A gripping investigative documentary into the disappearance, and murders, of hundreds of young women in and around the city of Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, this new film by Lourdes Portillo (whose 1986 doc “The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo” was Oscar-nominated) is fine fest and tube fodder. Though the video-shot pic is technically crude at times, this is no great problem for a film whose primary aim is to start a polemical discussion.
Ciudad Juarez is right across the border from El Paso, Texas. Since the signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement, many U.S. companies have established factories in the area, taking advantage of low wages and a large workforce. Since 1994, more than 200 young women have disappeared from the area; several bodies have been recovered from shallow graves in the desert that surrounds the city, but most remain missing.
Portillo interviews relatives of the missing women as well as local officials. She charts the history of the disappearances and covers the arrest of an Egyptian national suspected of the crimes. Although he is still behind bars, however, the disappearances have continued — 50 women went missing during the period the film was being shot, and many more since it was completed.
Matters are complicated by the fact that Ciudad Juarez is a center of drug trafficking. Whether the killers of these women are members of the drug cartels, or members of gangs unrelated to the narcotics trade or even, as is hinted, members of the police force themselves, it is clear that horrendous crimes are being committed, apparently without retribution.
One woman claims a security guard employed at one of the international factories in the city showed her photographs of a woman being terrorized, mutilated, raped and finally burnt to death. The film develops an anti-globalization theme with its suggestion that the coming of the international companies to the area has been in some way responsible for the tragic deaths of so many women.
There are no easy answers to the question raised by this powerful film, and there are many suspects who may or may not have been responsible for what seem to be almost perfect crimes. The film calls attention to a national, indeed an international, scandal with passion and anger.