The Twilight Zone

Tumbleweeds blow in the wind—saladillos, chemís, voladoras—and the smell of rot arrives in gusts. Residents live in houses made of other people’s trash, discarded scraps of wood, sheets of metal or asbestos, old doors. Here, wire is an indispensable material, used to tie up, to hold together, to separate, to keep in that which would otherwise escape. From Lomas de Poleo, residents can look out upon the well-constructed homes, the green lawns, the technological splendor that surrounds nearby El Paso, Texas.

An excess of people and an excess of desert.

Translator’s Note: Just over two weeks ago, on April 3, the renowned Mexican writer and investigative journalist Sergio González Rodríguez unexpectedly passed away from a heart attack at age 67. González Rodríguez was the author of a number of books, including a trilogy of nonfiction works examining the geopolitical roots of modern violence. The most famous of these, Bones in the Desert, was hailed by the New York Times as “the first great book on violence in Mexico.”

At the center of Bones in the Desert is a far-reaching investigation into the still-unsolved murders of hundreds of women and girls in the communities surrounding Mexico’s Ciudad Júarez, on the US border with El Paso, Texas. In the years since its publication in 2002, Bones in the Desert has left an indelible imprint on the modern literature of the Americas, both through its own merits and its foundational influence on Roberto Bolaño’s 2666. In crafting a fictionalized version of Ciudad Júarez, Bolaño collaborated directly with González Rodríguez, relying on him for substantial “technical help” in answering questions about the nature of the murders, and eventually including him as a character in the novel. (González also makes a literary cameo in Spanish novelist Javier Marias’s Dark Back of Time.) To Bolaño, the murders at the center of Bones in the Desert represented “a metaphor for Mexico, for its past, and for the uncertain future of all Latin America.”

In a conversation with Words Without Borders, González Rodríguez stated “What I wanted to do with my books was raise to literary status a situation which others saw—and still see—as a featureless, blood-colored scene. I was interested in writing the history of a difficult present, complete with all its origins and complexities.” In the shadow of his untimely death, n+1 presents two chapters from Bones in the Desert, translated for the first time into English. Read the third chapter here.

In the beginning, things spiraled outside their limits.

In Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua, between 1993 and 1995, the bodies of thirty women, all victims of intentional homicide, began to form part of a complex tapestry of sexual violence, cantinas, bars, criminal gangs, and accusations exchanged among major public figures.

This was a broken society that was beginning to confront its cultural frailties. Public space had become a showroom for social inequality and extreme contrasts. As in many parts of Mexico, overpopulation, urban poverty, community and domestic violence, and gender inequality had transformed daily life in Juárez into a singular nightmare—above all for women, who made up half the population, more than 400,000 in number.

The borderlands of northern Mexico are an ideal territory for fostering the profound anonymity of migrants. For some, the border offers the chance for a new identity, but for most, it represents the transition from Mexico to the United States, a loss of native identity and the assumption of a new, more volatile, risk-prone existence—one rife with the threat of police, robbery, bribery, fraud, and even death.

The promise of a better life entails the very worst. The two sides of violence: private and public.

In 1995, 1,307 sexual crimes were reported in Ciudad Juárez, 14.5 percent of which were charges of rape against women, just under 200. During the first three months of 1996, the number of crimes reported increased by 35 percent over the previous year.

Likewise, in the mid-’90s, authorities acknowledged the existence of 400 street gangs, which were exacerbating the already impossible task of law enforcement in the city.

“A twilight zone . . . a dimension of shadows, an unknowable place,” said Robert K. Ressler in an interview with Rossana Fuentes Berlin for the Mexico City newspaper Reforma. This description, of course, included Ciudad Juárez and the murders of women already causing alarm in Mexico and beginning to draw attention from outside the country.

“It is a place that has become, because of its landscape, because of drug and human trafficking, a twilight zone,” continued the famous American investigator, celebrated for his psychological profiling of serial killers.

Consulting this particular expert was almost obligatory. Ressler had been the consultant on The Silence of the Lambs. The figure of Hannibal Lecter became the archetype of modern criminality—a villainous mixture of man’s predatory instinct, sexual animality, superior intellect, and the elegant gestures of someone who considers murder to be one of the fine arts.

