CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mexico—For years young women have been raped, mutilated, killed and dumped into shallow graves in Ciudad Juarez, the gritty Mexican city across the border from El Paso, Texas. For just as long, the perpetrators have gone unpunished, sparking international outrage at an inept Mexican justice system.
Now a possible break in the case raises questions not only about Mexican justice but also about U.S. policies that allowed a leading suspect in some of the killings to go in and out of American jails and to shuttle between Juarez and U.S. cities along the border.
Law enforcement records in Texas and New Mexico show that the suspect, Jose Francisco Granados de la Paz, was frequently in American jails and was sent back to Mexico repeatedly, only to return to the United States and commit more crimes. He was on probation on a Texas felony conviction when at least some of the murders he's suspected of committing are believed to have occurred.
Granados' story exemplifies the revolving door that is the U.S.-Mexico border. While U.S. law enforcement can deport convicts to Mexico, it has no authority to keep watch on them there. Often they simply sneak back across the border.
"If he's killing little girls in Mexico, what's he doing here?" said U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, who sits on the House Homeland Security Committee. "The key here is to get the guy off the street whether it's in our prisons or in Mexico. The problem is they deport these guys and they just come back."
The United States is supposed to notify Mexico when it deports criminal aliens. Whether that happened in Granados' case couldn't be determined. Repeated calls to the office of Immigration and Customs Enforcement in El Paso weren't returned.
Granados' link to the Juarez murder cases surfaced a week ago after the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City announced the arrest in Colorado of another Mexican citizen, Edgar Alvarez Cruz. The embassy statement called Alvarez's arrest a "major break" in the murder cases.
As it turns out, Alvarez was tied to the murders by Granados, a lifelong friend, who said in March that he'd participated in some of the Juarez killings, according to Mexican investigators. At the time, Granados was in the El Paso County jail, awaiting sentencing for re-entering the United States after multiple deportations and criminal convictions.
Mexican investigators, saying they're still compiling their case, haven't yet charged Granados or Alvarez, and Alvarez family members dispute his involvement in the horrific killings, their lawyer said. Both remain in U.S. custody.
The linking of the two men to the killings has given new hope to family members of the murdered women, many of whom had become resigned to the idea that the cases would never be solved.
Almost 400 women have been slain in Juarez since 1993, about 100 of them in similar ways, generally involving rape, strangulation and mutilation.
The murders have produced botched state investigations and federal probes, accusations of insider corruption, a Hollywood movie that will star Jennifer Lopez, and numerous theories about the perpetrators: that they're Satan worshipers, gang members, police officers or even human organ traffickers.
There's little in Granados' record or background to suggest ties to influential underworld figures, one of the favorite theories about the murders. The home he listed in court records, where his sister still lives, is in a working-class Juarez neighborhood surrounded by abandoned houses. His U.S. record suggests a life of delinquency, drug addiction and mental distress.
One of the conditions of his 2006 sentencing on yet more immigration violations was that he participate in a mental health program and undergo 500 hours of drug abuse treatment.
In Mexico, however, authorities say Granados is now suspected of being a "co-author" in what are known here as the "cotton field slayings," some of the most gruesome crimes in Mexican history, which take their name from an old cotton field where the bodies were dumped.
By the time the bodies were discovered in November 2001, Granados had racked up a long rap sheet in the U.S., dating at least to January 1995, when he was arrested on charges of evading arrest at age 16 in Las Cruces, N.M. A few months later he was convicted of criminal trespassing in El Paso.
There's no record of any deportations in the 1990s, but Granados pleaded guilty in 2001 to felony cocaine possession in exchange for 10 years probation and a promise to stay in Mexico and out of trouble. The probation was to be revoked if Granados re-entered the United States illegally, got caught with drugs or committed any crimes.
Granados did all that and more: Since receiving the probated sentence, he's been arrested, charged or convicted on county, state and federal offenses in the United States at least six times, records show. His latest charge came in January, when he grabbed a TV set in the county jail and smashed it on the floor, according to an El Paso sheriff's deputy.
But Granados' court-ordered probation was never revoked, according to the West Texas Community Supervision and Corrections Department in El Paso. The probation officer assigned to his case declined to be quoted by name.
He was removed from the United States at least three times from 2001 to 2005, according to records and officials, but didn't heed the call to stay out.
