Women of Juarez

From afar, his figure is slight, with barely enough meat to hold up his baggy clothes, but that doesn't stop him from sauntering down the roads of his neighborhood with the cool indifference of a street king.

If you look hard, you'll see traces of the boy who once had a reason to smile.

The brown eyes, the wide mouth, the ample cheekbones are the same. It's the way he looks at the world that's different now.

Gone are the blond hair and the mischievous gleam in his eyes. His hair has grown dark, and he keeps it shaved close to his head. And, from beneath a red bandana wrapped around his head, his eyes simmer with anger and suspicion.

Hands stuffed in his pockets, he saunters into his great-aunt's patio without a glance at his grandmother's house, where I sit in the driveway.

I sigh and get up, knowing what awaits me. I make my way past the abandoned cars, step over the car seat that serves as porch chair and greet him.

He scowls.

It's not easy getting to know Angel Atayde Arce.

His eyes glower, especially as I prod him with questions. He's suspicious of the media, and wonders why I want to spend time with him.

He's mad at the world, and who can blame him?

If someone ripped away the person you loved most, who loved you no matter what, what would you do?

Angel's mother, Silvia Arce Atayde, vanished after work on March 11, 1998 - in an instant becoming part of the living nightmare that's enveloped this city of roughly 1.3 million.

It's not this chain of disappearances, however, but the story of the children left behind that brings me to her son.

Angel has chosen to do everything his mother would have forbidden if she hadn't disappeared.

He started doing drugs, then moved on to dealing them. He joined a gang, then became one of its leaders. He dropped out of school and fathered a child.

On this quiet summer day, he's sullen and distant, answering my questions with a "yes" or "no," until I tell him that I visited his sister, Esmeralda, who lives eight hours away by bus in Jimenez, Chihuahua.

I ask if he wants to see the photos, and he goes through them, sitting atop a junk car. For a moment his face softens, and he smiles.

Few things dissolve Angel's hardened heart. Esmeralda and his little brother, Esteban, are two of them.

I leave him a short stack of pictures to keep, and as I drive away, he's still sitting atop the car, hunched over, like an old man in his 15-year-old body.

I stop at the corner grocery store for cool water. It's one of those sticky summer days when the hot wind coats you with a layer of grime.

In a patch of dirt next to the sidewalk, I notice a baby corn stalk fighting for space with a wilted juniper.

Both need water. Both need care. But in this parched stretch of Chihuahua, Mother Nature isn't always so generous with her children.


On another afternoon, Angel and I sit down to talk in his grandmother Eva's darkened living room, where the curtains are drawn to ward off the heat. He usually doesn't talk much about his past, not even to his friends, Angel tells me.

He'd rather bear the pain and not talk about that horrible day when he realized that love alone was not enough to bring a mother home.

Anxious and worried, 10 year old Angel hurried home the minute school let out that cold March afternoon.

His heart raced with anticipation, hoping for good news, hoping that his mother had been found safe and that she would be there waiting when he walked through the door.

Angel's father, Octavio Atayde, had desperately searched for Silvia all day, calling friends and revisiting the site where she was last seen: getting into a car outside the nightclub where she worked.

When Angel stepped through the front door after school, his father's crestfallen eyes told him everything. His mom had not come home.

"I felt like I was suffocating because I sensed something, but I didn't know what it was," Angel tells me, in the slurred drawl of a boxer who's been hit too many times.

Life as the Atayde Arce children knew it ended that day. Despite a massive search, Silvia, 29, was never heard from again.

In the weeks that followed, Angel, Esmeralda, then 11, and Esteban, 4, were shuttled to Eva's house, as Octavio took to drinking.

What they didn't know was that their ordeal was far from over – alone they would face the evils and temptations that their mother had tried so hard to protect them from.

They joined the scores of Juárez children known as the "orphans of the disappeared," a group of at least 80 children whose stories are rarely told.


All is quiet except for the crunch of Angel's running shoes on the rocky road in his colonia, Granjas de Chapultepec, on this overcast July day.

Sometimes it seems as if Angel is always running, away from me, away from his past, away from anything that reminds him of Silvia.

I drop by his great aunt's house to see if he will talk to me, but he takes off running when he sees me.

