CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mexico (AP) — Mexican prosecutors have arrested 12 people in connection with the slayings of 11 young women whose skeletal remains were found near the northern border city of Ciudad Juarez early last year.
The suspects include alleged drug dealers, pimps and small store owners. They allegedly belonged to a gang that forced young women into prostitution and drug dealing and then killed them when they were "no longer of use," the prosecutors' office for the northern state of Chihuahua said in a statement late Tuesday. The 10 men and two women face charges of human trafficking and homicide. Six were already in local jails for other offenses, and six other were detained early Tuesday.
The killings had raised fears that serial-style killings had returned to Ciudad Juarez, where over a hundred women were killed in such crimes in the 1990s and early 2000s. Few of those cases were ever properly investigated, but activists and victims' mothers said Wednesday that in this case, they pressured investigators and provided information that led to the real culprits.
The latest round of deaths appeared to be different than the 1990s killings because they apparently involved forced labor and prostitution, but were no less chilling.
One of the suspects ran a modeling agency, another a clothing store, a third a small grocery.
"These businesses were used by the gang as a 'hook' to offer young women jobs. Once they obtained the information they needed from the women's' job applications, they used different techniques and other people to kidnap them or pressure them into forced prostitution, and the consumption and or sale of drugs," the state attorney generals' office said.
"Once the women were no longer useful for their illegal activities, they decided to kill them and abandon their bodies ... in the Juarez Valley," just east of Ciudad Juarez.
In past cases in Ciudad Juarez, prosecutorial and police misconduct was so prevalent that the mothers of dead or missing girls doubted authorities' identification of their daughters' remains and the arrest of suspects in those cases.
But in this case, mothers and activists said Wednesday they are sure that the suspects arrested this week participated in abducting their daughters.
Maria Garcia Reynosa, the mother of Jessica Leticia Pena Garcia, who was 15 when she disappeared in 2010, said she obtained video showing her daughter entering one of the suspects' businesses, a boot shop, looking for work.
Garcia Reynosa said she had to do much of the investigative work herself, but that prosecutors finally listened to her and followed up the leads she provided on a hotel where she believed her daughter had been held. Unfortunately, it was too late by then; Jessica Leticia had already been killed months earlier.
"I gave them everything on a silver platter, and these dogs didn't do anything," she said of the original investigators. She said she had to battle to get key evidence introduced, and deal with detectives who didn't take her leads seriously. "I'm in this for all of us," she said of the victims' mothers. "I feel that she (Jessica) is with me, helping me."
Finally this year, the state agreed to create a small team of investigators devoted to focusing on the murders. The difference from past cases is that victims are now much more empowered than in the 1990s, prosecutors are more willing to listen to them. Moreover, following the reported disappearances of more than 24,000 people over the last six years in Mexico, a strong tradition has emerged of relatives taking it on themselves to carry out basic investigation tasks that police can't or won't do.
"This was done with the creation of the investigative agency, our presence and the efforts of the mothers, who were the ones who provided leads from the beginning," said Norma Ledesma, leader of the advocacy group Justice for Our Daughters. "They (the mothers) carried out their own investigation."
"Mothers today know their rights," Ledesma said.
A dozen sets of bones were found in January and February 2012 in fields in the Juarez Valley, a largely agricultural area. Little but bones were found, and the remains were in such bad condition that experts had trouble establishing ages, identities, causes of death, or whether some of the bones might belong to additional victims. But among those identified, there was a similarity in ages: two were 15, one was 16, two were 17 and one 19.
According to prosecutors, after recruiting the women "with lies or threats", or abducting them between 2009 and 2010, they held them in forced servitude at a local hotel where an adult prostitute — one of the suspects arrested — would keep an eye on them, bring them customers, and report them if they tried to escape to another gang member who was in charge of punishing them.
Some were forced to sell drugs, and killed if they didn't turn in enough money.
Ciudad Juarez, across the border from El Paso, Texas, was the scene of a series of eerily similar killings of more than 100 women, most of them young, beginning in 1993. Those possible serial or copy-cat killings, with similar victim profiles and killing methods, appeared to taper off by late 2004 or early 2005.
In those cases, the victims were usually young, slender women, often factory workers, who were abducted, often sexually abused and strangled before their bodies were dumped in the desert.
The failure of state officials to solve the earlier crimes led to creation of a special federal prosecutor's office to probe such killings. In November, the Mexican government formally apologized for having failed to protect some of the victims of the earlier killings.
While Ledesma expressed satisfaction with the charges brought in the most recent cases, she said it can't end there.
"We are not going to be convinced that it was just this small gang that was taking them away; there are higher-ups involved," Ledesma said. "We are not going to be content with the capture of just the underlings if the leaders are still free," she said, adding, "It must be someone with economic, and possibly political power" who led the gang.