Spring 2008 Issue
When TV anchor Teresa Rodriguez ’78 went to Juarez, Mexico to report on a series of brutal slayings, she never expected one trip to turn into a decade-long obsession
By Richard A. Webster
Teresa Rodriguez threw open the curtains of her El Paso hotel room and looked across the Mexican border to the city of Juarez. The land appeared barren and unwelcoming.
On the top of Mt. Cristo Rey, just north of the border, stood a 42-foot statue of Christ.
As she stood there, a terrible thought seized Rodriguez: How many women have died alone in the desert, raped and mutilated, staring up at that statue of Jesus, pleading for salvation?
“I got chills,” she said. “It was the first thing that came to me. What I didn’t know at the time was that quite a few girls died like that. It was one of those eerie thoughts that cross your mind as a journalist.”
In late 1998, Rodriguez, an anchor for the Spanish-language television network Univision, along with a delete small camera crew, made her first foray into Juarez to investigate the unsolved murders of hundreds of poor, young women.
The plan was to collect enough footage for a 10-minute segment to air on Univision. But that one trip produced more than 200 videotapes of interviews and eventually a 336-page book about the killings titled “The Daughters of Juarez: A True Story of Serial Murder South of the Border.”
Rodriguez said she listened in horror as dozens of mothers repeated the same story of how their beloved daughters were abducted, savagely beaten, sexually assaulted and left for dead in the desert -- and how police and government officials turned a blind eye to the ongoing massacre.
“I’ve done other stories in Mexico but nothing as complicated, nothing as complex, nothing as painful, nothing as brutal, nothing as violent, as spiteful, as machista, as indifferent as this,” she said. “This is about injustice. These poor young women, their lives were taken away in a form so brutal, not even an animal deserves to die that way. And nothing was done about it because they were poor.”
Rodriguez said the book, which was released in paperback in March, represents the culmination of a career devoted to speaking up for the powerless. And what was intended to be a one-time report turned into an all-consuming story that continues to haunt her long after she first looked across the Mexican border to the statue of Christ.
“I’m on a road of no return and it’s a mission that for some reason keeps coming back to me.”
Rodriguez, who graduated from Barry with a double major in marketing and economics and a minor in English literature, says she flirted with the idea of going to law school before deciding on a career in journalism.
After stints at the Miami PBS and CBS affiliates, she moved on to Univision, the leading Spanish language network in the United States, where Rodriguez became not only the first Hispanic woman to anchor a national newscast but an 11-time Emmy Award winning journalist.
She has covered everything from child prostitution in Costa Rica to the devastating effects of live land mines left behind in Nicaragua after the Contra Wars in Central America.
But no story affected her as powerfully as the Juarez murders. It presented the perfect opportunity to use her position to expose the abuse of power, a goal she set for herself as a young girl in Miami when she witnessed the discrimination her Cuban-born family faced.
“I saw an ugly side of things that I didn’t want to see or didn’t think existed,” Rodriguez said of her early experience. “It shaped my life so far as wanting to help others and be the voice for people who can’t speak up for themselves.”
In 1999, Rodriguez entered Juarez for the first time, intent on discovering the truth and exposing the guilty. But she would soon discover that there are limits to the ability of a journalist to affect change, that there are some stories that are so dark and buried so deep in a world of corruption and violence that they are beyond the reach of the good intentions of a lone reporter.
Juarez is a city of 1.3 million standing on the Rio Grande across the border from El Paso, Texas. The industrial center is made up of hundreds of assembly plants, or maquiladoras that flourished after the United States and Mexico signed the North American Free Trade Agreement. Tens of thousands of Mexicans -- impoverished, untrained and in search of a better life -- flocked to Juarez in hopes of landing a job at one of the factories.
But Juarez didn’t have the infrastructure to accommodate the population boom leaving the new arrivals to fend for themselves.
“Many set up what resembled temporary camps in the arid foothills surrounding the city,” wrote Rodriguez. “Families crammed into single-room wooden shacks and makeshift homes of cardboard. They lived with dirt floors, no indoor plumbing or electricity, and badly rutted roads that wound through oppressive, dusty communities without parks, sidewalks or sewers.”
