National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  July 4, 2003

Community guards its goodness in midst of horror

Unsolved murders in Mexican border town of Ciudad Juarez spur mothers’ solidarity


The Texas/Mexico border is a violent place -- where drug traffickers and “alien” smugglers make their nests and lay their traps. If you are rich, it is a great place to make money; if you are poor, you are lucky to afford the dirt you will be buried in.

The border is also a special, sacred place in our country. It is mostly Catholic and our border churches are crowded with statues and lighted candles and children -- especially children, for over half of the people who live here are under 21 years of age.

The border is Mexican, and among other things, that means that nearly everyone knows their neighbors’ kids by name, that people care an awful lot about the local news, and that folks are unfailingly kind.

But first a word about the violence.

For the past 10 years, nearly 100 women between the ages of 14 and 22 have disappeared from the streets of Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua, the city just across the Rio Grande from El Paso, Texas. These young women were victims of serial murder. They were raped by several men, tortured and then strangled. Their hair was shorn and their faces were cut off. In 10 years, public authorities have not solved the cases, and the murders continue.

It is difficult to imagine the psychological and emotional suffering of these women’s families. In the first place, as parents and siblings, they must feel that in some way they failed to keep their children safe. Second, the humiliating manner of their deaths -- torture and rape being a way of dying many times before actually expiring -- must worsen their sense of guilt. Third, civil authorities have consistently and publicly dismissed the deaths as the “misfortune” that comes upon those who frequent cantinas and bars -- as if this sort of mayhem is an acceptable occupational hazard for prostitutes. As if these women -- my daughter, my sister -- were whores.

And lastly, a detail that simply wears a battered soul out: As most of the girls were from dirt-poor families, there is not even a way to bury them with dignity. Kidnapped, raped, tortured, murdered, dismissed -- and bound for a pauper’s grave. My daughter. My sister.

Yet, in the midst of this violence, the Mexican community jealously guards its goodness. My parish, located at the eastern end of the border near Brownsville, Texas, is in Cameron Park, the poorest town in the United States, according to the 2000 Census. A parishioner suggested that our Lenten collections for the poor go toward a burial fund for “those poor girls in Juarez.” In a couple of weeks, the community raised over $5,000.

With check in hand, I made my way to Ciudad Juarez to meet with Benita, a leader of a group of mothers of murdered children. As we ate lunch together, Benita told me that on one of those endless days while she waited at the city morgue for permission to view her daughter’s remains, she met another woman whose daughter had also been killed, and to whom the authorities were also refusing permission to view the remains. “We began talking,” Benita told me, “and then it occurred to me that we should see if there were others out there like us. And bit by bit we became a group. A group of mothers of dead children.”

Benita's daughter, Laura

Benita then carefully took out a picture of Laura, her 17-year-old daughter. Her hand trembled as she passed me the photo, but her eyes were clear. She said, “I still have some really bad moments when I think of my girl, but this group we formed helps me. There is so much to do.”

I gave Benita the check from our collection. She thanked me, but then sighed and asked, “What should we do with the money if the killings should suddenly stop, and there were no more funerals to pay for?” I told her that I thought it would be fine if the group used the money the way they best saw fit. She said, “We would like to open a small business, something that the whole group could benefit from. We just can’t make it on what the factories are paying us. But together, maybe we can make life a little better for everyone.”

We parted with blessings, and I returned to my parish. I met with one of our small Christian communities and shared my impressions of Benita. I told them I found it striking that she and her companions would bother to meet each week, as they only remind each other of their daughters’ deaths. I found it incredible that they would have the energy to even care about the other victims.

One of the community members piped up: “You know, you think too much like a gringo. Those women have to keep on. They have to get together. They are alive. When they stop meeting, when they stop caring, then they are dead. That is when we are all dead. You have to witness. You have to tell the story. Always.”

For 10 years, Ciudad Juarez and El Paso have lived in the shadow of this manifestation of evil. Some say that it is the work of drug traffickers who have the means to pay off even federal officials; others think that it is a group of wealthy young men. It is clearly the work of several people, which means there are witnesses who refuse to come forward, which means there is a whole segment of that poor community that has, in the most profound moral sense, died.

There are others, however, who have seen and witnessed the worst that there is, the careless slaughter of their dear ones. These survivors, these sisters, refuse to waste away into despair. Their testimony is of those who have been crushed and yet still live, those who surprisingly have found a way to rise up from the shadow of their daughters’ tombs and who continue to live, who call us to shake off our own weariness and look for life, be it in a morgue or in a desert place, and nurture it and care for it. This is the testimony of those who have placed their hands in his wounds, and lived.

Marist Fr. Michael Seifert serves at San Felipe de Jesus Catholic Church in Brownsville, Texas.

National Catholic Reporter, July 4, 2003

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