Film on Deaths of Mexican Women Indicts Corruption

A documentary that will air tonight on PBS explores the unsolved killings of young women on the Texas-Mexico border. Also: Nigerian woman's death-by-stoning sentence upheld.

Lourdes Portillo

NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)-Chicana filmmaker Lourdes Portillo went to the sprawling border city of Juarez, Mexico, three years ago to investigate the murders and disappearances of hundreds of young women and girls. She returned with the stunning documentary “Senorita Extraviada”-part mystery, part homage to the victims and their families and part rallying cry for justice.

The film, translated as “Missing Young Woman” and scheduled to air tonight on PBS as part of the network's award-winning documentary series P.O.V., explores the cases of the more than 450 women who have disappeared since 1993 from Juarez, a notorious drug-smuggling city across the Rio Grande from El Paso, Texas. Nearly 300 dead bodies have been discovered in and around the city in the last nine years-bodies of young girls, many of them who worked in the maquiladores, or factories, in the area. Some of the bodies were found mutilated, some intact; others just in pieces. Frequently a victim's clothing turned up in a different location than an owner's remains.

An Egyptian man claiming responsibility was arrested in 1995, yet the killings have continued while he remains behind bars. The Mexican government is doing all it can to bring the killers to light, Mexican President Vicente Fox tells Portillo in the film, but the crimes have not been solved.

“When I heard about the missing girls in Juarez, I thought as a Mexican I might be able to do something,” said Portillo, who lives in California and was in New York last month for the 2002 Human Rights Watch International Film Festival. There, “Senorita Extraviada” won the 2002 Nestor Almendros Prize for courage in filmmaking.

“I felt I had to investigate these disappearances and attacks-attacks specifically directed toward young, brown, unprotected poor women,” Portillo said. “Nobody cares about this because these women were poor and Mexican, but something has to be done.

“This is a crisis. There is no help, no protection for these women,” she added.

Filming Itself Inspired Fear, Provoked Threats

The 90-minute documentary is filled with interviews with the families of the missing and dead, government officials and human rights lawyers in Mexico. One woman, identified only as Maria, escaped a brutal encounter with the police, whom she believes are responsible for or participating in the women's murders. Maria explains that her experience did lead authorities to arrest the police officers she names, but says police continue to terrorize her, she says, threatening her life and regularly driving past her home.

The film suggests the many layers of corruption and mystery that shroud the Juarez killings. Starting with the bodies that that first appeared in 1993, Portillo shows how Mexican police wrote off the first murders by describing the victims as prostitutes. She then shows the 1995 arrest of Sharif Abdul Latif Sharif before working her way forward through to the killings in 1999, when she shot the film.

“The film has all the different pieces of the puzzle,” said Portillo. “But all of these elements don't quite fit together. The film is mostly about deciphering the silence behind the murders, and I ask the audience . . . to use intuition to follow the clues that might put an end to the terror.”

Photographs of the missing girls are sprinkled throughout the film, along with the female residents of Juarez, who are asked: “Are you afraid?” The girls, many of them younger than 15, say they are.

Portillo said that she herself was frequently afraid during the filming, and feared, too, for the safety of her sources.

“I may have been just paranoid,” said Portillo, whose films “Las Madres: The Mothers of Plaza de Mayo” and “After the Earthquake/Despues del Terremoto” have won her critical acclaim at international film festivals and Academy Award nominations.

“But the people we interviewed were afraid. They were silenced by their fear,” she said. “No one is doing anything to fully investigate this. Imagine if this were happening in New York.”

In contrast, this summer the United States has witnessed a rash of crimes against girls and young women who have been kidnapped, raped, and often murdered. One recent high-profile case was of 4-year-old Jessica Cortez, who disappeared from a California park. A few hours after her disappearance, Jessica's photo was plastered on television, her name was on wire services, and the local police had a sketch of a possible perpetrator. Police found the missing girl within a day. On this side of the Rio Grande, the disappearances of the young women and girls have been met with cries of outrage from their communities, the press and even the government.