From the executive offices of his company Forensic Behavioral Services in Fredericksburg, Virginia, Ressler dutifully attended to phone calls from the international press during breaks in his frequent travel to Japan, Great Britain, or South Africa. It was from here that he gave his ominous and earnest evaluation of the murders of women in Ciudad Juárez: “Although I’m not intimately familiar with the situation in Mexico, I predict that the murders there are going to continue. A scientific investigation is needed.”

It was precisely this sort of investigation that would never take place in the years that followed. Accustomed to the analysis of subtle signs and patterns in behavior, Ressler speculated, for example, that anyone who had ever abused or raped a woman might continue to do so, especially in the absence of any real punishment for their conduct. Perhaps Ressler had glimpsed the destiny that soon awaited him in Ciudad Juárez.

The summer of 1995 brought a tense climate to the city after the bodies of three young women were discovered in Lote Bravo, a semidesert zone south of Ciudad Juárez near the local airport.

In the following weeks, two more bodies were found.

These women were found partially clothed, face down and strangled. They were similarly dressed in T-shirts and blue jeans. They were thin, with dark skin and long hair.

The authorities were able to identify only three of the five women, all Juárez natives: Elizabeth Castro García (17 years old), Silvia Rivera (17 years old), and Olga Carrillo (20 years old). Their bodies showed signs of having been raped. The Juárez public was shaken, and media outlets began to devote significant coverage to “The Strangler” or “The Predator” of the border.

In the following months, multiple civil organizations such as the Citizen’s Committee Against Violence, a Citizen Radio Station called Frequencias, and the 8 de Marzo group would play leading roles in the case by demanding investigation into the crimes or collaborating in the search for more bodies. The atmosphere of collective panic began to worry the conservative state government of the National Action Party (PAN), which had been in control since 1992.

The spokesman for the Chihuahua State Judicial Police, Ernesto García, stated: “We have recommended that women avoid dark or unfamiliar places. They should be accompanied and, if possible, should carry pepper spray to defend themselves.”

It was a warning that revealed the limitations of law enforcement.

In the middle of September, Chihuahua governor Francisco Barrio Terrazas would also recommend that the women of Juárez exercise extreme caution. At the same time, State Attorney General Francisco Molina Ruiz offered a $1,000 reward to anyone providing information about “The Predator.”

The murders of women in Ciudad Juárez far exceeded previous records of the four women killed in Mexico City by Gregorio “Goya” Cárdenas in the Summer of 1942, or the sisters Delfina and María de Jesús González, “Las Poquianchis,” who murdered eighty women in San Francisco del Rincón, Guanajuato, in a period of ten years culminating in 1964. The crimes in Juárez also recalled the murders of Andréi Chikatilo, the so-called “Butcher of Rostov” who, in the twilight of the Soviet Union from 1978 to 1990, murdered, mutilated, and in some cases even ate fifty-two boys and girls. The specter of serial murder was part of the atmosphere of the present age.

On October 3, 1995, state police detained an Egyptian national by the name of Latif Sharif Sharif, a chemist who had been living in Ciudad Juárez for a short time after twenty years spent in the United States. He was 49 years old and his criminal history made him an immediate suspect: fourteen charges of rape and sexual assault filed in US courts. Sharif had been brought to the attention of the authorities after a young woman who met him in a bar accused him of rape, kidnapping and assault.

State police charged Sharif with the murders of the women whose bodies were discovered in August and September. In private and before a group of journalists, Governor Barrio Terrazas declared that Sharif was responsible for the crimes, and collective panic appeared to wane.

The murders in Ciudad Juárez had exposed the interrelated nature of violence, sex, and inertia. A Hollywood-style serial killer had been captured and jailed, but the public’s desire for clarity remained.

In his book Catching Serial Killers, American police officer Earl James offers the following definition: “A serial killer is one who kills more than one victim over a period of time, with a cooling off period between the murders. The Federal Bureau of Investigation requires the murder of three victims over a period of time before a crime is placed in that category.”

