The serial killer hall of fame is, generally speaking, a boy’s club. Female serial killers do exist, but overall the gender gap stats are pretty stark; women only account for somewhere around 10 to 16% of all cases. So of course, the question on everyone’s mind is: how can we get more young women and girls interested in murder?
It all begins with solid role models — examples of strong women who smashed the glass ceiling with a bloodied hatchet. That’s the kind of case we’re bringing you today: the story of Juana Barraza, a Mexican wrestler-turned-murderer, who targeted dozens of helpless elderly ladies in a twisted campaign of revenge.
Okay, perhaps “role model” isn’t the best angle here, but Barraza’s gender did play a crucial part in her case. Partly because she never matched the standard stereotype of a serial killer, she was able to rack up an eye-watering body count over a three year spree, while the authorities were left chasing their tails…
On November 25th, 2002, someone knocked on the door of María de la Luz González Anaya’s apartment in Mexico City. The 64-year-old opened it up just a crack to see who was there — a social worker from the local council, here to help her to fill out forms for financial aid. After the visitor flashed their government ID card, María invited them into her home.
The next day, the old woman’s body was found on the floor of her living room. She had been beaten, then strangled to death barehanded. When the police arrived, they found the apartment looted, and little trace of the culprit beyond a few fingerprints.
Newspapers speculated that this was the latest in a long line of killings by the same culprit, nicknamed El Mataviejitas: “the Old Lady Killer”. However, the police asserted that this evil pensioner hunter was a myth, conjured up by media sensationalism.
While the overactive imaginations of journalists may have been to blame up until now, that was all about to change. Nobody knew it at the time, but the killing of little old María was the first in a long line of murders by a new, genuine serial killer, who would become one of the worst the city had ever seen…
Bodies Piling Up
The next person to fall prey was 84-year-old Guillermina León Oropeza. On March 2nd 2003, she was strangled just like the first victim. The same happened to María Guadalupe Aguilar Cortina, 84, in July. Then on October 9th María Guadalupe de la Vega Morales was found tied to a chair. Both of her arms were fractured, and she had been strangled to death.
Judging from the list of victims, about 95% of elderly Mexican ladies are called María, as with the next one: María del Carmen Muñoz Cote de Galván, 78, strangled to death with a stethoscope on October 24th. Less than two weeks later, 85-year-old Lucrecia Elsa Calvo Marroquín met a similar end, killed with a phone power cord.
The frequency of the killings was shocking, and each new case offered little in the way of fresh evidence. The likelihood of El Mataviejitas being a figment of some reporters’ imaginations was growing extremely slim. The modus operandi was too similar in each case: elderly victims, tricked into letting a stranger into their homes, were strangled to death then robbed.
Now and then fingerprints would turn up that linked the cases together, and slowly the police started to realize that stubbornly denying the existence of the killer was a mistake. Some claim that, even though the authorities already suspected a serial killer was at large, political infighting between the city council and federal government led them to keep the information under wraps.
After two more victims met their end in the final months of 2003, the police managed to gather some eyewitness reports. Some people had seen a potential suspect hanging around the area on the day of the crimes — they were dressed in a female nurse’s uniform.
Sketch artists produced a pair of portraits depicting a stern-faced individual: one distinctly masculine, and the other with softer features. These were released to the public, with the individual listed as only a ‘person of interest’, so as not to cause a panic.
It wasn’t until the beginning of 2004 that Bernardo Bátiz, the city’s Justice Department chief, officially announced that El Mataviejitas was very much real. The media went into a frenzy, but that did little to discourage the Old Lady Killer from doing what they did best. They committed a staggering 14 more murders in 2004!
In all of the cases, the cause of death was strangulation; sometimes by hand, sometimes with a belt, stethoscope, or piece of clothing. The authorities started distributing pamphlets among the elderly of Mexico City in 2005.
