Women of Juarez

Miriam Garcia paces, her dark eyes scanning the busy boulevard for the bus that will take her downtown.

I know better than to think this is all she's looking for.

For Miriam, danger lurks in every sport utility vehicle with tinted windows, every Nissan sedan, every car that slows near us on this busy corner near her house. Any one of those vehicles could carry her attacker.

That's how they've come for her in the past when she's been beaten and threatened with death, she tells me. I have no way of knowing whether this is true, whether this really is the price she carries for defending her husband against accusations that he's one of several serial killers targeting women in Ciudad Juárez.

What I do know is that Miriam will never turn her back on her husband, even if it means getting killed. She's so sure of his innocence.

I'm grateful to have this solid piece of knowledge, because truth has seemed elusive since I arrived in this city in the Mexican state of Chihuahua to report on the serial killings.

Miriam looks over her shoulder, and I look over mine, too. Two seconds later, we do so again. And again and again.

This is a middle-class neighborhood, but it's hard not to get caught up in this state of hyper-vigilance. It seems almost anyone who publicly questions the government's investigation lives this way.

I've been cautioned that my phone might be tapped, that I might be followed, and that I should be careful when I go out alone. Despite my skepticism, these warnings are given with such seriousness and furtive glances that, while standing with Miriam, I half expect a gunman to drive by and spray the street with bullets.

Finally, the bus arrives.

Miriam scrambles into the bus. She's safe for now.

This is the way life has been ever since her husband became a suspect.


Miriam Garcia Lara has told this story dozens of times.

Fresh tears fall each time she relives that night in November 2001, but, she tells me, she wants people to know the truth of what happens in Juárez.

Slowly, she begins talking about the night when her life changed.

Darkness has long shrouded the city when Miriam tells her husband, Victor Javier Garcia Uribe, she wants to go home.

"Let's go, I'm tired."

She enjoys showing off their newborn to Javier's parents, but she's still recovering from a Caesarean section.

Little Melissa is their miracle baby. Their second one.

Soon after they married in 1995, Miriam and Javier talked about having a baby. Word from the doctors was discouraging. Miriam couldn't conceive because of injuries she suffered in a bus accident years earlier.

But Javier was persistent.

"We know what the doctors say," he told Miriam, "but we don't know what God has to say about this."

Within a year, Gabriel was born. He was their first miracle baby. Three years later, Melissa made their family complete.

Then police began rounding up bus drivers. Young women were being raped and killed in Juárez. The bodies of eight young women were found in an abandoned cotton field. Never had so many women been found at once. All of Juárez was clamoring for the killers to be found.

Authorities said the city's bus drivers were involved in the crimes. Specifically, the young drivers on the route that Miriam's father and husband had driven for several years.

One bus driver, nicknamed "El Tolteca" ("The Toltec"), was imprisoned on suspicion of killing several women.

Authorities believed that The Toltec paid other bus drivers to kill women. Javier was taken in for questioning and told investigators that he knew The Toltec, just as he knew other drivers, but insisted they weren't close. After a brief interrogation, Javier was released.

"I don't know what's happening, but God is going to help us," Javier told Miriam.

Days passed, and no charges were filed.

As Miriam and Javier are returning home from their visit to his parents, two men with hoods over their heads suddenly rush toward Javier.

"Are you Victor Javier Garcia? You're going to die!"

Several other men, their faces covered with Halloween masks, surround Javier.

Miriam, 4-foot-11, tries to help her husband while clutching the baby, but the men point their guns at her and 5-year-old Gabriel.

Her screams beckon Miriam's father, a burly man who runs from his house 100 yards away. The men point their guns at him. They have Miriam by her hair as her father yells for them to leave Miriam and the kids alone.

Miriam hugs her baby to her, as her father wraps her in his arms and the masked men take Javier into a car.

"No! No! No! Don't take him!" Miriam screams.

Miriam fears her husband is the victim of a levantón, one of the kidnappings that plague this border city as the drug trade spreads its ugly claws.

Still, she doesn't dismiss the possibility that the masked men who came for Javier were law-enforcement authorities, who have been known to make arrests in plain clothes or without properly identifying themselves.

For three days, Miriam searches for Javier in hospitals, jails and police stations.

