National/World News : Tuesday, March 16, 1999

FBI helping Mexico investigate serial killings in border city

by Robert Saiz Holguin
Gannett News Service

QUANTICO, Va. - In an unprecedented collaboration, a team of FBI profilers is in El Paso, Texas, to help Mexican authorities investigate the unsolved killings of scores of women in neighboring Ciudad Juarez - a string of deaths that has plagued the border city for six years.

Much of the FBI's involvement is being kept confidential, but Mexican officials said agents will sift through cases and visit crime scenes in Juarez in hopes of piecing together a theoretical portrait of who is responsible.

"We asked for their help because we recognize that they are very good at what they do," said Juan Carmona, a spokesman for the Chihuahua State Police.

Since August 1993, Juarez officials have been baffled by the growing number of girls and young women whose bodies have been left in the desert along the city's outskirts. Mexican authorities estimate the number of unsolved cases to be somewhere around 80. Victims' advocacy groups have pegged it closer to 150.

At least 30 victims were raped and strangled in a pattern that has fueled theories of serial killers and gang-initiation rituals. Despite several arrests and one conviction, the killings continued. The most recent victim was found last month in a soccer field near the local penitentiary.

"The government says they're doing the best they can, but meanwhile there are more bodies and more bodies," said Vicky Caraveo, who founded the advocacy group Mujeres por Juarez (Women for Juarez.)

More than 600 people attended a street rally in Juarez two weeks ago to draw more attention to the deaths. Meanwhile, frustrated Mexican authorities in this city of 2 million say they are hampered by an overwhelming caseload and a lack of resources.

The FBI's involvement came after months of meetings between Chihuahua state officials and bureau officials in El Paso, said FBI spokesman Al Cruz. While FBI profilers have worked regularly with Canadian authorities, the bureau's assistance in the Juarez killings is the first time federal agents have been asked to assist in Mexico.

The three profilers working in Juarez were sent from the FBI's National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime in suburban Virginia, known for producing the world's best-trained profilers and popularized by the film "Silence of the Lambs."

In other investigations, the FBI has offered local police agencies use of the bureau's state-of-the-art crime laboratory in Washington, D.C. FBI officials in El Paso would not comment on whether evidence from the Juarez cases would be sent to the laboratory.

The FBI's involvement in Juarez is only the latest chapter in the bizarre saga. Since last year, Chihuahua authorities have worked with Robert Ressler, a retired FBI agent who helped pioneer criminal-profiling techniques and who has twice traveled to Juarez, training police officers and helping organize the investigation.

Chihuahua Attorney General Arturo Chavez said his office sought Ressler's help because "we have no one with that kind of experience" in Mexico.

Mexican authorities have been handling the investigation as well as can be expected, Ressler said, but understaffing and inexperience have hamstrung their efforts.

During his first visit to Juarez last year, Ressler said he sorted through dozens of unsolved homicides. He arrived at 76 victims who seemed to fit a pattern: Most were women between the ages of 17 to 24, most had been raped and strangled in a similar fashion, more than a dozen had disappeared going to or from work at the city's assembly plants.

"I determined that it wasn't one person who was responsible," said Ressler, who heads the Virginia-based Forensic Behavioral Services, a private company that focuses on profiling, investigations and law-enforcement consultation. "It's not one serial killer. I think it's probably two or three."

Earlier this month, Egyptian national Sharif Halil Sharif was convicted of killing one woman after his arrest in 1996.

"But he's not the end of it," Ressler said.

Ressler believes Americans may be crossing into Juarez and taking advantage of the border's anonymity, an intangible divider that provides refuge from Mexican investigators.

He noted that Juarez offers serial killers plenty of dark streets, abandoned buildings and a transient population from which to choose victims: "It's an ideal situation for an American with money. The environment for trouble is there."

The FBI agents will stay in El Paso and Juarez indefinitely. Their findings will provide new guidance for Mexican authorities as the investigation continues.

As for the notion of Juarez as a lawless border town where serial killers roam, Ressler said the truth is much more banal.

Murder rates in Juarez are comparable to any other major metropolitan area, he said. Ressler maintains the law of averages finally caught up to the bustling border town.

"I don't mean to minimize the tragedy, but for a city of its size, it's really not that unusual," he said. "Look at Chicago with (John Wayne) Gacy or the Zodiac Killer in San Francisco or the Green River killer in Seattle. These things happen all over the place."

Copyright 1999 Seattle Times Company