Women of Juarez

Long ago, Irma Monreal set her sights on Ciudad Juárez.

She'd leave behind the days when her children cried with hunger, she'd find a steady job with steady pay, and she'd build a home for her family.

Juárez was the answer. She knew it. She left her farming village of Rancho Grande, Zacatecas, 14 years ago, went back for her children two years later and never looked back.

Until now.

Now, she's haunted by her decision. Now, she wonders, would her sweet daughter Esmeralda have lived if they had never come to this border town?

She'll never know the answer.

I learn quickly that if what you seek are answers, Juárez is not the place to find them.

It's a city with many stories, but few have the courage to tell them. It's a city where girls like Esmeralda Herrera Monreal, 15, vanish, but few speak up for them.

Like other mothers who have lost their daughters in the past decade, Irma has struggled against the forces that have torn her family.

Government officials attack the women's reputations: They are prostitutes, they dress provocatively, they shouldn't be out after dark.

Investigators withhold details of Esmeralda's case and can't explain the inconsistencies Irma finds.

And most painful is the void left by Esmeralda, who brought music and laughter into a home now filled with an overwhelming sense of loss.

Irma is one of those with the courage to speak, so I come to Juárez to understand how a mother survives the loss of her child.

I arrive in this city of roughly 1.3 million with apprehension built up over months of research. My senses are on alert as I head down the main thoroughfare, Paseo Triunfo de la Republica, in this city known for its missing women.

Everywhere I walk, the streets are filled with women on their way to school or work, followed by catcalls from men in cars.

Even as I drive in Irma's colonia, I see men hanging out on the street staring at the young girls as if the sidewalks are fashion runways.

Old tires litter driveways of homes built of cinder block and cement. Many are half finished, duct tape covering doorknob holes, and door frames gaping like missing front teeth.

Irma's house doesn't have a fancy iron fence like her neighbor's, but it's sturdy.

We sit in her kitchen, a tiny space that Irma has brightened by painting the walls an aquamarine that reminds me of Easter eggs.

Her eyes are the first thing that strike me.

They are deep brown like her children's, and kind like a mother's, but there is something else. She carries pain in those dark pools, a pain so deep it seems nothing can rescue her.


Irma's memories carry me into the past, to a time when a short encounter by the roadside was enough to make a mother happy.

From afar, Irma can spot her daughter's thin frame coming down the street that leads to their home in Colonia Granjas de Chapultepec.

Even through the dust stirred up by cars on the rocky road, a mother knows when her child is near.

They pass as Irma rounds the corner near their house, Esmeralda heading to school or work and Irma returning from her graveyard shift.

Their brief encounter brightens the walk along the road lined with chain-link fences and factories.

Esmeralda chuckles.

"Ay Mamí, poor thing. You're falling asleep, right?"

"Are you off, mi'ja?"

"Yes, Mamí."

"Be careful mi'ja ... May God help you."

A few days a week Esmeralda cleans houses. It's a job she begged her mom to let her take to pay for her quinceañera, a rite of passage for Mexican girls on their 15th birthday.

Esmeralda knows her mom can't afford the celebration, so she offers to work during her school break.

Irma worries about her daughter traveling across the city alone. She doesn't even feel safe in her own home, which has been broken into several times.

In the end, she gives her permission because Esmeralda will be working for Irma's former boss.

I understand why she let Esmeralda take the job. After just a month in Juárez, I feel safer, familiarity allowing me to move with more ease.

I've memorized the locations of the gas marts, the grocery chains, the malls. I've learned shortcuts around the city, the best times to wash at the coin laundry.

I don't think twice about heading out at night to follow a parade. And I find myself eager to return to the "safety" of Juárez after a bomb threat prevents me from getting cash at Wells Fargo in El Paso, Texas.

Like most mothers, Irma knew that danger lurked in the city, and she warned Esmeralda to be careful, not to talk to strangers.

She never imagined her daughter would end up in the news reports about the missing girls she used to watch with such pity.

"I'd say, 'Poor girls, their poor moms.'"

Now, she realizes how little she understood their pain.


It's Sunday evening, Oct. 28, 2001, and Irma stands in the bedroom doorway and says goodbye to her children as she leaves for work. Esmeralda is playing with her brother and sister in their room.

