No Longer a Girl

The discovery was recorded under the charge of “intentional homicide.” Preliminary inquiry 16142/95-1101 indicates the body was found face-down, the head oriented to the north, the right arm bent beneath the abdomen, the left bent alongside the body; the legs were separated. Death by strangulation was confirmed. The hair was held back by a “a brown hairband or hair tie.” The body wore a white T-shirt that read “California. The Golden State” on the front. The shirt was rolled up above the breasts, as was as the white bra. Underneath the body, green jeans were found with blood stains and corpse fauna. To the left, at the top of the thigh, was a shoe without laces and a pair of white underpants. Aside from the shoe, which carried the mark of Tres Hermanos, her clothing showed no labels or visible branding.

The hallmarks that would come to characterize the official narrative surrounding the serial murders were already being established.

Translator’s Note: Just over two weeks ago, on April 3, the renowned Mexican writer and investigative journalist Sergio González Rodríguez unexpectedly passed away from a heart attack at age 67. González Rodríguez was the author of a number of books, including a trilogy of nonfiction works examining the geopolitical roots of modern violence. The most famous of these, Bones in the Desert, was hailed by the New York Times as “the first great book on violence in Mexico.”

At the center of Bones in the Desert is a far-reaching investigation into the still-unsolved murders of hundreds of women and girls in the communities surrounding Mexico’s Ciudad Júarez, on the US border with El Paso, Texas. In the years since its publication in 2002, Bones in the Desert has left an indelible imprint on the modern literature of the Americas, both through its own merits and its foundational influence on Roberto Bolaño’s 2666. In crafting a fictionalized version of Ciudad Júarez, Bolaño collaborated directly with González Rodríguez, relying on him for substantial “technical help” in answering questions about the nature of the murders, and eventually including him as a character in the novel. (González also makes a literary cameo in Spanish novelist Javier Marias’s Dark Back of Time.) To Bolaño, the murders at the center of Bones in the Desert represented “a metaphor for Mexico, for its past, and for the uncertain future of all Latin America.”

In a conversation with Words Without Borders, González Rodríguez stated “What I wanted to do with my books was raise to literary status a situation which others saw—and still see—as a featureless, blood-colored scene. I was interested in writing the history of a difficult present, complete with all its origins and complexities.” In the shadow of his untimely death, n+1 presents two chapters from Bones in the Desert, translated for the first time into English. Read the first chapter here.

The girl left her house at five.

Elizabeth Castro García, age 17, left her family residence at 1829 Calle de Bronce. It was the August 14, 1995 and, like every morning, she was headed to her job at the Procon maquiladora. After finishing her shift at 3:30 in the afternoon, she would set out for the ITEC computer school, at the corner of Lerdo and Mejía, arriving there at five. She studied computer science. At six in the evening on that same Monday the 14th, she left the school building with a friend, María Angélica Contreras, who accompanied her for several blocks. At a downtown intersection, every trace of her was lost.

Her family immediately put up fliers that read MISSING! Elizabeth Castro García disappeared on August 14 at seven in the evening on Vicente Guerrero and Júarez streets. Dressed in a white T-shirt. Please call 15-70-26 with any information. Elizabeth’s face stared straight into the camera, dominating the flyer.

A pair of passers-by had seen her walking next to a dark-skinned man, tall, carrying a black briefcase.

Two weeks earlier, her sister Patricia had seen her getting out of a black car with tinted windows, “like lots of vehicles in Ciudad Júarez.” According to her sister Eunice, Elizabeth had three boyfriends, Nicolás Herrera, Jorge Zamora, and Daniel “N.” Apparently, she was also being courted by a bus driver.

In the days that followed, the family received strange phone calls—when they answered, they would hear a song by Vicente Fernández, or by Selena, the recently murdered Tex-Mex singer: Bidi, bidi, bom, bom . . .

In those days, Francisco Molina Ruiz was the Chihuahua State Attorney General, and Javier Benavides commanded the Federal Judicial Police. Hernán Rivera was in charge of preliminary inquiries and Jorge López Molinar headed the Deputy Attorney General’s Office for the Northern District. Francisco Minjárez directed the Special Investigations Group and Antonio Navarrete was the Juárez City Bailiff. Together, they formed a group of government and police officials who would play a recurring role in future investigations of missing Ciudad Juárez women.

