Headline: The murdered women of JUAREZ Subhead: Along the Mexican border, where free-trade factories hum with the sounds of cheap labour, nearly 400 women and girlsas young as 6 have been found murdered in the past decade. Somepoint to the work of a serial killer while others fear theslayings are the result of a sadistic new sport. How many morewill it take to declare a national emergency? By LindaDiebel Reporter/Byline: By Linda Diebel Toronto Star Captions: PHOTOS BY CARLOS OSORIO TORONTO STAR Julia Camarena tells how the man who raped her children is now free from jail and visits Juarez often. Eight crosses stand at Campo Algodonero in Ciudad Juarez. In this field the bodies of eight murdered women were found. Many women who go missing in Juarez are never found - just bodies too disfigured to identify. Esther Chavez Cano of Casa Amiga helps Julia Camarena with money for her kids' school supplies. Dateline: CIUDAD JUAREZ, MEXICO Text: "By 'feminicide' we mean murders which include torture, blows to the head or body, mutilation, bites, often to the breast or genitals, tying up the victim or any kind of abuse which seems to have as its aim the elimination of women." Sociologist Julia Monarrez CIUDAD JUAREZ, MEXICO - All is dust, dust to dust, in the high desert overlooking the city of Juarez, across the Rio Grande from El Paso. Dust coats skin, fills mouths and, in the little grocery tienda of the Gonzalez Flores family, gets into everything not wrapped in plastic. Guillermina Gonzalez absently wiped away dust on a recent evening, as she talked about her sister Sagrario, who entered the inauspicious ranks of the murdered women of Juarez eight years ago. Their numbers are now so great they have brought dubious fame to Juarez as a leader in feminicide in the Americas, though local VIPs quibble over where their city places in the roll call of the dead. It was a dark night with only a crescent moon and occasional streetlamp to cast a dim glow over the hillside shantytown of Lomas de Poleo. On such a night, Sagrario disappeared into blackness, as any girl could, with none to mark her passing. The wind howled, dogs barked and we could hear the whistle of the Union Pacific, hurtling by on the American side. Thousands of illegals from Latin America cross this border and hop these trains every year, many falling and losing arms, legs, even their lives, in the desperate, never-ending quest to reach the promised land. In her way, Sagrario, too, reached the promised land, or rather had a grip on it. She just couldn't hold on. She was a sweet girl who sang in the church choir, taught catechism to children and was oblivious to her dark and ripening beauty. She was proud and happy to join her older sister and parents working in a new maquila, one of about 300 foreign-owned assembly plants in the city's free-trade zone. Her farming family came north from Durango to find work and, every day, Sagrario left the dust and poverty of Lomas de Poleo for the humming factories of the Developed World. These factories are in Mexico but not really of Mexico. The family traveled to work together until Sagrario's shift changed and, on April 16, 1998, she didn't come home. Sagrario was 17 when she disappeared, to be found two weeks later, her body badly decomposed, in a shallow desert grave. She'd been stabbed five times but that's not what killed her. She died of asphyxiation, perhaps from blood in her lungs; perhaps from dirt in her airways. Her family doesn't know when she died, leaving lurid imaginings of her suffering. When at last police returned Sagrario's Virgin de Guadalupe medal, her mother, Paula, cried out to Mexico's patron saint: "Where were you when they were murdering my daughter?" For years, Guillermina, 29, focused her grief on the campaign to stop the violence. By 1998, an estimated 187 women had been murdered in Juarez over five years, many mutilated and sexually assaulted, with breasts hacked off, objects thrust up body cavities and deep slashes across chest and face - that is, when decomposition allowed such grisly details to be observed. As early as 1993, Juarez criminologist Oscar Maynes, then state forensics chief, recognized the pattern of serial killing, but he was rebuffed. Many victims were poor, darker-skinned women with Indian features, potentially making the crimes about race and class. About one-fifth, maybe more, were maquila workers. The murders continued, sweeping up girls as young as 6 and 7. Remains were found in 55-gallon drums, soaked in acid, or covered in gasoline and set ablaze. Bodies were tossed in garbage bags. Women were bound, with panties wound around knees and scarves or purse strings tied around throats. One distraught mother of a murdered 16-year-old told a women's forum in 2002: "When we found her, my daughter's body spoke of everything that had been done to her." For the most part, these murders remain unsolved; serial killers walk free. Crosses mark the sites of bodies. Last year, on March 23, Coral Arrieta Medina, 17, was discovered raped and murdered in the same scrubland of Lote Bravo where the first bodies were found in 1993. A few days later, the skeletal remains of a woman - probably a woman - was unearthed in Loma Blanca, another popular dump for corpses. Numbers are increasingly difficult to pin down as police become more close-mouthed. Nevertheless, Juarez sociologist Julia Monarrez documented 382 murders between 1993 and 2003, of which 144 meet her parameters for "systemic sexual feminicide, " which includes torture and mutilation. She believes one or more serial killers are at work in these cases, plus copycats. Others put the numbers of dead women closer to 500. Some victims remain desconocida, unknown. Guillermina founded Voces Sin Eco (Voices Without Echo), pushed to have black crosses on pink backgrounds painted around the city of 1.5 million and helped organize marches. Hollywood took notice. On Valentine's Day, 2004, thousands of women, among them Jane Fonda, Sally