A Family’s 20-Year Quest for Truth, Justice and the Border Dream

At the center of Paula Flores Bonilla’s tidy living room hangs a picture of daughter María Sagrario Gonzalez Flores. Taken in front of the border factory in Ciudad Juárez where Sagrario worked, the photo portrays a young woman with the look of someone who was headed for big things in life. Dressed in smart attire and showing a dignified beauty, Sagrario projects a serious and stately presence, almost as if she were a border ambassador.

Snapped by one of the photographers who roamed the export-oriented manufacturing plants, or maquiladoras, offering to take pictures of female workers, the photo was shot shortly before 17-year-old Sagrario was abducted and murdered back in April 1998.

Inevitably moved to tears when she talks about Sagrario, Flores described her daughter as “friendly with many people,” but possessing a quiet personality and a preference for socializing within the family or among the girls in the church choir in which she performed. Besides chorus, Sagrario liked to play guitar and teach Sunday school to kids, her mother recalled.

A member of a financially struggling but hardworking family, Sagrario began working in the maquiladora industry at age 16. To celebrate the teen’s quinceanera, or 15th birthday party, the family bought Sagrario a small cake and adorned her with an older sister’s ceremonial dress because of the lack of money.

“She was happy with it, in spite of the fact that it wasn’t bought for her,” Flores said.

In interviews with Frontera NorteSur, Flores and two of her other daughters, Guillermina and Juana, remembered Sagrario, spoke about efforts to preserve her memory and curb similar violence, and traced back their lives in a tough Mexico-U.S. border city.

In so many ways the story of the Gonzalez Flores family is the story of Juárez.

Originally inhabitants of Durango state, the hopeful newcomers arrived in Juarez searching  for a better life in 1995. Once on the border, the Gonzalez Flores clan joined hundreds of thousands of other internal migrants who had gravitated to the border city in a bid to escape economic deprivation and get ahead in life.

Bursting at the seams after the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement, the foreign-owned maquiladoras clamored for workers. Though the wages were low, work was plentiful.

Son Chuy planned to attend a university while Sagrario dreamed of studying computing, Flores said. The close-knit family found a plot of land on a wind-swept strip of land on the northwestern edge of Juárez called Lomas de Poleo. Situated at the tri-state junction of Chihuahua, New Mexico and Texas, the neighborhood overlooks Sunland Park, New Mexico, and El Paso, Texas.

Together with her father, Jesús, and sister Juana, Sagrario found employment in a maquiladora at the Bermudez Industrial Park. Their hands joined hundreds of thousands of others in cranking out products for the voracious consumer society just across the Rio Grande that nibbles the highway winding up to Lomas de Poleo.

Despite family members’ busy schedules, Flores insisted that they all sit down together to eat every day.

Digging into her belongings, Flores pulled out Sagrario’s old employee identification card. For the CAPCON company, Sagrario was Employee #11168. On the back side of the card, a message defined CAPCON’s commercial mission: “to deliver products and services free of defects, on time, all the time.”

Sagrario and Juana, who was only a year older than her sister, were especially close. Almost two decades later, Juana recalled Sagrario as a generous sweet tooth who always had gum to share.

“If she had a piece of gun, she’d give me half of it.” Based on her recollections, Juana calculated that she and her sister earned about $50 each every week making electrical capacitors for refrigerators and air-conditioning systems.

The two sisters worked the same swing shift but were separated after the company decided to move all the employees under the age of 18 like Sagrario to the day shift, according to Juana. Shortly thereafter, in April 1998, Sagrario disappeared after leaving work one day.

Flores, who was accustomed to meeting her daughter at the bus stop down the street after returning home from CAPCON, became alarmed when Sagrario was more than ten minutes late that fateful spring day. To get home to Lomas de Poleo, Sagrario had to take a bus to downtown Juárez and then transfer to the Number 10 service for the final and lengthy excursion home. Both routes passed through sketchy zones.

