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On the Edge: The Femicide in Ciudad Juárez

Director: Steev Hise
Cast: Marisela Ortiz, Jason Wallach, Lucha Castro, Charles Bowden, Ralph Ambruster Sandoval, Jessica Marques

(Illegal Art; US DVD: 8 Aug 2006)

Canary in the Coalmine

You can’t get obsessed about the deaths of young girls. What you have to do is realize is that they are the canary in the coalmine, warning you about society in serious trouble.
—Charles Bowden



“This city kills people.” So says Charles Bowden, author of Juárez: The Laboratory of Our Future. What he means is, this city, Ciudad Juárez, kills women. “They say it’s three or 400 women killed,” he continues, “but it’s way more than that.” The murders, known locally as feminicidios (“femicides”), have been going on for years. According to the Organization of American States’ Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, the victims are young (between 17 and 22), and most are maquiladora, workers in foreign-owned factories (that is, largely US-owned factories, such as RCA, Emerson, 3M, DuPont, GM, and Maxwell).


Just across the Rio Grande from El Paso, Texas, Juárez has become the last resting place for over 450 young women, since 1993. For the most part, the crimes remain unsolved, though theories abound as to motives (for examples, organ traffic, religious rituals, serial killing, prostitution, and snuff pornography). Steev Hise’s 58-minute documentary, On the Edge: The Femicide in Ciudad Juarez, tracks the broad outlines of this ongoing violence; despite the arrests and convictions of various suspects, the Mexican police remain under fire for the critical lack of attention they’ve paid to the phenomenon.


Indeed, On the Edge makes a compelling case that the murders are systemic (and pathological as such), rather than the work of individuals with particular motives. The numbers of dead women also fluctuate (according to Marisela Ortiz, co-founder Nuestras Hijas de Regreso a Casa, “Each report has presented different numbers”). Las muertas de Juárez (“The murdered women of Juárez”) are victims of trends in capital, classism, and misogyny characteristic of “globalization”. While Jason Wallach (Coordinator of the Portland Central America Solidarity Committee) cautions against seeing “this as a whodunit mystery”, an epigraph asserts, “This is not a case of a few deranged men on a killing spree. The killings happen in the context of social and economic conditions.” Following, a black and white movie clip shows a standard-issue, circa ‘40s US cop declaring the need for old-fashioned cop-work: “Get some men on it,” he instructs a uniformed cop, “And tell ‘em to keep their eyes peeled for the killer.” If only the solution for the femicides were so simple.


While the documentary is rough—plainly low budget and assembled with some sense of urgency, along with cheesy background music—it is powerful and resourceful. Organized into pointedly captioned sections (“Neglect”, “Migration and the Border”, “Free Trade”), it lays out what Wallach describes as “an interlinked system of interlinked impunities.” He notes at the start that the urgency is personal as well as cultural, legal, and political: if the problem is based in broad disregard and even malevolence toward women, families want “justice” for their murdered daughters and wives. As one mother, Norma Andrade, says, “They tell me I’m an activist. I don’t feel like an activist.” Lucha Castro, a lawyer representing victims’ families and cofounder of Justicia Para Nuestras Hijas, describes the conflagration of forces at work: “It’s everything from corruption to the foreign-owned factories, which enjoy the monetary rewards but are not held accountable for the life of their female workers. This unaccountability, along with corruption and drug trafficking, is the breeding ground for men annihilating women with impunity.” The camera pans the city from a distance, small homes and larger factories set against mountains, plainly depressed, a border town where citizens do their best to survive even as corruption colors their everyday existence. (Bowden describes the particular position of this border town: “Just open a map,” he says, “It connects with the underbelly of the United States.”)


Image from Podcasts.Dixo.com

Image from Podcasts.Dixo.com


The women are remembered locally by makeshift memorials—crosses along the roads, their loss a function of “the violence of poverty”. They are also recalled by their families, who persist in their efforts to find answers despite all manner of Jessica Marques, Grassroots Coordinator for the Mexico Solidarity Network, lectures on strategies for women’s safety and resistance and provides family members forums for speaking out. Other activists, such as Ralph Ambruster Sandoval, Professor of Chicano Studies at UC Santa Barbara, points out that despite the alarming numbers, the crisis “lingers”, without aggressive intervention or investigation. Mothers testify that their daughters’ “disappearance” is not a crime according to local authorities, and so as days pass, their chances for survival diminish exponentially. Lacking information and influence, the poor citizens of Juárez are left without recourse.


In part, the neglect is a function of corruption: Alma Gomez, a lawyer representing victims’ families and cofounder of Justicia Para Neustras Hijas, explains that the police are regularly bribed by organized crime. Bowden notes that nobody in Mexico “gets paid enough” to feed their families, and so the need for extra payments is endemic and typical, not unusual. (The Mexican drug cartels spend about 10 percent of their gross yearly income, over $3 billion, on bribes.) According to Bill Conroy, correspondent for the Narco News Bulletin, the system of payoffs and “narco-violence” is “not dissimilar to what happened in Vietnam or in any war: people get a vested interest in keeping the war going, on both sides of the border.”


The war continues to shapeshift (lately, one facet involves the “border anxeties” coursing through the US), but it is, indeed, ongoing. On the Edge pulls together not only its own interviews, but also information available elsewhere (see, for examples: LibertadLatina.org, Maquiladora Murders, and Women of Juárez) in order to argue that this war allows and encourages violence against women, understood as property and iconography rather than individuals. Theories as to how and why such methodical mayhem goes on circulate—plausibly, if not definitively—throughout the testimonies, here. Marisela Ortiz asserts that “Bodies have been found with similarities… This has to be planned, you cannot say these crimes are not linked. Otherwise, how could they find groups of bodies of three women, groups of eight women, five women, with the same characteristics?”


Whether perpetrated according to design or opportunity, the murders occur in an environment colored by desperation. This is not to say the killers are victims as much as it is to say they are products of systemic abuses and deprivations.  As Bowden puts it, this environment has everything to do with so-called First World exploitations. “We’ve created hyperviolence in those countries,” he says, “Because everyone is armed, thanks to the joys of the drug business.” Moreover, the demand informs the production of drugs: ““You can’t sit in this country and enjoy your drugs and not think there’s a consequence to it. The consequence that matters isn’t your own body. What the heck? You’re gonna die, anyway. You’re living off the misery of other people and causing misery.”

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Cynthia Fuchs is director of Film & Media Studies and Associate Professor of English, Film & Video Studies, African and African American Studies, Sport & American Culture, and Women and Gender Studies at George Mason University.


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