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Griensen Porras, Soledad (Special to the Times)

JUAREZ -- Soledad Griensen Porras had been known for almost a decade as a regular figure in the fight for women's rights -- a charitable soul who took food and blankets to the needy and as the owner of a shelter for battered women.

But that image was shattered on Monday after a group of women staying at the shelter accused Griensen of forcing them into prostitution and holding them against their will.

Municipal police said Griensen, the 55-year-old owner of the shelter Mujeres Unidas contra la Violencia (Women United Against Violence), was arrested on Monday after a woman outside the building flagged down a patrol car and reported being abused.

Police rescued eight girls and five women who claimed they were being held against their will. Four of the women have filed complaints against Griensen before state authorities.

According to sources familiar with the investigation, one of the women told authorities that men regularly arrived at the shelter soliciting sex, for which Griensen requested payment. The victim also said that Griensen asked the women for money in order to let them go.

Municipal police said Monday that other victims accused Griensen of beating them and punishing girls by putting chile on their private parts. Police also found pornographic material at the shelter, officials said.

Griensen, who is now in state custody, could face charges of human trafficking, which could be punished with up to eight years in prison. Authorities said they may


add charges for threats, injuries and privation of liberty.

Griensen is expected to appear before the end of the week before a court, which will determine whether there is enough evidence for an investigation to move forward.

Arturo Sandoval, spokesman with the Chihuahua state prosecutor's office, said this could become the first case of human trafficking in the current state administration.

Irma Casas, director of the women's rights organization Casa Amiga, said she was shocked to hear the situations of abuse the women were reporting.

"It is a shame to have this happen because there aren't any spaces for women in high-risk situations," Casas said. "Sadly, this is how we find out what's going on."

Casas said she visited Griensen's shelter about four months ago and didn't notice anything suspicious. She said she thought the small facilities within the house looked clean and in order. She also recently worked with a girl who spent two days at Griensen's shelter and didn't report anything irregular.

She said she had often seen Griensen during protests and focus groups denouncing violence against women. Griensen had been involved in issues of women's rights for the past eight years and was known to work closely with local politicians, Casas said.

Casas said the case should prompt authorities to take a closer look at the shelters operating in the city.

"This is a symptom of the little or null political and social intervention in this topic," she said. "We should evaluate if in the case of Mrs. Griensen there had been an inspection of the spaces and who was in charge of them."

On Tuesday, officers with the state investigative police cordoned off several blocks around the shelter, situated in a residential neighborhood in the center of the city.

Neighbors said the women living in the shelter could be seen outside now and then, but always in the company of Griensen. Police cars were constantly seen outside the shelter because Griensen would explain that girls would escape regularly.

One neighbor who preferred not to be identified said Griensen had an outward personality.

She said that Griensen was known to take groceries, blankets and toys to marginalized neighborhoods in the city, but that yelling could be regularly heard coming from the shelter. The neighbor added that one girl who lived at the shelter used to describe the place as "hell" and once had her long hair shaved off because she had misbehaved.

"I'm not going to tell you she was a nice person," she said. "Outside, she helped a lot, but she didn't treat well the people inside."

Another neighbor who worked with Griensen in the past, though, did not believe the accusations made against her.

"To me all of this seems impossible because I like the work that she does. I really don't think so, but who knows, I'm not going to stick my hands out to the fire either."

She said Griensen had to be strict to control the girls at the shelter, which in the past used to focus on rehabilitating female drug addicts.

She said the shelter received visits and support from high-level politicians -- like the current and past mayors of the city -- as well as doctors, psychologists and academicians, which, she believed, helped prove the legitimacy of Griensen's operations.

"If she has done all that, why would they have helped her so much?" she said.

Alejandro Martínez-Cabrera may be reached at; 546-6129.