Women of Juarez

Some days Benita Monarrez Salgado just wants to give up, and this is one of them.

One of the mothers in Benita's group has burst into tears, and they sit in a circle, staring uncomfortably at the table.

She says she's tired of everyone taking advantage of her - the media, the government, and even their own group. She's angry at Benita, who sits solemnly in her chair.

She's not the first to complain about Benita. Other mothers have accused her of being controlling, of not sharing the group's donations fairly, of hoarding the governmentissued van given to the group.

At the back of the room, I sit still, suddenly feeling like a friend invited to a dinner that turns into a family squabble.

After a decade of daughters disappearing in their troubled city, these mothers see no end to their pain, nor to the kidnappings and killings of women.

One by one, young, working-class women have vanished in this desert city near the Rio Grande River. Some are never found; others are discovered raped, mutilated and abandoned in empty cotton fields, in desert corridors, on barren hillsides.

Among them is Benita's daughter Laura Berenice, 17, who vanished Sept. 21, 2001.

Today Benita, 41, is transformed. Her face bears the anguish of a mother, the determination of an activist and the fatigue of an embattled leader.

She co-founded Integración de Madres por Juárez, (Mothers United for Juárez) to press authorities to solve the killings, bring attention to the cases, and raise money for DNA tests on bodies hard to identify.

The pain is so deep for these mothers that wounds open easily, even as they turn a corner in their battle for justice.

After a year of trying to find agencies to help them, the mothers have just signed a letter asking the government to grant them a plot of land.

With this land they hope to build their dream: a tortilla shop. The tortillería, along with their crafts business, will help them support their families.

As Benita prepares to leave after the meeting, she leans against the steering wheel of the group's minivan and sighs.

As the president, she often comes under attack for the way she runs the group.

"Sometimes I think about abandoning everything and focusing on my family, but then I think I've come so far to just abandon it like that," she says.

Benita looks into the distance as her memory travels back in time.

"I was a different person when my daughter was alive."

Before Laura disappeared, Benita sold used clothing from her home, and worked for a cookie company giving out samples in supermarkets.

She and her husband, a maquiladora security guard, could afford only a one-room house with dirt floors, but Benita found herself in high spirits and full of energy - enough so that when Laura asked her to dress up, Benita would happily comply.

"I always want to see you dressed elegantly, pretty," Laura would tell her.

So Benita would put on a miniskirt and heels. She'd make up her face, sweep up her hair and polish her nails.

"I still remember how she leaned her head against my shoulder and sat on my lap," Benita says. "She was always the daughter who kept me moving forward."

Now, Benita draws strength by helping other grieving mothers to help themselves.

Found in a field

Like many of the mothers in her group, Benita finds it difficult to forget about the past.

Laura disappeared just a month shy of her 18th birthday and a year from graduation.

Almost two months later, authorities announced that her body was one of eight found in a former cotton field near her father's colonia.

Authorities took six months to identify Laura, and Benita's uneasiness grew. Without explaining the delay, they delivered the body in a sealed box and ordered Benita not to open it.

"One of the agents said they were protecting me. Why don't they protect me now from this desperation and anguish?"

Believing that the body wasn't her daughter, Benita kept a piece of leg bone and sent it to California for a DNA test.

Unable to afford the $4,000 to have the test done, she turned to U.S. activists to raise the money.

All she could do was wait.

"Right now, what keeps me going is wanting to know - maybe my daughter is alive. Or whether she's dead. That's what keeps me going. That and to be able to help people in the same situation," says Benita, also mother to Claudia, 23; Jorge Daniel, 16; and Ramon, 1.

Early on, Benita decided she didn't want the group to depend on handouts.

"We have to find a way to do it ourselves," she says.

Benita's daughter Claudia created a business plan for the tortillería, while Benita began approaching politicians, people who'd never crossed her path before Laura's disappearance.

"You learn to do things you never would have after you've suffered," Benita says. "I turned my rage into something positive, into something that the people could use."

Her voice is soft, almost timid, but she carries her head high, and her stride is purposeful.

Her eyes, framed by the arched brows Laura inherited, can turn in an instant from friendly to furious as she rails against the media or anyone who steps in the way.