Almost three weeks after she vanished, Sagrario’s body was discovered in the rural Juárez Valley, an area far from the opposite side of the city where she lived. In subsequent years, many other murdered women with signs of sexual violence would be recovered from the Juárez Valley, a hotbed of organized crime and a zone of militarization opposite the border from the Texas.

Sagrario was a “simple person with very beautiful feelings,” her older sister Guillermina said. “It’s not right that so much harm should have been done to her. This shouldn’t have happened, and it shouldn’t continue happening.”

Sagrario’s violent death would not go forgotten. Flores and family banded together with Irma Perez, Bertha Marquez and other relatives of victims of  feminicide, to form Voces sin Eco (Voices without Echo).

A pioneering relatives’ activist group that was active from 1998 to 2001, the scrappy organization demanded justice, pressured for better public safety and raised hell with state authorities over the growing toll of unsolved, violent crimes against women and the impunity that accompanied them.

As part of its justice campaign, Voces sin Eco introduced the black crosses on pink backgrounds that have since become icons of the international anti-feminicide movement and continue to cover utility posts and other public surfaces in Juarez to this day. Flores credits Guillermina, who served as the spokesperson for Voces sin Eco, for the pink cross idea.

Periodically, whenever the paint on the crosses fade, Flores and other Juárez activists take to the streets brush in hand to touch up the symbols that honor their loved ones and cry out for an end to gender violence.

The story of Sagrario and Voces sin Eco was depicted in “Senorita Extraviada”  (“Missing Young Woman”), Lourdes Portillo’s landmark 2001 documentary about the Juárez feminicides.

In the aftermath of Sagrario’s disappearance and murder a fire of activism gripped Flores, forging a grassroots community leader who also got involved in improving the quality of life in her neighborhood.
The mother of seven children (six girls and a boy) served two terms as neighborhood association president, helping bring electricity in 2002 and 2003 to Lomas de Poleo, a settlement that developed along the classic lines of similar colonias in Mexico, Latin America and the U.S. Southwest, where low-income people with dreams of a patrimony settle undeveloped lands and then struggle for basic services.

A resident of the lower portion of Lomas de Poleo, Flores supported neighbors in the upper section of the desert settlement who were locked in an explosive land dispute with members of the Zaragoza family, one of the most powerful in Juárez and Mexico.

By the middle of the last decade, violence rippled through upper Lomas de Poleo, with residents’ buildings burned or bulldozed and homeowners and their guests beaten and harassed. Two people were killed. Residents pinned the violence on security guards for the Zaragozas, whom they charged were drawn from gangs and criminal elements. Flores called upper Lomas de Poleo at the time a “concentration camp.” She added, “We saw how the authorities allowed this to go on.”

Flores fondly remembered one protest when she was arrested, put in different police campers to confuse the protesters and nearly rescued by her comrades. “This was a bitter but beautiful experience,” she said. “I saw how the people responded by running after us.”

Her twinkling eyes bursting with a young and contagious energy, Flores conveys a genuine warmth that touches many people the world over. Fetching her archives, Flores retrieved a photo of herself with Salma Hayek.

For Flores, however, the justice movement is not a one-way street of outsiders coming to Juárez to express sympathy and lend a hand to victims’ mothers like herself.

She’s hit the road in Mexico and abroad to support others demanding justice in their own lands. Flores was struck by the parallels to Juárez she encountered on trips to New Mexico and Canada, where she met family members of some of the hundreds of indigenous women who have disappeared or been murdered in recent years.

“They are humble, poor girls and live on reservations,” Flores said. “They have families that can’t struggle. (Relatives) complained about the same negligence and lack of justice.”

Four hours up the old Camino Real from her own home, Flores met women with missing or murdered relatives in Albuquerque, New Mexico. She compared the 2009 West Mesa case, in which the remains of 11 murdered girls and young women of color, who were also from working-class backgrounds, were recovered from a clandestine burial ground on the outskirts of the city, to similar finds in Juárez.

“It’s the same thing. I saw many similarities to the Juárez cases,” Flores said. “(Victims) were found in empty lots and (police) hauled out (earth moving) machines and erased evidence…just like here.” The Juárez activist added, “I asked (relatives) what can we do to make known the voices of the 11 murdered women. We can do something in Juarez.”