Many Victims Were Workers at American Factories

Cara Mertes, the executive producer of P.O.V, believes “Seniorita Extraviada” will create a deeper understanding of the Juarez killings and disappearances.

“Lourdes is an exceptional filmmaker who has carved a unique place for herself in the world of non-fiction filmmaking,” said Mertes, who is also an independent film producer. “Lourdes has perfected a kind of filmic poetry in the service of social issues, specifically women's stories.”

When the documentary was shown in Mexico City this spring, “It was like watching an atomic bomb going off after it ended,” Portillo said, noting that audience members were confounded that the Mexican government has not resolved the killings.

The film has also been shown to factory owners and managers, many of them American employers who moved into Juarez when the North American Free Trade Agreement was created in 1995.

Over 200 American companies, including Ford, Motorola, and General Electric employ thousands of impoverished Mexicans, many of them young women who travel the rough desert roads that lead into Juarez from small towns outside the city. Portillo does not blame the companies for the murders, but believes that they do not provide adequate safety measures for their workers.

“Companies have tried to provide better security for their workers, but unfortunately corruption is everywhere-on the buses that bring the workers into the city, the managers who run the factories and the security forces they employee,” Portillo said.

“Women have disappeared waiting in line for a job at the maquiladores,” she said. “Some workers have claimed that the men in charge of various places were taking their pictures when they came in for a job without explaining why they were taking them.”

Many women who were photographed at their job interviews have disappeared or turned up dead, Portillo asserts in the film.

Calls to General Electric and Ford seeking comment were not returned.

Portillo Says Documentary Is ‘Intended to Be a Weapon'

By film's end, “Senorita Extraviada” suggests that the Mexican police, factory workers and even members of the town's government may be colluding in the abduction and murder of the young women.

“I'm not saying Mexicans or the whole government is corrupt, but I do think this is a pyramid. A network of people is involved in this-and I believe, money is being made off these girls somehow before they are killed,” Portillo said. “Some of these girls are missing for weeks, months before their bodies are found. So it begs the question: Where are they during that time?”

During the 18 months of filming, 50 women were killed in Juarez. “These women, girls are young and pretty,” Portillo said. “I think that there is some tie to drugs and pornography. The women have been raped, sexually tortured. I think the girls are being kept alive, abused, and then killed. I think some of the disappearances start at the maquildores. But that's just my personal thought.”

Portillo's film company, Xochitl Productions, is hoping to release “Senorita Extraviada” in theaters this year.

“We want to show it to as many people as possible. It's intended to be a weapon, a sharp knife,” she said.

Maya Dollarhide is a freelance journalist based in New York.

For more information:

The Films and Videos of Lourdes Portillo:

POV senorita extraviada:

Women Make Movies: “Senorita Extraviada”:

For more information:

Also see Women's Enews, March 18, 2002:
“Final Decision Expected in Nigerian Stoning Case”:

Islamic Court Upholds Woman's Death Sentence

(WOMENSENEWS)-An Islamic appeals court in Northern Nigeria on Monday upheld the death-by-stoning sentence of a woman found guilty of adultery, news services reported.

Cradling her 8-month-old daughter Wasila, Amina Lawal, 30, burst into tears when Judge Abdullahi Aliyu Katsina handed down the ruling in the town of Funtua. Katsina, president of the Upper Sharia Court, also upheld a preliminary ruling postponing the execution for 18 months so that Lawal could wean Wasila.

Lawal was sentenced to death in March by a Sharia court in the town of Bakori after she gave birth out of wedlock. The man Lawal identified as Wasila's father was discharged for lack of evidence.

Clara Obazele, a spokeswoman for Aisha Ismail, the federal government's minister for women's affairs, told the BBC that the ruling would be appealed. “I'm not happy at all,” Obazele said. “We thought they were going to discharge her.” Lawal was the second woman to be sentenced to death by stoning since states in Nigeria's predominantly Muslim north began introducing the Islamic legal code in 2000. The first, Safiya Huseini, was sentenced last year in Sokoto State, but that verdict was overturned on March 19-the same day Lawal received her sentence.