On the morning of August 15, 1995, Eunice Castro García appeared before the Public Prosecutor’s Office in the company of two witnesses, Gloria Pérez and Susana Montes Pérez, to report the disappearance of her sister Elizabeth.

“We worry that something awful has happened to my sister,” she said, “because we asked at her work if she’d come in for her shift, and they said no.”

The Public Prosecutor’s agent in charge of filing the report asked her for a physical description of Elizabeth. Eunice, 25 years old, responded: “Fair complexion, thin build, 1.75 meters tall, long hair, normal dress, 17 years old . . .”

“Where could she be?”

“I have no idea where she could be,” Eunice answered.

The report was registered as a “missing persons case” and was turned over that same day to the Special Investigations Group. The investigation was taken up by federal police officers Francisco Javier Cervantes Torres and Jonathan Tovar López, and was transferred to the Office of Disappearances, in Colonia Juárez.

The family reiterated the circumstances of her disappearance and detailed the girl’s clothing: green jeans, a white blouse, black “bombita” style shoes, white knee-high socks with stripes. They also repeated her physical features as they appeared in other records and mentioned her two friends Sandra Landeros and “Yadira.”

The following day, preliminary inquiry 0301/15852/95 was opened before the head of the office, Hernán Rivera. On that date, the assigned agents designated the case a “homicide,” despite the fact that a body had yet to be found.

On the 16th, police returned to Elizabeth’s residence and interviewed her mother, Irma Mari García Díaz, who had just arrived from Bañón, in the municipality of Villa de Coss, Zacatecas, after being notified of her daughter’s disappearance. She had not seen “Liz,” as the girl was called at home, since a few months back. She added that her daughter’s shirt read “California” and that she had dark brown hair almost down to her waist. She had big dark brown eyes, a long face, a sharp nose, an average mouth, full lips.

The mother noticed that Liz was very sad, but had never mentioned it to her. The girl used to follow her mother everywhere, but recently she seemed distant. The last time they were together she said, “Mamá, you know, a girl disappeared the other day at the Tres Hermanos shoe store on Velarde Street, where I bought shoes once . . .”

Silvia Elena Rivera Morales disappeared on July 11, 1995. That September, at the beginning of the month, her body was discovered in Lote Bravo. Aside from studying, she worked at the Tres Hermanos shoe store. Liliana Holguín, whose body would be found in the year 2000 in Cerro Bola, was also seen for the last time in the Tres Hermanos store.

The police requested that Elizabeth’s mother make a statement at the Public Prosecutor’s Office. Irma Mari García Díaz, 47 years old, married and dedicated to her household, mother of two other daughters, Eunice and Patricia, reaffirmed her testimony. She also entrusted several photographs of her daughter to the police. In one photo, Liz embraces a friend in a Juárez park. She seems trusting, eager for protection. In each pose Elizabeth repeats this gesture of attachment.

In further testimony, Eunice explained to the Public Prosecutor’s official why she was so sure of the clothing worn by her sister: “I remember it because that night she had already picked out her clothes for the next day, and I noticed she was ironing them.”

“And her underwear?”

“I didn’t notice which pair she put out. But I know all her underwear, I just haven’t checked which is missing.”

She also noted that Elizabeth would go out with friends to eat on Friday nights, and that, as far as she knew, she had no boyfriend or plans to marry or travel. Despite having a Border Crossing Card, she rarely traveled to El Paso, Texas.

For days, the family lived in a state of anxiety. Friends asked:

“Any news?”

“None.”

“Nothing?”

“Still nothing . . .”

On August 19th, police discovered a female body discarded among garbage and brush at kilometer five, alongside the Casas Grandes highway at Granjas Santa Elena. A semidesert landscape of scant vegetation.

The discovery was recorded under the charge of “intentional homicide.” Preliminary inquiry 16142/95-1101 indicates the body was found face-down, the head oriented to the north, the right arm bent beneath the abdomen, the left bent alongside the body; the legs were separated. Death by strangulation was confirmed. The hair was held back by a “a brown hairband or hair tie.” The body wore a white T-shirt that read California. The Golden State on the front. The shirt was rolled up above the breasts, as was as the white bra. Underneath the body, green jeans were found with blood stains and corpse fauna. To the left, at the top of the thigh, was a shoe without laces and a pair of white underpants. Aside from the shoe, which carried the mark of Tres Hermanos, her clothing showed no labels or visible branding.