I follow and he finally stops, but offers little about where he's been or what he's been doing. I can tell he's looking for a way to escape. A few seconds later, an excuse materializes when a beat-up Datsun truck rumbles down the dirt road, stops and honks.

Angel squints suspiciously, then recognizes the passengers. "Wait here," he tells me, and approaches the truck.

After a short conversation, he digs into his baggy jeans and hands the driver a package.

He lights a cigarette and leans against the truck smoking until a police truck rounds the corner. In an instant Angel is running again. There's nobody he can trust.

Trust was something he once shared with his mother, who would take the time to play board games with him on weekends. Who hunted him down in the neighborhood at 9 p.m. sharp when he ignored his curfew playing Nintendo with a friend. Who would scold him, but explain right from wrong.

Since his mother's disappearance, he says, he's become the family outcast, the one who doesn't get along with anybody, the one no one understands. Not even Eva, who accused him of stealing from her and said he couldn't live with her anymore.

His friends are his family now, he says.

Yet, on a night when he was surrounded by friends, laughing, drinking and partying, Angel, feeling alone in the world, decided to take his life.

He reached into his pocket for his 9mm automatic gun, which he began carrying after he was shot in the leg by a rival gang, and pointed it at his head.

A friend spotted him and pleaded with him to stop: Think of what your mother would say if she returned; imagine Esteban crying over your death.

Angel stopped and nodded.

"In the end, it's hope that moves you," he tells me.

His words seem at odds with the boy who lives life so dangerously, as if he's already given up.

He claims nobody cares about him, but from Jimenez, Esmeralda thinks of him every day, believing there's still hope for her brother.

"Nobody gave him the love he needed. I don't think any of us got the love we needed," Esmeralda, 17, says. "Eva was too busy, she spent so much time searching for my mom that she didn't pay attention to us. My brother was just looking for attention so he could be the same person he was before."

The child Angel was before is far different from the young man he's become.

In family pictures, the Atayde Arce children giggle, romping through a desert playground in Southern California, where they lived for four years near relatives.

Those were the days when Angel was an adorable boy with hair so golden his nickname was "El Sol (the sun)."

The days when Esteban, with his chubby cheeks, was the mascot for Angel's Juárez baseball team and knew how to make the crowd laugh. Even Esmeralda joined in the revelry, leading cheers for the team.

They lived the life of a typical Juárez family, with two working-class parents - Octavio, a bartender and restaurant chef, and Silvia, a nightclub worker. Octavio says she was a dancer, but Eva says her daughter sold burritos and cosmetics at the club.

It wasn't a perfect life, by any means.

Angel's fists still clench when he remembers how his parents' arguments turned violent. Octavio admits he hit Silvia early in their marriage, but the children say the beatings continued.

Despite their problems, the Atayde Arce children remember the love of their parents.

Silvia loved to cook and made sure the refrigerator was stocked and pan dulce was on the table. Octavio taught Angel how to throw a ball and managed his baseball team.

Esmeralda twirled in gymnastics, danced, performed in theater and took modeling classes.

She was the big sister with big dreams. She was going to be a teacher, maybe a social worker. Angel had dreams too, of climbing into a fire truck when he grew up and commanding the steering wheel, just like the firefighters near his house.

When Silvia disappeared, all of that changed. Discomfort became a daily part of their lives as they bounced from home to home.

Octavio spent much of the next five years in prison in the United States, serving time for smuggling marijuana and then for crossing the border illegally.

Angel, who was in fourth grade when Silvia disappeared, had always done well in school. But in junior high, he started talking back to teachers and even the principal.

He'd use his school money to go to the movies with friends.

The final thread connecting him to his former life broke when a friend of Octavio's invited Angel to do maintenance work, and he left school for good. Four months later, he quit the job, too, and started hanging out with a gang.

Angel blamed Octavio for his mother's disappearance. He grew even angrier when his father's girlfriend moved in with them. He started swearing and misbehaving, anything he could to sabotage the new love in Octavio's life.

Then he received another blow, when 14-year-old Esmeralda married Jose Natividad Diaz Rodriguez, the brother of Octavio's girlfriend.

"I looked for love in somebody else ... and he gave me love," Esmeralda says.

