Women of Juarez

She imagines her favorite, faraway places to try to forget where she is.

Instead of a tiny cement cell, she's walking on a New York City street filled with people.

Instead of a thin mattress with a toilet just a step away, she's sitting on a sandy beach with the ocean stretched out before her.

Then Isabel Arvide opens her eyes and sees a dark prison cell where night seems to last forever and her captors could come anytime to kill her.

"You're not here," the 52-year-old woman repeats to herself to try to keep calm. "You're not a prisoner."

The Mexico City journalist is certain she's going to be killed, just as she believes her best friend was seven years earlier in Ciudad Juárez, home base to one of the most powerful drug cartels in the world.

Heidi's death in 1995 led Isabel to the state of Chihuahua, sometimes for weeks at a time, where her investigation into her friend's death turned into a series of writings accusing the state attorney general and other top officials of corruption.

Now, here she is, at the mercy of the very people she's accused.

Isabel has been stripped of her clothing. Female guards have probed inside her to make sure nothing is hidden.

They return her clothes to her, then lead her through a maze of dark corridors to a five-cell block. Hours later, she's still waiting to find out why she's here. She's consumed with fear that she'll be killed.

After interviewing a politician in Chihuahua earlier that day, she was at the airport, waiting for her return flight to Mexico City, when a group of men surrounded her. They weren't in uniform but identified themselves as federal judicial police, then forced her out of the airport and into a truck with no police logo.

Isabel, panicked because this is how Heidi disappeared, asked why they were taking her, but the men didn't answer.

In two decades as a journalist, Isabel has written articles that infuriated powerful officials. Since Heidi's death, she's written that Chihuahua state government officials investigating the Juárez killings are linked to drug trafficking.

And since then, Isabel has survived two assassination attempts and taken to sleeping with a gun under her pillow.

In the truck, she screamed at the men, begging them to allow her to make a call until they finally gave her a cell phone.

"Get word out to the media and human rights. My life depends on it," she told Bruno, her 25-year-old son.

A TV producer in Mexico City, Bruno knows all her friends, many of them influential federal officials Isabel has met covering politics. Isabel knows Bruno will contact media outlets and have her friends call the governor of Chihuahua.

Still, sitting in her cell, Isabel doesn't know whether anything they do will lead to her freedom.

She asks fellow prisoners if she can borrow a pencil or pen so she can document her arrest, but they say they're under strict orders not to talk to her.

Isabel doesn't sleep and refuses prison food for fear of being poisoned.

In the morning, she's finally allowed to talk to her attorney.

He tells her she's accused of defaming a newspaper publisher who she said was affiliated with drug traffickers in an article published a year earlier in Milenio, a popular and well-respected Mexico City newspaper.

To get out of prison, Isabel must post bail of $10,000 in cash, until then the highest bail amount requested in the state of Chihuahua.

Isabel's attorneys have about 90 minutes, on a Saturday afternoon when many banks are closed, to collect the cash. Some banks don't have large amounts of money on hand.

Still, her attorneys think it's too risky for her to spend another night in prison. They work quickly, collecting cash from Isabel's friends, managing to get her out of prison that afternoon.

But that's not the end of her troubles in Chihuahua.

After that arrest in August 2002, she's required to travel from Mexico City every month and report to court. On one of those visits, she's arrested again, spends another frightening night in prison, and is charged with a second count of defamation.

The second charge is based on the same news article. The new charge accuses Isabel of defaming Chihuahua state Attorney General Jesus Jose Solis Silva, whose job at the time included overseeing the investigation of the serial killings in Juárez.

In the United States, truth is the strongest defense for a journalist facing defamation charges. In Mexico, things are different. Isabel tells me she has no doubt that what she wrote is true but says she's never been given the opportunity to dispute the case against her, and now faces up to two years in prison.

Groups such as the Committee to Protect Journalists and the Organization of American States have defended Isabel, saying the case is an attack on Mexico's embryonic democracy.

Isabel has grown used to barriers in her career, becoming a journalist when there weren't many women in the newsroom.

"I became very aggressive because that was the only way to survive in this business."

I wanted to write about a journalist because one of the problems in Juárez is that the press is muzzled. But I wasn't sure Isabel's story was the right one.

Then, I found out about Heidi, Isabel's best friend for 17 years.


Heidi's story starts like the others. In Juárez, where women disappear. Sometimes, they turn up dead. Often, they don't turn up at all.

This is what happened to Heidi Slauquet Armengol.

