CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mexico – The streets of Juarez are swallowing the young and pretty.
Monica Alanis, an 18-year-old college freshman, never came home from her exams. That was four months ago.
Across town, 17-year-old Brenda Ponce didn’t return from a job-hunting trip downtown. That was a year ago.
Hilda Rivas, 16, also last was spotted downtown. That was 17 months ago.
Two dozen teenage girls and young women have gone missing in this violent border city in the last year and a half, stirring dark memories of the killings of hundreds of women that made Ciudad Juarez infamous a decade ago.
The disappearances, which include two university students and girls as young as 13, have some crime-novel touches: mysterious dropped calls, messages left by third parties and unsubstantiated reports of the women being kept at a house.
There is no clear evidence of wrongdoing or links among the cases, which have been overshadowed by a vicious drug war that has killed more than 2,500 people in Juarez since the beginning of 2008. But relatives of the young women say it is highly unlikely that they would have left on their own.
Desperate family members have hung missing-person banners and taped fliers to telephone poles all over the city in the hope of getting leads on the whereabouts of loved ones. They’ve checked hospitals and combed dusty canyons on the impoverished fringes of the city. They’ve badgered state investigators, but complain that authorities have no solid leads to explain why so many young women would drop from view at once.
“There is no theory. There is no hypothesis,” said Ricardo Alanis, Monica’s father, his voice thin with pain. “They don’t have anything concrete after four months.”
The vacuum has prompted parents to envision their own disturbing story lines. Several say they believe their daughters have been seized and forced into prostitution, perhaps in the United States, by the same criminal bands that have turned this border city into the bloodiest front in the drug war.
“She’s in the hands of those people. I don’t know who they are or where they are,” said Aiben Rivas, a carpenter and father of Hilda. She disappeared Feb. 25, 2008, after chatting with a friend downtown.
Relatives and activists see common threads in the cases. Most of the young women are attractive, dark-haired and slender. Most were last seen downtown, a scruffy but bustling precinct of discount clothing stores, cheap eats and honky-tonk bars. Four of the missing teens are named Brenda.
Those missing are, for the most part, local residents from stable middle- and working-class homes.
And there are no bodies.
Loved ones say they believe the young women are alive.
“God willing, someday I’ll see her again,” said Yolanda Saenz, Brenda Ponce’s mother. The girl, dressed in blue jeans and a black blouse, went downtown July 22, 2008, to look for a store job to help pay for dental braces and school expenses, her mother said.
“I just want to know what happened to her so I can find peace,” Saenz said.
Some families say they’ve gotten possible clues.
Sergio Sarmiento, whose cousin, Adriana Sarmiento, was 15 when she went missing last year, said the family got a phone call from a man saying she was fine and had left on her own.
“I don’t believe it,” said Sarmiento.
After Adriana disappeared in January 2008, loved ones went around tacking up posters with her picture and description. But competition with other missing-person fliers grew as the number of disappearances mounted.
“They got covered with other ones,” Sarmiento said of the fliers. “Unfortunately, she wasn’t the last one.”