for a few minutes as I begin asking questions. But he finally leaves, allowing me time alone with Angela.
At first, Angela's responses are short as she recites her career experience almost in monotone. I move on to more personal questions, trying to learn about the life of the woman in charge of this massive investigation.
To my amazement, she agrees to meet with me over a period of several weeks when I tell her I will need interviews with her and the people close to her.
"Whatever I can help with," she says. "You'll just have to be patient with my schedule."
We start talking about how she came to head the unit investigating the most notorious serial killings in Mexico.
Young women were already disappearing in the city of Juárez in 1993 when Angela joined the Attorney General's Office. The entry-level office job was a natural for the 20-year-old law student.
She tells me that, little by little, she began making her way up the ranks until she became an investigator. She took on tough cases that required her to tackle suspects, eventually landing a job in the auto-theft division. She was the only female agent in a unit with 30 men, but that didn't bother her. After all, she says, she was the only girl growing up in a family with three younger brothers.
Angela laughs. "My brothers used to jokingly call me 'stepmom' because I was always scolding them."
To my surprise, Angela then reveals her unplanned pregnancy early in her career.
She tells me that for the first time in her life, she didn't know what to do. She was in love, but her boyfriend refused to stick around for a baby.
She had yet to finish school, and her career was taking off. Angela wondered how a child would fit into her plans.
But her parents, determined that she finish law school, stepped in, offering to help care for the baby.
"What do you do," Angela says, "but have faith in God and move forward."
We've been talking for more than two hours, so I offer to continue the interview later, but Angela settles comfortably in her chair and tells me she's enjoying talking about things few know about her.
So we continue retracing her journey to the top.
In 2002, she was surprised when her bosses named her one of three nominees to lead the unit investigating female homicides. She was stunned when she was chosen.
Never one to make hasty decisions, Angela analyzed the job offer. The state government created the Special Prosecution Unit for Women's Homicides in February 1998, in response to growing clamor over serial killings.
The woman to head the office had to be someone sensitive enough to treat the mothers with kindness and respect. Someone steely enough to withstand constant criticism.
From the beginning, the office has been a punching bag for everyone from politicians to Amnesty International.
In six years, the top job has been held by seven women, who answer to the governor on one hand and to the public on the other. As the number of cases and public furor have grown, the grinding demands of the job have worn down many. The last woman in the post lasted three months. Only one person, Suly Ponce, lasted more than a year.
The challenge intrigued Angela, so she took the job.
As soon as word got out that Angela was the new prosecutor, the criticism began, and it hasn't stopped.
She's too young. She's not experienced enough. She's another puppet manipulated by the state attorney general and the governor.
"I often get criticized, but few of those critics have ever met me," she says. Victoria Caraveo, whose criticism of the Mexican government helped create Angela's office, says it has been a failure. Victoria is a wealthy attorney who last year agreed to take over the government's Instituto Chihuahuense de la Mujer (Chihuahua Institute for Women) in Juárez, but she tells me she rarely deals with Angela.
I find this strange, given that both are high-profile wo- men supposedly working toward the same goal. Then Victoria says that she considers Angela a figurehead in an office where the spokesman often takes center stage.
Angela does not dwell on the criticism of community leaders, who would prefer a human-rights specialist with more experience.
"If they find a woman who meets all the criteria, they shouldn't put her in here," Angela says. "They should make her governor."
THE MISSING GIRL
Angela took this job hoping her hometown would one day again be known for plentiful jobs, not for abductions and slayings.
The latest case bears a grim resemblance to others where searches were fruitless. Perla is pretty and slim with long dark hair, just like other missing young women who have turned up dead.
Angela's office receives up to 80 cases a month of missing women. Nine out of 10 turn out to be young women who ran off with their boyfriends.
But Perla's case instantly stands out, particularly because she disappeared from the same neighborhood as other young women who were killed. The Kansas teen, who was visiting family, was on her way to church when she disappeared. Her parents say she is a devout Christian who does not have a boyfriend.
Angela has barely rested since she began investigating.
Despite her promise, she's not available for more interviews and won't let me talk to her family.
On this August afternoon, I've been waiting for her nearly three hours, despite having an appointment, when Angela finally comes out of her office. She sighs and tells me she's had no more than four hours sleep at a time in the past week.
Searching for Perla adds to an already hectic schedule.
This is the week that Angela's office joins forces with federal investigators to solve the killings of the women. The much-anticipated state and national collaboration means a ceremonial ribbon-cutting that Angela cannot skip.
She's also had to drive several times to a forensic conference nearly four hours away.
To top it off, Perla has disappeared during one of the hottest summers on record.
Angela and investigators comb through neighborhoods with fliers of the missing teen on days when triple-digit temperatures make their clothes stick to them like Saran wrap. So Angela's days are filled with long commutes, lack of sleep and meals on the run. This schedule would test anyone's endurance, even more that of a single mother whose job is always under the magnifying glass.
Each new case raises questions in the media about state investigators. Are they doing enough? Did they wait too long to start the search? Do they know what they're doing?
Each case is burdened by widespread suspicion that government officials know the identities of the killers but are protecting them. Otherwise, many wonder, why would so many young women have been slain with only one man convicted of murder in connection with the serial killings?
As we talk, I scrutinize Angela's face for signs of fatigue. Her makeup is impeccable. Her clothes, short-sleeved in this hot weather, are neatly pressed. Her eyes, clear and steady, do not betray her lack of sleep. This is one of those times, I think, when her youth is clearly an advantage.
She tells me that being a woman helps. She imagines the agony of the mothers who come before her. She can't picture life without her son. This is what drives her.
On days when the criticism becomes too much to bear, she allows the tears to fall when she goes home.
"What am I doing?" she asks herself, thinking of the sacrifices she's made. She has no boyfriend. One day, she'd like to have another child, but for now, she's resigned to a life without romance.
Perhaps the ultimate sacrifice has been time not spent with her son, who calls her "police mom." Angela takes him to school in the mornings, but often gets home too late to tuck him into bed.
She allows herself a few moments of self-pity, then remembers the mothers and begins poring over case files again.
Again, she considers what they know about Perla. She skims the thick file that she and her agents have compiled. She goes over the questions they have asked her parents. Did they scold her before she disappeared? Are there family problems? With each passing day, the parents have revealed important new details.
Perla's life was regulated by the family's religion, which forbade her from wearing pants. Perla had taken her ID with her.
Finally, relatives reveal that they have gotten a call from a woman who says she's the mother of Perla's boyfriend. It appears Perla might have run off to another part of Mexico with a boyfriend no one knew about.
Angela is amazed that, after all the searching and hand- wringing, Perla has turned out to be another misguided young woman who thinks love will solve her problems.
She is angry to think of all the resources spent on Perla. Still, Angela says, the possibility that a missing woman could turn up dead is too great to ignore any case that comes before her.
The phone rings.
It's a call from the office of Mexican President Vicente Fox requesting details on cases from 1993 until now. Angela explains that the office hasn't consistently maintained statistics as it has changed hands. She promises to compile what information she can.
In a country where nearly everything is political, Angela knows her job is at the whim of the attorney general and the governor. One day, when they decide, she will no longer have this job.
Meanwhile, there is much for her to do.
She turns back to her work, consumed with missing girls, the mothers left grieving and the killers running loose in the city.