In turn, legendary FBI agent John E. Douglas, a colleague and friend of Robert Ressler, defines the characteristics of sexual homicide in his Crime Classification Manual: “Sexual homicide involves a sexual element (activity) as the basis in the sequence of acts leading to death.” Douglas goes on to express that “performance and meaning of this sexual element vary with offender. The act may range from actual rape involving penetration (either pre- or postmortem) to a symbolic sexual assault such as insertion of foreign objects into a victim’s body orifices.”

In October, El Diario de Juárez published a text it called “Richy’s Diary,” which had been found in the street near a local fruit shop. The diary consisted of letter-sized sheets of paper bound at the top by a ribbon. In broken handwriting, the writing described acts of extreme sexual violence against women. Crude drawings accompanied the text, and the descriptions were startling for their similarity to the sexual aggressions suffered by the murdered women whose bodies were found in Lote Bravo.

The Deputy Attorney General’s Office for the Northern District immediately undertook a graphological analysis to determine if the handwriting matched that of Abdel Sharif Sharif. The result was negative, leading the authorities to downplay the pertinence and authenticity of “Richy’s Diary”—just the rantings of some pervert looking to take advantage of the current public scandal, they said.

The word of Governor Barrio Terrazas was powerful, but perhaps even more pervasive was his narrow-mindedness: the unofficial conclusion among Mexican law enforcement was that the serial killer could not be Mexican. It had to be a foreigner—there was no alternative. Despite the opinions of experts such as Ressler, who recognized that the majority of serial murders took place in the United States and were perpetrated by white caucasian men, accusations against the Egyptian continued.

Ressler warned: “Aberrant behavior has no nationality. . . . Furthermore, serial murderers always leave a personal mark on the surface, something that identifies them, for example, shoes placed next to the victims could serve as a signature.”

On December 15, 1995, despite the imprisonment of Sharif Sharif, another victim was found twelve hours after her death.

The only noteworthy clue found by investigators was a medallion depicting Our Lady of Charity—La Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre. The body of the victim, a young woman, was naked from the waist down. Her hands were bound with the shoelaces from her own sneakers and her neck bore signs of strangulation. The signs were clear: this was the same state in which bodies had been found during the summer.

Shortly after, the name of the murdered woman was released: Rosa Isela Tena Quintanilla, 14 years old.

Ressler had emphasized that a careful review of a crime scene was essential, as was the close study of behavioral patterns and a psychological analysis in order to develop a profile of the murderer.

It would be revealed that more than one of the victims found in the summer had been discovered with her hands bound by her own shoelaces. The shoes had been found beside the victims, like a fetishistic wink.

In the coming months, more bodies would be found.

In the third week of March 1996, authorities attempted to bring charges against Sharif Sharif for the murder of Silvia Rivera, found in Lote Bravo, but fifth criminal court judge Nezahualcóyotl Zúñiga declared the evidence was insufficient.

On April 15 authorities announced the detention of eight criminal suspects accused of crimes against seventeen young women, all members of the gang known as Los Rebeldes (The Rebels), headed by “El Diablo” Sergio Armedáriz. Authorities claimed that “investigative leads” had suggested “the presence of these individuals in night clubs such as Joe’s Place, La Tuna, El Fiesta, El Alive.” Authorities also asserted that “facts provided by the suspects plainly and clearly implicate the Egyptian Abdel Latif Sharif Sharif, currently facing trial for rape.”

The arrest of “Los Rebeldes” by local police sparked public alarm about the presence of city youth in the so-called “Red Zone”: Avenida Juárez, Mariscal Street, Mejía and Azucenas Street, the area surrounding Paso del Norte. Parents were wary of the crowds that gathered in nightclubs and local bars and cantinas such as El Vértigo, Willys, Casino Deportivo, Manhattan, or Noa-Noa—throngs of young cholos of both sexes dressed in baggy shirts and pants with sneakers or work boots and baseball hats, or cheros dressed in a style that was a cross between the American cowboy and the Mexican ranchero.

Ciudad Juárez authorities reported that many of these businesses were licensed as restaurants, the exact number being unknown. Hundreds of people came to these establishments to deal drugs and engage in sex, leading Mexicans to refer to them as giros negros—businesses that had turned dark. According to the city, in the short span between October 1995 and April 1996 ten new nightclubs had opened in Juárez.