Isabel is a single mother who's just starting a reporting career when she meets Heidi at a party in Mexico City in the 1970s.

A captivating blonde with vivacious blue eyes, Heidi is a party girl, always in search of the next celebration. Isabel, dark-haired and serious, is instantly attracted to the fun, outgoing Heidi.

They become fast friends. Heidi makes Isabel's family her own. She tells Isabel she was born in the tiny country of Andorra between France and Spain and was adopted by peasants after her family was killed in the Holocaust.

At 15, Heidi left her adoptive parents and began a lifetime of wandering. She followed a bullfighter boyfriend from Europe to Mexico, where she felt so at home that, eventually, she became a citizen. An artist with no steady job, she found ways to earn a living, whether hawking her paintings or other artists' wares.

For nearly two decades, Heidi makes Mexico City her home and Isabel her closest friend. She and Isabel travel together. Heidi often outlasts Isabel on party nights, even though Isabel is 10 years younger.

Then, Heidi discovers Juárez. She tags along with Isabel on a 1993 reporting trip and is captivated by the vibrant social life on the border. When Isabel returns home, Heidi stays. She keeps her apartment in Mexico City, but Juárez becomes her home. In November 1995, Heidi is still in Juárez just as Isabel is preparing to publish her fifth book. Heidi offers to set up a reception in Juárez to promote it.

One day, Heidi takes a taxi to the airport so she can send sample invitations to Isabel by courier. She drops off the invitations and returns to the taxi.

Other cab drivers tell Isabel later that they saw men in dark SUVs force the taxi to a stop, snatch Heidi and take off.

It's the last time Heidi is seen.

The following day, Heidi's taxi driver is found, his body wrapped in a flower-print bedsheet. He was strangled, his day's earnings of $9 still in his pocket.

There are no signs of Heidi.

Two days later, Isabel arrives at the Juárez airport, fuming that her flighty friend isn't there to pick her up. Angry that Heidi won't answer her cell phone, Isabel checks into a hotel.

As the hours pass, Isabel begins to suspect something has happened to her friend.

When she goes looking for Heidi, few want to talk. Suddenly, Heidi's friends claim not to have known her.

As days, then weeks, and finally months, pass, Isabel prods authorities to investigate. If there was a time for Isabel to use her connections with people in high places, this is it.

Still, authorities don't take Heidi's disappearance seriously.

"Oh, she probably went off to some party or simply disappeared to start a new life somewhere," authorities say.

Isabel knows better. She knows Heidi wouldn't leave without telling her, or at least leaving instructions on what to do with her beloved Mexico City apartment.

So Isabel takes to the streets, interviewing witnesses police never questioned. Little by little, she pieces together Heidi's life in Juárez. Isabel learns her friend stumbled onto the dangerous social world of drug traffickers. In Juárez, Isabel says angrily, cartel leaders mingle freely with well-regarded business people.

Did her friend find out something she wasn't supposed to know? Did she say something to the wrong person?

Isabel has spent too much time writing about politics and corruption not to know how dangerous it can be to mess with drug traffickers. Until now, Isabel steered away from writing about them, once turning down an interview with a notorious drug lord even though it would have been a journalistic coup.

But Isabel knows that Heidi, in her never-ending quest to find the next party, might not have heeded common sense.

To pursue Heidi's disappearance, Isabel risks angering a dangerous crowd, but she can't back away from the most important mission in her life.

To turn her back on Heidi now means turning her back on everything she believes in. Her career has been about pursuing the truth.

And so Isabel presses on, trying to get federal authorities to investigate even though Chihuahua officials say they don't need any help. With what she's learned, she believes the same people killing women in Juárez kidnapped Heidi. But each time Isabel presents her evidence, the response is the same.

"This is a local matter."

Finally, after many fruitless meetings with state authorities, Isabel returns home.

She turns to the grim task of getting rid of Heidi's things. She terminates the lease on Heidi's apartment and dismisses the housekeeper. Without a body to bury, this is what forces Isabel to face the fact that Heidi is dead.

She writes about Heidi in a book titled "Death in Juárez." She uses her experiences as a starting point for other articles about corruption and drug trafficking in Chihuahua. Much of her writing focuses on the hundreds who vanish without a trace in Juárez.

"The cases of the disappeared, they are much bigger than the cases of women killed in Juárez," Isabel says. "One day, this will all come to light."

In late 2001, Mexican federal authorities for the first time become involved in the cases of the missing men and women of Juárez. They dig on a ranch where hundreds of bodies are believed to be buried, the victims of drug violence. In the end, 11 bodies are unearthed, but Isabel considers it a victory that federal authorities stepped in.