According to case records, the body “presented an advanced state of decomposition,” which complicated expert and forensic examinations. Also observed was “a triangular stab wound situated in the coccygeal region—which includes both sides of the inner gluteal fold—and a dilated anus.”

Furthermore, “a pair of shoelaces was tied to the wrist of the left arm, with one of the laces fixed into a loop that perfectly fit the other hand.” The Public Prosecutor’s Office gave the following description of the body’s discovery: “In a low spot twenty meters south of the roadway, the corpse of a female individual of approximately 19 years of age was observed, found in a prone position with the head oriented toward the north and the lower extremities spread slightly apart and pointing in the opposite direction, the right arm bent toward the thorax, the left arm also bent, the body exhibiting clear signs of non-recent death, full rigor mortis, and complete desiccation.” At this point, the report relates some essential details: “approximately one meter and sixty centimeters tall, regular build, dark complexion, dark brown hair, medium-sized forehead and brown eyes, additional facial features indiscernible due to the advanced state of decomposition, found dressed in a white T-shirt.”

Twenty-five photographs were taken and the body was identified as 118/95.

The head of the Department of Criminal Identification, Expert Services and Forensic Medicine, Doctor Julio César del Hierro Ochoa, carried out the prescribed examinations and, among other technical information, established the height of the corpse at 1.63 meters.

In his report he notes that the body had already been identified “at a local morgue as Elizabeth Castro García, 17 years of age.” He also emphasized that the site of the body’s discovery was not “where the event occurred.” The subject had died from asphyxiation due to strangulation in another location, and the death had occurred five or six days prior to August 19. Upon examining a trace of blood found on the pants located underneath the victim’s legs, a specimen of Type A blood was found, distinct from that of the victim, which was Type O.

Elizabeth’s sister Patricia, her father Marcos Castro Valdez, and her uncle-in-law Alfonoso Cuahtémoc Córdova Díaz participated in the identification of the body.

“Is it Elizabeth?”

They affirmed that it was. The girl’s mother corroborated: “I identified her by the size of her body, by her build, which is thin, by her hair, which is long and dark brown, and by the shape of her feet, and also from the clothing they showed me and told me she was wearing.”

The body was decomposing. There was no criminological evidence or technical proof that could support the family’s assertions.

The Public Prosecutor’s Office requested that Patricia Castro García make a statement on the 21st of August. Patricia, 26 years old, married, testified that on the night of Sunday, August 13 she had seen her sister Elizabeth for the last time.

“And then?” asked the agent in charge.

“All I know is that the next morning my brother-in-law José Alfredo walked with Elizabeth to catch the bus that goes out to The Viaduct. That was probably around 4:50 in the morning.”

The brother-in-law had seen Elizabeth board the special bus that took employees to the Procon factory. According to Patricia, Elizabeth had recently been traveling alone to school after getting off work because her friend Yadira Rodríguez, who often accompanied her, no longer worked at Procon. On her way home from school, Elizabeth was accompanied on several occasions by her classmate María Angelica Contreras.

By nine at night on Monday the 14th, the family began to worry. Something bad had surely happened. A delay like this was unusual. The hours continued to pass.

“What did you do?”

“We began looking for her at local detention facilities and we even called the jail where they keep juveniles. We called the bus driver—I don’t know his last name, I just know he’s called Martín—and we asked him about my sister, if he had dropped her off at work that morning, and he told us he had taken her all the way to the factory, that she got off at same place as usual . . . and when she left the factory that afternoon he brought her back to the city center. By the time it was six in the morning on the 15th, we came in to report her disappearance.”

Patricia added that the family had called the factory to “see if Elizabeth had showed up for work on the 14th,” but she failed to mention their response.

Patricia subsequently related what happened when the family went to make inquiries at her sister’s school.

“On the afternoon of the 15th we spoke with my sister’s instructor and she told us that she had seen Elizabeth leaving school in the company of a student named María Angelica Contreras. On Friday the 18th a woman named Ana María Castro told me that her son-in-law saw my sister earlier that week, on Tuesday or Wednesday, standing at a traffic circle on the highway trying to thumb a ride with some other man. He said there were two other people hitchhiking there, but he didn’t say if they were men or women, or whether they were traveling south or what . . .”

“The man who was with her, what did he look like?”

“He said he wasn’t too tall, had dark skin, and looked liked a guy from Mexico City.”

Patricia said that the son-in-law of Ana María had passed through the traffic circle sometime between 12 and 1 in the afternoon. Elizabeth and the man tried bumming a ride from him too, he said, but he didn’t stop.

