Women of Juarez

The phone call came early in the morning, just days before Christmas.

All was quiet in Colonia Nogales, the middle-class neighborhood where Esther Chavez Cano settled 20 years ago on a peaceful cul-de-sac.

Her living room, welcoming and airy with its high ceilings and brick fireplace, was usually tidy. But on this day Esther was scrambling to finish a project for the mayor, and files and papers were everywhere.

With the city's help, Esther planned to open a 24-hour shelter to complement Casa Amiga Centro de Crisis, the rape-crisis center she started in 1999.

The shelter would be another groundbreaking move for Esther. Casa Amiga was the first of its kind and for years the only domestic-violence center in this desert city of roughly 1.3 million.

At 67, Esther could have been enjoying her retirement years, but there was too much work to do, too many lives to protect.

Esther looked at the clock. It was almost 9 a.m., her printer was jammed, and she was worried about clients who would soon start arriving at Casa Amiga.

Then the phone rang. It was one of Casa Amiga's counselors.

"Esther, come quickly. Maria's been killed."

"How? How did this happen?" Esther cried. "I'm on my way."

Esther ran to her car and, ignoring stop signs, raced through the streets of Juárez.

Maria Luisa Carsoli had recently taken a job as a receptionist at Casa Amiga after fleeing her abusive husband.

When she arrived at work, her husband was waiting near the corner bakery, a knife hidden in his sleeve.

Casa Amiga's housekeeper, Lourdes "Lulu" Hernandez, and her young son, Jose Francisco, were waiting on the sidewalk in the sun when Maria pulled up in her station wagon.

Maria had just stepped out of her car and greeted Lourdes when her husband confronted her. The two began arguing, and he pulled out his knife and lunged at Maria.

Lourdes tried to defend her, throwing her body against him and punching him.

"Help me, Lulu; don't let him kill me," Maria cried, but he pushed Lourdes away, shoved Maria against a wall and stabbed her twice in the chest.

Lourdes screamed for help and ran to the nearby bakery, but the shopkeeper ignored her. He was too busy selling tortillas to help.

By the time Esther arrived, it was too late. Maria's body was lying on the tree-lined sidewalk in her own blood, surrounded by police.

Sobbing, Jose Francisco ran to her. "Esther, the knife went through Maria's back. I saw it."

Blocked by the yellow police tape, Esther could only watch over Maria's body. At least cover her, she told the police officers, who spread a blanket over her.

"They wouldn't let me get near her, to take her hand in mine, to tell her all the pain that my soul felt," Esther says.

Esther thought of Maria's sweet laugh, her caring nature, and the nights she sat in Esther's living room trembling as she talked about the times her husband had tried to kill her.

Esther took Maria into her home to help her start a new life with her four children. Then, when her husband stalked her, Esther found her another place to stay.

She had been determined to save Maria from the fate that so many women had met.

A retired accountant turned activist, Esther had fought for years to keep women from being battered and killed.

She was one of the first to realize that a series of women, some girls as young as 10 and 11, were being kidnapped, mutilated, tortured and killed. Though few were willing to speak out, Esther publicly condemned the slayings and helped bring international attention to this border city.

She kept a running list of the deaths, and by her count, in little more than a decade 95 women have been killed in connection with the serial crimes, and another 190 have been killed by their husbands and boyfriends.

Both types of crimes enraged Esther. She knew that in a city where a woman's life was worth less than an order of tortillas, she couldn't keep quiet. That to fight violence against women she had to change society's attitude toward them.

So I arrived in Juárez to meet the woman who hasn't let up on her mission.

The day that Maria died, Esther vowed to open the shelter immediately.

That was Dec. 21, 2001.

Four days later, for the first time, Esther gave refuge to a mother of three in Casa Amiga's new shelter.

She silently told Maria, "I kept the promise I made to you the day you died, but I still suffer because I couldn't save your life."

Esther and her staff wept and hugged when Maria's husband was sentenced to 14 years in prison. At least one killer didn't get away with murder.

"It's something so profound, so painful, to see a loved one in a puddle of blood that I don't know how to describe it," Esther says. "Rage, impotence, suffering, guilt, anguish, but also courage to continue our struggle against the violence against us women."


A phone rings in Casa Amiga, and a counselor answers it. The menacing voice of a man makes his intent clear.

"Is Esther Chavez there?" the man asks.

"No, she's busy. Can you wait?" a Casa Amiga counselor asks.

