Ciudad Juarez: Setting the Scene
Ciudad Juarez, the largest city in Mexico’s largest state (Chihuahua), is also the fourth largest city in the country. Situated along Mexico’s northern border, just across the Rio Grande from El Paso, Texas, Juarez is a hub of industrial activity. Its 400 maquiladoras (foreign-owned assembly plants) attract 50,000 new economic migrants each year (Wolff 2002). The prospect of cheap labour and financial incentives offered by the Mexican government make Juarez a haven for international corporations eager to keep production costs down and profits up. The savings enjoyed by these companies come at the loss of potential tax revenue—revenue badly needed to finance Juarez’s crumbling infrastructure. Although official estimates put the population at 1.3 million people, hundreds of thousands more eke out a kind of a living at the city’s margins—in shantytowns strung together by a tangle of wires that surreptitiously (and dangerously) tap into the city’s electrical grid (Wolff 2002).
Many of the workers who labour in the maquilas live in these places. The industry employs more than a fifth of the city’s workers (Nathan 1999, 24) as “operators” (Wright 1999a); about 60 percent of them are women (Wolff 2002). In a workforce that is typically young and where the legal minimum age of employment is sixteen, it is not uncommon for fourteen-year-old girls to use false birth certificates to find work here. Labour controls are among the incentives provided by the Mexican government to attract foreign investment, which has led to a business climate hostile to labour organizing. As a result, wages are low—five to seven dollars per day—annual turnover is 100 percent, and unions are rare (Wolff 2002; Nathan 1999, 25). Because it has traditionally been dominated by women, maquila assembly work has become feminized, a pink ghetto established and reinforced by plant managers who regard “nimble-fingered” women as well suited to the boring, repetitive routines (Wright 1999a). This view of women as desirable workers does not, however, include their reproductive capacity. From the point of view of managers, pregnancy is unproductive. Women must submit to a pregnancy test before they are hired, are sometimes made to demonstrate that they are still menstruating after being hired, and those workers who become pregnant are often harassed into quitting (Wright 1999a, 467). Male maquila labourers, stigmatized by the feminized association of the job, are sometimes moved from segregated areas to work alongside women as a form of punishment for bad behaviour or poor quality of work (Nathan 1999, 27).
Yet it would be unfair to simply regard maquila workers, male or female, as passive victims of this poor treatment. Debbie Nathan (1999) and Melissa Wright (1999a) have documented numerous instances in which workers have resisted and even derived some pleasure from these problematic working conditions. It has been observed that factory work provides some measure of financial independence for women and serves as a means by which both skilled and relatively unskilled labourers can contribute to a family income.
For whatever else the maquilas have brought to Juarez, the boost the industry received when the North American Free Trade Agreement went into effect in 1994 correlates in a very disturbing way with a rise in the number of recorded homicides (Nathan 1999, 25). Ciudad Juarez now has the unenviable reputation of being “the most dangerous city in the Americas” (City of Dreams 2001). The dead include victims of neighbourhood gang fights, the city’s illicit drug trade, and, by last count, more than 300 women (Houston Chronicle News Services, 22 March 2002). Some sources attribute most of the latter category of deaths to what the Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service (1 December 1999) has described as “domestic disputes.” Even if this is accurate, it represents a vicious trend that puts Juarez at the highest level of reported domestic violence in Mexico (Nathan 1999, 30).
Many others—some seventy to ninety women—are said to have been the victims of serial killers, and even according to official estimates most of these cases remain unsolved (MacCormack 2002). Certain patterns have been
observed by investigators: the discovered bodies appear to match a consistent profile, both in the physical characteristics of the victims and in the condition of the remains. It appears that many of the murdered women worked in the maquilas, sometimes disappearing along dimly light pathways on their way to or from work, or from buses hired by the companies to transport workers to the job site. Wright (1999a) has documented the industry’s attempts to avoid taking responsibility for the part it may have played in the deaths of its workers.
The record of police (in)activity in this story is almost as appalling as are the murders themselves. In addition to the growing pile of unsolved homicide cases, there have been allegations that the police have fabricated evidence and relied upon torture-induced confessions (Romo 2001). The lawyer for two bus drivers charged in connection with the case was shot by police during a car chase in February of 2002: executed, some say, to silence his criticism of alleged police mistreatment of his clients (MacCormack 2002). These recent actions stand in stark contrast to the lack of interest displayed by police in earlier years. Authorities have in the past attempted to shift blame to the victims themselves, arguing that the women courted danger by spending time in the city’s nightclubs and in dressing “provocatively” (Romo 2001; Wright 1999a). Most disturbingly, accusations have been made of police involvement in some attacks (Senorita Extraviada 2001). Meanwhile, the killings have continued. Eight bodies were found in November 2001 (Romo 2001), and two more were discovered on 19 March 2002 (Houston Chronicle News Services 2002).
As this cursory review indicates, there are numerous complex issues that underlie the cases of murdered women in Juarez. I refer the interested reader to the literature on Ciudad Juarez for an extended discussion of these points.4 While it is important to note the socio-economic and political context in which these deaths are situated, we must also be careful to question the nature of the facts themselves. The information that I have relayed in this section was gathered from a variety of news and journal articles. It is worth remembering, as we move on to the topic of documentaries, that printed sources document lived reality in many of the same (problematic) ways as do documentary films. On the other hand, different modes of representation (e. g., print, video, radio, etc.) evince challenges that are unique to their particular medium. For example, in contrast to radio listeners, television audiences must contend with both auditory and visual information. While some viewers may be led to accept that they are receiving “the complete picture,” others may be provoked into questioning how sound and image reinforce or contradict each other in televised stories. I would therefore challenge the reader to consider all representations as problematic, though in different ways, as we continue our discussion.