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The State Department is warning Americans to avoid three Mexican states because of the violence. In Juarez, kidnapping and extortion are so common that the government runs public service announcements on the radio about how not to be a victim. After all the killings, it is a city full of unbearable sorrow.

NPR's Jason Beaubien reports that the most public face of that suffering in Juarez is the mothers.

JASON BEAUBIEN: In Juarez, the grieving mothers are like ghosts. They drift through the city. They appear at the edges of protests, marches, public gatherings. They carry posters with photos of their children: the disappeared, the dead, 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.

Ms. OLGA ESPARZA RODRIQUEZ: (Spanish spoken)

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

Ms. ESPARZA RODRIQUEZ: (Spanish spoken)

BEAUBIEN: A day for us is like an eternity, Esparza says, sitting at her kitchen table with her husband. It's the worst in the nights 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 last 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.

Ms. ESPARZA: (Spanish spoken)

BEAUBIEN: 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. She's here, at the kitchen table. She's with us. You just can't see her. And some day, they say, she'll reappear.

(Soundbite of train horn)

BEAUBIEN: Juarez is an industrial city of a million and a half people, shoved against the southern bank of the Rio Grande below El Paso. 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 here, giving it the highest murder rate in the world.

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

Ms. LUZ MARIA DAVILA: (Spanish spoken)

BEAUBIEN: Around 11:30, she says, I heard the gunshots.

Ms. DAVILA: (Spanish spoken)

BEAUBIEN: 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.

Ms. DAVILA: (Spanish spoken)

BEAUBIEN: 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.

Ms. DAVILA: (Spanish spoken)

BEAUBIEN: But the ambulances didn't come, she says, for another two hours. 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 yet finished.

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

Ms. DAVILA: (Spanish spoken)

BEAUBIEN: The factory worker pushed past one of Calderon's aides to tell the president that he's 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.

Back in her kitchen, Davila says she wants justice for her sons, and for all the people who've been killed in this recent wave of violence.

Asked what that justice would be, she says...

Ms. DAVILA: (Spanish spoken)

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

Jason Beaubien, NPR News.

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