City of lost souls
The heartbreaking and anger-provoking documentary "Seľorita Extraviada" exposes the wholesale murders of young women in Ciudad Juarez in Mexico's maquiladora zone and the corruption that lets them continue.
By MARIANA CARREľO KING
(Originally reviewed at the 2002 Human Rights Watch International Film Festival in New York.)
Since 1993, over 400 young women have disappeared in Ciudad Juarez, in the Mexican side of the border with El Paso, Texas. Kidnapped, tortured, raped and killed, these women and their families have also been victims of inept politicians, corrupt police officers, media indifference and extreme poverty. Alleged suspects have been convicted and jailed, politicians have been replaced, corrupt officers have been fired, and the mutilated bodies of young women continue to appear scattered in the desert.
Who is committing these crimes, and why haven't the authorities and the media done enough to stop them? "Seľorita Extraviada" (Missing Young Woman), a disturbing documentary by Lourdes Portillo ("Las Madres: The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo," "Columbus On Trial") explores these questions through interviews with victims' families, politicians and heads of independent organizations involved in the ongoing investigation to solve these crimes.
|SEľORITA EXTRAVIADA (MISSING YOUNG WOMAN)|
|Produced by: Lourdes Portillo.|
Written by: Olivia Crawford, Julie Mackman and Sharon Wood.
Cinematography: Kyle Kibbe.
Edited by Vivien Hillgrove.
In English and Spanish with English subtitles.
"Seľorita Extraviada" starts with a broad background of the booming Ciudad Juarez, in the state of Chihuahua, south of the border of El Paso, Texas. Run by corrupt and incredibly inept politicians, and an equally corrupt and violent police force, Ciudad Juarez is also home of a multibillion-dollar drug business and of many American-owned "maquiladoras" (assembly factories). All these factors make Ciudad Juarez a city that no apocalyptic filmmaker could have ever invented; instead, it is real, and it is horrifying.
Lourdes Portillo's talent to explore the different perspectives of an extremely complex conundrum is impressive. These murders present a decade full of false starts, forced confessions, lies, and over 400 young victims. The first person to be arrested in connection with these crimes was Abel Sharif, an Egyptian chemical engineer who started working in a maquiladora after serving five years in the U.S. for sexual harassment and battery, in 1995. But the murders didn't stop.|
Young girls are still found dead in the desert hands tied up with the same kind of knots, a "V" shape cut in the lower back and another wound in the abdomen, sometimes a nipple is bitten off. From 1996 to 1998, several people from a street gang called the rebels are also arrested. Supposedly Abel Sharif paid them to bring him the victims' underwear. But the murders continue. In 1999, Jose Manuel Guardado Marquez, a bus driver, is charged with the murder of six women. He immediately points at other bus drivers and they all are charged with 190 killings, apparently also to please Abel Sharif. Later, they all claim that their confessions were forced by the police. And the murders continue.
In 1999, the government appoints a special prosecutor, Suly Ponce, to investigate these crimes. When interviewed, Ms. Ponce blames the lack of resources, "not even the basic equipment," she says straight to the camera, "no paper bags, gloves, nothing." Apparently, detectives don't even know how to preserve a crime scene and evidence is constantly lost. Just when one starts sympathizing with her, the relatives of victims accuse her of ineptitude, of lying. And the murders continue.
There are horror stories: women luring other women to their deaths, police exhumation of the wrong bodies, satanic rituals, torture, bureaucracy, ineptitude. It is hinted that the maquiladoras are involved, that they take pictures of the girls coincidentally shortly before they are kidnapped, that they don't offer enough security for their employees, that they allow drugs to circulate freely.
When American factories started flourishing south of the border in Mexico, drawn by tax incentives and low wages, they attracted people from the poorest states, many of them young women, who saw an improvement in their life quality with jobs that paid $4 to $5 for a day's work. Only, in many cases, like in Ciudad Juarez, the city wasn't ready to welcome them: there were inadequate housing and schools, water and electricity shortages and poor security, to name just a few problems. In the end, to this day, entire neighborhoods tend to appear and disappear overnight and violence is just another aspect of daily life in this border city surrounded by the desert. Ciudad Juarez has one of the largest concentrations of maquiladoras, which employ some 220,000 people. About 70 percent of maquiladora workers are women.|
There is nothing predictable in Ciudad Juarez and in Ms. Portillo's work. Her subjects are always treated fairly whether they are the victims' relatives accusing the authorities or those who claim to have received some kind of supernatural vision; whether they're police officers blaming the victims or questionable authorities who manage to come up with incredibly stupid suggestions for preventing and solving these crimes.
For example, there's Jorge Lopez, assistant attorney general of the state of Chihuahua from 1992 to 1993. Mr. Lopez suggests a strict night curfew for every citizen, so "good people" would be safe, and "bad people" caught outside their home at night would be immediately apprehended. When asked about the young women who work the night shift, he simply suggests to start with the people who can abide by the curfew, like himself. Watching this documentary, I couldn't help wishing that the targets for these crimes were middle-aged, simple-minded politicians.
As complex and bizarre as these crimes are with young women found dead wearing the clothes of other victims so as to prevent any effort to identify the bodies, with the authorities blaming the victims' behavior and choice of clothing for their death, with suspects jailed and released at officers' whims the most incredible fact is that there have been so many victims and so very few answers. "Seľorita Extraviada" is a genuine attempt to pour some light into these crimes and to let the world know that they ought to stop. Sadly, there is still a lot to be done: during the 18 months that it took Ms. Portillo to shoot this documentary, 50 more young women were killed.
|AUGUST 31, 2002|
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