"No, just tell her to remember Digna Ochoa," the man says and hangs up. With a chill she realizes he's referring to the Mexico City human-rights lawyer found shot to death.

The men who make these anonymous threats on Esther's life have no idea what type of woman they're dealing with.

The threats give her pause. She beefs up security, doesn't allow her staff to work alone, and arranges for the last worker to be escorted to her car at the end of each day.

But scared? She's not.

On a July morning I head to Colonia Hidalgo, a working-class neighborhood near downtown Juárez, where Casa Amiga operates in a yellow stucco house that blends in with the single-story homes on the block.

Inside, the center bustles with women. In the day care, preschoolers watch puppet shows that explain why incest is wrong. In their offices, counselors prepare skits presented daily to factory workers to raise awareness about rape and domestic violence. In meeting rooms, psychologists counsel couples to work through their disputes.

Like the rest of the center, the reception area of Casa Amiga is worn and shabby. Cheery posters brighten the rooms, yet I can't help but make a mental list of the things the center needs: toys for the child-care room, an updated kitchen, computers that don't break down.

I notice a young boy with a ready smile hanging around the office. It's Jose Francisco, the son of Lourdes, Casa Amiga's housekeeper.

He's 10 years old, born the same year Esther began tracking the killings. He has grown up in a city known for its slayings. He lives in a country where nearly half of women suffer abuse or violence at home. He has witnessed a woman being stabbed to death at the doorstep of the center.

I wonder, as I watch him follow his mom as she cleans, how he will treat women when he grows up.

Is there hope for Jose Francisco in a city that doesn't inspire much hope?

As I wait for Esther, I see her hurrying down the hallway, surrounded by her staff as she gives instructions.

Around me, mothers sit patiently, hushing their babies and fanning away the stifling heat. Though she has appointments to keep, Esther greets each client with a hug.

She's a wisp of a figure, petite and blonde. Behind her glasses, Esther's blue-green eyes light up as she greets me.

I can see how men who make threatening phone calls might be fooled by the graciousness of Esther, now 70.

What they don't know is that Esther is a native of Chihuahua, an unforgiving stretch of desert and mountains where for centuries only the fiercest have survived.

She's endured illness, death, and poverty, but none of this would compare to the horrors she would discover in Juárez.

It all began in 1993.

After a successful career as an accounting executive, Esther was retired.

She left behind million-dollar budgets, whirlwind trips around Mexico to oversee accounts for transnational companies.

She wrote a fiery newspaper column, tackling controversial issues, such as supporting a woman's right to an abortion, even when they made people uncomfortable.

Yet, nothing incensed her more than the articles she began to spot in the pages of the city's newspapers: The body of a girl, about 14, was found raped and strangled. A week later, the body of a second girl was found raped and knifed.

Then came another, and another.

The girls' ages made Esther suspicious, and she began keeping a file of clips. The victims were strikingly similar: young, pretty, slim, dark-skinned and, for the most part, poor.

Every time a body was discovered, Esther would track down information.

Case No. 1– Jan. 23. Alma Chavira Farel. Young girl strangled and beaten, raped anally and vaginally, bruise on the chin and a black eye. Was wearing a white sweater with design and short, blue pants. Occurred in Campestre Virreyes.

Case No. 9 – June 11. Identity unknown. Age unknown. Was found partly naked, wearing a jeans skirt, white T-shirt and black tennis shoes. Raped and tied to a stake, stabbed, with a fracture in the skull. She was found on the playground of Alta Vista High School on the way to a dirt road at the edge of the Rio Grande.

Despite the grisly slayings, there was no public outcry.

So Esther joined with activist friends and began to demand answers.

They met with the governor, the attorney general and others, but saw that their complaints weren't taken seriously.

So they formed a coalition of women's groups and persuaded federal congresswomen to champion their cause. They marched, they wrote newspaper columns, they protested, and in 1998, in response to their pressure, officials opened a special unit dedicated to solving women's homicides.

As time passed, the killings became more gruesome.

One woman was raped, then dumped in a 55-gallon drum filled with acid. Some women were found with their breasts mutilated. A 13-year-old was raped, tortured and shot in the head, suffering four heart attacks before she died.

"It was the only time in my life that I didn't sleep at night," Esther says. "I tried to sleep, and I would think of the last hours of agony of those girls. It was unbearable."

For five years she dedicated herself to helping the families of these victims. Then, in 1998, she met CNN reporter Brian Barger, who asked her a question she couldn't answer: Why wasn't she doing anything to prevent these women from being killed?