Kenneth Gonzales, who prosecuted Granados in late 2003 for illegally re-entering New Mexico after a previous deportation, said he didn't find Granados' recidivism either surprising or uncommon.
"It's not unusual to see something such as this," he said. "I've certainly seen it before."
Granados tried to re-enter the country illegally at least once after he was prosecuted in the New Mexico case. He was arrested in October and ordered to serve 37 months in federal prison and pay a $100 fine, court records show.
Federal officials have declined to say where he's being held now, but he's expected to complete his sentence before facing extradition in the Juarez murder case.
Mexican authorities could begin extradition proceedings within days against Alvarez, who's in El Paso. U.S. authorities arrested him this month in Denver on immigration violations, based on information about his alleged involvement from Granados, officials said. A neighbor next to the house where relatives of Alvarez and Granados live in Juarez said the two grew up together and were like brothers.
The families of the victims are expressing concern about what may happen to the suspects—and the truth about the murders—once they are transferred into Mexican custody.
"I don't believe the authorities here," said Josefina Gonzalez, whose daughter Claudia Ivette was found in the cotton field in November 2001 after being raped and strangled. "I have more faith in the United States."
Aside from investigative incompetence, the mysterious jailhouse death of one previous suspect, the release and exoneration of another and the execution-style killings of two lawyers who defended them have taken their toll on the reputation of state prosecutors and Juarez law enforcement.
An unknown hit man shot one of the lawyers. The other was gunned down after a high-speed chase by state police, who claimed it was a case of mistaken identity.
Like Gonzales, Irma Monreal is hopeful that U.S. involvement will provide the break in the case that she's been waiting for. She said the hope that her daughter's killer would be brought to justice someday was about the only thing that kept her going.
Esmeralda Herrera Monreal was 15 when she disappeared on Oct. 29, 2001. A week later, hers was the first body to be found in the cotton field. Her killer had raped her and cut off her face before dumping her body.
"There was nothing left of her face," Monreal said.
Mexican investigators and forensic labs never managed to conduct DNA tests to determine whether the body was Esmeralda's. They lost the syringes of blood drawn from relatives on three separate occasions over the years, Monreal said. Finally, forensic experts from Argentina confirmed the awful truth less than a month ago.
Monreal had clung to the unrealistic hope that somehow her daughter would "reappear." But at least she knows what happened to Esmeralda. Now she'd like to find out who killed her.
"Why such hatred?" she said as tears rolled down her face. "What could she have done to them?"
Timeline of Jose Francisco Granados de la Paz in the United States
Jan. 23, 1995—Evades arrest in Las Cruces, N.M.; charged with escape from custody. Disposition unknown.
June 30, 1995—Arrested for criminal trespassing in El Paso; pleads guilty and is sentenced to 10 days in jail. No record of deportation found.
Jan. 25, 2001—Arrested in El Paso for felony cocaine possession; pleads guilty in exchange for 10-year probated sentence; spends three months in jail. County officials say he was later removed from the U.S.; no record of deportation found.
July 15, 2002—Arrested in El Paso for marijuana possession and inhalant paraphernalia; sentenced to five days in jail. Released without revocation of probation. No record of deportation found.
Aug. 7, 2002—Arrested in El Paso for possession of inhalant paraphernalia. Sentenced to 60 days. Released without revocation of probation; no record of deportation found.
Nov. 11, 2002—Deported to Mexico.
Aug. 1, 2003—Arrested near Alamogordo, N.M., for illegal entry after previous deportation. Sentenced to 21 months. Time served and deportation status unclear.
June 18, 2004—Convicted of illegally entering El Paso.
Feb. 8, 2005—Deported to Mexico.
Oct. 16, 2005—Arrested as he attempts to enter El Paso illegally by claiming he's a U.S. citizen. Pleads guilty to re-entry by deported alien. Sentenced to 37 months in prison and fined $100.
Jan. 26—Charged with smashing a television set on the floor in El Paso County jail, five days before entering guilty plea in federal case.
Aug. 20—Mexican state prosecutors identify lifelong friends Granados and Edgar Alvarez Cruz as prime suspects in the murders of women in Juarez.
Sources: Office of U.S. District Clerk (El Paso); El Paso County District Clerk's Office; Office of U.S. Attorney (N.M.); West Texas Community Supervision and Corrections Department; Office of Attorney General, State of Chihuahua, Mexico.
_ Compiled by McClatchy researcher Marsha Melton
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
Need to map