On the last school day before the Easter vacation, two carefree teenagers strolled along the once-vibrant sidewalks of Bellavista, one of the first neighborhoods of Ciudad Juárez. Behind them stood the remains of what was formerly the Hotel Verde. The faded yellow walls were now adorned with pink posters of black crosses. Underneath them a question marked the facade: “Where are our girls?”
It was a haunting symbol, a somber memory of a local tragedy that has cast a shadow over the city since the mid-1990s. A little more than a decade ago, this place served as a torture center for countless young girls forced into prostitution. According to local activists, federal police officers and soldiers sent to patrol the city as part of a government strategy to combat criminal groups were even suspected of being among the clientele.
Before it closed in 2015, Hotel Verde became the focal point of the landmark trial that followed the shocking discovery of the remains of 27 women in the Arroyo del Navajo, a desert region located 100 kilometers east of the city near the Texas border. The trial marked the state’s first case involving human trafficking and gender-based killings. It ended with prison sentences totaling nearly 700 years for five people.
Social pressure to combat these crimes had been mounting in the years prior. Dozens of young women had been killed and disappeared. The case solidified the hotel's dark history and standing as one of the main centers for human trafficking in Juárez. It operated unimpeded under the cover of police, which had a local station just blocks away in the same neighborhood.
"[The Hotel Verde] was a hub for trafficking and that is fully accredited in the judicial process," said Imelda Marrufo, director of the Red Mesa de Mujeres, a coalition of civil society organizations dedicated to addressing violence against women.
The case added a crude new dimension to the disappearances and deaths of more than 1,000 girls and women on this border between 1993 and 2015. Despite the case’s inconsistencies, it also provided a window into the sheer size of the criminal organizations behind human trafficking in Juárez.
"It is the clearest, strongest, and most emblematic case to conclude that this is a crime that has been going on for a long time," said Marrufo.
The ‘Trial of the Century’
The "trial of the century," as local media coined it, started in 2013 after the arrest of six individuals accused of the abduction, sexual exploitation, and murder of 11 women. The victims' remains were discovered between 2011 and 2012 in the desolate Valle de Juárez, an area marked by the longstanding presence of drug traffickers. More than a dozen other sets of remains were found in the same vicinity years later. The victims' ages ranged from 14 to 25 years old.
In July 2015, five of the people detained were convicted. The other was absolved due to insufficient evidence. Among those convicted were a well-known evangelical pastor, the owner of a modeling agency, a boot-store owner, as well as employees of the Hotel Verde itself. All of them were accused of being members of the Aztecas, a local gang that operates from prisons on both sides of the border and whose tentacles extend into the city and beyond.
Despite extensive media coverage of the trial, local activists and several of the victims’ mothers firmly believed that those sentenced represented only the lowest rungs of a criminal network that continues to operate unchecked today.
"For many years, until 2012 or 2013, we kept thinking the motive for the femicides was sexual, but we didn't talk about trafficking," said Ivonne Mendoza, director of the Center for the Integral Development of Women (Centro para el Desarrollo Integral de la Mujer - Cedimac), a local organization that has long supported mothers with daughters who are victims of femicide and disappearance.
Mendoza linked the gender-based violence that defined the Hotel Verde case in Juárez back to the onset of the so-called “war on drugs” launched at the end of 2006 by President Felipe Calderón. In the years that followed, Calderón deployed more than 2,000 soldiers and 500 federal agents to the state of Chihuahua, including Juárez. Instead of containing violence, the militarization of public security unleashed a torrent of atrocities and an alarming rise in forced disappearances, torture, and extrajudicial executions.
The official statistics told a grim tale. There were less than 500 homicides recorded in the state in 2007. Between 2008 and 2013, authorities logged a staggering 94,249 human rights abuses committed by security forces in Chihuahua, including extrajudicial killings, or more than 15,000 each year, according to a 2013 report from the Miguel Agustín Pro Juárez Human Rights Center that was included in a study of the Arroyo del Navajo case by the National Human Rights Commission (Comisión Nacional de Derechos Humanos - CNDH).
The militarization of the state overshadowed the disappearances and killings of dozens of young women. Years later, in a January 2019 report titled "Feminicidio sexual sistémico," Colegio de la Frontera Norte (Colef) researcher Julia Monárrez shed light on the alarming reality of femicide and systemic sexual violence in Juárez.
