A middle-aged woman sat alone on a plaza bench in El Paso, her face flushed from the heat, her eyes rimmed with smeared mascara. She stared vacantly into space, looking as if she needed a break from life. On her lap was a vinyl banner emblazoned with an image of her fawn-eyed daughter, Mónica Janeth Esparza—the same sign she’d held against her chest during so many other marches and demonstrations, a blown-up version of the missing-person flyer that was still papered all over Juárez more than two years after the city had swallowed the eighteen-year-old whole.
The June temperatures were oppressive, but hundreds of residents from El Paso and its sister city had turned out on San Jacinto Plaza that morning to listen to the words of a bearded Mexican poet named Javier Sicilia. Just two and a half months earlier, Sicilia’s 24-year-old son and four friends had been forced by strangers out of a bar in Cuernavaca and later found dead, their heads wrapped in packing tape. Sicilia had declared an end to his poetry and channeled his grief into a “peace revolution,” a grassroots movement he launched to protest the Mexican government’s strategy in a drug war that had claimed some 40,000 lives. With the international community watching, Sicilia led other bereaved survivors in a seven-day mass caravan from Cuernavaca to Juárez, finishing with a rally in El Paso on June 11.
Olga Esparza, who had last seen her daughter in March 2009, had joined the other relatives of victims onstage, and they had clutched one another’s arms in anger and sorrow. But now, the rally done, she felt the emptiness creep back in. At least Sicilia had had a body to cry over. She had nothing. All she knew was that Mónica had left for class one day and never returned home.
A young woman vanishing in Juárez was nothing new, of course. It was the city’s claim to fame. Reports that local women were disappearing and being murdered first surfaced in 1993, and by 2005, activists had counted more than three hundred victims. Many women were killed by possessive boyfriends or random strangers. But others had just disappeared; most were later found raped and strangled, left to decompose in the desert heat. As authorities failed to definitively solve any of the cases, sensational theories ran rampant, and soon this targeted violence had earned the term feminicidio. Across the world, the deaths became the focus of protests and prayer vigils, conferences and benefit concerts, art shows and dissertations (including my own), and even a movie by Jennifer Lopez and a novel by Roberto Bolaño.
Within Mexico, the outcry had led to a new women’s movement. Congressional committees began tracking female killings everywhere in the country, and laws were made to protect women and ensure gender equality. Multiple government entities and posts were created, including that of a special federal prosecutor who would investigate human trafficking and crimes against women. And in late 2009 came the most important response of all: The Inter-American Court of Human Rights, based in Costa Rica, heard three of the Juárez cases and issued a scathing indictment of the Mexican government, ordering a thorough transformation of its prevention, investigation, and prosecution of violence against women.
Yet somehow, as Olga knew all too well, the reality in Juárez hadn’t changed. The government had yet to comply with the court’s ruling. The public, wearied by the lack of answers and the overblown rhetoric, had grown indifferent and jaded. And then there was the widespread violence sparked by drug cartels in 2008. The body count soared from more than three hundred in 2007 to more than three thousand in 2010, and the sheer reach and brutality of it all had forced a drastic shift in attention.
But young women were still disappearing, and in even greater numbers. Since early 2008, close to one hundred remained missing, almost all of them adolescents. The only crucial difference was that no one was finding their bodies. In the face of her loss, Olga had decided to believe that Mónica was alive. Eighteen years, she mused, as the park cleared out. And Juárez was no closer to the truth.
Olga has dark, intense eyes, and her circumspect stares belie her warmth. Two days after Sicilia’s rally, she welcomed me into her home in a working-class neighborhood of Juárez, a two-story house with white tile floors and pale-green walls. Near a staircase hung a large, glossy portrait of Mónica in a pink quinceañera dress.
I had been making visits to Juárez for eight years, both as a journalist and a graduate student, to write about the city’s missing women. But as I sat in Olga’s home for the next three hours, I’d hear some of the most chilling stories yet. Two other mothers joined us, Norma Laguna and Bertha Alicia García, as well as a lawyer named Francisca Galván. The four formed the core of the Committee of Mothers of Disappeared Girls, a newly minted coalition of twenty women.
Bertha’s daughter, Brenda Berenice, was seventeen when she left home one morning in January 2009 to look for work. The girl had given birth to a baby boy the month before, and she hoped to get hired at a jewelry store downtown. Getting there required a long bus ride, so when her father called her cell phone shortly after noon, Brenda still had a ways to go. Her mother tried her again around two-thirty; this time someone answered but immediately hung up. “I kept dialing,” Bertha recalled. “It was voicemail, voicemail, voicemail.” She hoped for the best: Maybe the store owners had asked her daughter to start that very day. But when Brenda failed to return that evening, the family spent the night searching every bus that arrived from downtown. The next morning, at the jewelry store, they were told that Brenda had not been by.
Mónica disappeared two months later. A business student at the local university, she had told her parents she was going to spend the afternoon working