By 1994 more than 200,000 people worked in the factories, many of them young women who, to get to work, had to travel alone on foot, “often late at night on treacherous unlit terrain to the nearest bus stop miles away.”
It was during this time that the first of the girls began to turn up in the desert, mutilated and raped. The victims were “young, pretty and petite, with flowing dark hair and full lips.”
As of 2006, Amnesty International estimated that the bodies of more than 400 women have been recovered with up to 1,000 still missing.
There are many theories as to who is behind the Juarez murders — serial killers, drug dealers, gangs, junkies, factory managers, corrupt cops and power-mad public officials.
But for every theory, there is one thing almost everybody agrees on—none of it would have been possible before the drug cartel moved in and corrupted all of Juarez.
Diana Washington Valdez, a reporter for the El Paso Times, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for her coverage of the murders dating back to 1993, and in 2006 published her own book on the subject, “The Killing Fields: Harvest of Women.”
She said the murders began at the same time the Fuentes drug cartel took control of the city.
Narcotics kingpin Amado Carrillo Fuentes moved in and put everybody on his payroll, from the police to the district attorneys and the politicians, Valdez says. He gutted the criminal justice system so he could act with impunity and without fear of legal retribution.
“The level of corruption and how high it went, that was scary,” she said. “I knew there was corruption but I was not aware of how bad things really were and how high it went, all the way to the top.”
The arrival of the drug cartel, along with the massive influx of low-income workers and the spread of corruption, spun Juarez into a permanent state of lawlessness, and soon the bodies of young women began to appear in the desert.
Since the murders first began in 1993 the police have arrested a handful of people, mostly working class men, a few of whom died in prison before any evidence of their guilt was produced.
“When there was a lot of pressure the authorities would go out and produce somebody [as if to say], ‘Here they are. It’s over. Everything is over.’ But the crimes would continue,” Valdez said.
And, in 2005, according to a report by the Mexico City newspaper El Universal, Mexican President Vincente Fox dismissed the continuing uproar. He said the majority of the murders had been solved and their perpetrators jailed. Fox said that the media was simply rehashing old news, and that the killings were nothing unusual when compared to the number of similar crimes that occur in other parts of the country.
This attitude is typical of Mexican officials, notes Valdez.
“By ignoring what was happening in the early years it’s gotten out of hand. And if they want to do something to make this right it’s going to take two to three generations to clean it up,” she said.
Wall of Silence
When Rodriguez first traveled to Juarez in late 1998, five years after the first of the murders were discovered, she was already an accomplished journalist. But it wasn’t her credentials that earned her the trust of the mothers and fathers who so brutally lost their daughters. Rodriguez connected with them through a shared experience of pain and violence.
When Rodriguez was 21, her mother was undergoing treatment for breast cancer. The prognosis looked good and the family was convinced she had successfully beaten the disease when Rodriguez’s 32-year-old brother, Felix, was shot to death.
A year later her mother died.
“She said the natural order of life was for her to go first. She couldn’t understand how this could happen,” Rodriguez said. “She sort of gave up. I’ve always been very mature, but losing two people within a year was very hard for me and my dad.”
Rodriguez saw shadows of her mother’s torment in the faces of the women in Juarez and it helped her understand their loss.
“They saw in me a human being interested in what happened to their daughters. And it hurt me because I know all the rights we have in this country. But these people are poor and can’t hire investigators. The crime happens and they don’t hear anything else from the police. It infuriated me.”
And that was the hardest thing to take, Rodriguez says, the pervasive indifference that greeted the ever-growing roster of teenage victims.
The authorities, who apparently placed little value on the lives of poor, young women, showed little interest in tracking down the murderers.
“It became a blood sport after awhile, the thing to do when you’re high,” said Rodriguez who, during the course of her investigation came to the conclusion that some of the young women may have involuntarily been used as sexual objects by drug cartel members, politicians and police who then murdered and dumped them in the desert to cover their tracks.