The "war on drugs" exacerbated the situation, Monárrez's research found, opening the door to new forms of violence: forced disappearances, sexual torture, youth murders, and the resurgence of femicides.
Indeed, between 1993 and 2018, Monárrez cited a chilling 1,850 cases of murdered girls and women. More than half occurred after the onset of the drug war. The violence suggested a population besieged by a lethal alliance between the army, federal police, and various street gangs that acted as armed wings for the larger organized crime groups operating in Juárez, according to Monárrez.
The predominance of these armed actors became the central explanation for the exponential increase in the sexual exploitation of girls and women. Gripped by fear, residents sought refuge in their homes at night. The streets, in contrast, were dominated by convoys of heavily-armed soldiers, federal agents, and criminal groups.
At the same time, the city's once-vibrant nightclubs transformed into operational centers for crime groups. This included the infamous Hotel Verde. The fact that those implicated in the Arroyo del Navajo case transported their victims unimpeded along a nearly 100-kilometer stretch that was heavily monitored by military patrols and checkpoints raised many questions.
Back to Square One
The busy streets of downtown Juárez have never been a stranger to chaos. Horns blare, music roars, and merchants fight for attention over loudspeakers to lure shoppers with bargains. This stretch of Francisco Javier Mina, which many years ago was dubbed the “Street of a Thousand Noises," sits behind the Hidalgo market and surrounds the city center alongside small shops and brothels.
This junction has long served as a critical hub connecting public transportation routes that cater to half a million residents in the western neighborhoods. These parts of the city were informally settled during the boom brought on by the arrival of the maquiladora industry between 1968 and 1975. To the east, "Juárez Nuevo” housed another half a million people living around the city's largest industrial corridor, which developed during another maquila boom after the US and Mexican governments signed the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994.
It was at these two extremes where most victims of violence, both men and women, could be found, converting the "Street of a Thousand Noises" into a dangerous web. In addition to serving as an inter-urban bridge since the early 1990s, the downtown area transformed into a trap where criminals trafficked and killed dozens of girls and women.
After the trial of the century, this corridor experienced a short lull, but soon, the area saw a resurgence, only to be dampened again by the pandemic. Now, as businesses have reopened and commercial activity has resumed following the pandemic, drug and sex trafficking have returned to the fore without any evident response by law enforcement or security forces.
Mendoza, the director of Cedimac, described the same methodology explained years ago by authorities in the Arroyo del Navajo case: a network of front companies, club owners, brothels, and hotels deceiving their young victims through false job opportunities.
“The modus operandi of these criminal networks often involves luring young women under the pretense of offering employment in the city center,” said Mendoza. “Once they fill out job applications with personal information, they are told they got the job and might be transferred to another location, where they vanish en route. Or they keep them there, start trafficking them or send them to other places for trafficking, and they force them because they have their information on those application forms where you include the names of your parents, your siblings, your family. So they threaten them with harm if they refuse to work.”
She explained that these criminals operate within view of police officers who do not do any serious investigations into cases of forced disappearances or trafficking. Those investigations have been left to activists like Mendoza, who try to track these networks every time a girl or woman disappears, often working with the mothers and fathers of the missing.
The Arroyo del Navajo case also revealed other uncomfortable truths, namely the untouchable nature of the leaders of these criminal networks and the deliberate means by which officials obfuscated data to minimize the importance of the crime.
Although Juárez is no longer a focal point for federal and military forces in the same way it was, violence persists. The rampant conflict between drug trafficking groups, in particular, is often linked to trafficking and disappearances. Activists have pointed fingers at these criminal networks for being responsible for the atrocities. But no investigations follow.
Between 1993 and July 2022, authorities recorded 2,413 femicide cases, more than a quarter of which occurred since 2018. It is as if Juárez remains trapped in a cycle of violence that is reinforced by its development model and a political avoidance of the structural problems it poses.
The city's history of urban transformation, driven by the influx of international business interests, for example, has left deep-rooted social problems unaddressed. Yet, when these problems translate into rampant crime and violence, authorities have often shifted blame onto the victims and their families, perpetuating a damaging narrative that the city has struggled to overcome.