She was pregnant with her first daughter, Heidy, by the following May and became a mother at age 15.

The young couple moved to Jimenez, a sleepy town of vast green valleys where Natividad's elderly parents live. Far from her brothers, Esmeralda has new responsibilities now as a mother to Heidy, 16 months, and Ruth, 4 months, yet she still hasn't stopped hoping for her mother's return.


"Vroom, vroom," come the voices from the kitchen one warm July morning.

Crouched together in front of the television that sits on Eva's kitchen counter, the two brothers maneuver their Nintendo joysticks, trying to outdo one another in a car race.

His arm draped across Esteban's back, Angel looks harmless, not like the delinquent maligned and feared on the streets of his colonia.

It's only around Esteban that Angel's soft side emerges.

We visit the nearby house that he shares with friends, and he beams when he introduces his 9-year-old brother to them.

"This is my brother from Califas," Angel says, proudly showing off Esteban, who was born in California and lives with his uncle in Texas during the school year.

More than anything, Angel tells me, he wants to help his little brother get ahead in life, to give him everything he can so he can study and become someone.

"I don't want him to go through what I've gone through," Angel says.

Unlike Esmeralda and Angel, Esteban doesn't have as many memories of his mother.

After she vanished, he'd wake up in the morning and tell Eva that his mom cradled him in her arms and sang to him in his dreams.

"I'm going to study and go to the sea, and when I'm there I'm going to ask God to bring back my mom," he'd tell Eva.

Over time, the few memories began fading, but what his mind couldn't remember, his heart still longed for.

Eva, 63, has tried as best she can to fill Silvia's role, keeping Esteban close during the summer.

And that's where I find him one August afternoon, at the dining room table, with his head buried in his arms, crying quietly.

Eva won't let him play soccer with his friends, he tells me. I remember my conversations with Eva, an activist who's marched and protested for justice: the phone threats she receives at 6 a.m., the way she was beaten in a shopping center, her fears that one day whoever took Silvia will take the children too.

I want to hug Esteban and tell him it's OK, but I don't. The journalist in me doesn't want to step outside professional bounds, but my heart aches for him and all he's lost.

Esteban wants the freedom to run with his friends to a nearby soccer field and kick the ball.

Instead, he resigns himself to playing in his yard, under Eva's watchful gaze. He and his cousin Luis dig roads in mounds of dirt for their toy trucks and let their imagination take them places they can't go.

Esteban doesn't look at the world with the same fears that Angel and Eva do.

All he knows is that he misses his family when he's shuttled to his uncle's house in Amarillo, Texas, where he's spent the past two school years.

Eva sends him there, fearing Angel's influence will draw Esteban into a life of lawlessness.

She knows how easily a young life can be taken off course.


Sometimes Eva doesn't see Angel for days, and she worries.

On Election Day, when a boy gets shot nearby, she prays and hopes it's not her grandson.

Then she spots him from afar, entering his great-aunt's house to eat a meal or hanging out on a street corner, and her heart stops beating so quickly.

But in September, when she doesn't see Angel for weeks, she knows something is wrong.

She tracks down his friends, who tell her Angel must be in El Paso, Texas, but he still doesn't show up. She talks to neighbors and police and anyone who will listen, until she discovers he's being held in the Juárez state prison.

"I had this fear. I said maybe (the police have) done something to Angel," Eva says. "I was expecting the worst news - that they would say they had found him lying there in his prison cell dead. That's what we imagined."

When his uncle visits him in prison, he finds Angel so beaten that he's vomiting blood. His legs have also been burned with electrical shocks. Angel maintains his innocence. He says he was buying pens at a stationery store when a group of men tried to rob the store. When police caught the robbers they also rounded up Angel, who is also accused of five murders unrelated to the robbery.

In mid-September, he's transferred to a juvenile hall, where he's given a two-year sentence and enrolled in junior high classes. When a prison official tells me he's taking computer, carpentry and mechanic classes, I try to imagine Angel sitting in a classroom.

It seems impossible.

Just as impossible, I'm sure, for Silvia Arce Atayde, who had such great dreams for her children, to have imagined where they are now: a son in prison, a daughter mothering two babies, and her youngest living far from his family in the United States.

It was as if Silvia's dreams vanished with her.