Yet, on another day in the group's office, she weeps, admitting how hard it is to carry this burden for herself and the women of Juárez.

She leans her head in her hands, wondering how she's going to pay the group's phone bill. She doesn't have enough for her gas bill or medicine for her son Ramon, who has pneumonia.

"Sometimes I feel like crying and crying, but I know that crying won't get me anywhere. I know that I have to face the world no matter what."

I'm not the first reporter to show up at Benita's office, and she eyes me with mistrust.

Before I even begin the interview, she complains about the droves of reporters who come knocking at her door.

It angers her to think that the media have made money off the mothers' grief.

From Poland to England, from New York to Miami, reporters swoop in, cameras ready, notebooks in hand. They produce documentaries, publish books and magazine articles that make them money, says Benita, her brown eyes brewing with anger.

"Where's the money for us?"

I explain that I'm there to tell her story so readers will see that she and the other mothers are trying to make a difference, despite their financial troubles.

Their office, a converted home on a busy boulevard, is so empty our voices echo. Its only furnishings are a school desk and a row of metal chairs, but the mothers keep it clean, sweeping up and chasing out rats that sneak into the kitchen.

Benita keeps the refrigerator stocked, using the earnings the group makes selling crafts. It's the least she can offer the mothers, she says, who don't have enough to feed their families.

One rule the mothers established when they began meeting a year ago was not to talk about the past.

"We miss (our daughters). They were a big part of our lives, but may all the cruelty of the past stay in the past, and may we get ahead for the children we still have with us," Benita says.

It's a tough goal.

"We haven't just lost a daughter, we've lost a way of life," Benita says. "It affects everything completely."

Some families disintegrate, leaving grandmothers to raise their daughters' children.

Benita vows to help these orphans. She wants to give them food, clothes, tuition and counseling. She wants each orphan to "be an accomplished person, to not end up as street kids."

Many promise to help, but leave the mothers waiting.

A Washington, D.C., woman offers seed money for the tortillería, but the group doesn't hear from her for months.

A Texan says she'll donate sewing machines so the mothers can make curtains and robes, but none has materialized.

Without enough money to buy fabric, three rented industrial sewing machines remain silent in a back room.

Instead, the women make felt dolls and other crafts. They go to meetings for moral support as well as counseling provided by the government.

Making dolls and selling tortillas might help the mothers feed their families, but they know it won't solve their daughters' cases. For that they say they must pressure authorities.

They wear T-shirts emblazoned with their daughters' faces, they hang placards around their necks demanding justice, and they crash news conferences to show politicians that they won't back down.

Moment of triumph

It's impossible to miss her.

Dressed in a miniskirt and a crisp, white top, her auburn hair swept up in a bun, Benita stands calmly, watching the chaos.

I inch my way, little by little, through the crush of journalists, government officials and activists clamoring to get under the white tent.

It's one of those July days when the hellish heat makes the air suffocating.

I pass a phalanx of stern- faced, fatigue-clad officers and head toward the stage where some of Mexico's highest-ranking officials sit.

Not even the blistering heat has kept Benita from appearing here at municipal headquarters.

It's an important day for local authorities, who will unveil a new security program to curb the crime that's gripped the city for more than a decade.

Benita, however, is not here just to listen.

She knows if she makes the right move, she can make their case before the governor, the secretary of state, or even Mexico's attorney general.

Standing nearby, the mothers of the missing women wait for a signal from their scout. They're tired of waiting for police to stop the killings.

The officials take to the podium and denounce the killings, but Benita has heard this before and bides her time, fanning herself with a set of folders.

When a news conference begins inside, she hurries to the auditorium with the rest of the mothers in tow and peers in.

She wants just a few minutes with Secretary of the Interior Santiago Creel, but when the news conference ends, the officials slip out a back door.

"Let's go!" Benita shouts to the mothers. She sprints down the staircase in her high heels and hurries to a tour bus that Creel is about to board.

Benita flags him, introduces herself and hands him a letter.

"We need support to launch our projects, but we also want our cases to be resolved," she says. "We want to know if our daughters' cases are being investigated."