"The victims began to disappear and then their bodies were located and [the former governor] accused them of having a double life. Their families would say that they were good girls, but he said at night they were prostitutes -- although he didn’t say it in those words, but he insinuated it," said Mendoza, the Cedimac director.
Eventually, young girls, some of whom were just 10 years old, started to appear.
“Now what do you say? That they were careless girls? That one of them even had cavities?” Mendoza asked, rhetorically.
“The authorities have always looked to blame the victims themselves or their families. This has done a lot of damage and has permeated socially, because socially they do not want to see the danger.”
The Broken Wheels of Justice
Whether due to incompetence or the system's decay, it is clear that human trafficking is not being adequately addressed in Juárez. Investigations of seemingly straightforward cases have not only exposed corruption but also revealed inefficiencies and misunderstandings within the legal system, according to Monica Salazar, the executive director of Dignifying Work, a Mexico City-based civil society group that combats forced labor and human trafficking.
Salazar is a prominent authority on trafficking in Mexico. For over a decade, she served as a legal advisor to numerous organizations supporting mothers of victims of sexual and labor exploitation. She has conducted workshops and conferences for congressmen and prosecutors across the country, sharing her expertise and insights.
"The issue of trafficking should be investigated in reverse," she said, emphasizing the institutional failures. "When I encounter situations of exploitation, slavery, or forced prostitution, it is essential to trace the victims' journey backward and uncover how they ended up in these circumstances. This often leads us to reports of disappearances in their home states or municipalities."
Missteps by Chihuahua state authorities have been present since the first cases of missing and murdered girls and women in Juárez came to light. The statistics lacked any human element or personal stories that would provide a deeper understanding of the victims' experiences. What’s more, the special prosecutor's office tasked with handling these cases has shown little interest in unraveling the threads that could lead to the perpetrators of these crimes, according to Salazar.
The police strategy of going case by case has also not helped them identify criminal patterns within trafficking networks. By staying focused on individual cases, authorities have been unable to establish a broader understanding of the extensive networks dedicated to trafficking and exploitation.
"In most cases, we see only one person accused, or three individuals are rescued, and yet the broader picture remains unclear. When we inquire about how these criminals orchestrated the entire operation -- the methods they used to exploit and hold their victims, the process of taking them from their places of origin, the deception employed, and the coercion involved -- there are no concrete answers,” said Salazar.
For Salazar, each victim's experience should serve as a map that provides critical insights into the complexities of these crimes. The families of the victims in the Arroyo del Navajo case agreed. In 2015, just four days after the conviction of five individuals in the case, Jose Luis Castillo, father of Esmeralda Castillo Rincón, voiced his concerns with the official investigation. Esmeralda was 14 when she went missing; authorities identified her as one of the victims after finding her left tibia among the remains buried in the desert.
"Who's to say they didn't cut off my daughter's leg to frighten other girls, and now she's somewhere else, begging for help in another city?" he asked, in an interview with the author for another publication.
Esmeralda went missing on May 19, 2009. According to eyewitness testimony, she was last seen alive in the city center. She was supposed to take her usual route to the high school where she was studying.
On the 13th anniversary of Esmeralda's disappearance, José Luis and his wife, Martha Alicia, returned to that very spot. Together, they posted flyers with photographs of their daughter and information about how she might look today at 28 years old. Despite the time that has passed, Castillo stressed they are not living in denial. Instead, he called it a state of perpetual uncertainty. They are still awaiting the closure that investigators should have provided them long ago.
The network responsible for the kidnapping of Esmeralda and 26 other girls and women undoubtedly operated within a broader structure, he and other activists insisted. This could have also included authorities and government officials who may have colluded with other criminal organizations, something that is not confirmed in the case.
However, for Castillo, the other parents of the Arroyo del Navajo victims, and the organizations that have supported them throughout these years, a crucial question remains: Are there large criminal networks behind human trafficking in Juárez?
Salazar is convinced there is.
"In Mexico, there's a prevailing misconception that one person orchestrates everything, but that is simply not the case. It involves a coordinated effort among various individuals with specific roles,” she explained.
Salazar added that the inability of authorities to accept that fact has severely limited their success in combating the crime.
“Our focus has been on individual cases, often involving private spaces such as homes, businesses, or family establishments,” she said. “However, we have yet to address the larger, more pervasive aspects of trafficking that have a significant societal impact."