Back at home, Flores doggedly pursued Sagrario’s suspected killers, forcing the authorities to arrest and finally convict in 2007 one man, Jose Luís Hernandez, for the crime, while still pressing officials to go after additional suspects. Hernandez, she said, set up Sagrario for a gang of drug smugglers and human traffickers in return for a payment of $500.

“The day I shut up I will turn into an accomplice,” Flores said. “Sagrario is dead but as long as I speak out, she is alive.”

Dr. Patricia Ravelo Blancas, professor of sociology and gender violence researcher for the Center for Research and Higher Education in Social Anthropology (CIESAS) in Mexico City, produced a 2010 documentary about Flores entitled “La Carta.” “We’ve learned a lot from her,” Ravelo told FNS.  “She’s been a first-class investigator.”

Paula Flores and her family have delivered important lessons, Ravelo said. “It’s a story that has taught us a lot, and to not stop struggling for social justice,” she added.

A lot has changed and a lot hasn’t in Lomas de Poleo and Juárez 20 years after the Gonzalez Flores family found a new place to call home. In 2015 modest homes of cement, block and wood homes have running water, electricity and sewage hook-ups; commercial chains such as S-Mart and Oxxo are opening up for business.

Down the street from the Flores homestead, the neighborhood kindergarten is now called María Sagrario Gonzalez Flores Kindergarten.

Yet Lomas de Poleo remains an underdeveloped place, bearing more than a passing resemblance to a poor Mexican country town, with rutted thoroughfares that spawn pools after the summer rains and unpaved roads that kick up dust and impair air quality in a tri-state region. Five years ago Flores shut down a small family store after suffering a half-dozen robberies.

Once again, the maquiladoras beckon thousands of new workers. And once again, the wages are rock bottom.

Now a mother of two children, Guillermina is disturbed by ongoing acts of violence in Juárez. “It’s sad that 15 years later girls keep disappearing and getting killed in Juárez, “ she sighed. “(Authorities) don’t want to stop the problem, or nobody can stop it and it just continues.”

Nowadays, a statute-like pink cross is plopped in front of Paula Flores’ home. Since April 2015, a mural of Sagrario covers the front of the abode. Painted by Juárez muralist Maclovio and friends, the art work is among dozens of similar projects dedicated to victims of gender violence springing up across Juarez.

“This is a memory of my sister,” Guillermina said. “It’s important for us as a family and as a society.”

Splashed with contrasting scenery, the mural alludes to the Gonzalez Flores family’s migration from their pine-rich, mountainous homeland of Durango to the high and hot desert of Juárez. Indeed, Sagrario missed the cool days of Durango, her mother said.

“They detained your flight but your memory echoes,” read words written on Sagrario’s mural from the Juárez poet Armine Arjona.

Behind the mural, two parakeets chirp from a small cage on the house’s patio. Flores explained she has kept such birds ever since Sagrario had a pair of them. Two big and beautiful parakeets figure prominently in the mural.

Strangely, one  of the pet birds died the day Sagrario disappeared. The second one, “Luís,” suddenly flew away, never to came back, on the very same day Sagrario’s remains were found in the Juárez Valley, according to Flores.

“(Sagrario) hasn’t gone. She is here,” the mother said. “She’s on the mural, in the María Sagrario kindergarten, in the community, and on the pink crosses.”

-Kent Paterson

Frontera NorteSur: on-line, U.S.-Mexico border news
Center for Latin American and Border Studies
New Mexico State University
Las Cruces, New Mexico
For a free electronic subscription
email: fnsnews@nmsu.edu


There’s Nothing Collateral About a Toddler Washed Ashore


By Patrick T. Hiller


The heartbreaking pictures of three-year-old Aylan Kurdhi symbolize everything that is wrong with war. Following #KiyiyaVuranInsanlik (humanity washed ashore) is a painful confrontation with what some might call the collateral damage of war. When we look at the images of this toddler through the tears in our eyes, it is time to deconstruct some myths about war. Aren’t we used to hearing and believing that war is part of human nature, wars are fought for freedom and defense, wars are inevitable, and wars are fought between militaries? These beliefs about war sound really insipid when a toddler is lying face down on a beach, dead, far away from his home where he should have been playing and laughing.