Despite all Isabel does and writes, Heidi's disappearance is never solved. Her body is never found.

Heidi becomes, like the hundreds of others who have disappeared, an unacknowledged victim of the violence in Juárez.


Even with prison time hanging over her head, Isabel continues to write scathing critiques of Chihuahua authorities.

In a July 18, 2003, column published in the Juárez daily El Norte, Isabel writes that authorities don't do much more than type up a complaint when it comes to the serial killings.

"There, the norm is not investigating."

A few weeks later, she's due for one of her court-mandated visits to the city of Chihuahua, where I've arranged to meet her.

Looking out a courthouse window as I wait for her, I see a cluster of people walking in formation with a steady stride and purpose. A lone woman is surrounded by about a dozen men.

It's Isabel. The men are her bodyguards, all appointed by agencies of the Mexican government after death threats and assassination attempts prompted by her writings. Her first bodyguard was appointed about 14 years ago after Isabel wrote about military officials raping young women.

Other stories and more bodyguards followed.

I find it ironic that she must rely on bodyguards supplied by the various levels of government she criticizes.

The contradictions don't stop there. Even as she takes on the government, her primary income comes from her consulting job for the federal attorney general. And, accustomed to working with politicians, she also socializes with them, appearing in society-page photos with ex-presidents.

On this August day, Isabel signs in at the courthouse and then meets me at a restaurant, where we talk for hours, her bodyguards positioned strategically in the restaurant.

She tells me that each time she visits, she signs in and has breakfast. While waiting for the one return flight home, she writes her column, which appears in several Mexican newspapers and on her Web site.

During those hours, Isabel fears she'll get killed.

Her second arrest in March 2003 happened as she was leaving a restaurant, her attorney at one side, a bodyguard on the other and 11 others nearby.

A man approached her. "Isabel, don't you remember me?"

She studied his face.

"I'm the one who arrested you at the airport, and I'm the one who's here to arrest you again," he told her, as her bodyguards took out their guns. Just then, agents in camouflage carrying assault rifles drove up. Isabel's attorney requested the arrest warrant.

"Yes, this is legal. We have to go with them," he said.

Isabel squeezed into the cab of a truck with her attorney and two police officers. As they drove away, the driver yelled into his radio, "Get rid of her people! Get rid of her people!"

Isabel tensed, fearing a bloody confrontation. There were 28 vehicles, each carrying at least two agents.

As they neared the state prison, Isabel began to relax, knowing where she was going.

But Isabel faced another night in prison, this time in isolation. Again, it wasn't until morning that she found out about the second charge of defamation against her. This time, bail was set at $20,000 cash, again setting a record.

At the restaurant in Chihuahua, Isabel is wearing snug black pants and a denim shirt. In her bag, she carries contact lens solution and a toothbrush.

"I always come prepared to spend the night in prison."


Once, months after Heidi vanished, Isabel dreamed about her.

"How are you, little body?" Heidi asked in the dream.

"Cuerpecito" was Heidi's term of endearment for Isabel.

The dream was so real that Isabel believed, for a few minutes, that her friend was still alive. She forced herself awake, only to cry when she realized that her friend was gone.

I ask whether she believes our loved ones can communicate with us after death.

"Not with Heidi. It's too soon because Heidi's death was very violent. These people who kidnapped her didn't merely shoot her. Why am I so sure of this? Just look at how the taxi driver was found," Isabel says.

She tells me this in October 2003 in her Mexico City home.

Her apartment in Colonia Condesa, a central neighborhood near foreign embassies and chic shops, is a colorful haven decorated with paintings by Heidi and other art from Isabel's travels. Photographs of Isabel with each of the Mexican presidents for the past two decades adorn the stairwell.

Each morning, Isabel settles in on her lime-green leather couch to read the papers, preparing an analysis of the news for the federal attorney general.

It's easy to forget for a moment that, downstairs, bodyguards with semi-automatic weapons within easy reach are always around, watching her.

It's a life I would never wish on anyone.

At times, Isabel thinks of escaping to another country, but she doesn't know any foreign languages. She's been a writer all her life and doesn't know how else she could earn a living.

In the spring, months after I visit Isabel, the state attorney general who accused her of defamation leaves his post amid allegations of corruption and close ties to drug traffickers.

Around the same time, the society pages are buzzing with the news that Isabel has finished her first novel.

It's called "The Enemy is in the House."