Creel tells her that his assistant will help her in any way he can, thanks her and leaves. A few minutes later, his assistant makes an appointment with the group to listen to their concerns.

To outsiders this might seem like a minor triumph, but for Benita it's a victory.

For too long her complaints have been brushed aside, but she believes that each letter she writes, every plea she makes, and each official she confronts brings her that much closer to finding her daughter's killer.


Every day comes with its battles for Benita as she deals with poor mothers who accuse her of pressuring them to produce crafts and claim she doesn't distribute the money they earn equally.

They say she uses their group for her own benefit and doesn't share donations.

"There are other families who are far worse off than I am, and she won't offer to help, not even to give you a kilo of tortillas, for anything," says one mother.

They resent it when Benita and other leaders travel to conferences and talk shows.

"They say they go to the United States, they go to San Antonio, to Los Angeles...waving us like little flags, but nothing comes our way," mother Rosario Hernández says.

At first, Rosario accepted Benita's offer to make crafts in exchange for part of the profits, but she grew disillusioned when she received $10 for her work. A bus trip alone cost her $2.80.

Other mothers have similar complaints, including the group's vice president, Maria de Jesus Diaz, who stops making crafts as well.

When California activists donate supplies, Benita is accused of keeping them. A Texas parish donates $1,000, but some mothers say Benita told them it never arrived.

Benita denies the allegations and says she hopes people can see that she's not motivated by money, but by justice.

"I don't prize money. Yes, money is necessary to survive, but no amount can replace my daughter," she says.

Opening shop

Despite the group's differences, Benita pushes on, and by October they're on the way to opening the tortillería.

The government decides to grant the group a plot of land, and $9,000 in seed money comes from the United Nations and two government programs.

At a conference at the University of California, Los Angeles, Benita's face beams as she talks to me about the plans.

Normally aloof, she's more relaxed as she sits behind a table selling her group's crafts, tiny handbags with their logo: a half circle of children holding hands before a red rose.

If all goes well, the tortilla shop will open soon, a prospect the group faces with nervousness and happiness, she says. Nervousness because of the responsibility, and happiness because their destiny will be in their own hands.

As she speaks on a panel, Benita stresses that she and her group don't want to be victims any longer.

"I want people to know me by the work I do - our handmade work as much as our social work," Benita says.

Autumn also brings loss for the group, which hemorrhages members still upset with Benita's management. Its numbers dwindle from 25 to 10.

Again, her doubts surface.

"There are days when I come to the office, I greet the women, do my work and I leave," she says. "I'm living with such pain. People look at me and must say I look spent."

The turbulence comes in waves. The first of the DNA results show the body Benita buried was her daughter's.

The news devastates Benita, whose voice trembles as she talks about it, but she doesn't take the bad news as conclusive.

"I still have the hope that my daughter might be alive. Of course I'm accepting this more, but deep down, deep down I have to believe that my daughter is alive."

So she waits patiently for a second set of test results and forges ahead.

All she asks for is the strength and the wisdom to carry her pain and move on.

By December, the rest of the mothers in her group defect to the Chihuahua Institute for Women, a state-funded agency.

Benita is upset by the loss and claims the government is trying to divide the mothers.

Still, she's determined to open the tortillería, and finds a storefront in a neighborhood of businesses and homes.

As her group's president and sole member, she prepares and sends out invitations for the inauguration of Tortillería La Esperanza (The Hope).

She invites a priest to bless the business, prepares appetizers - cold meats, cheese, salads and, of course, tortillas. Last, she strings a cherry-red ribbon at the entrance to the shop.

On Jan. 4, 2004, Benita opens Tortillería La Esperanza to the public.

As she watches the shop's mill churn the corn dough, Benita wants to laugh and cry at the same time.

She thinks of the girls who continue to disappear, she thinks of their families who struggle to return to daily life after the loss of their daughters. It's difficult, she says, to integrate yourself back into the world.

Yet with a job, even if it's simply selling tortillas, a person can have hope, she says.

"I felt so happy to have been able to achieve this after so many difficulties and stumbles," Benita says. "I felt very excited...because, despite the circumstances, I'm striving so that this can be something that truly benefits the families who need it."