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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is Day to Day. I'm Madeleine Brand.

ALEX COHEN, host:

And I'm Alex Cohen. The death toll from drug violence in the Mexican City of Juarez has reached an unprecedented 2,000 people since January of last year. The Mexican government is sending 5,000 new troops to the city this week to try and restore order. As if daily executions, kidnappings and extortions weren't enough another terror has emerged in Juarez.

BRAND: Young women are disappearing at an alarming rate. At least 18 have gone missing in about a year. The latest is a 14-year old. She was reported missing just yesterday. Monica Ortiz Uribe reports.

MONICA ORTIZ URIBE: The last time anyone saw Lupita Perez Montes was on the evening of January 31st, 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. Lupita's friend, Jose Ponce, said he saw her as she passed the fabric store where he works. So far, Ponce is the only witness to come forward.

Mr. JOSE PONCE (Lupita Perez Montes' Friend): (Through Translator) She walked by very quickly. I called her, but she didn't pay attention. She said she had to go because it was getting late.

(Soundbite of soccer game on television)

Unidentified Man: (Foreign Language Spoken)

URIBE: A soccer game airs on television as Lupita's mother, Susanna Montes Rodriguez, sits on her bed at home surrounded by her daughter's photographs. Montes describes her frenzy the night Lupita went missing.

Mrs. SUSANNA MONTES RODRIGUEZ (Lupita Perez Montes' Mother): (Through Translator) It got to be 7 o'clock in the evening, and my daughter just won't return. She never arrived.

URIBE: 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.

Mrs. RODRIGUEZ: (Through Translator) 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 and hospitals. But no, no, my daughter wasn't anywhere to be found.

URIBE: Eighteen other young women like Lupita have disappeared in a little over a year. The missing girls are 13 to 18 years old. They're 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.

Ms. MARILU GARCIA (Co-director, Nuestras Hijas de Regreso a Casa): (Through Translator) What we are seeing now is like in years past.

URIBE: Marilu Garcia is co-director of the Nuestras Hijas de Regreso a Casa, or May Our Daughters Return Home. Garcia's sister, Lilia Alejandra, was kidnapped, raped and murdered in 2001. The case was never solved.

Ms. GARCIA: (Through Translator) Women disappeared and, unfortunately, soon after that we would find them dead because they have been brutally murdered. Unfortunately, now they are disappearing, but we don't know what's happening to them. We don't them if they are alive or dead.

URIBE: Garcia's sister was one of 400 women murdered in Juarez over the course of a decade. At least a hundred of them showed signs of torture, rape and mutilation. The crime wave attracted international attention. But the current rash of disappeared teens 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. In January, 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. The girls, she claims, are being sold for prostitution in Mexico and the United States. The local news director of the station that aired the story refused to provide a copy of the report to NPR saying federal authorities prohibited him from doing so. There were 347 reports of missing women in Juarez since last year. Of the 19 cases that remain unsolved, police classify six as high-risk, meaning the women's lives could be in danger. Speaking outside his office, local state prosecutor Alejandro Pariente Nunez downplays the problem. He claims that the majority of women who disappear in Juarez do so willingly.

Mr. ALEJANDRO PARIENTE NUNEZ (Local State Prosecutor): Some of the women that disappeared and found later last year were a big percentage that went to their boyfriends or friends. And they made that kind of disappearing by themselves.

URIBE: 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 victims. This time, local activists and family members of the missing girls decry the inefficiency of police once more. Again, Marilu Garcia with May Our Daughters Return Home.

Ms. GARCIA: (Through Translator) Unfortunately, in Juarez, we don't have enough personnel with the right training to look for our 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.

(Soundbite of conversation in foreign language)

URIBE: Back on the streets of downtown Juarez, Susanna Montes shoulders her way through the Sunday afternoon crowds, past the shouting sidewalk merchants who might have seen her daughter Lupita 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.

Unidentified Woman: (Foreign Language Spoken)

Unidentified Man: (Foreign Language Spoken)

Unidentified Woman: (Foreign Language Spoken)

URIBE: Lupita is not a runaway, her mother says. She loves her family, played volleyball and dreamed of a profession in forensics.

Mrs. RODRIGUEZ: (Through Translator) We can't leave things as they are. My daughter must feel that we are working hard to find her wherever she is. We will get her from wherever she's been taken. Like I said, right now, we are incomplete. We are missing her.

URIBE: For NPR News, I'm Monica Ortiz Uribe.

BRAND: Stay with us. NPR's Day to Day continues.

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