Two days later, she flips on the TV and sees Javier. All of Juárez is talking about this, but, still, she can't believe it. Stunned, she watches her husband confess to killing the eight young women, naming each by first and last name. A fellow bus driver, Gustavo Gonzalez Meza, does the same.

Right away, she's suspicious. Would a killer take the time to find out his victim's full name?

The next day, her husband and Gustavo denounce authorities, saying the confessions were beaten out of them.

Miriam pauses her story to dig through a large pile of papers and newspapers until she finds what she wants to show me. I examine copies of photos taken by a doctor at the prison, showing the men's dejected faces and burns on their chests, legs, arms and genital areas.

At the time, law-enforcement officials accused the bus drivers of inflicting the wounds on themselves. The judge hearing the allegations of torture declared that the men's legs were swollen not from beatings, but from varicose veins. He said their wrists were injured by tight watchbands. And he accepted medical- exam results from another doctor who said the men were fine.

In the end, the judge accepted criminal charges accusing Javier and Gustavo of raping and killing eight women.

Miriam doesn't know what to do next, and she doesn't know when she'll see her husband again.

She's sure of only two things. Her husband is not guilty. And she will never abandon him.


At times, I think of Miriam's life as a tragic love story.

She tells me about their romance as we sit in her living room, once home to a growing family but now empty most of the time because Miriam is afraid to be home alone.

The love that she describes with her husband is the kind we all dream about.

It was Javier's friendship and old-fashioned values that attracted Miriam. Javier didn't have much money, schooling or good looks, but Miriam didn't care despite her own college education.

"I don't have money to take you to nice places, but everything I give you is with all my heart," Javier told her.

They began to attend church regularly and pray every day, faith strengthening their relationship.

They had been dating only six months when fate tested their love.

Miriam was riding the bus one day when it crashed.

She was paralyzed, and doctors told her that she would likely never walk again. Javier stayed by her, even moving in with her parents so he could help care for her.

She was so weak that she couldn't hold a glass, but he would hold it for her while she drank. He also drove her to physical therapy and fed her.

Miriam tried to push aside her dreams of a big wedding.

"Go away! I've nothing to offer you. You need to go find another woman," she told him.

"No, I love you and I'm staying here with you."

When her faith wavered, he was there to bolster it.

"We have a God, and he's here for us."

Javier fasted in the mornings, cried and prayed for her to recuperate.

Slowly, she did. This was their first miracle.

Miriam was still in a wheelchair, her neck in a brace, when she and Javier said their wedding vows on Nov. 25, 1995, at the First Church of the Nazarene. When they posed for their wedding photos, he helped remove her neck brace, lifted her from her chair and held her steady against him.

Miriam's father invited his son-in-law to join him driving buses, a job that he had taken when he relocated to Juárez from Mexico City after the 1985 earthquake.

Javier was more than Miriam ever hoped for in a husband. He helped her with the wash, attracting curious glances from neighbors not used to seeing a man hanging the laundry. He understood when Miriam didn't feel like cooking, phoning to see if he should get take-out on his way home.

"When I'm old, are you going to take care of me?" he asked her one day.

"If you're not too whiny, yes," she joked. "Because if you are, then I'll have to send you outside to sleep with the dogs. And you? Are you going to take care of me?"

"Of course I will."

It's been more than two years since Javier was taken away, but the living room remains the same as when he lived here. Family photos adorn the black lacquer entertainment center and folk-art flowers brighten a cabinet.

I get up to go.

Miriam plumps the pillows and takes a quick look around to make sure everything is in place before leaving the house. She still hopes each day will be the day she gets word that he's coming home.


Miriam's campaign to clear Javier's name takes most of her time. She writes letters, organizes petition drives and stages news conferences.

To feed her children, she relies on the generosity of her parents and friends. She tries to get a job, but she says most employers refuse to hire her for fear of offending authorities. Still, she presses on.

It gets harder in January 2002, when her husband and the other imprisoned bus driver are transferred to the city of Chihuahua, a five-hour bus ride away.

Visits to the prison and her campaign to free Javier take a toll. Her children see her for a few hours each day, sometimes not at all. She stops going to church regularly.

One day, her pastor pulls her aside.

"You know, Miriam, ultimately, you have to leave justice in God's hands. Don't ignore your kids. They need you more than ever."

