A Documentary by Lourdes Portillo
By Yvette tenBerge
The young woman’s silhouette fills the screen; tinkling piano keys accompany shots of women as they walk along the dusty streets of a Mexican town, of a pair of sandals arranged in a store window and of the stocking-clad legs of school girls. As the scenes pass by, the voice of Lourdes Portillo, an award-winning, Mexican-born filmmaker comments: “I came to Juarez to track down ghosts.”
The camera focuses on a local, Mrs. Arce, as she begins to tell a tale that is the story of hundreds of Juarez’ young women. It is also a tale that is her own. She recounts a night more than two decades ago when she left a nightclub with a female friend. A car pulled up beside them, and the friend assured Mrs. Acre that the men would take her safely home.
Mrs. Arce cries as she recounts the details of the night of her kidnapping and rape. Her grandson, who is sitting in her lap, blinks nervously. She remembers the words of her kidnapper after her night of torture: “Give me your address because now I am taking you home. You should be careful because your girlfriend sold me to you for 15 pesos. Most men would have killed you.” Mrs. Acre, who was pregnant with her daughter Silvia at the time of this assault, tells Ms. Portillo that Silvia, herself, was kidnapped, raped and murdered in 1993.
The piano music gives way to sounds of religious chanting as Ms. Portillo gives her audience facts about Juarez, a Mexican town across the border from El Paso, Texas. Within the past decade, between 200 and 400 of Juarez’ young women have been brutally killed. This town, which is known as the place where “everything illicit” is available, has a billion dollar drug-trafficking business.
Ms. Portillo highlights Juarez’ high concentration of maquiladoras, factories that are prevalent in the area because of “low wages and the abundance of workers needing jobs.” Eighty percent of these factories are American owned. Young women come to Juarez from all parts of Mexico to earn as much as $5 a day in these factories.
Ms. Portillo asks two still unsolved questions: “Why are these deaths being ignored, and why are these murders happening?” Black and white pictures of victims like Olga Carrillo, AdrianaTorres and Elizabeth Castro haunt the 74-minute film.
Ms. Portillo winds a tale of shoddy police work and sloppy media coverage. She gives examples, such as the Attorney General’s weak attempt to curtail the problem: early curfews for all young women. When a television reporter asks how the 185,000 young women employed in maquiladoras until as late as midnight each night will be expected to adhere to this curfew, the Attorney General does little more than look perplexed. Another government official hints that women, themselves, are to blame, sighting provocative dressing and an association with “bad people” as the root of the murders. A popular newspaper publishes pictures of one “disappeared” girl with the name of another.
But as Ms. Portillo shows us photograph after photograph of these young victims, the sickness of a culture that blames women for violence against their own gender, and then forces them into fostering this abuse becomes revoltingly obvious and heartbreakingly sad.
“Señorita Extraviada: Missing Young Woman,” tells the story of hundreds of kidnapped, raped and murdered young women whose fates goes unsolved. The murders first came to light in 1993, and young women still continue to “disappear” without any hope that the perpetrators will be brought to justice.
Clips of the police depart-ment’s attempt to blame the murders on an Egyptian national named Sharif Sharif are shown. After his arrest, they confirm his assault on a number of young women and find that he also served time for sexual crimes in the United States. He is behind bars and the mothers of Juarez breathe sighs of relief, however, the murders continue.
Evidence of ritualistic tortures emerges; the hands of victims are bound, symbols are carved into their backs and their charred remains are uncovered. Officials zero in on “The Rebels” gang and arrest all of their members. As the murders continue, a group of bus drivers who transport countless young women to the maquiladoras are identified and arrested. Still the killings continue.
Ms. Portillo takes her audience through the story as she attempted to unravel it over 18 months of investigation and filming. It moves at the pace of a mystery novel, and with each turn of the page the faces and voices of the relatives of victims capture their pain, fear and courage. The documentary is packed with images of small, dusty shoes strewn across the desert sand, plastic silhouettes of nude women dangling from the rear view mirrors of taxis and public buses and the laundry of missing girls still hanging on clotheslines.
Most telling are the interviews with young girls who seem to dismiss the cases as myths, giggling and referring to them as vague rumors; they do not know names and do not know dates. When Ms. Portillo points out that just three weeks ago a woman disappeared from the very spot in which she is interviewing them, anxiety creeps into their faces.
“Señorita Extraviada,” dares to go where the Mexican government, media and law officials refuse to go. The camera rests on a published headline: “There is no better place to kill a woman in the world than Juarez, Mexico.” Ms. Portillo learns that police burned more than 1,000 pounds of clothing collected over the years from victims, that leads are not followed and that a family’s request for a DNA analysis resulted in the police testing a body in a grave adjacent to that of their relative.
Ms. Portillo meets María, a woman who tells a story that connects the police, the maquiladoras and drug traffickers to these crimes. She and her husband were arrested and detained after a scuffle with neighbors. María was accosted by a female officer, and raped and drugged by male officers. They showed her photo albums filled with pictures of “disappeared” woman after “disappeared” woman. They were laughing; they were proud. As her husband shouted to her through the jail walls, the officers told her that “all women are the same to us,” whether they are married or not.
Among other things, María recalls her first day of work at a local maquiladora. She feels the eyes of a man on her back. When she turns, she recognizes the man as one of those who assaulted her while she was in jail. He is there watching other women, as well. Are they picking their next victims? Are they watching those victims who are still living?
In 1999 the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) made their way to Juarez. They claimed that the bodies of American drug war victims were buried in the desert sands. They left after discovering eight bodies. There was no mention of or investigation into the disappearances and murders of the women. Does nobody see these women? How can you “disappear” if the world acts as if you do not matter or exist?
Ms. Portillo reveals her frustration and confusion: “My only reliable sources of information are victims and their families.” By the time she finished filming in 2000, 230 women were reported killed. She tries to develop a profile, but these women had little more in common than their poverty and gender. They were students, maq-uiladora workers, children and mothers.
Who committed these crimes? Was it the Egyptian, The Rebels gang, the bus drivers, the police, maquiladora managers, the drug traffickers or all of them? Ms. Portillo cannot soothe her audience by handing them the head of the perpetrator on a platter. Instead, she shows us the glaring truth: Juarez is home to a system that does not protect its young girls, devalues its women and murders the cheap labor force that makes its wheels go round. “Señorita Extraviada” boldly portrays the disposability of Mexican women, and leaves it up to us to correct a dangerous mind-set, the roots of which date back to a time when Eve was blamed for handing the apple to Adam.
“Señorita Extraviada” is one of eleven films shown at the San Diego Human Rights Festival 2002. Sponsored by the UCSD chapter of Amnesty International, the festival runs from April 23 through April 27 at the Copley International Center. The aim of the festival is to “give a human face to, and provide the personal histories behind, the many widespread threats to political and individual freedom in our world today.”