Soon after the detention of Los Rebeldes, cracks began to emerge in the integrity of the authority’s case.

On the April 19, the Chihuahua State Commission for Human Rights (CEDH) reported that six of the eight material witnesses put forth by the Deputy State Attorney to support accusations against Los Rebeldes had been “illegally deprived of their freedom.” The witnesses further claimed that they had been forced to sign fabricated testimonies. The police and their methods had been firmly called into question. Each and every one of Los Rebeldes denied the charges against them and complained that they had been beaten and tortured by the state police. But the Public Prosecutor’s Office dismissed their claims, minimizing them as “unfounded exaggerations.”

In response to the CEDH report, the deputy state attorney accused human rights inspector Luis Miguel Hernández of overstepping his authority, arguing that he was essentially acting as a defense attorney for the detained gang members. The mothers of two of the murdered women, convinced by the authorities that Los Rebeldes were guilty even though they had yet to be tried, spoke out against inspector Hernández. They accused him of having ties to the gang, claiming that his brother was the owner Bar Nebraska, of one of the establishments frequented by Los Rebeldes.

Shortly thereafter, the investigator resigned under pressure from the Deputy State Attorney.

On the same day that CEDH issued their report, one of the case’s chief suspects held a press conference from his place of detention at the Center for Social Reintegration, tucked away in the desert plains outside Ciudad Juárez.

It was Abdel Latif Sharif Sharif. He insisted, as he had since he had been arrested, that he was innocent. Furthermore, he promised to reveal who was really behind the women’s murders.

Inside the prison, dusty colonias could be seen through barred windows, baking in the springtime sun as glinting vehicles slowly made their way through suburban stoplights. The unusual custom of allowing inmates to hold meetings with the press had been established through the tireless work of various social organizations. Sharif was made to wait for fifteen minutes in an office building adjacent to the prison brimming with reporters, cameramen, and photographers from various media outlets in Ciudad Juárez and other parts of Mexico, as well as their counterparts in El Paso, Texas. The guards and other prison employees seemed accustomed to the commotion, happy to sit back and watch the media circus.

The majority of the reporters were convinced of Sharif Sharif’s guilt. Other journalists, much fewer in number, tried to explain to the rest of their colleagues their skepticism and reluctance.

Finally, Abdel Latif Sharif Sharif arrived, standing at an imposing six feet and two inches tall with a prominent potbelly, a sharp gaze, and an affable disposition. He wore jeans and a bright short-sleeved shirt.

Members of the press became excited. Expectations soared.

In his broad hands the Egyptian carried a letter-sized spiral bound notebook filled with yellow pages. He announced to the journalists, in halting Spanish, that he intended to share a “story” with them before making the promised announcement: the names of those responsible for the murders. He asked for an interpreter and one of the journalists volunteered to translate his reading into Spanish.

Sharif Sharif wanted to share the story of Alejandro, “ . . . a Mexican in his twenties—white, rich, and arrogant—who fell in love at the beginning of 1990 with a young girl of modest means named Silvia—dark-skinned, thin, long hair . . .”

The onlookers showed signs of irritation. They muttered amongst themselves as the Egyptian read—they had come here for information but were instead being subjected to a story that seemed straight out of a Mexican corrido or a norteño folk ballad. Despite his visible irritation at the murmurings of the journalists, Sharif Sharif continued his story.

“This girl refused to reciprocate Alejandro’s love, and after half a year he murdered her out of spite. He was never questioned or detained in relation to the crime: Alejandro’s family had paid off the authorities to avoid such encounters. Alejandro’s adoptive father was well known as the owner of a Juárez night club—”

A reporter interrupted the Egyptian to demand that he put forth a name. Nervous, but determined to carry on, Sharif Sharif responded: “—Guillermo, Guillermo Máynez.”

One journalist turned to another and said, audibly, “Yeah, he’s the owner of places like Safari, Parallel 38, Monterray, Azteca, Parral . . . or La Rueda, the place where the police get together with the drug traffickers.”

