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Last Updated: Tuesday, 14 November 2006, 10:29 GMT
Grim formula to Mexican murders
The Mexican town of Ciudad Juarez has been blighted by a grisly decade of unsolved rapes and murders of young women. As this grim drama is reprised in a new film starring Jennifer Lopez and Antonio Banderas, the BBC's Duncan Kennedy visits this violent border town.

In the dusty settlement of Ciudad Juarez they play a grisly game of numbers: 90, 180, 399. You do not have to ask what the numbers refer to anymore. Everyone knows. It is the body count of young women.

Celia Villagrana, Trinidad's daughter and victim
Celia Villagrana was abducted from Ciudad Juarez in 1995

No-one seems to have an exact figure, so people give you their own. The only common ground is when the murders began: 1993.

And they have not stopped since.

Trinidad Villagrana has only the number "one" on her mind. The one child she lost in 1995. Celia, an intelligent 17-year-old, who was abducted on her way home from work.

"I relive that day all the time," Trinidad tells me. "She was a serious girl who would never take risks. Why would they do that to her?".

The words stumble out amid attempts to stem the flow of tears now streaming down her cheeks.

'Poor investigation'

In many ways Celia's case follows exactly Ciudad Juarez's grim formula: A young woman taken at random, followed by an inept police investigation, followed by years of uncertainty for the family.

It's the police, or drug gangs or serial killers, or a combination of all three
Esther Chavez, counsellor

One sign of how the investigation into Celia's death has proceeded is that they have just found her skull in a box of old bones.

The bones were only identified thanks to the diligence and skill of a team of forensic experts from Argentina, now hard at work trying to reverse years of incompetence, or worse.

Juarez's misery is now depicted in a new film, Bordertown, starring Jennifer Lopez and Antonia Banderas.

Jennifer Lopez in a scene from Bordertown  Capitol Films
Jennifer Lopez produces the movie Bordertown, in which she also stars

It captures, perfectly, the sense of transience in the city - young women from all over Mexico coming to work in its many factories. Rootless and vulnerable.

Jennifer Lopez plays a reporter trying to get to the truth of the story. She also produces the movie. "It is a lawless place. Someone needs to get in there and take control to protect these women," she says.

Esther Chavez, a small woman in her 70s who runs Casa Amiga - a counselling centre in Juarez agrees.

She warns that Mexico's huge problem with domestic violence is not helping. "Some men believe they can act with impunity," she says.

"It's the police, or drug gangs or serial killers, or a combination of all three," she suggests.

Killing field

Police have made arrests down the years - an Egyptian man, a group of young men known as the "rebels" and then bus drivers.

But every time the police trumpet an arrest or conviction, the murders continue.

The latest man to be arrested is Edgar Alvarez Cruz, who was picked up by immigration authorities in the US and extradited back to Mexico.

He will stand trial shortly, accused of the 2001 murder of Mayra Juliana Reyes Solis, a 17-year-old high school student. He denies murder, but the authorities suspect him of involvement in the killings of at least nine other women.

Oscar Maynez, former forensic scientist, next to pink crosses
Pink crosses mark the murder sites of eight young women

The US Ambassador in Mexico, Tony Garza, described his capture as a breakthrough.

Oscar Maynez, who was in charge of forensics in the city when the murders began, took me to the most stark and startling place in this whole story.

Eight pink crosses stand in a clearing in a massive area of wasteland on the outskirts of Juarez, now covered in chest high vegetation.

The crosses were put up by the dead girl's families. This is the killing field of Juarez.

"Three bodies were found over there, and the other five just here," Mr Maynez tells me. "I believed from the start it was a gang of serial murderers."

He says the police came up with their own suspects and put pressure on him to help them. He could not do it and resigned.

We accept there was negligence and complicity by the police
Patricia Gonzalez

As the personification of the legal establishment, I fully expected State Attorney General and former judge, Patricia Gonzalez, to defend the role of her officers.

But no. Instead, Mrs Gonzalez says she has put 100 of them under investigation.

"This cannot go on," she tells me. "Corrupt and amateurish officers bungling the inquiry into these women's murders."

Map of Mexico

I was stunned. And it went further. "We're sorry for what has happened," Mrs Gonzalez continued.

"There were errors in the past. We accept there was negligence and complicity by the police in previous years. But now we must work to prevent more deaths of women in a way that is professional and ethical."

This was no attempt at a cover-up, but an honest apology from the authorities. Long overdue, for sure. But still an apology.

I ask Esther Chavez if she thinks the murders will ever end.

"No", she says. "They will go on."

She probably speaks for the people of Juarez. How else could they get to play their numbers game?

Hollywood tackles Mexican mystery
10 Sep 06 |  Americas
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18 Aug 06 |  Americas
Mexico to tackle women's murders
26 May 05 |  Americas
Fund unveiled for Mexican murders
03 Mar 05 |  Americas
Mexico to aid bereaved in Juarez
21 Jul 04 |  Americas
Lawyer to probe Mexican murders
31 Jan 04 |  Americas
Mexico 'failure' over murders
12 Aug 03 |  Americas

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