At six AM, on June 15, 2000, a man noticed our TV camera and pointed across the street. In this residential section of Ciudad Juarez, a woman lay motionless in the street. As we filmed her inert form the local police and the judiciales (federal investigative authority) also arrived. Flies had already begun to feast around her eyes, nose and in the blood caked on her cheeks. She had blue-black bruises around her eyes and red marks on her throat. The cops assumed we were an El Paso TV news team as they poked the body of the corpse with their pencils. One dictated: “female with lesions and hematomas on face and body.” Another wrote. Then they wrapped the woman’s body in plastic and dumped her into the meat wagon. The local cops, in their squad car, said “the criminals are hard to catch. They are very astute.”
Since1993, none of the Mexican police authorities have stopped the Juarez femicide. Now Hollywood comes to the rescue. In “Bordertown,” ace reporter Jennifer Lopez investigates the murders of over 400 poor women – and, well, we won’t reveal the ending. Will J.Lo accomplish in two hours of exciting screen time what Mexican cops could not in 14 years of real police time in Mexico? On several occasions, Juarez authorities “nabbed the culprit.”
In late February 2007, Chihuahua state police arrested a man who said he witnessed the kidnapping, rape, and murder of at least 17 women from 1993 to 2003. He identified the killers as a childhood friend and his accomplice. During the trial, however, Alejandro Delgado recanted and told the court that police had pressured him to lie about witnessing the gruesome events. If he didn’t testify, he said, he feared authorities would send both he and his wife to prison. (Associated Press Feb 2, 2007)
Four years earlier, Juarez officials arrested two bus drivers, who confessed to committing the Juarez murders. Photos of the two in local newspapers showed men with heavily swollen faces. According to police, the drivers had picked up young maquila workers from industrial areas and driven them to remote desert areas where they raped and mutilated them. The two subsequently claimed police had tortured them; they too recanted.
Why should a once sleepy pueblito that Pancho Villa and his men used as occasional headquarters during the Mexican Revolution become a serial killer’s paradise?
One clue may lie in Ciudad Juarez’s rapid and turbulent industrialization process. With photos and text, Charles Bowden described the city’s metamorphosis from a place with close knit familial and social ties to a breeding ground for a dark underworld, in which violent narco-traffickers peddled their wares across the border into Texas and New Mexico while, simultaneously, transnational companies opened maquilas or maquiladoras, factories and assembly plants.
Mexico offered a low wage but disciplined and healthy work force, low taxes, and lax environmental laws. (Laboratory of our Future. Aperture Press, 1998) When the United States and Canada made Mexico a NAFTA partner in 1994 and eliminated tariffs, the already thriving “maquila” lured millions more rural women to join the urban workforce. But NAFTA propagandists did not mention the mutilated female bodies in the surrounding desert.
Throughout the 1990s, Mexican police officials tended to dismiss the killings with references to drug deals gone wrong, or prostitution rings claiming retribution. But many of Juarez’s approximately 2 million residents did not accept such flummery. They saw the Juarez Desert as a depository for the victims of fiends, not prostitutes like Jack the Ripper’s targets, but women, mostly in their early twenties and as young as 15, recently arrived from rural villages. These young women had come to find factory jobs. Having lost their low paid agricultural jobs when “free trade” helped US agribusiness eliminate small Mexican farmers by underselling them, they sought the only available work in Mexico.
The women made an urban life change, which initially produced a feeling of independence unknown in their tightly knit, traditionally male dominated rural families. Some women became primary breadwinners. The transformation from rural to urban, field to factory, broke the social fabric of traditional Mexican society. The change in gender roles, which empowered some women, made others more vulnerable.
The Hollywood movie, naturally, avoids such academic interruptions that might impede the follow of the thrilling script. Victor Quintana, a 2006 PRD (Revolutionary Democratic Party) candidate and Professor of Social Communication at the Autonomous University of Juarez, attributed the violence to the farm to factory transition. As young women became wage earners they also became primary providers for their children. They often didn’t need a husband, especially an unemployed and abusive one.