Sharif Sharif continued:

“Alejandro, a Juárez native and a resident of El Paso, has a cousin named Melchor Máynez who looks just like him and is an accomplice to his crimes. Between the two of them, they are responsible for murdering more than fifty women . . .”

The reporters grew restless. They wanted to know where Sharif Sharif had obtained his information. They began to raise their voices. Others called out for silence.

“ . . . Melchor is responsible for the drawings and writings that were published by the press as ‘Richy’s Diary’ . . .”

Murmuring soon gave way to questions and shouts, finally forcing Sharif Sharif to halt his reading. Some called out in English to the Egyptian, who was now sweating as he tried to respond to multiple questions at once. He appealed for patience.

“How did you obtain this information? On what basis? Where’s your evidence?” the press demanded.

The Egyptian responded: “This is the testimony of someone who wishes to remain anonymous, someone who once overheard Alejandro Máynez bragging about his crimes.”

Several reporters looked at each other in disappointment. Some exchanged quips and jokes. Others booed their colleagues for asking obvious questions. One of them used a mobile phone to call their newspaper and express their irritation.

Sharif Sharif did his best to maintain order, to persuade his interlocutors. His hands trembled, betraying his anxiety. He insisted that he was a scientist, not a murderer. With his limited Spanish, Sharif attempted to explain his time in Juárez, contradicting himself about the reasons and exact duration of his stay. He appeared defenseless against the incredulous reception to his story. Nevertheless, the Egyptian hoped that the facts would soon make themselves clear, and he announced that he would soon file an official report stating what he had told them. He waved goodbye to the reporters.

Sharif was terrified at the idea of spending forty years in a Mexican prison. While he felt confident that he would avoid long term incarceration, he had little idea of the scale of what awaited him.

A reporter soon tracked down the family of Alejandro Máynez. They claimed that they had not seen Alejandro “for a long time.” They knew nothing of his whereabouts, nor did they want to know.

The day after the Egyptian made his revelations to the press, a teenager by the name of Susana Domínguez, a material witness against Los Rebeldes, issued a statement before the fifth criminal court judge which she would later repeat to a pair of journalists in the courthouse hallway:

“The police kidnapped me for eight days. Comandante Navarrete threatened me and an agent put his gun to my head and cocked the hammer. They also grabbed me by the hair—like this, just like this—and then they slammed me against the wall to make me say what they wanted.”

With her mother at her side, Susana affirmed categorically: “Los Rebeldes are not guilty.”

A window in the hallway of the courthouse looked out over the surrounding shantytowns, wind-beaten and dotted with dust devils swirling in the warm afternoon haze of the border. A vision of torture hovered in the air as the young woman’s words echoed through the hallway. Against the dirty glass, a flyer announced the publication of new book titled Constitutional Law. The flyer gave the hallway an air of hopelessness, like a secular prayer—a useless plea for order in the face of chaos.

Susana Dominguez, the whistleblower against police brutality, was a slender teenager with dark skin, big eyes, and long hair. She looked like a typical Juárez girl. She wore jeans and a T-shirt, like the girls that gather in shopping malls on both sides of the border, like the girls that fill the local schools, like the girls that work in the city’s office buildings. Like the young women who care for their children—some of them married, some of them single mothers living at the edge of an abyss. Like the women who depart each day from hundreds of factories to make their way home, women who make their way to the bars in city buses each Friday after finishing their shift. Women whose tortured bodies are found discarded in the desert.

In that spring of 1996, many key players were voicing the same disagreements and contradictions that defined Juárez society.

The spokesperson for the Deputy State Attorney stated: “The charges against Sharif are solid, they are indisputable.”

Abdel Latif Sharif Sharif responded with the certainty of a scientist: “I am 100 percent innocent.”

Erika Fierro, of the supposed gang Los Rebeldes, also maintained her innocence: “All of this is a lie.”

Susana Domínguez reiterated: “They threatened me into accusing Los Rebeldes.”

The reporter Sergio Melgar of Diario de Juárez contended: “We are not convinced that the police have made a scientific investigation.”

