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Bajo Juarez campaigns for the dead women of Ciudad Juarez

October 7, 2008 | 11:06 am

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“She said some words to my mother that I’ll never forget: ‘Don’t be scared, but they just said on TV that they’ve found a girl that fits Alejandra’s description. We still don’t know if it’s her. Don’t be frightened but call and ask,’” said Maria Luisa Garcia, who stayed outside to speak to their neighbor while her mother Norma went into their modest house in Ciudad Juarez, northern Mexico.

“Suddenly I heard a loud thud,” said Maria Luisa.

“When I ran inside to see what it was, my mother was on the floor crying. I said to her, ‘What is it? What is it?’

“The cell phone was on the floor and she was yelling: ‘Not my daughter! Not my daughter!' ”

Lilia Alejandra Garcia Andrade disappeared on Feb. 14, 2001, when she was leaving the maquiladora, or factory, where she worked in Ciudad Juarez, which sits on the United States/Mexico border with Texas.

The 17-year-old mother of two never reached home. Five days later, her body was found on waste ground wrapped in a blanket, displaying signs of physical and sexual abuse, according to Amnesty International. She had been held captive for several days before she was killed.

Lilia Alejandra is one of the 370 women who have disappeared in Mexico's Chihuahua state since 1993. Her story is the main focus of Bajo Juárez, a documentary film that was five years in the making and that opened here in Mexico this weekend.

Directors Alejandra Sánchez and José Antonio Cordero follow Alejandra’s mother Norma Andrade –- housewife turned activist -– in her unsuccessful campaign for justice over the death of her daughter in what is a moving and fair portrait of a community that feels utterly abandoned by its legal system.

The directors took a photojournalistic approach to the documentary, which features poignant video portraits of young women in Ciudad Juarez on their way to work or going about their daily business. The women stop for a few seconds to gaze into the lens of the video camera as life goes on around them.

But that’s the only beauty to be found in the film, which offers another necessary but ugly account of the repeated failure on the part of the Mexican authorities, local and federal, to put a stop to the killings and bring all of those responsible to justice.

The multitude of directors and film crews who have made films about the situation in Ciudad Juarez have reported hostility from authorities in the city, but director Sanchez said that wasn’t the problem in making the documentary, which was filmed discreetly with a very small crew.

“The biggest difficulty was giving order to what is universal chaos –- that was the hardest thing,” said Sanchez, who started work on the film with co-director Cordero in 2001.

As with the scores of young women who have been abducted and killed in Ciudad Juarez over the last decade, Alejandra’s unsolved case probably won’t be the last. And this documentary is one of dozens of other films, plays and other artistic projects to take up the cause –- the latest and most high profile project was a movie called BorderTown that starred Jennifer Lopez and Antonio Banderas. That played across cinemas in Mexico earlier this year.

Although Bajo Juárez was finished more than two years ago, the documentary only made its commercial cinema debut this weekend. Sanchez said that it was “complicated” trying to get the film released earlier than that. Former Mexico President Vicente Fox, who refused to be interviewed for the film but whose administration provided archive footage, was the focus of Norma Andrade’s campaigning efforts. But Sanchez argues that it’s not important that Fox’s “sexenio,” or six-year term, ended before the film got its commercial release.

“I think [current Mexico President Felipe] Calderon has the same responsibility that Fox or [his predecessor] Ernesto Zedillo. This year alone, 35 women have disappeared,” says Sanchez.

Although the situation in Ciudad Juarez has persisted for more than a decade, inspired numerous media and Hollywood movie projects and become an international scandal for Mexican authorities, human rights groups say that many of the cases remain unsolved. Amnesty International also claims that “those responsible for the systematic failure of investigations have not been held to account.”

So the question is: Will this documentary make any difference?

“I think it’s really important that people see an X-ray of the system of impunity that exists in Mexico," said Sanchez, adding that her expectations, nevertheless, are limited.

“My most realistic hope is that it leaves a record, on celluloid, of one of the blackest stories in Mexico’s history,” she says.

And while Bajo Juarez is an eloquent, honest account of these grim crimes, the killings of women in Ciudad Juarez are far from being part of history. Not yet.

Image: A screenshot from the documentary Bajo Juarez, provided through http://www.bajojuarez.com/

-- Deborah Bonello in Mexico City

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