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CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mexico — A woman wearing a blond wig boarded a downtown bus on Aug. 28, pulled out a .38-caliber handgun and killed the driver at point-blank range. The citizens of Juarez were largely unfazed by the news.
Slightly larger than San Diego, Juarez has experienced extraordinary levels of crime and violence in recent years — more than 3,000 homicides in 2010, for instance. Besides, bus drivers aren't well liked here. They're viewed as, at best, low class, aggressive and irresponsible, at worst as predators and rapists because of the number of assaults experienced by women and girls on late-night routes.
But the following morning, when the blond assassin boarded a bus in a different part of the city and again shot the driver execution style, people took notice. Local criminologist Oscar Maynez, a professor at the National Autonomous University of Ciudad Juarez, said, "It was floating in the air that these bus drivers had committed sexual aggression, and she was taking revenge."
Toward the end of the last decade, Juarez became ground zero for Mexico's largest and deadliest drug war. Though residents remain guarded, there's a collective sense that maybe the worst is finally over. Local and state governments are desperately pitching the case that Juarez is back, and people have returned to the streets. But while the drug war has stabilized, the conditions that made the city an inferno are still there: economic inequality, environmental degradation, corrupt police and judges, poor quality of life, limited opportunities for a growing youth population.
And violence against women.
While the number of murdered or missing women varies widely depending on who’s counting, the attorney general's office for the state of Chihuahua, where Juarez is located, reported that through mid-August, 33 Juarez women were reported missing this year. Two more were found dead a month or more after first being reported missing. The office has no information on whether another 25 women reported missing have been found dead or alive, so according to Mesa de Mujeres, a network of social organizations that serve the women of Juarez, those women are presumably still missing. More than 60 percent of the disappeared are between 14 and 18 years of age.
Even though many people know what we suffer, no one defends us or does anything to protect us.
Diana, the huntress of bus drivers
The morning after the second bus driver's murder, an email sent to La Polaka, an online news site, seemed to confirm many people's suspicions. Its author claimed responsibility for the killings as an act of vengeance on behalf of the women of Juarez for sexual attacks by bus drivers.
"Even though many people know what we suffer, no one defends us or does anything to protect us," the letter read in Spanish. "Therefore, I am an instrument to avenge several women who appear weak, but in reality we are brave."
Social media reacted immediately. A Facebook page was created, and La Polaka readers wrote comments congratulating the unidentified murderess. The international media also jumped on the story, which provoked local authorities to initiate the semblance of an investigation — collecting witness statements and posting undercover officers on bus routes around the city.
But the letter was a fake, perhaps even a deliberate distraction, said Arturo Sandoval, a spokesman for the Chihuahua attorney general’s office. The authorities, he added, are still investigating whether there is any link between the sender and the murderer.
Diana, the huntress of bus drivers, is probably just another myth, a half-truth (like so many Juárez tales), a cathartic character that promises justice where there is none.
Nearly three months later the investigation remains open, which Maynez, the criminologist, says is typical: "They just wait for the case to get cold and people to forget and something else comes along."
Cold cases are nothing new for Juarez. Regarding the first wave of femicides (the misogynist killings of women), Asma Jahangir, a human rights activist, wrote back in 1999, "The arrogant behavior and obvious indifference shown by some state officials in regard to these cases leave the impression that many of the crimes were deliberately never investigated for the sole reason that the victims were 'only' young girls with no particular social status and who were therefore regarded as expendable."
Julia Monarrez Fragoso, a femicide researcher at El Colegio de la Frontera Norte, says these words ring just as true today. She keeps a database of the femicides that have taken place in Juarez since 1993 and says more female corpses have been found dumped in the desert in the last three years than there were throughout the 1990s. Last year alone there were 18 sexual femicides (the killings of women who are kidnapped, tortured or raped), the most in Juarez since 1997.
Since 2008, the number of girls and women who have disappeared has also been rising. Fragoso reports that 211 Juarez women and girls disappeared between 2008 and 2013. While these years overlap with the spike in overall violence, she says these victims — mostly 14 to 18 years old — were targeted as "killable subjects" due to their gender and class, not as a result of collateral damage or cartel affiliations.
Though there have been extensive efforts in Juarez over the years to reduce violence against women, the pattern continues generation after generation, says Leticia Mejia, a soft-spoken psychologist at the Casa Amiga crisis center. Young women think it’s normal to have abusive boyfriends who don’t let them work, wear makeup or spend time with friends.
But Juarez is not alone in this respect, Mejia points out. In a 2011 study by the National Institute of Statistics and Geography, more than a quarter of Mexican females 15 or older had experienced abuse in a relationship within the previous year, whether physical, emotional, sexual or economic. In Chihuahua, the average is slightly higher. Three out of five Mexican females have been physically abused within the past year — at work, school, home or elsewhere in the community.
Whether or not she's real, and whether or not she'll attack again, Diana la Cazadora de Choferes tapped into two ongoing crises in Juarez and all of Mexico: violence against women and indifference by the authorities. In the eyes of many Juarenses, the worst culprits in this case aren't the alleged rapists or the murderer, but the police and government officials who are unable or unwilling to keep citizens safe.
Although we’re afraid, we’re used to it.
17-year-old Arlette Saucedo
With authorities desperate to pitch the existence of a new Juarez, "La Equis" (the X) is the most prominent symbol of its revival. A 197-foot-tall monument created by Juarez-born sculptor Sebastian, it was erected in May at the cost of nearly $3 million.
The sculpture is a tribute to the city's namesake, Benito Juarez, Mexico's first native-born president, who was in office from 1861 to 1872. The bright red X can be easily seen from border areas of Texas and New Mexico, where it emerges from the flat cityscape like a giant scarlet excision of the old, or perhaps a crossroads in Juarez's effort to put its past behind it. Alas, it also marks the spot that journalist Marcela Turati calls Mexico’s biggest "body dump," the place where more than 1,400 women and girls have been killed over the past 20 years, a reminder that gender-based crimes continue to be a fact of life in Ciudad Juarez.
With "the X" looming up ahead, a white Linea 4 school bus pulls over and drops off a handful of high school and university students, who dash across the six-lane highway en route to their morning classes. This is the same bus — the same stop — where the second bus driver met his fate.
Most of the young women are thin and attractive and come from distant neighborhoods, up to an hour away. These are the young women who tend to disappear in Juarez. And yet they say the city's reputation doesn’t worry them.
"It’s something we’ve lived with for many years," says 17-year-old Arlette Saucedo, her shoulder-length hair pulled back into a ponytail. She has a sister in Guadalajara, 790 miles to the south, and another in Durango, 247 miles farther. Their mother was killed three years ago at the height of the violence. "Although we’re afraid, we’re used to it."
The girls on their way to class this morning take little interest in the story of Diana la Cazadora de Choferes. Until she strikes again, she’s old news. None of them view her as a heroine.
Cordelia Rizzo, an anti-violence activist from Monterrey, capital of the Gulf Coast state of Nuevo Leon, has come to Juarez to talk about gender bias in the judicial system. She warns that Diana la Cazadora de Choferes shouldn’t be viewed as a symbol of progress or empowerment.
"It is popular because it embodies a lot of fantasies," Rizzo says. "Some fantasies are of liberation. It's also a very nice way of diverting attention or thinking that feminism or equality is just that — the ability to hit the other back when he hits you, and the ability to get revenge. And it’s not just that."
Yasmin, 15, who rides the Linea 4 bus to high school each morning, says, "I’m sure she had her reasons — vengeance — but it’s never justified."