CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mexico – Over a decade in which they have seen dozens of their daughters turn up dead in the desert, residents of this tough city across the border from El Paso thought they had heard every bizarre theory about the killers' motives.
But they were stunned last week when Mexican federal prosecutors finally took over the case, only to announce the strangest conspiracy theory yet: at least 14 of the 93 young women killed since 1993 may have been murdered for their organs.
Or, prosecutors later added, they may also have been killed by a crazed religious sect, or pornographic filmmakers.
People in Ciudad Juarez (search) simply aren't sure what to think. The case is finally in the hands of federal investigators — more trusted than the Chihuahua (search) state police, who allegedly tortured scapegoats into confessing to the crimes — but the feds appear to be pursuing some very strange leads.
"The important thing is not whether I believe them," said Victoria Caraveo, one of the women's rights activists who have long pressed authorities to solve the crimes.
"What's important is that if we cannot trust the elite, the best investigators in the country, we are doomed. This will never have an end."
The organ-trafficking (search) theory itself sounds like an old horror movie script. It began when a suspect told prosecutors he was hired to lure young women to a comfortable home in a Juarez suburb.
Now a protected witness, the suspect told federal authorities he didn't kill anyone, but was paid to remove the dissected bodies of the women from the bathroom of the home wrapped in blood-soaked sheets and bury them in vacant lots.
He reportedly told police he was aghast at what he found when he removed the sheets before burial.
"The girls were all cut up. They were opened. They didn't have any internal organs left," two people familiar with the man's confession quote him as saying.
The suspect who provided the gruesome testimony is a former bricklayer and T-shirt vendor whom prosecutors will only identify by an alias. A prostitute who was found with the cellular phone of one of the victims told police it was given to her by the suspect.
He said he took at least three victims to the home of a second man, a 29-year-old factory manager, where they were presumably killed.
The factory manager's brother called the testimony absurd.
"They have presented absolutely no evidence," said Armando Valles, who recounted details of the case that were later corroborated by his brother's lawyer, Hector Villasana. "It's impossible."
Rumors of organ trafficking have long circulated in Mexico. Five years ago in central Hidalgo (search) state, two Mexican men were beaten and killed by a crowd enraged by rumors they were stealing children's livers for a man in Texas.
The rumors have always proved baseless. But federal prosecutors say there is new evidence in the Juarez cases that "behind the apparently sexual motivation in many of the killings, there was another hidden motive."
But two doctors who have autopsied the bodies of the victims said they've never seen any evidence of organ trafficking.
"This sounds like something out of a movie or science fiction," said Dr. Enrique Silva Perez, who during two decades as assistant head of forensics in Ciudad Juarez has examined most of the bodies in the Juarez slayings.
Like Perez, forensic examiner Dr. Maria Carmen Sanchez, who examined the most recently discovered bodies, said she has never seen physical evidence of organ trafficking.
"This requires a great deal of infrastructure and medical expertise," Silva Perez said of harvesting, preserving and transporting live organs. "I don't believe many people have access to that."
This week, Attorney General Rafael Macedo de La Concha said federal prosecutors were also investigating the possible involvement of violent religious sects or pornography dealers, but gave no details on those theories.
As long as the alleged motive was sexual, the murders remained in state jurisdiction. But the involvement of organized crime — organ trafficking, the porn industry or any other criminal conspiracy — would make them a federal offense.
For now, Chihuahua state authorities are refusing to turn over case files on the 14 murders, claiming there is no evidence of organ trafficking.
They also claim they already solved eight of those cases, and a federal probe that turns up new leads could prove a political embarrassment for them.
State police insist almost all the women were killed by a gang of criminals and bus drivers led by an Egyptian-born chemist.
The chemist is the only man ever convicted in the case; he was sentenced to 20 years for one murder in the mid-1990s. State authorities alleged he paid a street gang to continue the killings after he was sent to jail to make him appear innocent.
Family members of the victims have never believed that story, but they are also skeptical about the organ-trafficking theory.
"I don't believe it," says Benita Monarrez, whose daughter, Laura Ramos, a 17-year-old high school student, was killed in 2001. "You can't perform that kind of thing in the bathroom of a house."
The slayings have always appeared sexual, not medical, in nature. The victims have all been young, slender women strangled and left half-clothed in the desert, often with their underwear pulled down along their legs or their bras around their necks.
Since most of the victims were mere skeletons by the time they were found, it has been hard to determine if they were raped of if their organs were intact.