Jan 28, 2007

Border Echoes producer describes her experience

When We Dead Awaken
The killings continue
Just listen to their Border Echoes

Written by Lorena Mendez-Quiroga
(From the November 2006 issue of "Written By")
Copyright 2006

Hollywood is infatuated with crime and investigative stories. There is CSI:, murder mysteries, legal dramas surrounding DNA testing, serial killers catching serial killers, working FBI profilers and, yes, the ever-so-popular Sopranos. The mobster storylines of drug smuggling and murder plots must seem to the average viewer as “stuff” only a writer could make up.
Except crime stories are very real. I know it because I lived it.
In 1997, I found myself at a crossroads in my life. I was in Juarez, Mexico, as a freelance reporter and field producer, covering the Juarez drug cartel and the murders of innocent bystanders-American citizens (as if we should care only because they were American tourists). Little did I know that I would be spending the next eight-plus years of my life consumed by a story that would change not only who I am but the way I look at the world.
While interviewing Mexican authorities about the drug-related murders, I came across families outside Chihuahua State headquarters demanding justice and answers to their daughters' murders. The despair was obvious in their eyes. Voices clamored for help, yet no one paid attention. It seemed as if the mothers were in the middle of a tornado, yet no matter what they did, investigators passed by them with not a care in the world. The murders were not of the daughters of a governor or the police chief; they were happening to the most vulnerable members of society, poor girls with no resources, no money even to pay the ruta, the bus fare to get to the police stations. Families themselves mobilized rastreos (body searches) to find the remains of their loved ones. (Most were discovered by a passerby, a child playing ball, everyday folks, the families themselves, but not the authorities.)
Many of the victims had come to Juarez from the interior of Mexico to work in the so-called maquiladora, or assembly plant industry. At that time, approximately 100 girls had been murdered in the most gruesome manner imaginable. Victims were raped, gagged, tortured, hands bound, in some cases their bodies mutilated, dumped in vacant lots of the city or various areas just outside Juarez. Most victims were girls as young as 13 and women no older than their early 20s.
Most astonishing was that many of the cases remained unsolved. Questioning investigators about the crimes revealed that they had no real answers as to why crime scene evidence had been either misplaced or disappeared. Key suspects, including members of the Juarez drug cartel, were not even considered. Bodies of victims were mistakenly given to the incorrect families. Add the fact that El Paso, just north of the border, has an exorbitant number of registered sex offenders who cross into Juarez, which the Mexican authorities were not even considering a concern.
Between 1997 and 1998, I returned to Juarez four times and always saw more mothers and family members protesting outside the Mexican State Police offices-still with no real attention from the authorities. Reporters from around the world, including the New York Times, came to Juarez to cover the murders. Juarez became known as the City of Death. Reporters would get their sound bites from the cops, tears and emotional interviews from the mothers, and leave.
But not El Paso Times staff writer Diana Washington Valdez, an investigative reporter determined to get to the bottom of the murders. In 1999, she decided that because the authorities neglected to properly investigate, she'd research it herself and would stop at nothing to uncover a police conspiracy that she suspected rose to the highest levels of government. In a place like Juarez, where people tend toward distrust, especially of the police, key witnesses confided in Valdez.
After all, she was in the perfect geographical position for a proper investigation. She maneuvered easily between reporting in Mexico and in the United States; the rules that apply to one country do not apply to the other. From 2000 on, our personal and professional relationship flourished as I filmed her investigation. I wanted to document Valdez's courage in Mexico, where, this year alone, three journalists have been murdered for speaking out against the government or the drug cartels.
In September, after more than eight years and 300 more murdered women, I completed my first feature documentary film, Border Echoes-Ecos de una Frontera. Although a number of books and documentaries (both in English and Spanish) document the Juarez murders, many unanswered questions surround the investigation and police conspiracy behind the killings. And this story, which has lasted more than 13 years, seems to have no ending. Authorities celebrate the arrest of a suspected serial killer, and it's revealed in court that he had been tortured into making his confession. Several scapegoats I interview in jail die weeks later under suspicious circumstances. During my filmmaking, key suspects are killed, as was anyone outspoken against the drug cartel. All became part of my documentary as well as Valdez's book, Harvest of Women. But this remains a story without an ending, waiting for closure.
Visit harvestofwomen.com or borderechoes.com for more information about Diana Washington Valdez’s book and Lorena Mendez-Quiroga’s documentary.