By GAETANA CALDWELL-SMITH
A film by Lourdes Portillo.
In English and Spanish with English subtitles, 2001.
When documentary filmmaker Lourdes Portillo first heard about the serial murders of young women occurring in her home country and that the numbers had grown from 160 to more than 300 since 1994, she had to act. Hence, her film “Señorita Extraviada” (“Young Missing Woman”).
“I came to Juárez to track down ghosts and listen to the mystery that surrounds them,” she narrates in the opening shots.
The murdered women are workers in the maquiladoras (sweatshops) of Ciudad Juárez. Some as young as 13 have come from the countryside to this city, across the Rio Grande from El Paso, Texas, to work for little more than slave wages on the assembly lines.
The multinationally owned maquiladoras evolved as one of the results of NAFTA, in order to churn out goods and clothing to satisfy the demands of U.S. and European markets.
As Portillo interviews the murdered women’s relatives on film, one sees in their care-worn faces the anxiety and confusion, the hesitation to speak for fear of retaliation by the murderers.
One woman’s brother told Portillo that some maquiladora bosses change a worker’s shift without notice, leaving her with no way home at night, the bus having already left.
Mothers beseeched the police to act when their daughters went missing. So the governments of Juárez and the state of Chihuahua conducted searches, discovering hundreds of shallow graves in the desert. Portillo was able to get hold of government film clips of the graves, which held little more than skeletons, making identification nearly impossible.
In one instance, a missing woman’s DNA did not match the remains thought to be hers, though bits of her clothing were found at the site. Authorities told Portillo dismissively that the murdered women were prostitutes anyway, so she should not be surprised at how they died.
Some relatives say the police are guilty of the murders. Portillo believes a web of complicity between the police and the government exists, and independent investigators also suspect a cover-up. These suspicions appear valid.
Portillo interviewed a victim who had escaped. In the film, she is called María to protect her identity. When she and her husband went to the police, they took her into protective custody, and denied her husband visits. Her guards beat and raped her.
At night, when they drank, she heard them brag about raping and torturing young woman, cutting their faces and bodies, then executing them in the desert.
One guard showed María photographs of bodies sprawled on the ground like torn rag dolls. (Portillo filmed the photographs for evidence; they are included in the film.) María bore the guards’ abuse, knowing she would end up like these women if she spoke out. Months later, she was released.
The police arrested a man, Abdel Latif Sharif, for the crimes. His attorney, Irene Blanco, told Portillo that they fingered him to take the heat off themselves. Still, after the arrest, more women showed up dead; officers then claimed Sharif headed a gang of murderous maquiladora bus drivers which he led from his cell.
Portillo interviewed Suly Ponce, the special Prosecutor for the Investigation of Murdered Women in the state of Chihuahua. Ponce seemed evasive under Portillo’s questioning. The mothers of the dead girls, as well as private investigators, complained to Portillo that Ponce is not doing enough. The murders continue.
At the film’s release, Portillo said: “‘Señoritia Extraviada’ is an investigation into the nature of truth, a truth that I have always found elusive … especially in this documentary about the sex-murders of hundreds of girls in a Mexican border town
” I ask myself why are poor young women so close to the U.S. left forsaken? I feel that for me to stand by and witness these crimes without acting, I am being degraded morally, so I decided to act and focus my work in telling their harrowing tale.
“The story is told chronologically, so as to make order out of chaos and misinformation. What emerges are undeniable truths in the courageous testimonies of the victims; their voices shed light on the fate of these innocent victims.
“[This film] is my offering to the hundreds of young women who have been sacrificed along the U.S.-Mexican border. It tells a story of imposed terror and deadly silence as the new world of globalization flourishes.”
“Señoritia Extraviada” won the Nestor Almendros Prize at the Human Rights Watch New York Film Festival, one of many awards it has received worldwide. Watch for it.