Grief, Rage Fuel Juarez Mothers' Search For Justice

Olga Esparza Rodriguez stands next to a photo of her daughter, Monica, who disappeared last year i

Olga Esparza Rodriguez stands next to a photo of her daughter, Monica, who disappeared in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, in March 2009. Monica is among the hundreds of women and girls who have disappeared from the violence-plagued border city over the past two decades. Jason Beaubien/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Jason Beaubien/NPR
Olga Esparza Rodriguez stands next to a photo of her daughter, Monica, who disappeared last year

Olga Esparza Rodriguez stands next to a photo of her daughter, Monica, who disappeared in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, in March 2009. Monica is among the hundreds of women and girls who have disappeared from the violence-plagued border city over the past two decades.

Jason Beaubien/NPR

As Mexican President Felipe Calderon's drug war pushes into its fourth year, the border city of Juarez has become one of the most violent places on earth.

Kidnapping and extortion are so common that the government runs public service announcements on the radio about how to not be a victim. Executions occur in broad daylight. And teenage girls continue to disappear without a trace.

Ciudad Juarez is shouldering unfathomable sorrow, and the most public face of the suffering is the city's mothers.

The grieving mothers are like ghosts. They drift through the city. They appear at the edges of protests, marches and public gatherings. They carry posters with photos of their children: the disappeared, the dead and the incarcerated. They demand justice from the authorities and anyone else who will listen. Often they hug the pictures of their kids against their chests.

I first met Olga Esparza Rodriguez last year at a memorial for a university professor in Juarez who had just been gunned down. Esparza was holding a giant banner with a picture of her 18-year-old daughter, Monica, who disappeared on March 26, 2009.

"A day for us is like an eternity," Esparza says, sitting at her kitchen table with her husband. "It's the worst in the night because during the day you have to work and go forward. But we miss her, miss her the way you'd miss an arm or a leg or the light."

Over the past two decades, hundreds of teenage girls and young women have gone missing in Juarez. Some turn up dead or forced into prostitution rings. Prosecutors say some run off with boyfriends and will turn up when they want to be found.

The worst part for Esparza is not knowing her daughter's fate and imagining the worst.

"She's everything to us," Esparza says, "and still, in reality, I don't know what happened that day."

Esparza and her husband say they keep going because Monica is still with them. They say she is here, at the kitchen table with them, you just can't see her. And some day, they say, she'll reappear.

Juarez is an industrial city of 1.5 million people shoved against the southern bank of the Rio Grande below El Paso, Texas. Maquiladoras — factories that assemble products exclusively for export to the U.S. — provide hundreds of thousands of low-wage jobs. Monica's father works in one.

Juarez is also a battlefield in Mexico's drug war. Last year, more than 2,600 people were killed in drug-related violence in the city, giving it the highest murder rate in the world.

Luz Maria Davila's two teenage sons were killed by gunmen at a birthday party i

Luz Maria Davila watched her two teenage sons go up the street to a birthday party on Jan. 30. Half an hour later, both were dead — killed, along with 13 others, when gunmen opened fire on the party. Davila confronted Mexican President Felipe Calderon during a recent visit to Juarez, expressing her anger at the government's inability to quell the wave of largely drug-related violence. Jason Beaubien/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Jason Beaubien/NPR
Luz Maria Davila's two teenage sons were killed by gunmen at a birthday party

Luz Maria Davila watched her two teenage sons go up the street to a birthday party on Jan. 30. Half an hour later, both were dead — killed, along with 13 others, when gunmen opened fire on the party. Davila confronted Mexican President Felipe Calderon during a recent visit to Juarez, expressing her anger at the government's inability to quell the wave of largely drug-related violence.

Jason Beaubien/NPR

On Jan. 30, around 11 p.m., Luz Maria Davila watched her two teenage sons go up the street to a birthday party.

Around 11:30 p.m., she says, she heard the gunshots.

"I ran out," she says. "The first one I saw was my son."

It was her 19-year-old, Marcos, who worked the morning shift with her at the maquiladora and then studied international relations at night. He wasn't moving.

Then she saw her other son, 16-year-old Jose Luis. "The bodies were scattered everywhere," she says. "I yelled to my husband, 'They're dead.' "

Fifteen people were killed at the party, most of them teenagers. Thirteen others were injured. Local officials say the gunmen who blocked off the street and then opened fire on the students apparently mistook the fiesta for that of a rival drug gang.

Davila says she didn't know what to do. They called the local equivalent of 911.

But the ambulances didn't come for another two hours, she says. Emergency personnel in Juarez — and journalists, too — are hesitant to be the first on the scene of a drug-related shootout in case the killing isn't quite finished.

Two weeks later, when Calderon went to Juarez in response to the massacre, Davila publicly confronted him.

The factory worker pushed past one of Calderon's aides to tell the president that he is not welcome in Juarez.

"For two years, there's been nothing but killing here," she said, referring to the effects of Calderon's drug war. "And no one does anything."

More than 95 percent of murders in Juarez go unsolved.

Now, Davila says she wants justice for her sons and for all the people who have been killed in this recent wave of violence.

What would that justice be?

"More than anything, I want Juarez to change," she says. "That's what I'd like."

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