EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) – Susana Montes remembers looking at her daughter coming home from high school one day and noticing how grown up she was.
“I told her, ‘My daughter, you are probably going to get married soon.’ She told me, ‘Mother, I will always be with you as long as God wills. I will study. I will help you,” Montes recalled.
Maria Guadalupe Perez Montes, a loving and joyful teenager, never came home one day. Mexican authorities found her skull and pieces of bones in an arroyo bed in the town of Praxedis, a few miles southeast of Juarez.
She was among 25 young women and girls who went missing or were later found dead between 2008 and 2013 in the area known as the Valley of Juarez.
Nonetheless, authorities convicted six alleged members of the rival Aztecas gang in a trial based on the statements of a key witness who kept changing the facts and initially said he was threatened and tortured by police, after which some international organizations questioned the evidence.
On Thursday, Montes and other moms gathered near the Arroyo del Navajo for the unveiling of a memorial to honor the 11 victims found there and as a reminder that many of their murderers remain at large even as more women have disappeared.
“They shut my daughter’s voice, but they made her mother raise hers,” Montes said, referring to how she searched, went in and out of police stations, and held vigils and marches for Maria Guadalupe, 17. “When a daughter is ripped from her mother, she is never the same. Your peace is taken away. […] They gave me my daughter back in pieces. They only gave me her skull. This arroyo has pieces of her still.”
Imelda Marrufo, leader of the advocacy group Red Mesa de Mujeres, said the memorial is meant as much to comfort the mothers as to press authorities to ensure the safety of all women.
“They would come here to lay rocks where their daughters were found. They talked to us about a memorial like the one in Juarez,” Marrufo said about the “Campo Algodonero” plaza set up where police located eight female bodies in the early 2000s. “This is the first phase of the memorial. The idea is to have a larger one next to the highway, about 200 meters from here.”
Mothers interviewed at the memorial said they remain unconvinced that justice has been done in their daughters’ murder.
Five of the men convicted are serving sentences of 697 years in prison, and another one more than 400 years.
The prosecutors’ account of how the killings happened involves a gang, the Aztecas, under siege by a much more powerful cartel and hounded by police and the army going into their rivals’ stronghold, kidnapping the women, prostituting them for months in Downtown Juarez, killing them and dumping their bodies 40 miles away at the arroyo.
Investigative Juarez reporters featured by the Border Center for Journalists and Bloggers reported some of the bodies were found with the same clothing they wore when they disappeared, making any long-term captivity questionable.
“It’s very sad to see this type of reminder. We would prefer to find them alive, to make sure no more are disappeared or killed. Unfortunately, this is reality,” said Maria, one of the moms.
(Juarez freelance photojournalist Roberto Delgado contributed to this report)