Suspect Linked to 10 Murders in Mexico

Since 1993, more than 100 young women have disappeared along the Mexican border near the city of Juarez. Many turn up later as victims of sexual assault and murder. Now a cement worker arrested in Denver on immigration charges is being turned over to Mexican authorities in connection with the rape and killing of at least 10 of those women.

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First though, a suspect has been arrested in the mysterious disappearance of more than 100 women across the border from El Paso, Texas. The women, who lived in and around Ciudad Juarez in Mexico, began disappearing in 1993. Some of their bodies were found dumped in the desert months after they were abducted. U.S. authorities arrested Edgar Alvarez Cruz in Denver on immigration charges. They are expected to hand him over to Mexican agents this week.

Michael O'Boyle reports from Ciudad Juarez.

MICHAEL O'BOYLE reporting:

In this vacant lot where cotton was once grown, the bodies of eight young women were discovered in 2001. Today a mega-mall has gone up across the road from here. New housing projects have been built, but the murders have not been forgotten.

The area surrounding the cotton field is spotted with maquiladoras, the assembly plants for export that first made Ciudad Juarez the model of the new border economy. But in the last decade this city of more than 1.3 million has become infamous for the unsolved murders of hundreds of young women. Many of the victims came here to work in the maquiladoras.

Esther Chavez is the director of the Casa Amiga crisis center, a group that has helped draw attention to the crimes. Many of the hundreds of murders appear to be isolated incidents, police say. But Chavez and others have long suspected that a gang of serial killers are responsible.

Ms. ESTHER CHAVEZ (Casa Amiga Crisis Center): (Through translator) The cotton field murders are emblematic. They show there were serial murders going on. There were eight bodies dumped in the same place over a period of time and they weren't killed there.

This arrest could be the thread that finally unravels it all. But there are many questions still. It's impossible that this young man of his social level could have hid bodies for over a year. We don't want another scapegoat.

O'BOYLE: Following the discovery of the bodies in 2001, local authorities arrested two bus drivers. One died while in prison while awaiting trial and the other was later released due to lack of evidence. The lawyers of the men said their clients had been tortured into confessions by police. Those two lawyers were gunned down in the streets of Ciudad Juarez. While police were suspected of the crimes, no one has been successfully prosecuted.

President Vicente Fox in 2003 founded a commission to investigate the murders and appointed a special prosecutor to probe alleged police corruption. Alfredo Quijano(ph) is the managing editor of local newspaper Norte. He says the federal efforts failed to clear up the problems with the earlier investigations.

Mr. ALFREDO QUIJANO (Managing Editor, Norte): (Through translator) Before, the suspects had been beaten and tortured. But in this case there appears to be a more solid investigation with evidence that can be presented to a judge. What we are seeing is the beginning of a long process that isn't just about finding out who the killers are. This also needs to result in charging the people and police that helped cover this up.

O'BOYLE: It's Saturday night on Juarez Avenue and the dance halls are filled with locals. This is the gritty downtown where many of the young women murdered were last seen. Nadia Sanchez(ph) is 18 years old and is out for a night on the town with a girlfriend. She is from the state of Coahuila and came here to work in the maquiladoras. She says she doesn't think the police here seriously investigate the murders of young women. She even things the police are sometimes behind the crimes.

Ms. NADIA SANCHEZ: (Through translator) It's the same police that often abuse and rob the girls here. You can't even trust the authorities. They can get away with anything.

O'BOYLE: No mass graves have been discovered like the Cotton Field Murders for several years now. But that is reason for little confidence. Locals say police corruption is rampant here. The illegal drug trade has grown at an alarming rate in the past decade. Gang murders and drug executions are commonplace. Just last week the body of a prostitute known as Jasmine turned up in a ditch. One arrest seems little cause for celebration here.

For NPR News, I'm Michael O'Boyle.

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