They instructed them not to open the door to strangers, especially in the evening, as there was every chance the murderer might be darkening their doorstep next…
Under growing media pressure, the cops enlisted the help of psychological profilers to paint a picture of the sort of psychopath they might be looking for. The Department of Justice looked at similar historical cases from around the world, like the French case of Thierry Paulin (the Monster of Montmarte), and determined their killer was:
“A man with homosexual preferences, victim of childhood physical abuse, lived surrounded by women, he could have had a grandmother or lived with an elderly person, has resentment to that feminine figure, and possesses great intelligence.”
Essentially, ‘not sure who this guy is, but I bet he’s gay.’ They followed a similar line of logic when interpreting the testimony of witnesses. Several who came forward had described the killer as female in clothing and appearance, but with certain masculine qualities.
As a result, the cops decided that the most likely scenario was that their culprit was dressing as a woman to more easily win the trust of his victims (which played nicely into their Norman Bates-esque psych profile).
While the rest of their analysis was actually quite accurate, that one fatal assumption would go on to severely undermine the investigation, and potentially cost many more old ladies their lives…
The Lady of Silence
On the evening of June 29th 2005, 78-year-old María Guadalupe Núñez Almanza heard a knock at the door. The surprise visitor announced themselves as a nurse from the Si Vale community care project, doing the rounds in the neighborhood. Esthela opened the door.
There stood Juana Barraza, a middle-aged woman with a clipboard one hand and a stethoscope around her neck; she was there to offer a health checkup, which might qualify the octogenarian for some government aid. María beckoned her inside, and settled into an armchair, while stern-faced Nurse Barazza unpacked her tools from a medical bag.
Seconds later, Barazza walked up behind the old woman and wrapped the cord of a stethoscope around her neck. She tugged hard, pinning María to the chair and pulling down with all her weight for over a minute, until the old woman’s limbs stopped flailing. El Mataviejitas had just claimed her 30th victim.
Actually, I should really say La Mataviejitas, since our culprit turned out to actually be a woman after all! Even though the witnesses had correctly identified her gender, the police and press were so fixated on the stereotype of a male serial killer that they made an active effort to explain away the simplest facts.
With her latest victim sitting dead in her chair, the 46-year old murderer ransacked the house, before taking off into the night…
By this point she must have thought herself pretty invulnerable. Even though the sketches bore a decent likeness to Barraza, she was very much female, and so nobody ever suspected the middle-aged single mother of four as the culprit. Instead, the police had invented a male, crossdressing menace out of thin air, and just ran with the idea.
Now, it’s true that Juana Barraza was tougher looking than most — she had long been obsessed with lucha libre wrestling, and trained to participate in semi-pro events throughout much of her adult life, under the stage name La Dama del Silencio: “The Lady of Silence”.
Pictures from those days show the tall, muscly luchador rocking a Dolph Lundgren hairdo, a gloriously retro pink spandex outfit, and butterfly mask to match. One source reported that, during her crime spree, La Dama del Silencio would sometimes be forced to subdue her victims, “using moves learned in her wrestling career.” I’m not sure it takes a flying suplex to defeat an eighty-year-old in combat, but okay,
Even after retirement, Barazza retained a relatively muscular physique, and kept her hair cropped around an inch or two short. Police reports tactfully referred to her body type as “robust” in all of their witness reports. She could still be easily recognized as a woman in day to day life, while remainin androgynous enough that the police could remain fixated on their murderous transvestite theory.
So La Dama De Silencio was free to kill as she pleased. Over the next few months she racked up a further half-dozen victims, the last of whom she even set fire to afterwards to destroy any evidence. The cops continued picking through the wreckage left in the murderous wrestler’s wake, but their lethargic investigation failed to turn up any new leads.
Then, when the lady of silence knocked on the door of a notable academic’s mother in September 2005, the investigation gathered a fresh head of steam. That was when Barraza set her sights on wealthy widower María del Carmen Camila González Miguel. She was the mother of an influential Mexican criminologist, Luis González, whose outrage pushed the police into launching a special task force.
