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The Lady Killer

19 January 2008

Juana Barraza Samperio is unique in the annals of crime. Serial killers are very rare in Latin America generally; female serial killers almost unheard of; and serial killers’ female victims are usually from the lower class.

Juana, the “little old lady killer” (La Mataviejitas) killed at least 29 elderly middle-class and upper middle-class women in Mexico City in 2005-2006. What made the case more interesting was what it revealed about changing Mexican culture. It used to be that people lived in multi-generational households, and it would be rare for elderly women to be living alone — few had the luxury, and those that did generally lived with a companion, or at least a maid.

I lived a few doors down from a Mercado with apartments on the top floors (and wanted to rent there myself, but nothing ever came open). The place was almost an informal teachers’ retirement home — there was a gang of retired schoolma’arms living there who always had their dinner at the same Comida Economica I favored (and once, having made the error of sitting at THEIR table — I forgot it was time for them to show up — the one with Alzheimers simply sat down, rambled on and ate her dinner with me… probably having the same converstion — and dinner — she always did). The point is that little old ladies — even maiden lady schoolma’arms usually weren’t completely on their own.

It was kind of a shock to the sociologists and talking heads to discover that times were changing. The best anyone could do was advise this until then unknown social group to stick together (solidarity isn’t just a political phrase in Mexico), and hang out in the parks or other public places. Being anti-clerical Mexico, of course the official worriers never suggested they all go to church.

Juana Barraza was operating in a changing social climate. The Federal District had just introduced a 600 peso credit for the elderly. That wasn’t a lot of money, but it was enough in many cases to stretch the family budget to a point where grandma wasn’t having to go out selling candy on the Metro. And, given the economic uncertainty in Mexico (and the worries of elderly middle-class ladies trying to maintain their standard of living), it was popular with most people. But, was the killer finding people through the pension records?

Given that Mexican politics is a rough sport, it was only to be expected that some in the media would blame the leftist district government (specifically AMLO) for somehow unleasing the killer. Then again, anything that went wrong in Mexico City was blamed on AMLO by the same people.

As it turned out, Barraza was — in a roundabout way — taking advantage of the social services system. The victims were mostly middle-class, or upper middle-class women. Usually they did have a maid, but very few people have live-ins any more. Barraza, again unusual for a serial killer, didn’t have some particuarly twisted psychotic reason for killing… it was simple greed. She’d killed the old ladies to cover up robberies.

She’d show up, claiming to be from the District health department (public health workers, social services providers — and even the animal control folks — who innoculated my dogs for free) do show up at your door from time to time in DF). If no one was home, she just broke in and robbed the joint. And, if she wasn’t caught in the robbery, the little old lady lived to tell the tale. Which several did. And led to Barraza’s capture in June 2006.

Barraza was sentenced to 900 years in the slammer yesterday. That in itself is noteworthy. Mexico has no death penalty (it is a civilized country, after all) and no such thing as a “life sentence”. The maximum sentence for any crime is 50 years. However, with 17 murder convictions, and 12 for robbery, even with time off for good behavior, she’s unlikely to leave prison alive. If she does, she’ll be a very old lady by then — and hopefully living alone.

The champion serial killers of all times in Mexico were also women with an odd business ethic. Las Poquianchis, Delfina and María de Jesús Gonzáles buried at least eighty women and ten men in their back yard.

The sisters were too cheap to pay pensions to aging hookers, and a shallow grave in the back yard was the retirement plan at Guanajuanto’s Whorehouse from Hell. Other victims were unfortunate job seekers. Everyone knew there was something shady about the Gonzáles sisters’ establishment, and the job seekers who answered their want ads weren’t always suitable for the world’s oldest profession. Some of those ending up in the back yard were the ultimate in rejected job applicants. The men were apparently out-of-town customers who’d showed up with cash in their pockets. The pair was convicted in 1964 and each received a measly 40 year sentence.

Las Poquianchis were immortalized in Jorge Ibargüengoitia’s satirical 1977 novel, Los Muertas (available in English as “Dead Girls“). And, you’ll still find Mexicans who grew up in the 60s and 70s who call slutty girls “Las Poquianchis” — for the killers or the victims, I can’t say.

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