Field and Christine Lahti, demonstrated in Juarez. "Ni una mas! Not one more!" Several films are in production, including Bordertown, starring Jennifer Lopez as a journalist who investigates a series of murders near American-owned factories on the border. It will be interesting to see how Bordertown handles the story. There are no happy endings in Juarez. Another Valentine's Day has passed and women still cower. "It's okay to kill women in Juarez, " said maquila worker Aide Ramirez, 38. There have been arrests and charges laid, yet lawyers argue clients confessed under torture, a common enough practice in Mexico where judges routinely accept such "evidence." One jailed suspect died under mysterious circumstances; two lawyers were shot. Mario Escobedo Anaya was gunned down by police in February 2002, the night before he was to release purported findings about the torture of his client. The official story said he opened fire on state police after a high-speed chase. Witnesses dispute the account and Juarez photographer Miguel Parrea photographed Anaya's SUV at the scene without bullet holes and, later in police custody, with bullet holes. Three weeks ago, a second lawyer, Sergio Dante Almaraz, who claimed his client confessed under torture to the 2001 "cottonfield murders" of eight women found in pieces, was shot 12 times by assailants with AK-47s. The Inter-American Human Rights Commission, based in Washington and an arm of the Organization of American States, of which Canada is a member, urged the Mexican government to protect him in 2002 after he received death threats. Police have been criticized for dismal work. Frustrated with inaction, the Gonzalez Flores family did their own investigation, which led to one arrest, but they believe accomplices have never been caught. "Nobody cares, " said Guillermina. "Nothing has changed. There has been no justice for my sister." There's reason enough for police to be afraid. Rumours that high-ranking officers are involved have always swirled around the murders, as have stories that prominent citizens - Los Juniors - kidnap and kill women for sport. These are rumours but what appears true is the involvement in some of the crimes of the Juarez drug cartel, an organization that prospered as the maquila population exploded. Cartel boss Amado Carrillo Fuentes - "Lord of the Skies" - supposedly died a few years ago in a Mexico City hospital, after 14 hours of plastic surgery. A trail of his doctors later turned up dead in charred barrels in the Juarez desert, while he is thought to be alive and flourishing with a new face. "The narco-traffickers attract really dangerous elements. They have a brotherhood mentality - blood in, blood out, " said Candace Skrapec, the Canadian-born criminologist who profiled the New York subway killer in the 1980s and taught at the FBI Academy in Quantico. Va. "It's business-as-usual because they wield so much power, " said Skrapec, who was denied access to critical files when she worked on the Juarez murders. She counts narcos among the killers, as well as "groups of men who have been murdering women for a long time ... and absolutely, I believe police officers have been involved" in some crimes. Police are often cavalier. In 1999, while I was working as the Toronto Star's Latin America bureau chief, senior detectives with the Chihuahua state police in Juarez dismissed several of the murdered girls to me as "hookers, " hooting with laughter in an office blue with cigarette smoke. They acted like it was a big joke. In October, 2004, special federal prosecutor Maria Lopez Urbina cited more than 50 police officers and public officials for "negligence and ignoring evidence, " among them officers I'd interviewed in 1999. Most citations have been quietly expunged; some still have their jobs. A series of governors in Chihuahua pledged action, as has President Vicente Fox. But his special prosecutor has proven to be toothless, according to critics, and solutions have dissolved to dust. Three Mexican presidents, Carlos Salinas, Ernesto Zedillo and Fox, failed to declare the mutilation and murder of women in Juarez a national emergency. "The responses have been very misogynistic, very sexist, which is scary, " said Mexican activist Lydia Alpizar. "There is impunity and justice denied. Allowing these crimes to continue means that killing women has become the norm." It could be, according to scant police information, that murders have declined slightly. But criminologist Maynes doesn't believe it, instead holding a chilling scenario. He thinks the bodies are merely being disposed of more efficiently. Tactics evolved, said Maynes, from the authorities denying and minimizing the murders to blaming victims and scapegoating suspects. The next step was for killers to hide the bodies. "I wonder how many more bodies are still out there?" said Maynes. "The first bodies were found out in the open, then they were buried in shallow graves. Now I think they're going really deep." He conjures a vision of Mexico offering up from the depths of her soul, her young and innocent to be sacrificed, as surely as the ancients offered up sacrifices to the gods before the Conquest or the conquistadors slaughtered the Indians. In modern times, the bloodletting is called "feminicide" and flows in Juarez and Chihuahua and other places where women's lives are cheap because they are allowed to be cheap. "This is genocide, " Monarrez summed up bleakly. "These women are being systematically murdered. We women from the Third World, we are disposable. They can do what they want with us." Terrible, you might say. How awful. But beyond compassion, what really has this to do with Canadians so far away? There is sorrow enough at home. But there are many links between Canada and Juarez, beginning with almost everyone who buys or owns a car. Juarez used to be a sleepy desert town, known for partying American frat boys, bargain bazaars and the occasional brush with fame. Beloved president