The newly-formed team launched an initiative titled Operación Parques y Jardines (”Operation Parks and Gardens”). After pinpointing the areas in which the killer was most active, the cops increased patrols in those vicinities. It was thought that the killer made a habit of frequenting city parks to befriend the victims, sometimes by offering to help them with shopping bags.
So the cops hired elderly ladies to hang out in parks, with the aim of baiting the serial killer into revealing themselves. When that didn’t work, they tried the next best thing… arresting every transvestite and transgender person they could find…
Operating on a few haphazard hunches, the task force arrested 49 prostitutes working on the city streets, and compared their fingerprints with those found at the crime scenes. This 200 IQ move was, of course, miserably unsuccessful; the cops were ridiculed and condemned by the press.
Meanwhile, the lady of silence continued her spree. She claimed two further victims in September and October. One was strangled with a pair of tights, the other with a scarf. Then, just like that, she stopped. Juana Barraza went silent for the next three months, leaving the authorities at their wits’ end. They issued a new 3D plaster model of their suspect based on more recent testimony, but none of the resulting tips offered any leads.
They then took to checking the fingerprints of corpses which came into the city morgues, taking a pontoon the possibility that maybe their elusive serial killer had just up and killed themselves. If the lady of silence hung up her strangling stethoscope at that point, it’s likely she might have gotten away with it for good. But that wasn’t to be.
On January 25th 2006, a resident of the Venustiano Carranza district of Mexico City returned home early to find a suspicious person leaving the house which he shared with his landlady, Ana María de los Reyes Alfaro (84). Like the rest of the city, the lodger was now well aware a serial killer was loose, so he got the attention of a passing police patrol, while the visitor made a run for it.
The cops caught up with the suspicious individual — a heavy-set woman, dressed in white — and apprehended her. When one of the officers went to check on the old lady, she was already dead. Of course, the woman now being bundled into the back of a police car was Juana Barraza.
Just like that, with a stroke of dumb luck, two beat police had stumbled into the arrest of the century. Detectives rushed to search out the tiny flat of the retired wrestler, out in the east of the city. There they found newspaper clippings from her crimes (especially strange, since she was nearly illiterate), items plundered from the victims, and shrines to Jesús Malverde (patron saint of narcos) and Santa Muerte (a folk-Catholic grim reaper, popular among death dealers).
There was no doubt that they had their man — woman, I mean. Keen to gloss over that particular little mishap, the Justice Department had Barraza pose next to their plaster bust and sketches, as if they were hot on her trail the whole time.
In reality, Barraza had actually been featured on local TV just one week prior to discuss her wrestling career, and not a single person — neither officer nor civilian — had recognized her, all because they believed the killer had to be a man…
Why Did She Do It?
As the investigators and public tried to wrap their head around the revelation, everyone was seeking some sort of explanation for what could drive such a mild-mannered woman to murder. After all, This was not the gender-bending, woman-hating psychopath they were promised.
To start, let’s return to that decisive criminal profile again for a second:
— Abuse victim
— Resentment towards an elderly female figure
As it turned out, they were at least half right. Born into poverty in 1957, in rural Hidalgo, Barraza was raised by her alcoholic mother, and step father. Her mother would do almost anything to get a drink, including pimping out her own daughter.
When Juana was only twelve years old, her mother reportedly sold her to a man named José Lugo, in exchange for three beers. At first Barraza thought it was all some sick joke, but it soon became clear that her mother wasn’t coming back. She was repeatedly abused by Lugo for four years, enduring two pregnancies which — depending on the source — both resulted in miscarriages, or saw the poor teenager give birth to a son.
The nightmare continued until her uncles finally managed two track her down; all that time they had been told that their niece ran away with the pedophile by choice — the story her mother told them. Barraza recounted these traumatic memories through a stream of tears in the interrogation room. It was because of this, she explained, that she always held a deep-seated hatred against older women.