The witness noted that the group of hitchhikers were walking up toward the federal highway patrol station, passing a bottle of water between them as they went. He remembered seeing Elizabeth take a drink of water.

In the same statement, Patricia Castro García affirmed that the family had asked a highway patrolman—a man whose name or position she couldn’t remember—if he could identify her sister. When presented with Elizabeth’s photograph, the officer assured them he had seen the girl on August 9 at the Rio Supermarket.

Patricia continued her statement:

We talked to a boy at the gas station by the traffic circle—I don’t know his name, just one of the kids that goes around cleaning windows—and he told us that he saw my sister with a man carrying a black suitcase. He had also seen them sitting inside but he didn’t say when . . . Also, three men at the gas station who were riding together in a truck told us they had seen my sister in Colonia Virreyes. “We definitely saw that girl,” they told us . . . but they didn’t say when.

Another boy at the gas station saw Elizabeth riding aboard “a blue city bus,” but was unable to determine the date or whether she was traveling alone or with company.

Outside her official statement to Public Prosecutor’s Office, Patricia told the reporter Sergio Melgar of the Diario de Juárez that two weeks before her sister’s disappearance she had seen her getting out of a black car with tinted windows. Melgar reproduced their conversation for the paper:

“Who dropped you off?” her big sister asked.

“It’s Sanda’s car,” Elizabeth responded.

“That wasn’t Sandra’s car.”

Elizabeth remained silent.

Yadira Rodriguez, Elizabeth’s friend who used to work at Procon, stated that Elizabeth used to have a boyfriend named Jorge Zamora who lived in Colonia Virreyes and would “meet up with her downtown.”

Patricia admitted that her sister told her she had another boyfriend too, Ángel Ambriz. “Jorge was the only one who knew where my sister went to school and what time she got out each day.”

The Public Prosecutor’s agent asked: “Can you provide a physical description of Jorge?”

“Dark complexion, normal build, about 20 years old.”

“And Ángel?”

“I don’t know Ángel.”

“What else can you tell us about about these individuals?”

“They say that Jorge Zamora was fired from the Procon factory because he tried to kiss one of the women there by force.”

Officers Cervantes Torres and Tovar López located Jorge Zamora Alvarado at his residence in Colonia Virreyes. The boy, 18 years old, confirmed that he had met Elizabeth at work, but stated that he didn’t begin getting to know her until April, at a Los Temerarios concert at the Jardines de la Carta Blanca. Elizabeth was there with a friend and the friend’s boyfriend. Zamora and Elizabeth chatted. After a while he invited her to dance and she accepted. He drank two beers and she ate potato chips. As they danced, they began to kiss. He also touched her breasts. They stayed at the concert until four or four thirty in the morning, and later he accompanied her to where she could catch the local night bus. They left each other with a hug. There in the street, Zamora began caressing her again, but she stopped him, telling him: “Let’s continue another time. . . . It’s just that, I want to get to know you better.”

During this same interview with the police, Jorge Zamora remembered how, some time later, a coworker named Santiago Valdez confessed that he had also had relations with Elizabeth and described her as a “snake”—a term popular at the time because of a the song “La Culebra.” He also recounted how she had gone out with several other boys at the factory. Zamora affirmed that he had made plans to meet Elizabeth at Salón Diver’s on Avenida Juárez, but that he stood her up “because of all the things I heard about her.”

The police subsequently interviewed Eunice Castro García and questioned her about her sister’s habits. Eunice responded that her sister had been working in the same factory since May of 1995, and in June she began to go out dancing with a group of friends from their hometown in Zacatecas. When these friends left Juárez to return home, Elizabeth continued her custom of dancing on Avenida Juárez with friends from work like Yadira Rodríguez, Miriam Martínez, Sandra Landeros, and a girl named “Alma.” Eunice knew her sister to have several boyfriends: Daniel, Nico, Ángel, and “other boys.”

The authorities requested Jorge Zamora to submit to blood tests and further questioning at the Public Prosecutor’s Office. In his new statement, he repeated the same facts made before the police, but described an additional incident that transpired during his night out with Elizabeth.

“I was walking with her toward the city center and left her for a minute at the cathedral. I told her to wait for me while I went to the bathroom, and when I came back to where I had left her, I found her chatting with another guy. When I went up to her the guy took off and I asked who he was, if he was bothering her, and she said no, that he was just asking directions to a nearby street. After that, I walked her to where she could catch the bus back to her house.”