Irma works the graveyard shift in a Juárez maquiladora (factory) making frames for computers and televisions.

Seeing how hard her mother works, Esmeralda's ambition is to rescue her family from poverty.

She loves typing and dreams of becoming an executive secretary.

One day, she says, she'll earn enough to replace their dirt floors with cement, to build a fence, to buy a stove.

Irma works the overnight shift so that she can tend to her family by day.

Three of Irma's seven children are grown and married, but at home the single mother has Erick, 7; Zulema, 11; Esmeralda, 15; and Benigno, 16.

Irma separated from her first husband shortly after Esmeralda was born. After the failure of her second relationship, with Erick and Zulema's father, she resolved to support her family on her own.

Working seven days a week is just a fact of life.

All seems normal the next morning on Irma's walk home from the bus, until she fails to spot her daughter's trim figure. She pushes away her worries, thinking that Esmeralda must have left early for work.

But Esmeralda never comes home.


The next morning, when her children tell her that Esmeralda never returned from work, Irma begins frantically searching.

She can't eat, she can't sleep, and she loses 15 pounds in eight days.

On the ninth day Irma learns at work that the bodies of eight women have been found in an abandoned cotton field.

She goes to the morgue, where investigators show her a bra, a pair of white socks, a blouse - all they found with the body they think may be her daughter's.

The blouse is Esmeralda's. It's tiny and made of Lycra with a rainbow of colors. It's ripped and soaked with blood and something that looks like oil.

The socks are dirty and have lost their elastic, as if someone, Irma imagines, dragged Esmeralda through the mud.

Investigators tell Irma she can't see the body until she obtains a permit from the attorney general's office. So she returns home and breaks down, the images of the clothes haunting her. Her oldest children get the permit and identify the body so Irma won't have to.

The body, her children tell her, is bloated and purple, with the flesh above the neck missing; even the hair is gone. Just the skull remains.

This image plagues Irma. She doesn't understand how in nine days her daughter's head could have decomposed so.

It is fall, so it hasn't been hot, and the body was found under a shady tree in the cotton field. Investigators say animals ate the flesh, but there are no other bites on the body.

In this field where cotton once bloomed, all I find nearly two years later are remnants - yellowed weeds, broken branches and wisps of cotton in the dirt.

Death lingers everywhere. In the waterless channel, filled with empty bottles and discarded newspapers, yellow crime-scene tape and wooden sticks still mark the spot where bodies were found.

Standing at attention for motorists to see are crosses that commemorate the eight girls.

Their mothers painted them pink, bright as the expectations the day their daughters were born. In black, the color of death, their names: Laura Ber enice, Lupita, Esmeralda, Veronica, Claudia Ivette, Brenda, Barbara, unknown.

Questions about her daughter's death overwhelm Irma. She can't help wondering whether the body at the morgue is really Esmeralda.

Despite her doubts, Irma arranges for a funeral. She can't bear the thought of leaving the body at the morgue.

"If it's my daughter, OK, and if it's not, it doesn't matter. It doesn't hurt me to bury a body that doesn't have a family to claim her."

Sixteen days after authorities discovered the dead women, Irma buries the body using the money Esmeralda had saved for her quinceañera.


In many ways Irma's spirit died the day her daughter disappeared.

The people who took Esmeralda "ended her dreams, all our plans. And, well, nobody can remedy that. There's nothing we can do," Irma says.

Not even the arrest of two bus drivers, who are charged with murdering Esmeralda and the seven other young women, comforts Irma. She's convinced they aren't guilty, that they're merely scapegoats.

For days after Esmeralda's funeral, Irma wants nothing more than to lay her tired body next to her daughter's and close her eyes forever.

On one of those days Irma asks for permission to leave work early.

It's 5 a.m. as her bus pulls away from her factory and makes its way through the dark streets of Juárez.

She plans to swallow a bottle of antidepressant pills. First, she wants to see her children one last time. When she arrives home, her two youngest are sleeping peacefully.

She's exhausted, worn down and worn out by pain and tears.

Memories of her daughter swirl through her mind every day only to drain to the same, inevitable conclusion. Esmeralda is gone forever.

