Courtesy Montes Family
Lupita Perez Montes, a 17-year-old high school student, was seen for the last time on Jan. 31. She is among 18 young women who have disappeared from Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, in the past 14 months. Missing Persons Flyer for Lupita Perez Montes
Drug warfare is a plague in Ciudad Juarez in Mexico — since January 2008, the death toll has reached an unprecedented 2,000 people.
But between daily executions, kidnappings and extortions, another horribly familiar terror has been rekindled in the city. Young women are disappearing in an alarmingly similar pattern, with at least 18 missing in the past 14 months.
'She Never Arrived'
One of them is Lupita Perez Montes. The last time anyone saw her was on the evening of Jan. 31, when she was rushing through the bustling streets of downtown Juarez to catch the bus home. The 17-year-old high school student cradled a new pair of tennis shoes in her arms as she raced against the setting sun.
A friend of Lupita, Jose Ponce, says he saw her as she passed the fabric store where he works. So far, Ponce is the only witness to come forward.
"She walked by very quickly. I called to her, but she didn't pay attention, she just said she had to go because it was getting late," he recalls.
Susana Montes Rodriguez, Lupita's mother, describes her frenzy the night her daughter went missing.
"It got to be 7 o'clock in the evening, and my daughter just won't return. She never arrived," she says, sitting on her bed at home, surrounded by photographs of her daughter.
Montes and other family members launched an exhaustive search of downtown Juarez. She stopped numerous buses on their way back from downtown, desperately searching for her daughter in every row.
"We didn't sleep that night. We didn't sleep. The only other thing that came to mind was to search for her at clinics, in hospitals. But no, no, my daughter wasn't anywhere to be found," she says.
Echoes Of Crimes Past
Lupita is one of 18 young women — aged 13 to 18 — who have disappeared from the area in a little more a year. They are all pretty and slender, with dark, shoulder-length hair. At least nine of them vanished while downtown shopping or looking for work. Most come from humble families who live in the impoverished outskirts of the city.
Marilu Garcia, co-director of Nuestras Hijas de Regreso a Casa, or May Our Daughters Return Home, says the recent disappearances are reminiscent of past years. Garcia's sister, Lilia Alejandra, was kidnapped, raped and murdered in 2001. The case was never solved.
"Women disappeared and, unfortunately, soon after that we would find them dead because they had been brutally murdered. Unfortunately, now they are disappearing, but we don't know what's happening to them. We don't know if they are alive or dead," Garcia says.
Garcia's sister was one of 400 women murdered in Juarez over the course of a decade. At least 100 of them showed signs of torture, rape and mutilation. The crime wave attracted international attention.
But the current rash of missing teenage girls is different; their bodies are not turning up later. And it's unclear whether these recent disappearances have ties to the past murders.
One unconfirmed theory points in the direction of human trafficking. Last month, a 17-year-old girl appeared on a local news channel saying she was abducted from her native central Mexico by a trafficking ring that operates in Juarez.
There have been 347 reports of missing women in Juarez since last year. Of the 18 cases that remain unsolved, police classify six as high risk, meaning the women's lives could be in danger.
Official: Many Women Disappear Willingly
Local state prosecutor Alejandro Pariente Nunez downplays the problem. He claims that the majority of women who disappear in Juarez do so willingly.
He says that of the women who disappeared last year and were found later, a large percentage had willingly gone away with boyfriends or friends.
Pariente adds that multiple law enforcement agencies cooperate to investigate high-risk disappearances.
In the earlier wave of murders, police and law enforcement came under wide criticism for their inability to prosecute the killer or killers. No charges were ever filed in the cases of the so-called femicide cases.
This time, local activists and family members of the missing girls decry the inefficiency of police once more.
Garcia, of May Our Daughters Return Home, says that Juarez doesn't have enough personnel with the right training to deal with the missing women.
"Because of the high number of public servants and law enforcement who were murdered by organized crime last year, many cops quit out of fear," she says.
Search For Lupita Goes On
Back on the streets of downtown Juarez, Susana Montes Rodriguez shoulders her way through the Sunday afternoon crowds, past the shouting sidewalk merchants who might have seen her daughter the day she disappeared. She doles out black-and-white fliers with her daughter's smiling face to passersby, repeating the phrase, "If you see her please contact me."
Lupita is not a runaway, her mother says. She loves her family, played volleyball and dreamed of a profession in forensics.
"We can't leave things as they are. My daughter must feel that we are working hard to find her wherever she is," Montes says. "We will get her from wherever she's been taken. ... Right now, we are incomplete. We are missing her."