This phenomenon became common in the newly industrialized towns along the US border, Juarez being the largest. When women began earning wages almost as high as men’s, mass marital crisis erupted. Divorce and separation rates in Mexico skyrocketed in the years following the entrance of women into the maquila job sector. Zona Latina, which produces family statistics for Latin America, found that while divorce rates grew significantly, separation rates almost doubled. Separation does not entail the costly procedures involved in divorce. (zonalatina.com/zldata) Women’s increased earning capacity led them to demand greater, if not equal participation in family decisions, thereby threatening customary male roles. Because women spent less time at home and depended less on men’s household salaries, some actually chose to live alone. Even those that remained married had greater sexual mobility than farm wives, even under the watchful eye of husband or father.
Socially progressive Mexican women welcomed the change; it weakened “machismo.” The Catholic Church and conservative political groups, however, feared such developments would contribute to the deterioration of the fabric that held together Mexican families. Some traditionalist Catholics accused working women of abandoning their families.
In fact, some women did and do leave their children alone when they went to work; often they cannot return in time to prepare dinner for their husbands. These facts define the new urban world. The critics’ “morality” belongs to a world that no longer exists. Instead of blaming multinational corporations for invading Mexico and scooping up millions of young women into production lines (globalization), they point accusing fingers at individual women who somehow suffered a moral lapse and chose to work in a factory rather than starve to death. Urban Juarez in 2007 means the murder of women as much as it means the ubiquitous shopping mall.
Invoking “moral” explanations or indicting “Mexican machismo” as the culprit of 400 actual murders become acts of avoidance. Yes, men have traditionally played breadwinner roles; with women at home with children. This status quo has “required” men to sometimes use violence to maintain control of women. Indeed, physical force or the threat of it, served as a means of household governance, a pillar in the establishment of the society itself.
But this behavior is a far cry from mass murder. It does, however, contribute to an attitude among some men of all classes. They revert to the “who cares: it’s only slutty women getting killed” excuse for police inaction. Even in the film, a woman reporter fights such disgusting displays of male weakness to unearth the slimy plotters. In the cantinas conversation often assumes that working women are “easy” — promiscuous — and thus deserving of abuse. We observed men driving around the industrial parks just as women finished their shifts. Some made provocative remarks, honked horns and offered rides.
The maquila culture has changed Mexican culture in several ways. It has made poor women into consumers. Advertisers encourage the young factory workers to spend their paychecks on personal items. Ads promote social life with friends from the factory – where they can all have drinks. If they choose a pastime that involves drinking or drug consumption it puts them at a greater risk for criminals and predators seeking to take advantage of them. Women with little education and lacking in urban experience can easily get lost – not only emotionally — in mass consumption lifestyle. Almost a decade and a half after the first mutilated women’s bodies were found in the Juarez desert, a new threat to justice emerges; if the murderers are not brought to trial very soon, they will go free since Mexico’s statute of limitations for murder is 14 years. On June 14, 1993 Guadalupe Salas’ mutilated and decomposing body was discovered. The Salas family now has no hope of seeing their daughter’s killer brought to trial.
“If a rich girl got murdered,” said the mother of Sagrario Gonzalez Flores, murdered and mutilated in 1999, “the police would stop at nothing to find the killer. But we’re poor people. What have we got to offer them? Only our pestering.” Did gang initiations, narco-trafficking or prostitution cause mass deaths? Or do the killers of the mutilated women sell their organs? Are the police involved in this macabre affair? Will J. Lo provide the answers? At least, millions of filmgoers will become aware of this tragedy. Some will take away vicarious satisfaction as they do from most films. That’s better than what the Mexican police, with FBI help, have offered.
Saul Landau and Sonia Angulo Chaidez made “Maquila,” a 60 minute film shot in Juarez in 2000, available on DVD from [email protected]