In her grief, suicide seems somehow logical. Peaceful. The only way.

Until she sees Erick and Zulema breathing softly in and out. Suddenly, she's racked with worry.

Who will they turn to when they need help? Who will take care of them?

She closes the door behind her. No, she can't kill herself, Irma decides.

Not today.


I take out my camera and peer through the lens at the dirt road in front of me. I wonder how much strength it must take for Irma to travel down the path where she and Esmeralda greeted each other every day.

As I snap photos, boys loitering on the corner whistle, asking me to take their picture. I ignore them, hoping they'll leave, but they continue heckling.

Is this how they badger 15- year-old girls who come home from school? Girls like Esmeralda?

The road seems sacred to me, not a place where boys should bother girls, but a place where Irma can find comfort in her memories.

For months, when she returns from work, she can't sleep and spends the day awake, sometimes standing in her doorway imagining Esmeralda heading up the hill to the corner store.

Because she feels powerless, she co-founds a support group for grieving mothers and organizes protests and marches.

The mothers learn that to be an activist in Juárez and challenge authorities has its consequences. One is followed, another is beaten in a shopping center, and some are harassed by early-morning phone threats.

It's hard to know whom to trust in a city where many believe the police are protecting the killers.

Frustrated with the lack of results, Irma quits the group.

A lifelong Catholic, she loses her faith, thinking that if God exists he wouldn't have let Esmeralda die.

She visits the cotton field looking for something to tell her it was Esmeralda's body. She finds nothing and soon stops going.

Other days she awakes awash in sadness and flips through her photo albums, crying all day.

Nothing matters to her. Until the day she's shaken out of her stupor by another shock.


Once talkative, Zulema becomes withdrawn and rebellious. Her grades drop, as do Erick's. She stops dancing and singing around the house as she did with Esmeralda.

Erick cries for Esmeralda, but Irma, wrapped in her own pain, doesn't notice.

One day, four months after the burial, Irma arrives home and discovers Zulema and Erick have overdosed on her bottle of tranquilizers.

"(Zulema) said we had to take it because we had to go with Esmeralda," Erick says.

Irma rushes them to the hospital. Erick recovers quickly because he vomits most of the drug, but Zulema spends three days at home in bed.

All they wanted was to be with their sister. Irma understands, but explains why suicide is not the answer.

"To go with Esmeralda, God has to call us when he decides, and that's when we'll see her."

Irma realizes how much her children need her and how selfish she's been.

"They felt alone. They felt the only one who mattered to me was Esmeralda."

When I ask what keeps her going, she answers without pause that it's her children.

She supports four of her children and a grandchild on her salary, which increases to $77 a week when she leaves the maquiladora to cook in a restaurant.

With so many mouths to feed, there are days when her refrigerator doesn't hold an egg or a tortilla.

Yet whenever she doesn't have the will to get up, she remembers the words of her church counselor: They ended your daughter's life; don't let them end yours.


How Irma would love to say that with each day the pain gets easier, but it doesn't.

Every time another corpse is found in the desert, she relives the pain that seared her heart when she learned her daughter's body was found.

When news reports surfaced about organ traffickers kidnapping young women, Irma asked herself: Did they take Esmeralda's eyes? Did they throw something on her face to disintegrate the evidence?

When authorities say women have no business being out at night, she steams.

"Of course you have to be out on the streets. Thousands of young girls, older women, all ages work in the maquiladoras, and why? Because we need to work, and we work the schedules that allow us to spend time with our families."

With her counselor she works on restoring her faith.

"I have started to believe that God does exist and that if things happen it's because there are people with bad intentions. Sometimes God can't handle everything," Irma says.

At night, visions of her daughter keep her awake and wondering. She sees Esmeralda's blouse, bloodied and ripped. She pictures the bloated body, the exposed skull.

The blouse, the socks, the bra are Esmeralda's, but is she alive somewhere? Irma can't help but hope.

"Sometimes that's what helps keep me going, knowing that one day I'll see her. That my daughter will appear."

Yet as much as her heart clings to this hope, Irma knows - as a mother knows when her daughter is near - that she and Esmeralda will never cross paths again.

"It's very sad, very painful," Irma says. "But sometimes that's the way it has to be.