Wars are based on and justified by a series of myths. We are at a point where peace science and advocacy can easily refute all of the justifications made for war.

Did Aylan have to die because wars are a part of human nature? No, war is a social construct, not a biological imperative. In the Seville Statement on Violence, a group of leading behavioral scientists refuted “the notion that organized human violence is biologically determined.” Just as we have the potential to wage wars, we have the potential to live in peace. We always have a choice. In fact, most of the time humanity has been on earth, we have been without war in most places. Some societies have never known war and now we have nations who have known war and left it behind in favor of diplomacy.

Did Aylan have to die because the war in Syria is fought for defense? Certainly not. The war in Syria is an ongoing, complex series of militarized violence that has led to large numbers of casualties. Very broadly speaking, it was rooted in a drought (hint: climate change), lack of jobs, identity politics, raising sectarian tensions, internal oppression by the regime, initially nonviolent protests, promotion by war profiteers, and ultimately the taking up of arms by some groups. Of course, regional and global powers like Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Iran, or the United States have played different roles at different times depending on their interests. The continuing fighting, the constant flow of weapons, and the military projections have nothing to do with defense.

Did Aylan have to die because war is the last resort? A recent study shows that people assume and expect that decisions to use force are made when no other options exist. However, no war can satisfy the condition of absolute last resort. There are always many better and more effective nonviolent alternatives. Are they perfect? No. Are they preferable? Yes. Some immediate alternatives in Syria are an arms embargo, support for Syrian civil society, the pursuit of meaningful diplomacy, economic sanctions on ISIS and its supporters, and a humanitarian nonviolent intervention. More long-term steps include withdrawal of U.S. troops, an end of oil imports from the region, and dissolution of terrorism at its roots. War and violence will continue to lead to more civilian casualties and further escalation of the refugee crisis.

Was Aylan collateral damage in a war fought between armies? To be clear, sanitizing the idea of something like the unintentional death of innocents in warfare with the technical term collateral damage was rightfully labeled an “anti-term” by the German news magazine Der Spiegel. Peace advocate Kathy Kelly has experienced many war zones and reflected that “the havoc wreaked upon civilians is unparalleled, intended and unmitigated.” There is an increasing amount of evidence demonstrating that modern warfare kills far more civilians than soldiers. This becomes especially true if we get rid of notions like “surgical” and “clean” warfare and examine the direct and indirect deaths resulting from the destruction of infrastructure, diseases, malnutrition, lawlessness, victims of rape, or internally displaced people and refugees. Sadly, we now have to add the category of children washed ashore.

Of course, there are those who say that overall the world is becoming a better place. Scholars like Steven Pinker and Joshua Goldstein are known for their respective work identifying the decline of warfare. In fact, I am among those who are inspired by the idea of an evolving Global Peace System where humanity is on a positive path of social change, constructive conflict transformation, and global collaboration. Like Pinker and Goldstein, I’ve always insisted that we must not mistake such global trends for a call to complacency with the state of the world. On the contrary, we must tirelessly work to strengthen the positive trends that weaken the war system. Only then will we have a chance to avoid tragedies like that of Aylan lying face down on a beach in Turkey. Only then will my two and a half-year-old son have a chance to meet and play with a boy like Aylan. They would have made great friends. They wouldn’t have known how to hate each other. That only happens if we teach them how to.


Patrick. T. Hiller, Ph.D,. is the director of the War Prevention Initiative of the Jubitz Family Foundation and syndicated by PeaceVoice. He is a Conflict Transformation scholar, professor, on the Governing Council of the International Peace Research Association, on the Coordinating Committee of World Beyond War, and a member of the Peace and Security Funders Group.



