May 25, 2010

Frank Bender, forensic artist, on Juarez women's murders

Courtesy photo/ArtMarch blogger

El Paso Times online: Frank Bender, forensic artist, and the Philadelphia ArtMarch

PHILADELPHIA - Forensic artist Frank Bender assisted in identifying several women who were killed in Juárez and Chihuahua City.

He is an international facial reconstruction expert who has worked with the FBI and other law enforcement agencies around the world. He has also helped catch some of the most-wanted U.S. criminals.

Now that the episode in Juárez is behind him, Bender, 69, said, he can talk freely about the harrowing experiences he had there in 2003 and 2004.

Bender was at his home-studio on South Street in Philadelphia. The place is filled with trinkets, mementos, souvenirs, a train set, childhood photos, books, busts and art that Bender has collected over a lifetime. He was busy at work on a new art series about his late wife, but much of his focus this particular day was on

Bender said he was threatened and drugged while he was in Juárez. At the time, the authorities required him to maintain secrecy on his role in the investigations of murdered women. Since 1993, more than 800 girls and women have been murdered in the city.

"I couldn't reveal the identities of the girls because it would endanger their families. In fact, they would be killed," Bender said. "One of the girls was actually identified by someone in El Paso."

Chihuahua state officials introduced him at a news conference in 2003 in Juárez to announce that he was going to help with the women's murder investigations. At the conference, officials displayed skulls of unidentified victims they had turned over to Bender.

Bender is among the artists whose work is featured at the "Ni Una Mas" (Not One More) exhibit at Drexel University's Leonard Pearlstein Gallery. It opened May 15 with the ArtMarch performance art to protest the murders. The exhibit will run through July 16.

A week before the ArtMarch, Bender's wife, Jan, died of cancer. Frank Bender is terminally ill with the same disease.

"The doctors told me I might have a month left to live," he said.

He gave this account of his time in Juárez:

"I was forced to work out of a room at the Hotel Lucerna, and my phone calls and visits were closely monitored. I came to suspect that police were involved somehow in the abductions of the missing women.

"People from the United Nations were there at the time, looking into the murders. Amnesty International also had gone to Juárez to report on the femicides. An official for Chihuahua state told me 'they were the enemy.'"

On another occasion, Bender said, his Mexican hosts offered to take him to a brothel to have sex with young women.

"I declined the part about sex, but I did want to go to the clubs so I could study Mexican women's facial features," he said.

At some point, Bender's persistent questions about the women's murders began to bother the authorities. Although assigned police bodyguards, he said, he did not feel safe in Juárez.

The scariest experience he had occurred shortly after a meal with a high-level law enforcement officials and the official's entourage.

Bender said he and Ed Barnes, the Time correspondent, suspected they were drugged during a meal with Mexican officials. However, Bender said, he wasn't as affected as Barnes because he threw up right after the eating-and-drinking session.

"That's what saved me. But Ed Barnes was out for about a day and a half," Bender said. "One of the officials came to see me later and demanded to know where Ed was. I told him that he had left for his next assignment, which was in Russia. Actually, he was still interviewing people in Juárez, and then he left after I warned him they were mad at him."

Back in Philadelphia, Bender's wife had received an anonymous e-mail from Mexico recommending that Frank Bender look out his window.

"I didn't want to leave until I finished what I set out to do. I was able to help identify three of the five victims from the skulls they gave me to work with," Bender said.

A woman in El Paso with connections in Mexico helped to finance Bender's final trip to Juárez, this time under the cover of the Mexican federal government. But strange things continued to happen, and Juárez police continued to monitor Bender's every move.

Former FBI profiler Robert Ressler, a friend of Bender's, told him he should leave the border city immediately. The Mexican authorities had invited Ressler to the border during the 1990s to get his views on the women's murders.

Bender said he left as soon as he wrapped up the last details of his reconstruction work at another hotel in Juárez.

Ted Botha wrote a book about Bender titled "The Girl With the Crooked Nose." Botha also attended the art exhibit opening, along with Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter and other dignitaries.

According to Botha, two of the girls Bender's work helped to identify were Mayra Juliana Reyes Solis and Veronica Martinez Hernandez.

A girl with a crooked nose was tentatively identified, but possible relatives who saw the reconstruction would not provide DNA samples to confirm her identity. They did not trust the authorities.

Brian Maguire, an art activist from Ireland, showed up to visit Bender at the Philadelphia studio to pay his respects. The two men bantered about civil wars, the Mexican drug cartel wars, politicians and injustices around the world.

Maguire had taken several drawings by children in Juárez to the "Ni Una Mas" exhibit. Maguire said he first traveled to Juárez and El Paso about two years ago. He did so after reading a story about the women's murders.

Marisela Ortiz, a teacher in Juárez who works with children who suffer the effects of violence, asked Maguire to do an art workshop when he came to Juárez.

Maguire decided the rest of the world should also see the children's work, and asked Ortiz for permission to take several drawings with him. Ortiz saw those drawings next at the "Ni Una Mas" exhibit.

As for Bender, he tried to pace himself so he didn't wear out. He was mourning his wife's death, but was excited about the ArtMarch events. He had to rest because of his illness, and said he lamented that he could not take part in the ArtMarch protest march.

His daughter, Vanessa Bender and his friends stood in for him.