Miriam begins spending more time with her kids. On hot days, she takes them to the pool, trying to forget for a few hours that Javier is in prison. She begins relying more on her church friends, attending prayer sessions with them.

Still, she continues her campaign to free her husband.

One day as she walks home, two men attack her. As they punch her, they tell her it will be worse if she doesn't stop "making noise." It's a message "from the governor," they say.

She tells me it's the first of three beatings.

Another time, she's preparing banners for a march when the phone rings.

"Stop it or we're going to kill you. You'll never see your husband again, only when he's dead," a male caller says.

This time, she stays home.

The next day, when Miriam arrives at the prison, she hears a rumor that a prisoner was killed overnight.

"Oh no! They've killed Javier!" she thinks.

Weeping, she asks the guards, "Who? Who was it?" They tell her that Gustavo, the other detained bus driver, died after surgery for appendicitis.

Miriam hears from other inmates that Gustavo appeared healthy when he returned from surgery. They tell her that, in the middle of the night, he was beaten in his cell.

She thinks of Gustavo's attorney, who was killed a few months earlier. State police say they shot him after he fired at them first, but his relatives say he was talking on the cell phone to his dad and driving when he was shot.

Miriam documents her case for human-rights agencies, which successfully lobby for round-the-clock house checks by police.

Prosecutors have never wavered in their case against Javier, producing witnesses who say they saw him near the field where the women's bodies were dumped. They say Javier is not the model husband Miriam has portrayed, and that they have a strong case.

In July 2003, the governor of Chihuahua, Mexico's secretary of the interior and other federal officials come to Juárez for a news conference to announce a new security plan.

Miriam's petite frame allows her to nudge her way past the dozens of security guards. As she does so, the mother of a slain woman begins shouting and is dragged away by security.

With everyone's attention on the commotion, Miriam runs to the front and begins shouting at Chihuahua Gov. Patricio Martinez.

"I chose you as governor. Please listen to me!"

The throng of photographers, TV cameramen and reporters surround her. "My husband is going to get killed if you don't do anything."

The governor doesn't look at her.

"All I ask for is one piece of evidence! Just one piece of evidence!" she says.

Miriam jumps on a chair with her banner, but government aides and security guards push toward her. An aide tells security, "This cannot get in the papers."

The commotion earns her a brief meeting with Secretary of the Interior Santiago Creel, a presidential hopeful, who promises to get Miriam and her family more security and transfer Javier to Juárez.

The next day, three women are found dead, victims of suspected drug trafficking. One is named Miriam Garcia.

Both stories make headlines throughout Mexico.

The phone rings constantly with Miriam's relatives calling to see if she's OK.

"They're going to kill you!" Miriam's mother screams at her. "Why did you do that? Why did you have to confront the governor that way?"

Gabriel, now 7, overhears.

"I'm going with you or you're not going anywhere," he tells Miriam.

Gabriel dreams about Javier returning. So does Miriam.

"He'll come home soon," Miriam tells him.

Sometimes, she reads Javier's letters: "I'm praying every morning and every night. Before I go to bed, I kiss your photograph. I have a lot of faith in God that we'll be together again soon, and this time it will be so that we'll never again be separated. Take care of my little angels."

To visit her husband, Miriam begs for money, mostly from other bus drivers. Usually, she begins her visit on Saturday nights, when about a dozen women line up, sometimes undergoing body searches for the right to a conjugal visit.

On those nights, she and Javier cling to each other in the darkness, talking.

They worry that the guards might come for Javier in the night, to take him away forever. They decide that Miriam should not resist. They think it will be easier.

Miriam thinks of how her life has changed since her husband was arrested.

"They made a mistake. I think the prosecutor picked my husband thinking he was some dumb guy, and they never thought how much I love him, how I will never abandon him."

In February, when Javier is moved to the Juárez prison, Miriam visits him the same night.

Then, she continues to wait.

Miriam's health deteriorates as she continues to battle state authorities, and she is hospitalized for severe gastritis.

At times, when her faith wavers, she thinks of Javier in his cell. She gets up early to pray. Then, she cleans her small house. She dusts, wipes their framed wedding photo and washes the dishes. She gets the house ready.

Javier is getting out soon. She knows this in her heart.

She'll wait for a miracle. It will happen one day, just like the others.