“One activist told me that it’s a disgrace to be a woman in Ciudad Juarez, but it’s a crime to be a poor woman. People often talk about the lack of women rights in the Middle East, but this isn’t happening halfway around the world, it isn’t just happening in a city that’s a five-minute walk across a bridge from El Paso.”
In her multi-year investigation, Rodriguez interviewed the police, district attorneys and government officials but had found she had difficulty getting real answers.
“What I did find was anyone truly wanting to get to the bottom of these cases.”
A Strange Call
Lisa Pulitzer, a former correspondent for The New York Times and bestselling author of true crime books, first met Rodriguez in 2006 after Simon & Schuster commissioned her to co-author “Daughters of Juarez.”
Years ago, Rodriguez had written a first-person narrative on the murders as seen through the eyes of a reporter and her film crew but her publisher closed due to financial problems and the book languished.
The manuscript landed in the hands of Simon & Schuster which decided to move forward with the project and, with the help of Pulitzer, turn it into a more traditional, non-fiction, narrative.
Rodriguez had only one requirement to make it happen: Pulitzer had to agree to go to Juarez. Rodriguez said it was imperative that she get a feel for the city, that she saw it all with her own eyes — the pain, poverty and corruption. Pulitzer agreed to make the trip, adding that she wouldn’t do it any other way. The trip opened Pulitzer’s eyes to the air of danger and lawlessness that permeates much of the culture. Rodriguez had her own brush with this aspect of the culture on a previous trip to Juarez.
In 2004, Rodriguez said she spotted two men in suits following her throughout the day as she interviewed the wife of one of the accused murders in the case and his attorney.
It was clear, she said, that someone was sending her a message, letting her know they were aware of what she was doing in Mexico.
That night, after Rodriguez went to bed in a downtown Juarez hotel, the phone rang several times. But when she picked it up there was no answer, just heavy breathing.
Rodriguez left her room, went downstairs to the front desk and confronted the hotel manager.
“I’ve gotten several strange calls tonight,” she said. “Can you tell me where they came from?”
“We haven’t transferred any calls to your room,” he told her.
Rodriguez took a step back.
That meant only one thing — the calls originated from somewhere inside the hotel.
And then Rodriguez said the manager fixed her with a strange look and said, “You do know the subject matter you’re working on is very delicate.”
It was at that moment that Rodriguez realized Juarez was no longer safe. She had asked too many questions that people didn’t want answered.
“I spoke with an attorney who was very vocal in attacking the government for negligence and corruption,” Rodriguez said. “She received threatening phone calls. And then shortly after that her son was shot while driving. He survived but she resigned from the case and left the city. It’s a very violent place and when you’re threatened you take it seriously.”
After the disturbing phone calls in 2004 Rodriguez swore she would never again step foot in Juarez. She continued to follow new leads from the safety of Miami and aired reports whenever authorities discovered the body of another young girl, but she was largely done with the in-depth, on-site investigations.
But when Simon & Schuster contacted her about writing a book, Rodriguez says she couldn’t turn down the opportunity to expose the murders and injustices of Juarez on a national scale, despite the danger.
“She was very committed to the story but it was very dangerous for her to return,” Pulitzer said. “When you leave American soil you’re on your own. The way it happens in Juarez is you just sort of disappear and there’s no investigation. And that’s what she was worried about. But it was obvious her heart never left Juarez. The story and the families she interviewed are so important to her.”
In 2006, Pulitzer and Rodriguez crossed the border crouched in the backseat of a car so no one would recognize them.
Rodriguez was extremely nervous the entire drive, Pulitzer says. But as soon as they crossed the border her fear gave way to rage.
“She was so indignant that she didn’t care about her safety. The more she saw the families and the mothers of these dead girls it ignited that same fury in her that nothing had changed, that nothing had been done,” she said.
No one in Juarez knew Rodriguez had returned. She and Pulitzer crept into the city anonymously, without a camera crew so they wouldn’t draw attention to themselves.
The first place they stopped at was a small house in a poor section of town. It was the home of Ramona Morales, the mother of Silvia who disappeared July 11, 1995.