Touched by the hopelessness in the city, he suggested that together they open a rape-crisis center.

Casa Amiga opened in 1999 and treated 1,000 people in its first year. What began as a staff of two expanded to 12, plus 40 volunteers, who last year served 13,510 people.

There are days when Esther wants to retire, hand over her file of victims and put away her protest banners. But then her sense of responsibility kicks in.

"You say, 'What am I doing here?' Yes, this city is really cruel, very tough, but when you're in the middle of this, you know you can't abandon the people," she says.


Putting others before herself has been a way of life for Esther. Today it's Casa Amiga that comes first.

Her 18-hour days begin at home at 6 a.m. when she checks her e-mail.

She squeezes lunch in at 3 p.m., devouring a Subway sandwich while I interview her, taking phone calls and giving instructions to her staff simultaneously.

At stoplights, she squirts sunscreen onto her hands, and is off when the light turns green.

Looking back, it's almost as if she was groomed from childhood for the enormous task she's taken on.

A native of the city of Chihuahua, Esther lived the privileged life of a rancher's daughter until her father died of a heart attack at age 42. She was 3.

The years that followed were filled with hardship, but the worst came when her mother developed Alzheimer's disease when Esther was 17. The family was forced to leave Chihuahua to live in Guadalajara near specialists.

Esther, who had been taught that family, discipline and responsibility came above all, didn't complain.

Instead, she followed her sisters' lead and worked to support their sick mother, who eventually died of complications from the disease.

Esther went on to become, at age 30, Kraft Foods of Mexico's top accountant in Mexico City, overseeing accounts as far away as Monterrey and Guadalajara.

At the time, in the 1960s, few women held management positions, so as she climbed the executive ranks she faced the anger of male colleagues.

When an employee complained she'd taken his job and refused to have a female boss, she told him to give her a month.

"I didn't take it away from you. You didn't earn it," Esther told him.

If she knew a man had held her job before her arrival, she'd investigate how much he earned, and then confront her bosses, asking why they were paying her less. "You're a woman, and you don't have any kids," they'd tell her.

"What does that matter? I'm here to do a job," Esther would retort.

And she didn't dance or drink with her colleagues after work so they wouldn't get the wrong impression.

"I tried to act strong until I became strong," Esther says.

So strong that a boyfriend once complained that he had never met a person so stubborn.

Single and without children, she was courted and fell in love, but never married, she says.

"It was hard for men to accept who I was."

Even with her success, she still put family first. So 22 years after arriving in Mexico City, when her 90-year-old aunt told her she wanted to die in her hometown, Esther didn't hesitate.

She followed Concepción to Ciudad Juárez in 1982.


Another 12 years passed before Esther's aunt died, and by that time Esther was firmly rooted in Juárez, unable to turn her back on the border city's problems.

Which is why, on a hot July morning when she gets a last-minute notice about a protest happening that day, Esther comes to a halt.

A few hours later she's marching outside the Attorney General's Office, chanting, "In Juárez, not one more death. In Chihuahua, not one more death!"

The protesters have come to speak to state Deputy Attorney General Oscar Valadez Reyes, and the chant becomes "Justice! Justice! Justice!" as they file into the building.

Anybody requesting a visit with Valadez must sign in, which one of the protesters does, and is granted an appointment.

"We got an appointment. We got an appointment," she tells the group excitedly, but a skeptical Esther knows the wait could be hours.

"They always say the same thing. Promises, promises," she says.

With that, she heads out the front door, a handful of protesters following her as she enters the building through the back and marches straight into Valadez's reception area.

She requests a visit with him and then chats with the receptionist. Within minutes, she and the protesters are face to face with Valadez.

"For the last 10 years we believe nothing has been accomplished," she says in her calm but firm voice. "The same crimes continue, and we get the same response from authorities. We don't know who else to turn to. And as long as women continue to disappear, as long as we continue to find bodies ... it's a sign of your ineffectiveness or of your corruption."

Valadez bristles.

"I assure you that as far as the Attorney General's Office goes, we're doing what's possible to investigate," he says. "We have solved some cases. We haven't been able to solve all of them, unfortunately, but I can guarantee you we're working hard."

It's only after Esther breaks the silence that the other protesters pressure Valadez. It's easier to speak out when someone has paved the way, and the group leaves shortly after, satisfied that at least they delivered their grievances face to face.

