Horror on the Rio Grande

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Horror on the Rio Grande

Yesterday was el Dia de Muertos in Mexico, the Day of the Dead. But in Ciudad Juarez there is little to celebrate. The border town in Chihuahua state has long been notorious for its poverty, pollution and overcrowding, but its recent infamy stems from something far more horrific. Since 1993 more than 500 women have been raped and brutally murdered there.

Events in Juarez have gone largely unreported in this country, but there was an article several years ago which centred on the grief of a woman whose three daughters had been raped and murdered. Frustrated by the reluctance of the police department to react she formed the Citizens’ Committee Against Violence - an assistance programme for relatives of victims.

And Mexico will soon have to face up to its problem. A pop single and a film starring Jennifer Lopez are set to highlight Juarez’s shameful secret as members of the entertainment industry take on the story as their latest cause célèbre. The Texas garage-rockers At The Drive In have been played frequently on MTV2 since they released their recent single Dancing On The Corpses’ Ashes. The band’s video was powerfully shot in black and white on Super 8, and was situated in and around the notorious death spots of Juarez. It included footage of the hundreds of pink crosses painted on telegraph poles: one for every victim of the killer, or killers. Like a public information vehicle, the video flashes brutal statistics over disturbingly frank, documentary footage. It ends chillingly with the words: "To date 570 woman have been murdered."

But it’s Jennifer Lopez’s next career move which may be what really puts Juarez on the map. Film-maker Gregory Nava, with whom she worked on 1997’s Selena (the story of the Tejano singing star murdered at the age of 23 by the head of her fan club), is writing Bordertown, with Lopez in mind to play a journalist investigating the slayings. Although she has not yet signed on the dotted line, a reunion between J-Lo and the Academy Award nominated screenplay writer of El Norte looks likely.

JUAREZ is the fourth largest city in Mexico, home to the largest concentration of maquiladoras - foreign-owned component assembly factories that finish goods for sale in the United States - set up to exploit cheap Mexican labour (of which 70 per cent is female). The city is principally renowned for its bustling vice industry, coupled with regular and random waves of violence. Between the World Wars, Juarez became a highly alluring proposition to thousands of weekend, thrill-seeking Americans, enticed by the double whammy of cheap, exotic women and equally cheap, exotic, illegal drugs, principally cocaine. Most large cities are violent, and guns, drugs and gangs are all part and parcel of a city adjusting to industrialisation, but in Juarez the homicide rate has increased by at least 100 per cent since 1991. "Even the devil is scared of living here," quipped a local market stall-holder to an American newspaper at the height of the murders.

In this city of transient human detritus, elementary facts, such as population, aren’t easy to come by. No-one knows how many people live in Juarez now. The accepted estimate is around two million. In 1994 about a million Mexicans, spurred by a self-preservation and survival instinct, walked away from their barren and dying homelands and headed north, illegally crossing the Rio Grande into Texas, leaving those behind in places like Juarez, separated from El Paso by 30 feet of water. Since then this exodus has increased and Juarez has become part of the Mexican gulag; the place for the people no-one wants. This tragic, seething, concrete metropolis caught the attention of one individual, who saw Juarez as a risk-free, potential human killing field.

Through the mid-1990s it was as if open season had been declared on young Juarez girls. Every couple of days corpses appeared in the desert to the south of the city. It’s impossible to imagine the unfolding terror of the city’s ordinary women, suddenly rendered potential victims of a serial killer.

On the day in 1947 when Abdul Latif Sharif Sharif was born into a middle-class family in Egypt, no one could possibly have conceived of the horrific effect he was to have just over four decades later on a city halfway around the world. It was 1970 when Sharif emigrated to the US, initially taking up residence in New York City. Although he was a brilliant chemist, within his circle of work associates he quickly began to establish a reputation for drunkenness and promiscuity. These social failings were to dog him for the remainder of his stay in the US.

Sharif’s murderous spree began on 3 January 1977, when an airline stewardess called Sandra Miller was found on a roadside in Pennsylvania. Blood and clumps of hair were discovered in the snow near her home in New Jersey, leading the police to conclude that she was violently abducted and driven across the Delaware River to the scene of her death. Police were unable to find the killer at the time, but two decades later, as news filters through of Sharif’s crimes in Mexico, they point to him as the prime suspect. Sharif, working for Magnesium Electron in New Jersey at the time, was known to frequent the same bars as Miller.

In 1978, Sharif moved to New Hope, Pennsylvania, where a work acquaintance called John Pascoe remembered his interest in young girls, often under-age. The girls frequently disappeared from the area having last been seen in Sharif’s apartment. Pascoe worried about Sharif’s irrational behaviour, including a deer-hunting expedition in the local woods where Sharif tortured a wounded young deer to death.

