Relatives of 11 women and girls who were murdered after being forced into prostitution in the border city of Ciudad Juárez have welcomed the conviction of five men over the crimes, but said that prosecutors should now pursue the gang’s leaders – and the corrupt officials who enabled the violence.
A three-month trial exposed how the ring systematically abducted, enslaved, and murdered women between at least 2009 and 2011, even as thousands of federal police and soldiers were deployed to the Mexican city to confront warring drug cartels. The court heard that the gang regularly paid off corrupt police officers and soldiers, who sometimes participated in the sexual exploitation of the women.
The trial recalled the murder of hundreds of women 15 years ago that made the city infamous and prompted numerous – unfulfilled – official promises to address the epidemic of .
“Justice has been done in relation to these men, but they were small fry,” said Norma Laguna, the mother of one of the victims named in the trial. “There were many more people involved who had the power and the money to make the authorities shut up about this for many years.”
The five men convicted on Saturday, and a sixth who was acquitted, belonged to the Aztecas, a street gang which acted as foot soldiers for La Línea – the local name for the Juárez cartel.
For several years, the two groups’ battle against gangs associated with the rival Sinaloa cartel helped turn Ciudad Juárez into the most violent city in the world.
In 2008, thousands of federal police and troops were deployed to the city of 1.3 million inhabitants, which sits across the border from El Paso, Texas. But the strategy only inflamed the situation, and in 2010 more than 3,000 people were killed.
But according to analysts, the violence in Juárez was never just about drugs: it was a battle to dominate the entire city, from criminal rackets to the control of local politicians and law-enforcement agencies.
The court heard that the gang abducted poor and vulnerable young women and teenage girls, who they forced to sell sex and drugs in bars and hotels in the centre of the city. They also sent their victims to service inmates in prison, as well as clients beyond the city.
The families of the victims believe the women were killed once they had accumulated too much information about the operation.
Laguna’s daughter, Idali Juachel, was 19 when she disappeared on 23 February 2010, after visiting her uncle in jail.
After receiving almost no help from the authorities, Laguna started collecting reports that Idali had been seen in city centre bars and hotels. She took the information to the police, but they took no further action.
A serious official investigation only began in 2012, and led eventually to the arrest of the six defendants. It came after the remains of at least 21 women were found beside a stream in the Valle de Juárez, an area running south-east of the city along the Río Bravo.
Idali, and the other 10 victims from this trial, were the first to be identified, but prosecutors said that the bodies of many more victims may have been dumped elsewhere and have yet to be found.
By then the violence had started to ebb, and pressure from civil society groups had prompted local authorities to start a proper investigation.
The court heard from a string of protected witnesses, including a woman who had negotiated her release with the gang, but only after they threatened to kill her child if she ever talked.
A former gang member said he had helped pay off police and soldiers who had also sometimes sought sexual services themselves, at times keeping the women for days.
Another witness recalled hearing ring members discuss “moving the merchandise” to Los Angeles, suggesting an international dimension to the racket.
“I want all those involved to fall so that people think twice before doing such things,” Laguna said. “I don’t want there to be any other mothers like me.”
Imelda Marrufo, an activist lawyer from the Juárez Roundtable for Women, who represented Laguna and other families of the victims, said she thought the verdict was “an important first step”.
She stressed the need to prosecute other alleged members of the gang, including leaders, and highlighted the role of police and soldiers.
“It is impossible that something like this could happen without complicity,” she said. “In the trial witnesses gave details that should lead to full investigations that go to a whole other level.”
Marrufo said activists had tried and failed to draw attention to the disappearances of young girls in the context of the drug wars for years.
“They told us that we were taking attention away from more important things,” she said.
Juárez became globally infamous in the late 1990s, after activists sounded the alarm about serial-style murders that appeared to target young factory workers.
Speculation ballooned about possible motives. Theories ranged from organ trafficking to satanic rituals, while others suggested more mundane routes, such as macho anger in a city filled with assembly-for-export factories that often preferred to employ women.
Although women represent only a fraction of the total number of victims in Júarez, activists argue that authorities failed to take misogynist violence seriously – in effect, turning a blind eye to the murder of women.