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Documentarian Portillo Hopes Award Winning Film, <i>Senorita Extraviada</i> Will Lead to Justice - 2003-05-29

San Francisco-based documentarian Lourdes Portillo has made more than a dozen films in the last 30 years, including a 1986 Academy Award-nominated film about the mothers of political murder victims in Argentina, Las Madres: The Mothers of Plaza de Mayo. Her new film is also about the disappeared and murdered women and girls who have been abducted and killed in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico.

Carolyn Weaver has the story of a filmmaker’s mission.

The film is called Senorita Extraviada and it’s the latest work from an artist who has long identified with the dispossessed. “I think I have a sense of justice and a sense of what’s right and wrong, and that really drives my filmmaking,” says Lourdes Portillo.

Ms. Portillo came to California from Mexico when she was 13, in 1959 – a time when racial prejudice was often harsh and undisguised. She says her experiences as an immigrant have powered her work as a documentary filmmaker. “I think it was those first years in the United States and feeling that somebody was trying to diminish who I was, and I just was not going to take it,” she said in an interview. “But take it in a certain way - I mean I could have been angry, I could have become a criminal, I guess. But instead I became a filmmaker. Documentary really kind of captured my imagination. I think reality is just so much more compelling than anything one could fabricate.”

Her films belong to a genre that could be called art documentary, because of their individualistic storytelling and visual poetry. Corpus: A Home Movie for Selena, is about the Mexican-American pop singer from Corpus Christi, Texas, who was murdered at the age of 23 – and the meaning that Selena’s music and life still hold for Latina girls. The Devil Never Sleeps, from 1994, is even more experimental – and personal. An inquiry into the mysterious death of Ms. Portillo’s uncle Oscar in her native Mexican state of Chihuahua, it’s also an exploration of her own bicultural heritage.

Senorita Extraviada (Missing Young Woman) tells a far grimmer story. The film traces the disappearances and sexual murders of girls and young women in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico – a center of drug-trafficking and official corruption just across the border from El Paso, Texas. The serial murders are now in their tenth year. Lourdes Portillo says they’ve emboldened ordinary killers as well. “Anyone can kill a girl in Juarez and not be punished – to this day," says the filmmaker.

Ms. Portillo estimates that since 1993, at least 200 women and teenage girls have disappeared in Juarez. But as she observes in the film, the precise number of missing and murdered women in Juarez remains frustratingly unknown. Only about 100 bodies have been found, dumped in vacant lots or in the desert, some raped and sexually mutilated – some found wearing clothing that had belonged to other victims.

These apparent serial-murder victims have all been poor, slim, long-haired and very young – ranging from their pre-teens to their 20s. Many worked at the American-owned plants called maquilas, and were abducted on their way to or from work. Yet no one has been convicted – and the murders continue. “Myself and other journalists believe that what is happening is that these girls are being murdered as sport, in a sick, sick way, obviously,” Ms. Portillo says, “because in that area, the people who are the wealthiest can enjoy impunity, they can buy anything.”

Ms. Portillo talked to family members of the missing young women, who told her that Mexican investigators had misled or never spoken to them. But she said that her intention in the film is as much to elevate the victims as it is to investigate the killings. “One of the main points of the film was to humanize the women,” she said, “because for almost ten years, the girls were simply numbers. They were statistics. You know, 60 girls are dead, 75 girls are dead, 80 girls are dead. It didn’t mean anything, because they were poor brown women that didn’t count. If they had been girls from the upper classes, that wouldn’t have happened. And that’s why it remained kind of buried. And with my film what I was trying to show was the beauty of the girls, the live girls.”

Reporter Diana Washington Valdez has covered the murders for the last several years for the El Paso, Texas Times newspaper, across the border from Juarez. She observes that the drug trade has made Juarez an almost lawless city. “A lot of the police in Juarez work for drug traffickers,” she says, “What we have is a total breakdown of the law enforcement community in that city.”

Ms. Valdez says that Mexican and American investigations revealed the identities of the Juarez sex-murderers: a few wealthy, elite men who pay police officers to help in the abductions and killings. But these men have not been arrested, because, she says, “they have political connections to top officials in Mexico, they have a lot of money, several of them are multimillionaires in their own right. They’re considered in Mexican society, ‘untouchable.’”

For filmmaker Lourdes Portillo, the murders have become a cause. She spent thousands of dollars of her own money, and even mortgaged her own house to complete her film. She continues to tour with it around the world — and to return to Juarez frequently to join in the demonstrations by victims’ families. She says, “the film is finished, but the murders are not ended. That’s my journey, to let it be known that this is happening and that we need everyone’s help, that everyone can do something. I don’t want people to feel helpless. Even if they have to write a letter to George Bush or President Fox. They can say they denounce what’s happening and that they want an end to these murders happening.”

Senorita Extraviada won Mexico’s Ariel award for best documentary last month. Meanwhile, the killings continue. Since the beginning of the year, the bodies of four more missing women and girls have been found in Juarez.