A couple of years later Pascoe and his increasingly sinister Egyptian acquaintance had a massive fall-out when Pascoe entered Sharif’s apartment without permission. Pascoe questioned the fact that the meagre possessions of Sharif’s latest conquest - "a petite, pretty girl with long, light blonde hair" - were still there, despite Sharif’s assertion that she had left for good. Sharif erupted, ordering Pascoe out of the apartment. As he left, he remembered wondering if it was too much of a coincidence when he saw a mud-caked shovel propped up in Sharif’s front porch.

The spat with Pascoe set Sharif’s alarm bells ringing, and he rapidly relocated to Palm Beach, Florida, where he started work with a petro-chemical company called Cercoa Inc. Then on 2 May, Sharif raped a 23-year old woman called Tracey. He made no attempt to cover his tracks. Cercoa Inc, which had created a department especially for him, found the best legal defence team they could for their wayward but brilliant employee. On the eve of his trial, Sharif ventured out into the night, a foray which resulted in the rape and battery of a woman called Ruth in West Palm Beach. The police bungled badly by not passing details of the second rape on to their colleagues, and Sharif received only probation for his attack on Tracey and served a paltry 45 days for his attack on Ruth.

Sharif moved to Gainesville, Florida, in an attempt to start a new life. He even tried his hand at marriage, but the union was to be short-lived when he beat his wife unconscious. A 20-year-old college student called Lisa answered a subsequent advertisement for a live-in housekeeper, was offered the job and on the night she moved in Sharif repeatedly raped and beat her, threatening to kill her. Yet again he was arrested and on 31 January 1984 was sentenced to 12 years for this crime. His victim was assured that upon his release Sharif would be met at the prison gates and escorted to the plane for deportation back to Egypt. After serving less than half of his sentence, state officials awaiting him at the prison gates were conspicuous by their absence. He did not pursue Lisa, but headed to Midland in Texas, where he was taken on by the oil company, Benchmark Research and Technology. He soon fell into his old behaviour patterns and proved himself to be a drunk and a promiscuous boor, but simultaneously asserted himself as a brilliant chemist, helping Benchmark punch well above its weight in the oil business.

Tom Wilson, who had worked with Sharif in Florida, joined Benchmark in1991 and alerted the authorities to the fact that his former colleague had not been deported as promised. US Border Control was contacted and deportation procedures began in El Paso. At the hearing, US Immigration Judge William Nail agreed to listen to a testimony in favour of Sharif from colleagues at Benchmark, his workplace, and members of the Alcoholics’ Anonymous group that he had joined after an arrest for drunken driving.

The judge acknowledged the positive testimonies but decided against Sharif, citing his recent arrests for drunk-driving as evidence of his continuing tendency to abuse alcohol as reason enough to uphold the deportation order. Sharif’s lawyers immediately appealed and Sharif was freed on bail to await the second hearing, also in El Paso. It is during this period that he is believed to have made the first of a series of visits to Juarez, where he trawled the sleazy nightclub district of Ugarte.

On the night before his deportation hearing he raped again. Faced with a second serious charge against his client, Jack Ladd, Sharif’s chief lawyer, proposed a rushed deal to the American authorities: if the charges were dismissed, Sharif would leave the US for good.

Before the authorities had even responded to the proposal, Sharif acted on his own initiative and emigrated to Juarez to work for Benchmark in one of their maquiladora factories. Bizarre as it may seem, but totally in keeping with the charmed life Sharif led, the authorities accepted Ladd’s proposal in August and the charges against Sharif were dismissed.

Within months of Sharif’s arrival, bodies of raped and murdered young women began to be found in the suburbs of Juarez and the surrounding desert. The discoveries cast a spell of fear over the city. The first body to turn up was that of 17-year-old Elizabeth Castro Garcia, a pretty maquiladora worker who had frequently been spotted in the company of Sharif. Despite this connection, the investigators did not mark him down as a suspect.

A few months later a young woman called Blanca turned up at the police station. She told them of a three-day ordeal at Sharif’s home when he repeatedly raped and beat her. He also threatened murder, saying that he would dump her body in Lote Bravo - a patch of desert to the south of Juarez close to where the body of Castro and many other victims had been found.

A few days later, for no apparent reason, she withdrew the charges and then promptly disappeared. Finally the Mexican Police began to investigate Sharif’s links with the maquiladora workers and unearthed his criminal record from the USA. He was charged with the murder of Elizabeth Castro Garcia, and held over in the Juarez Centre for the Social Rehabilitation of Adults (CeReSo), where he awaited trial in the notoriously slow Mexican legal system. As soon as he was incarcerated the rapes and murders stopped, yet Sharif continued to profess his innocence. "I am innocent, they are pinning this all on me because I am a foreigner ... I’m just a drunk, I’m not a murderer," he bleated to the authorities, who still suspected him of many more murders.

Sharif began to receive regular visits in the CeReSo from members of a Juarez street gang called Los Rebeldes, led by a nightclub security guard born Sergio Armendariz, but nicknamed El Diablo. Events began to take on yet another, increasingly grotesque turn. Although Sharif was firmly ensconced behind bars, the rapes and murders of young women began again, throwing the inhabitants of Juarez into a renewed frenzy of fear, mingled this time with anger at the inability of the authorities to solve the crimes.