At Casa Amiga, little Jose Francisco comes running when he hears Esther has returned from the protest. "How did it go?" he eagerly asks Esther as if he were a colleague, not a fourth-grader. "Were you able to get in?"

"We didn't ask for permission," Esther says with a wink.

Unexpected visit

It's a gloomy overcast morning the day Esther and I travel across Juárez to the outskirts of town – to Juárez Nuevo (New Juárez).

Her car creates a dust cloud on the bumpy dirt road, drawing attention from the residents, who peer between the slats in the wood pallets that fence their yards.

Juárez Nuevo is an ironic name for a squatters camp where nothing is new and poverty is everywhere.

As she maneuvers her tiny Chevrolet Cavalier, Esther furrows her eyebrows as she leans left and right to try to find the street. There are no signs to guide her, but she pushes on, doubles back, makes U-turns, and finally, after 20 minutes, finds what she's looking for.

Lucia Escalante lives with her five children in this colonia that clings to the edge of Juárez. She's one of the hundreds of domestic-violence victims Esther helps.

Beyond a recycled house door that serves as a gate is the house, where Lucia, who works the graveyard shift at a maquiladora, and her children are sleeping. Esther knocks.

Lucia, with her hair disheveled and her cotton housedress rumpled, opens the door, smiles shyly and hugs Esther.

The children run in, and Esther wraps her arms around them and squeezes.

Barefoot, they scurry to their bunk beds in the kitchen to fetch their shoes. They range in age from 2 to 14. Oscar, the eldest, receives a scholarship through Casa Amiga, thanks to American sponsors.

"How have you been?" Esther asks Lucia.

"I've been worried. I work the 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. shift, and the kids stay here by themselves," Lucia says. "There are so many cholos."

"Be careful, don't get in trouble," Esther tells the kids, advising them to stay away from the gang members.

Here in Juárez Nuevo, where poverty shadows every child, the future looks bleak for Raul, Augusto, Jose, Daniela and Oscar. Will they make it?

The family makes do with whatever they can find. To keep wind from blowing into the house, they stuff a jacket in a ceiling hole. One wall is covered with newspapers, another with chalkboards.

On this day, Esther brings eggs and meat, fresh bananas and cauliflower, a whole trunk full of groceries.

She asks Lucia if she can send Oscar by bus to Casa Amiga the following Saturday. His scholarship sponsors want to have breakfast with him.

It's a long trip, but one day, it won't be a hardship. Esther's plan is to create satellite centers so families like the Escalantes won't have to catch three buses to get help at Casa Amiga.

It's women like Lucia who inspire Esther.

"These brave mothers are such fighters. How they rise up, how they fight for justice ... and how much they've changed me," Esther says.

Some experts and activists argue over exactly how many women are victims of the serial killings, but Esther stays focused on the problem.

"It's not the number that matters, it's the hate with which they kill," Esther says. "How they discard (women) as if they aren't worth anything."

She believes all crimes against women in Juárez are connected by one common denominator - impunity.

Each crime that's not solved sends one message to the killers: that they can get away with murder.

"You feel so impotent because you want to solve the problems, but there are so many problems that you can't. And that's not your job," Esther says. "Your job is to teach (women) to solve their own problems."

So she goes to Juárez Nuevo to encourage Oscar and his siblings to keep getting good grades. Esther believes in these kids.

And she'll keep coming back.

"As long as my health permits, this is my project for life," Esther says. "You do it because you see the results. You see that your work lands on solid soil and it blooms."

Which is why, in a home cobbled together with plywood and shipping pallets, I sense the possibility for good things built on a foundation of faith, and I leave Juárez Nuevo feeling hopeful.


The day before I leave Ciudad Juárez, I stop by Casa Amiga to say goodbye to Esther. Though weak from a recent surgery, she's back at work, making a presentation to the staff of the U.S. consulate and doing what she loves most.

In the hallway, I run into Jose Francisco and sit down on a couch to chat.

When I ask him what he's learned at Casa Amiga, he tells me: "I've learned to be obedient, to behave myself, not do bad things - like rob or kill."

I look in his eyes, so brown and innocent still. He kicks his legs against the couch.

With people like Esther leading the way, I no longer wonder whether a little boy like Jose Francisco will grow up to abuse women.

I look up on the wall and see a poster I've glanced at many times since my first visit.

It speaks of the violence that's gripped Juárez, but it also reminds us that "There is more to life than rage, than sadness, than terror.

"There is hope."