After Barraza’s mother died from cirrhosis of the liver, she ran away to Mexico City. She managed to find various odd jobs around town, before eventually landing an irregular gig with a wrestling company. She spent much of the 80s and 90s touring around central Mexico with the promotions firm, supplementing her meagre performance fees through street peddling and cleaning jobs.
Along the way, she accumulated a handful of failed marriages and four children, the oldest of whom was tragically beaten to death during a mugging. To get money to care for her youngest kids, Barraza turned to petty crime in 1995, beginning with shoplifting. The next year, she decided to up her game and start robbing the homes of her least favorite demographic: doddering old women.
She enlisted the help of a friend named Araceli Tapia Martínez, and the two of them hatched a plan to dress up as nurses, charm their way into the homes of lonely old folk, and steal their valuables. What the moonlighting luchador didn’t know, was that her partner in crime was dating a corrupt police officer at the time. Araceli flipped on Barazza, who found the crooked cop waiting outside after one of her robberies.
He demanded 12,000 pesos in exchange for her freedom, and Barazza was forced to oblige. Now in the late 1990s, with her finances running low, and her wrestling career coming to an end, she could see some pretty desperate times on the horizon.
Barazza decided to continue her robbery spree solo into the 2000s. She would prowl around neighborhoods in her nurse’s costume, looking for likely candidates.
It wasn’t until one of her marks, María de la Luz González Anaya, made an insulting remark during that robbery we began with back in 2002, that Barraza’s rage was fully unleashed. She saw the old woman as a stand-in for her own abusive mother, and decided to get her revenge for all the pain of her childhood.
This one act of malice snowballed into a 3-year-long binge of murderous revenge, which turned her into one of the worst serial killers that Mexico has ever known.
We’ll never know the full extent of her crimes for sure, as many of them could only be linked to her through circumstantial evidence. Barraza maintained that she was being used as a scapegoat for most of them, and only ever officially confessed to the one in which she was caught red-handed. I is of course possible that a copycat
By the time the case went to trial in 2008, she had been charged with 30 murders. That might sounds like a lot, but consider the fact that the final count of her murder potentially lies around a staggering 49 or more: all of the victims women, all over the age of sixty-four.
Over the course of the trial, the prosecution painted a portrait of a cold and calculating psychopath; a sadist who preyed on the trust and goodwill of Mexico City’s beloved abuelas. Her apparent lack of remorse didn’t help her case, nor the fact that she had previously seemed to suggest that she believed she was doing a service to society by clearing out the grannies.
In the end, Juana Barraza was convicted on 16 counts of murder — mostly only the ones which were backed up by fingerprint evidence. 16/30 was more than enough to call the case a success, netting the Old Lady Killer a whopping 759-year prison sentence.
Let this be a lesson to any aspiring detectives out there: never begin with a broad assumption. We’ve seen how the generalizations which the Mexico City police brought to their investigation almost allowed this killer to slip the net entirely. We’ve seen in this show that serial killers come in all shapes, sizes, ages, and genders — and they’re sometimes the people you would least expect.
As for Juana Barraza, although her life story is truly tragic, it can hardly be seen as justification for such a violent, calculated crime spree. The Lady of Silence spent years honing her act to prey on some of the most vulnerable in society. Had she not been caught by a stroke of dumb luck, who knows how many more she lives she could have taken.
If she manages to live long enough behind bars, Juana will be automatically paroled after 50 years served. By then the ex-luchador herself will be an elderly woman of 100 years old — the very thing she set out to destroy…
1. After her conviction, Barraza took on a kind of folkloric status in the culture of Mexico City. She’s been the subject of telenovela TV dramas, immortalized in catchy folk-pop songs like Amandititita’s La Mataviejitas, and featured on all kinds of merchandise.
2. It’s not all doom and gloom in the life story of Juana. In 2005, Mexico City’s most sensational serial killer found love on the inside. In a special prison ceremony, she tied the knot with a fellow inmate who goes by the name Michalangelo. By all reports, she’s very happy with her new life behind bars. I love a nice happy ending.