Romana Morales, mother of the victim Silvia Rivera, revealed vengeful satisfaction: “I’m glad the cops knocked around Los Rebeldes and I hope they kill them . . .”

Luis Miguel Hernández, the inspector for the State Commission for Human Rights, declared upon stepping down: “I am resigning under pressure from Chihuahua state police authorities.”

And, finally, fifth criminal court judge Nezahualcóyotl Zúñiga moved closer to a ruling: “During trial, evidence and proof is most important, not the statements made by witnesses. I will issue my verdict in accordance with the law.”

But the incident demanded concern for the victims.

Martha Pérez, a courteous attorney in her thirties and head of the Ciudad Juárez Sexual Crimes Department, revealed that her office received an average of six reports of rape per day. The victims tended to be young, between 13 and 30 years old.

“Most of the sexual aggression occurs in the factories,” she explained, “and most of the rape is statutory. In order to get jobs, many of these girls falsify their birth certificate . . . The streets are filled with predators, drugs, venereal disease, disappearances . . . The chief problem is overpopulation,” Pérez insisted.

An excess of people and an excess of desert.

At midday on Sunday April 21, 1996, the body of another woman was discovered, this time in Lomas de Poleo. Shortly before, reports had circulated that human remains had been uncovered in Lote Bravo, but it turned out to be a false alarm: animal bones, the police reported.

Under the hot afternoon sun in Lomas de Poleo, the air is parched and silent, filled with the smell of the trash flapping in the wind as it blows across the rolling hills at the city’s edge.

A call by local residents sharing a common channel on the citizens band radio drew the attention of state police, forensic services, and two or three journalists. Lomas de Poleo, a Ciudad Juárez shantytown reached by a dirt road paralleling the US border, is a landscape of footpaths twisting through desolation, decorated by a sea of plastic bags strewn across dry brush and patches of red and white dust. Tumbleweeds blow in the wind—saladillos, chemís, voladoras—and the smell of rot arrives in gusts. Residents live in houses made of other people’s trash, discarded scraps of wood, sheets of metal or asbestos, old doors. Here, wire is an indispensable material, used to tie up, to hold together, to separate, to keep in that which would otherwise escape. From Lomas de Poleo, residents can look out upon the well-constructed homes, the green lawns, the technological splendor that surrounds nearby El Paso, Texas.

A sturdy Lomas de Polero resident, Martha Martínez, steps out from a dusty and broken-down 1976 Ford Galaxy and displays, to all who care to see, something she has been carrying inside a crumpled plastic bag identical to the thousands scattered across the landscape. She holds out a lock of dyed hair and a yellow stone pendant inlaid in a leather band. She fears that they are evidence of another dead body. Like many residents, she has a feverish compulsion to uncover new bodies as authorities stand by, flaunting their disinterest.

By day, the area’s dirt roads belong to shepherds and local residents; by night it is enveloped in danger, becoming the domain of violent juvenile gangs that shoot at each other’s cars, and the gathering place for drug addicts and polleros—human traffickers that guard the entry points into the United States, waiting for the right moment to pass.

From time to time, residents in Lomas de Poleo erect barbed wire fences and iron doors around their small properties. Families gather to eat beside their ruined cars and trucks. They speak and glare with hostility at the outsiders that pass through the neighborhood. Children play and dogs bark and chase after one another. In the distance, a transmission tower carries high-tension power lines across the landscape and a police convoy can be seen speeding down a dirt road, abandoning the city’s outskirts after having located what has hastily been determined to be little more than the remains of a “pollero campsite.”

The police fail to take into evidence—“evidence of what, in the end?” a resident asks—a pair of Guess-brand pants cut off at the knees and a wool serape with horse motifs, the kind found in artisan markets in Mexico City, they kind used in Aguascalientes, in Guanajuato, in Michoacán.

A fine dust blows through Lomas de Poleo, swallowing signs and traces. The silence is crushing. There is a sense of vulnerability that is absolute. All signs of human passage are lost in a barren landscape that repels memory. In Lomas de Poleo, unending voracity meets absolute scarcity. It is here, situated between these two extremes, that victims must have found themselves on the eve of their demise.

—Translated by Francisco Cantú

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