Jorge Zamora also stated that Elizabeth “had a lot of problems with the other girls at the factory.”

“The one she had the most problems with was named Miriam. Miriam claimed that Elizabeth was always flirting with her boyfriend Oscar, who worked in the cafeteria. Once Elizabeth and Miriam got into a fight in the bathroom.”

“Who else did she have problems with?”

“Once a girl named Caro, who also worked at the factory, complained that Elizabeth was going around saying things about her. Elizabeth’s sister Eunice worked in the same factory, and she told me that Elizabeth was always acting out, that she always went dancing and came home late, and that if she kept it up their parents were going to take them and move someplace else, I don’t remember where.”

Jorge Zamora, alias “El Zamora,” agreed to blood tests. The tests produced a “Type O positive” result, and Zamora seemed very nervous when questioned regarding a pair of scratches he had on his skin. “The one on my left arm is from a cat that scratched me last week,” he explained. “I’m not sure how I got the one on my neck. When I drink lots of hard alcohol, like, a liter or more, I get pretty drunk, and I don’t always remember what I do. When I was at work I would get really drunk, to the point that I forgot what I was doing . . .”

“Where were you on 14th and 15th of August 1995?”

“Both days, the 14th and the 15th, Monday and Tuesday, I spent the whole day at my house, and I didn’t leave.”

Zamora had been in the company of his family. The report noted the marks on Jorge Zamora’s skin.

The Public Prosecutor’s Office scheduled further questioning with Eunice Castro García about her sister’s friendships and daily habits. This time Eunice remembered that one of her friends, Irene, had asked her if Elizabeth “was going out with the driver of the factory bus” because she saw her and another girl named Lourdes Mesta chatting with him. When asked by her sister, Elizabeth responded that the guy—Martín—was Lourdes’s boyfriend. At La Rosita, a public swimming pool, Eunice saw Elizabeth chatting with Martín, a 25-year-old man, thin, about 1.75 meters tall, fair complexion. She also confirmed the rumors about arguments between Elizabeth and jealous female coworkers.

Francisco Minjárez, director of the special investigations unit, informed the press: “At least two of the missing girls frequented a single establishment where they were possibly picked out for abduction . . .”

The hallmarks that would come to characterize the official narrative surrounding the serial murders were already being established: the victims were women with double lives or liberal habits; murderers and victims congregated together in a handful of night clubs.

On October 6, when it was her turn to make a statement before the authorities, María Angelica Contreras Padilla, 24 years old, admitted she hadn’t known Elizabeth for long. About two months. She described her as “lively but not indecent.” She tended to wear white sneakers. She carried a handbag and kept her school materials in a big binder that had a page with a typed inspirational quote on it. María couldn’t remember what it said. Elizabeth told María about a boyfriend who worked at the factory, but she never said his name. She also admitted to drinking.

Hearing this, the Public Prosecutor’s officer interjected: “To the point of intoxication?”

“I don’t know, she never told me.”

“Did she tell you about other boyfriends?”

“She mentioned several boyfriends that she’d had, and another one she had back at home in Zacatecas, but she never told me their names . . . She did mention one of her coworkers a lot, a guy named Juan.”

“Did she say if she had sexual relations with anyone?”

“We never talked about sex, and she never mentioned anyone harassing her.”

“When was the last time you saw her alive?”

“It was Monday, August 14th. That day she told me a lot about her personal life—stuff about her hometown, her family, her time so far in Juárez and her time working at the factory. As we were leaving class together, around 6 PM, we walked down Avenida Lerdo to Calle Abraham González. From there we came to Avenida Juárez and took a left to get to Avenida Vicente Guerrero. I took another left to go to Calle Miguel Ahumada.”

“And Elizabeth?”

“Her? I’m not sure which direction she went . . .”

María Angelica described how Elizabeth was dressed that day: blue jeans and a white T-shirt.

“Was she carrying an English dictionary?”

“We didn’t use English dictionaries at school . . .”

“Are you sure?”

“Yeah. I never saw her with one.”

Three days prior, police officers had arrested Egyptian national Abdel Latif Sharif Sharif, a former resident of the United States who had been known to frequent bars and nightclubs ever since his arrival several weeks before in Ciudad Juárez. Already, a plot had been set in motion by the authorities to formally designate his case as one of multiple homicide.

—Translated by Francisco Cantú

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