NMSU to host Southwest Institute for Health Disparities Research conference Sept. 11

The New Mexico State University College of Health and Social Services will host the Southwest Institute for Health Disparities Research 2015 Conference: Academic-Community Partnerships to Address Health Disparities in the Border Region from 1-5 p.m. Friday, Sept. 11, at the Pete V. Domenici Hall Yates Theater. The event is free and open to the public.


“Last year’s conference focused on bringing together NMSU faculty interested in working across disciplines on research related to health disparities in the border region. As a result, interdisciplinary teams targeting adolescent and child health, aging, obesity, and trauma or violence issues formed and have been working together throughout the year,” said Jill McDonald, director of the Southwest Institute for Health Disparities Research at NMSU.

“This year the conference is focused on how NMSU faculty, staff and students can work more effectively with community experts who are also committed to these and other health issues in the region,” she said.

The SWIHDR conference will include speakers with a variety of perspectives on academic – community partnerships, opportunity for discussion with the audience, and breakout sessions on translating data into policy, developing inter-institutional public health collaboration in New Mexico, engaging students in research, and introductions to data mining and community mapping. In addition, breakouts on healthy aging, adolescent and child health, obesity, and violence and trauma will be hosted by the SWIHDR interdisciplinary teams.

A meet-and-greet poster session also will be held in the hour preceding the conference from 12-1 p.m. in the Domenici Hall Atrium. The work of the interdisciplinary research teams will be on display. Attendees also can check in during this hour.

Pre-registration is strongly encouraged at http://health.nmsu.edu/swihdr/2015-swihdr-conference/.

McDonald said she hopes that attendees of last year’s event will return and that community organizations, health care providers and health departments will be well represented at the 2015 conference.

“We’d also like to encourage attendance by students and faculty who would like to learn more about community-engaged research and how they might become involved,” McDonald said.

For more information contact Anna Martin at aemartin@nmsu.edu.



SWEC: Wetland project fund drive a success

Over $15,000 raised for La Mancha Wetland Project

Wow! The response to our funding campaign for our La Mancha Wetland Project was amazing. We surpassed our goal of raising $10,000 for our La Mancha Wetland Project by the end of August, and as a result earned an additional $5000 in matching funds from an anonymous donor.  A huge thank you to the more than 100 individuals who contributed to the campaign and made it a success!

E.O. Wilson thinks “Nature Needs Half”

Prominent biologist E.O. Wilson has joined the ranks of conservationists who believe we should set aside half the land surface and ocean areas of the earth for nature protection as a way to save as many species as possible as well as maintain the robust ecosystem services upon which humans depend. Wilson explains why he supports the “Nature Needs Half” movement in the current issue of Audubon magazine.

“Around the world with SWEC members” cancelled

We thought SWEC members would jump at the chance to share their travel photos (up to 10 slides in five minutes, in sort of a “speed” travelogue format) with others, but it turns out we were wrong. (It’s not the first time!) So we’re reluctantly cancelling September’s program –“Around the World with SWEC Members“–due to a lack of presenters. If you have some thoughts about why this idea didn’t work, please send them to info@wildmesquite.org. Maybe we’ll try it again in the future.

Local artists raise money for SWEC

Thanks also to the 10 O’Clock Artists Club of Las Cruces for holding a silent action last month that raised over $700 for the Southwest Environmental Center. We’re not surprised the auction did so well, given the quality of the their artwork. If you’d like to see for yourself, members of the club have a new show, with pieces available for purchase, hanging at the Southwest Environmental Center until the end of October. Check it out!

Save the Date!

SWEC’s annual gala fundraiser will be held Saturday, October 17, on Main Street in front of our office on Main Street in downtown Las Cruces. Mark your calendars! We are looking for sponsors, silent auction donors (especially of interesting and unique items and services), and volunteers. Contact info@wildmesquite.org for more information.

NM Game Commission does nothing awful this week

Unlike last week, the NM Game Commission did nothing new this week (at least not publicly) to obstruct the conservation of Mexican wolves, cougars, bears, coyotes, and other native wildlife species. But then again, the week’s not over!


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