Benito Juarez found shelter here during 19th century wars and, in the 20th century, flamboyant Pancho Villa took the city from the federales during the Mexican Revolution. Then came the maquila phenomenon. Global corporate heavyweights rushed to Mexico's border free-trade zones to take advantage of cheap labour, minimal taxes and easy market to the U.S. and Canada. Their legitimacy was enshrined in treaty by free trade in 1994. Honeywell, DuPont, General Electric, Kenwood, Delphi, Philips and Electrolux - all in Juarez. In an increasingly integrated world, auto parts, for example, are assembled by companies with plants in Canada, the U.S. and Mexico, including Lear Corporation, Johnson Controls, TRW Inc., Cooper, Siemens, Cummins Diesel. None of the big automakers release data on the origin of parts per vehicle. It's hard enough to track a tomato from Mexico, let alone a car component. But Bill Murnighan, national representative, research, for the Canadian Autoworkers Union, says Canada imported $2.7 billion in auto parts last year from Mexico. "That's more than $1,000 worth of Mexican-made auto parts in every vehicle built in Canada, " he said. His estimate assumes parts are distributed equally among each year's 2.62 million vehicles, which is "unrealistic - but it does put the overall volume into perspective." Canada is on the losing end of trade figures, according to Murnighan, with last year's imports from Mexico up 5 per cent over the previous year and the highest on record. His figures, which originate with Statistics Canada, show that Canada exports 15 cents for every $1 of imported car parts. Of course, Canadian autoworkers fear losing jobs to cheap-labour Mexico. But it's more than that, said Murnighan, whose union supports a social justice fund. "The social conditions in which these auto parts are being made is an ongoing and big concern to our union." He believes "Canadians should be concerned about how things they consume are being made and under what conditions" and urges car-buyers to ask questions about sourcing and to demand that auto giants improve living and working conditions for Mexican employees, who make $4.50 a day and subsist in shantytowns with inadequate hydro, water and sanitation. But what about murder? "These women weren't killed because they were maquila workers, " said Monarrez. "They were killed because they were women." Yet the bodies of the cottonfield eight were found across the street from maquila headquarters and criminologist Skrapec asks: "Is it a coincidence or are (the killers) sending messages to maquila managers?" Lynda Yantz and Bob Jeffcott, directors of the Toronto- based Maquila Solidarity Network, contend that multinational corporations bear a share of responsibility for the protection of employees who came here to work for them. Moreover, security risks are magnified because the maquilas pay negligible municipal taxes to an ever-expanding city too strapped to provide proper policing or even decent lighting. "These murders keep happening and there has been no action from the government or the maquila owners, " said Yantz. "They want to sweep it under the rug. They are worried only about their investment, not about lives ... Women are treated as if they are sub-human." A sense of hopelessness prevails. Sagrario's family quit the maquila after her murder. "For them it was no big deal, " said Guillermina. "They just took another person to replace her from the scores who were lining up for jobs." Do the maquila owners bear responsibility in this global economy to workers outside their plant doors? "Since many of the murdered women were employees of the maquilas, I'd like to know if this is a concern for you and if the maquilas take special measures to guarantee - or at least to help - the security of their employees, particularly women, " the Sunday Star wrote Jorge Pedroza, director of the powerful Association of Maquilas in Juarez. He responded promptly: "The problem of the murdered women of Ciudad Juarez is that the media is responsible for the bad reputation of our city, to such a degree that they themselves recognize the big problem they've caused and don't know how to stop it." He added that "a great number of the deaths were crimes of passion or, like they say, jealous husbands, while others were from natural causes ..." He further blamed his city's bad name on "the need to sell newspapers and journalistic cannibalism." He failed to address the question. Accountant Esther Chavez Cano began chronicling the murders in 1993, evolving into an activist and founder of the women's centre, Casa Amiga. She's frustrated with political posturing while violence continues. "The lives of women and girls are worth nothing, " she said. "Absolutamente nada." Waiting to see her on a recent morning was Julia Camarena, 37, looking 60. To say her life has been rough is a ludicrous understatement. Her children, three girls and a boy, were systematically raped over two years by a neighbour. He started with her littlest when she was four. The man, a pensioner, 66, was convicted and sentenced to 12 years in prison by the Chihuahua Supreme Court in 2001. Nothing happened. He lives in El Paso, a free man, visiting Juarez frequently. At the hillside grocery store, a little head pops up beside Guillermina Gonzales. It's giggly Paula, 4, the reason her mother put activism aside. But, all these years later, she worries about her daughter's safety and about another generation of potentially lost women. "I am afraid she will be killed too ... What has it all been for?" Outside, the winter wind moaned and I thought of the story about a reporter who heard a voice in an interview taped by the cottonfield crosses to honour the eight women found there - Esmeralda, Barbara, Laura Bernice, Lupita, Claudia Ivette, Brenda, Veronica and Desconocida. Others swear they've heard it, too, over the wind and dust storms - a faint voice wailing, "Mama, Mama, ayudame, ayudame. Mama, Mama, help me, help me."