Two months later a “local rancher stumbled upon [Silvia’s] remains hidden beneath some brush. She was partially naked; her blouse and bra were pulled up over her head, exposing what remained of her mutilated breasts,” Rodriguez wrote. “Ramona Morales collapsed to the floor of the morgue after authorities showed her the bleached white skull that had been recovered from beneath some brush. Grief numbed Ramona’s senses and robbed her of her will to live.”
Morales’ face lit up when she saw Rodriguez step out of the car, Pulitzer says.
“These women have no money no resources, no power and they have to live with a dead child and no answers,” she said. “And to see Teresa again showed they hadn’t been forgotten. If you could see the look on her face it was just incredible, the way she welcomed her into their home. Teresa has risked a lot by telling the story, a story the powers that be don’t want to be told. She’s gone above and beyond to dig out the facts and challenge people.”
After their trip to Juarez, Pulitzer and Rodriguez began work on the book which required them to go over the details of almost every murder, searching for new evidence, and re-interviewing the families and local authorities. Rodriguez said she worked on the weekends, during vacations and late at night when she and Pulitzer would talk on the phone for hours going over needed changes.
After a year of work “Daughters of Juarez” hit the bookstores and was lauded by the press. The Washington Post called it a “compelling and valuable” book that “introduces American readers to a Mexican culture in which men dominate, the rule of law means little, women are devalued, corruption runs rampant and some people actually blame the victims.”
The legacy of Juarez
Rodriguez says she left Juarez with a sense of accomplishment, having been able to document and put into print the suffering and injustices of the poor for posterity. But she is frustrated because she knows that a book “is not going to change how a whole country responds to violence against women, how a government responds to violence against the poor.”
She also worries time is running out. Key witnesses have moved or died and crucial evidence has been destroyed or lost.
And in Mexico there is a 14-year statute of limitations on homicide cases, which has already begun to affect the initial murders that took place in 1993.
“I doubt as it pertains to the first few hundred cases we’ll ever know what happened,” said Rodriguez, who added that she will continue to follow the killings and air reports when breaking news occurs.
Valdez also doubts that the true killers will be brought to justice, but said there is a movement to force public officials before an international tribunal to answer for their failure to fully investigate the crimes.
“All you can do is take the people responsible, not the killers who I don’t think will ever come to justice, but to take the president, the mayors and governors, the people who could have intervened and did not, and take them before and international tribunal and try them for their negligence,” Valdez said.
Rodriguez still thinks about all of the young women whose lives could have been spared had someone stepped in, had the police done their jobs and investigated, had the politicians refused the drug cartel’s bribes and condemned the brutal violence, had anyone in a position of power looked at these girls not as disposable people, but as their own daughters.
It didn’t have to be this way, she says. Hundreds of mothers could have been spared the torment that consumed Ramona Morales whose grief “robbed her of her will to live,” Rodriguez wrote.
“The family buried Silvia in a cemetery nearby. Ramona made daily visits to the tomb of her dead child, and nightly she prayed to the Virgin of Guadalupe, the patron saint of Mexico, that the same fate didn’t happen to another daughter of Juarez.
But it did.
“Eight days after Silvia Morales’ forsaken body was discovered in the desert, another one was found in Lote Bravo: that of a 20-year-old woman whom police later identified as Olga Alicia Perez. She had been raped and stabbed; her hands had been tied with a belt and her neck was broken.
“Ramona’s blood ran cold when she read of the grisly finding in the newspaper — and of the discovery of the bodies of six more teens in the days ahead. By the winter of 1995, 19 women had been killed, bringing the total, over three years, to forty-five.
“Juarez, it seemed, was the perfect setting for a killer or killers. The victims were plentiful, poor, and trusting, and the crimes seemed to go unpunished.”
This is the legacy of Juarez, said Rodriguez. And despite her best efforts to expose the injustices, the killings, according to most reports, continue unabated.
But Rodriguez said she holds no regrets. It was a story she had to tell, and in order to discover the truth, she had to lose herself in the lives of the women of Juarez, no matter how painful or troubling the experience.
“This has taken 10 years of my life. It’s consumed everything and taken me away from my own family. But it was something I had to do, a true labor of love.”