By Anahi Rama and Lizbeth Diaz
ECATEPEC, Mexico (Reuters) - So many teenage girls turned up dead in a vacant field on the outskirts of Mexico City that people nicknamed it the "women's dumping ground."
They began showing up in 2006, usually left among piles of garbage. Some were victims of domestic violence, others of drug gangs that have seized control of entire neighborhoods in the gritty town of Ecatepec, northeast of the capital.
The lot has since been cleared and declared an ecological reserve. But its grisly past is not forgotten and the killings have only accelerated.
Dulce Cristina Payan, 17, was one of the victims. Two years ago, armed men pulled up in a pickup truck and dragged her and her boyfriend away from the porch of her home. He was tossed from the truck within a few blocks but she was taken away and murdered, stabbed repeatedly in the face and stomach.
Her father, Pedro Payan, believes the killers belonged to La Familia, a violent drug gang operating in Ecatepec, and that Dulce Cristina was murdered when she resisted rape.
"I think my daughter defended herself, because her nails were broken, and her knuckles were scraped," sobbed Payan, a former police officer who now sells pirated DVDs from his home to get by. "She had a strong character."
As drug violence has escalated across Mexico in the past seven years, the rule of law has collapsed in some of the toughest cities and neighborhoods. When that happens, local gangs take control, imposing their will on residents and feeding a culture of extreme violence.
Abductions, rapes and murders of women have all soared with more women being killed in Mexico than ever before.
Since former President Felipe Calderon launched a military offensive on the drug cartels at the end of 2006, over 85,000 people have died. Between 2007 and 2012, total murders rose 112 percent. Most are young men but the number of women killed shot up 155 percent to 2,764 in 2012, official data shows.
Corruption and incompetence are rampant in under-funded police forces across Mexico and the vast majority of murders are never solved. Families routinely complain that police show little interest in the cases of missing women.
The parents of Barbara Reyes spent 18 months looking for her after she disappeared in August 2011 from Cuautitlan Izcalli, near Ecatepec. They finally discovered that their daughter's body had been found by authorities within two months of her disappearance and was dumped into a mass grave with other unidentified corpses at a cemetery.
"To this day we really don't know what happened to our daughter," her father, Alejandro Reyes, said in the living room of their home, sitting next to a photograph of Barbara smiling.
President Enrique Pena Nieto, who took office in December 2012, has pledged to reduce drugs war violence but has not made major changes to the security policies pursued by Calderon. Nor has he done much to tackle murders of women, experts say.
Before becoming president, he was governor of the State of Mexico, which encircles much of Mexico City and is home to Ecatepec. In the second half of his 2005-2011 term as governor, the murders of women doubled in the state.
"Violence against women isn't an epidemic, it's a pandemic in Mexico," said Ana Guezmez, Mexico's representative for United Nations Women, the U.N. entity for gender equality.
"We still don't see it as a central theme of the current administration. You have to send a much stronger message."
Experts say the spike in violence against women is worst in areas hit hard by the drugs war, similar to what happens during civil wars like those in Colombia, Guatemala and El Salvador.
Women in conflict zones are often seen as "territory" to be conquered, and raping and murdering women a way to intimidate rival gangs and the local population. Authorities say victims are getting younger and the attacks more violent.
In northeastern Mexico, a major drugs battleground, the number of women slain jumped over 500 percent between 2001 and 2010, according to a study by Mexico's National Commission to Prevent and Eradicate Violence against Women.
Guezmez says public violence against women intensifies when crime gangs take control. "It's associated with rape and displaying the body in public places. A lot more brutal."
The U.S.-Mexico border has long been a dangerous place for women. More than one-fifth of the women killed in Mexico in 2012 were slain in three of the four states neighboring Texas, according to the national statistics agency.
Most infamous is Chihuahua, home to Ciudad Juarez, where hundreds of women were murdered or kidnapped in the 1990s.
With 22.7 murders for every 100,000 women in 2012, Chihuahua is still Mexico's most dangerous state for women.
None of the figures include the many women who have gone missing or those corpses that are so badly mutilated that authorities cannot even identify their gender.
About 4,000 women disappeared in Mexico in 2011-2012, mostly in Chihuahua and the State of Mexico, according to the National Observatory Against Femicide.
It says many are forced into prostitution, a lucrative business for drug cartels expanding their portfolios.
The gangs even prey on women migrants looking to get to the United States. In the desert between Mexicali and Tecate on the U.S. border, rapists are so brazen that they flaunt their crimes by displaying their victims' underwear on trees.
Central American migrants trekking to the U.S. border often take contraceptive pills with them because as many as six of 10 are raped passing through Mexico, Amnesty International says.
Human rights groups say security forces are often involved in sexual abuse and disappearance of women.
International pressure over the tide of killings persuaded Mexican lawmakers in 2007 to approve new legislation aimed at preventing violence against women.
Defining femicide as the "most extreme form of gender violence," it created a national body to prevent the killings, and urged judges to sign protective orders for abuse victims.
The law also established so-called gender violence alerts, a tool to mobilize national, state and local governments to catch perpetrators and reduce murders. Yet in practice the gender alert has never been activated.
Pena Nieto in November pledged a broad response that includes fast-tracking protective orders and making the gender alert more effective. But doubts persist about how effective such measures can be against an overburdened, weak and often corrupt justice system.
"Violence against women is so rife in Mexico that there's no political cost for those who don't deal with the issue," said a top international expert involved with the matter who didn't want to be identified so he could speak freely.
When Payan, the former policeman living in Ecatepec, heard his daughter's screams as she was dragged from their home, he and his neighbors gave chase. Witnesses led them to a house a few miles away, but when they arrived she was already dead.
Locals helped relatives track down the killers, but it took months for police to start interviewing witnesses.
One suspect was charged with the teen's kidnapping but he was released after posting bail. The other two were jailed for the rapes of other women from the same neighborhood but have yet to be charged in Dulce Cristina's murder.
The State of Mexico's attorney general declined to be interviewed over the case.
So widespread is the impunity that barely 8 percent of crimes are reported, according to national statistics. Witnesses and victims alike are afraid to testify.
Jessica Lucero, 14, was raped in June 2012 near Ecatepec and reported the crime, implicating a neighbor. Within a month, she was raped again and killed.
At the "ecological reserve" in Ecatepec where women used to be dumped, a policeman who can only see out of one eye because of glaucoma stands guard.
"The truth is that against these people there is little we can do," he said of the gangs. "We are also helpless."
(Editing by Kieran Murray and Cynthia Osterman)