Esther Chavez, 76, a vocal champion of human rights who against enormous odds drew attention to the killings and rapes of hundreds of women in the violent Mexican border city of Ciudad Juarez, died of cancer Friday, her hometown newspaper El Diario reported.

Ms. Chavez is widely acknowledged as a pioneer, the first activist to document and decry the 1990s murders of several hundred women. Most were young, poor workers in U.S.-owned assembly plants in the border city whose deaths were largely ignored by authorities.

A former accountant for a U.S. food-processing company, she began compiling files in 1993 on women whose bloodied, battered bodies kept turning up in the desert surrounding Ciudad Juarez, across the border from El Paso, Texas. She badgered officials, pressured police, comforted victims' families, led street demonstrations and, in 1999, founded the first rape-crisis center in the region.

Juarez politicians were dismissive; they didn't want to do anything that might damage business with the maquiladoras - the assembly plants clustered mainly along the border - and their U.S. and Japanese owners. Police, notoriously corrupt, were uninterested. Most of the dead women were migrants from other parts of Mexico, so they had no local family to advocate on their behalf. They had only Ms. Chavez.

In 2008, Ms. Chavez won Mexico's National Human Rights Award. She was the model for a character in El Traspatio, a movie about the killings of women in Juarez that is Mexico's Academy Award entry this year.

- Los Angeles Times