But even in a God-forsaken place such as Juarez there is an ethical code among the lawless; the criminal underworld of Ugarte tipped off the police. Sergio Armendariz and the other members of Los Rebeldes were arrested. They were accused of conspiring with Sharif, who had paid them to rape and murder in his style in an attempt to establish his innocence. Despite insisting on their innocence, Los Rebeldes were put behind bars and the rapes and murders ceased for a second time.

Some of the group were released, but none had yet been put on trial for the crimes of which they were accused. The authorities were confident they had sufficient evidence to secure convictions, including teeth-marks on the bodies of some of the victims that matched those of El Diablo. Then, two years later, ten members of Los Rebeldes were charged with raping and murdering at least 50 women. The activity surrounding Los Rebeldes certainly deflected some of the attention from Sharif, buying him time to plan out the next stage of his warped plot.

Establishing a friendship with Victor Moreno Rivera, who had been visiting a friend in CeReSo, Sharif found the perfect pawn. Not long after their meeting terror returned to the young women of Juarez. Bodies of raped and murdered girls began appearing yet again in the desert around Juarez. The hunt for the criminals became increasingly politicised, resulting in quick-response activity by the authorities, but only after a positive identification of the latest in a long line of perpetrators. A 15-year-old girl called Susana was raped and assaulted by a man called Jesus Manuel Guardado Marquez, alias El Dracula or El Tolteca. Too frightened to report the attack to the police at the time, she later chose to come forward when Marquez appeared in the media accused of a similar attack on a 14-year-old girl who had stumbled bleeding and weeping into a stranger’s home in the desert around southern Juarez. Safely under police protection, she told them that she had been raped and half-strangled by the driver of one of the maquiladora buses who had abducted her on the way home. The driver was identified as Marquez.

Unaware as yet of his attack on Susana, the police discovered he had a previous conviction for sexual assault, but when they set out to arrest him he had already fled from Juarez with his pregnant wife. Hiding out in a town south of Juarez, El Tolteca attacked his own wife, was arrested and returned to Juarez.

His confession implicated four other men in the rape and murder of maquiladora workers. The five men, all of whom worked as bus drivers for the maquiladora companies, were nicknamed Los Choferes (the drivers) by the media, and all confessed to being part of another paid conspiracy organised by Sharif from behind bars. Using Moreno as his contact, Sharif had been paying them to rape and murder two young girls a month in another attempt to establish his innocence. While finally realising the evidence against him was damning, and no longer maintaining his innocence, Marquez accused the police of assault; the other four now chose to refute all charges and accused the police of torturing false confessions out of them.

Susana finally chose to come forward to report her rape and Marquez claimed the sex was consensual. He admitted to having sex with one of the women he was accused of killing, but identified another of Los Choferes as her killer. Conservative estimates suggest this gang was responsible for between 20 and 30 of the murders, although they were accused of the rape and murder of 190 women. Following the arrest of Los Choferes, the rapes and murders in Juarez stopped for a third time

On 3 March 1999, almost four years after he had been arrested, Sharif finally stood trial for the murder of Elizabeth Castro Garcia. He was found guilty, and sentenced to 30 years imprisonment - the maximum sentence for murder under Mexican law.

In the aftermath of the trials, information continued to filter out. A scandal erupted in the Juarez media when it was discovered that Sharif continued enjoying extraordinary privileges in the Juarez CeReSo. He had the use of a cell-phone on which he had been making regular, unsupervised calls in pursuit of his claims of innocence. Links were then established between Sharif and an American currency forger called Newton van Drunen, whom he had again befriended in the CeReSo and who is now serving a sentence in Chicago. Police alleged that van Drunen had been sending money to Sharif with which he paid Los Choferes to take part in this conspiracy of rape and murder.

In April 1999, and seemingly as a direct result of media pressure, the director of the CeReSo in Juarez was dismissed and Sharif was moved from Juarez to a maximum security cell in Chihuahua.

The legal and political echoes of this monstrous catalogue of rapes and murders, charges and counter-charges, continue to reverberate through Mexico and the US. Allegations persist that Sharif had influential friends in Mexican politics and the Mexican judiciary which, considering the charmed life afforded him for so long, is within the realms of possibility. Even with Sharif, Los Rebeldes and Los Choferes safely caged, the unfortunate city of Juarez continues to worry for its children. The systematic purge of the city’s daughters may be a horrific blot on its history, but Juarez remains full of desperate individuals.

Esther Chavez Cano, director of Casa Amiga, a Juarez victim assistance programme, says that the authorities have repeatedly stated that all the murder cases have now been solved with the arrest of the three sets of suspects. "But the violence against women continues here," she says. "Just last month (on 4 October) the body of a young girl was found in a pretty central location, across from a very popular mall …"

Saturday, 3rd November 2001 The Scotsman

-- K (infosurf@yahoo.com), November 05, 2001

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