Bajo Juárez: The City Devouring Its Daughters (DVD, 2007), a documentary film by Alejandra Sánchez and José Antonio Cordero, 96 mins., in Spanish with English subtitles (bajojuarez.com)
Family video footage from 1998 introduces us to Lilia Alejandra García on a glorious day, her quinceañera, or 15th birthday, celebrating her passage into adulthood and introducing her as a woman to her community in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. By the time she was 18 years old, García had given birth to two children, apparently caring for them as a single mother. In 2001, while her second child was still an infant, García disappeared, last seen on her way home from the maquiladora where she worked. Five days later, she was found dead, bearing visible signs of having been raped and tortured.
García was one of the more than 400 young women who, since 1993, have been murdered in Juárez, the border city known for its tenuous social fabric. Her family members, along with those of other victims, are the protagonists of Bajo Juárez, a compelling and politically engaged film that puts a human face on the violence by offering up-close profiles of victims, their families, and investigators who have set out for justice. Filmmakers Alejandra Sánchez and José Antonio Cordero begin by taking us on a brief tour of the city, retracing the likely path of García’s abduction and murder, and portraying very concretely the pain suffered by her mother and sister.
The film does not attempt to solve any of the hundreds of cases of rape, torture, and murder; it does not try to answer the question, Who murdered the women of Juárez? Rather, it opens broader lines of questioning: Who are the people ultimately responsible for the murders? What lies behind the “femicides” and violence against women in Mexico? How will this violence end? Can a measure of justice ever be provided to the victims and their families?
One of the central characters of the film’s narrative is Esther García, Lilia Alejandra’s mother, now raising her daughter’s children. Esther, a primary school teacher, shares memories of her daughter’s life and death in Juárez, and the tortuous path she has traveled in trying to clarify the circumstances of her daughter’s murder. She presents us with a testimony filled with pain but also great strength. After listening to her recounting of events, we are not surprised to learn that she has become a militant activist in the fight for justice for all the murdered women of Juárez.
The filmmakers also introduce us to a few of the many investigators trying to get to the bottom of, and make sense of, the continuing series of killings. Sánchez and Cordero’s interviews with reporters Diana Washington of the El Paso Times and Sergio González Rodríguez of the Mexican daily Reforma, both of whom have written books about the femicides, and with independent forensic criminologist Oscar Máynes, provide a broader context to understand the individual cases explored in the film. All three investigators make a strong case that state and local authorities have likely covered up evidence and protected many of the murderers, whose true identity remains unknown. Viewers thus cannot come away from this film without the feeling that impunity is a central problem in Mexico.
The filmmakers also introduce us to the official version of the events in Juárez by interviewing the special federal and state prosecutors in charge of investigating the crimes. Sully Ponce, the state of Chihuahua’s special prosecutor for crimes against women, looks into the camera and says more than 70 people have confessed and been processed through the criminal justice system. The families and defenders of the victims reply that, according to independent investigations, most of the 70 convicted individuals were randomly (or conveniently) chosen scapegoats.
For her part, the chief federal prosecutor for the crimes, María López Urbina, tells us that the more than 400 murders between 1993 and 2007 (when the film was made) do not constitute a scandalous situation for an urban area like Juárez. The film suggests that these official acts and attitudes lend credence to the accusation that the authorities are protecting, for one reason or another, the real murderers, who may be linked to high levels of political power. If this is the case, the femicides represent a genuine state crime.
The filmmakers also introduce us to a young woman named Gaudencia Valencia, who has recently arrived in Juárez from Minatitlán, Veracruz, and has found work in a factory assembling Hoover vacuum cleaners. (The city bus carrying workers to the factory lists “Juver” as its final destination.) The “everything will be all right” ingenuity of this newcomer contrasts dramatically with the quiet determination of Esther and the other politicized family members of victims. The film does not speculate about the network of contacts that may have brought this young woman to Juárez; we only know that she made a three-day trip by bus to get there, and that she now rents a room in a neighborhood on the outskirts of the city.
The viewer is left to wonder if she, like so many others, had been ensnared by one of the prostitution networks that traffic in women—a social phenomenon that authorities have attempted to link to the series of femicides. In presenting Valencia’s ingenuity, the filmmakers may be showing us one profile of the murdered women of Juárez, along with the social trajectory that brought them to the city. The film makes clear that, as in many other locations in Mexico and Central America, poverty and migration converge in Juárez, joining with misogyny and organized crime.
The profiles presented in the film all have variations, of course, but the the life of the film’s absent protagonist, Lilia Alejandra, stands out, as the filmmakers offer us a portrait of a young woman who seems to have lived her 18 years in a hurry. Esther remembers her daughter as a typical girl of her community who grew up in the bosom of her family, intellectually able, full of life and joy. She remembers that as a young girl, Lilia Alejandra won a prize for reciting the poem “Mexico, I Believe in You,” by Ricardo López Ménde.
Esther recites fragments of the poem, emulating the vehemence of Lilia Alejandra’s declamation. The poem becomes an oddly appropriate backdrop for remembering Lilia Alejandra’s death. As the mother recites the poem, the camera pans over a gathering of friends and family planting a cross on the arid spot that marks the daughter’s burial place. This is a powerful scene. It is as if the poet had written these decades-old lines, which generations of Mexican schoolchildren have memorized, at this time and at this place for a murdered daughter and her grieving mother. The fragments the filmmakers have chosen for us to hear are these:
Mexico, I believe in you as in the highest point of a promise.
You smell of tragedy, my land, nonetheless you laugh too much.
Maybe it is because you know that laughter is the covering of a silenced pain? . . .
If I know the sky, it is because of your sky.
If I know pain, it is because of your tears
that are in me learning to be cried. . . .
Mexico, I believe in you because you write your name with an X
that has something of cross and Calvary.
Because the angry eagle of your shield
enjoys gambling with life, and at times with death.
Irene Ortiz is a writer and feminist activist based in Cuernavaca, Mexico.