Transfrontera Crimes: Representations of the Juárez Femicides in Recent Fictional and Non-Fictional Accounts
In her article, Marrietta Messmer discusses the representation of the Juárez femicides and their traumatizing effects on the Juárez/El Paso community in four recently published accounts: Teresa Rodriguez's journalistic account The Daughters of Juarez (2007), the documentary Señorita Extraviada (2001) directed by Lourdes Portillo, the feature film Bordertown (2006), directed by Gregory Nava, and Alicia Gaspar de Alba's mystery novel Desert Blood: The Juárez Murders (2005). More specifically, she analyzes the degree to which these sources regard the femicides not merely as a Mexican problem but as a structural and highly significant transborder issue that has its roots in the region's current political and economic developments, as well as its pervasive social and cultural changes.
IntroductionWhen the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was signed by Presidents George W. H. Bush (U.S.A.), Carlos Salinas (Mexico) and Prime Minister Brian Mulroney (Canada) in 1992, it created an unprecedented transnational economic space across North America that eliminated substantial trade barriers between the three signatory nations. At the same time, however, the United States also promoted NAFTA as a preemptive anti-immigration measure because it facilitated the creation of thousands of maquiladora factories along the U.S.-Mexico border that would allow Mexican workers to find jobs in their home country rather than migrate to the United States. To date, about 3,100 maquiladoras have been built in north Mexican border towns, employing more than one million assembly-line workers, roughly one fourth of whom are living in Ciudad Juárez, the sister city of El Paso, Texas (Rodriguez 6–8).
Since 1993, however, Ciudad Juárez has also started to make national headlines in both Mexico and the United States because of what Alicia Gaspar de Alba and Georgina Guzmán have referred to as “the longest epidemic of femicidal violence in modern history” (1)—a sheer endless chain of inexplicable murder cases, with so far more than 500 women raped, tortured, mutilated, and strangled in the desert surrounding Ciudad Juárez.1 When the murder series did not abate and Mexican officials were unable to identify and arrest the killer(s), a cross-border hotline was set up in 2003, and a—not always tension-free—transborder collaboration was initiated between the U.S. Congress, the FBI, and the Mexican federal police. To date, various theories have been advanced as to who is responsible for those murders and why they are concentrated in Ciudad Juárez, ranging from the identification of one or more serial killers, local gangs such as Los Rebeldes, drug cartels, bus drivers (Los Toltecas), or corrupt policemen, via the involvement of high government officials, federal agents, wealthy U.S. killers, well-protected sons of rich Mexican families, organ harvesters, satanic cults, or producers of snuff videos, to, most infamously, the victims themselves who were either accused of leading double lives as prostitutes or of simply dressing too provocatively (Gaspar de Alba, “Poor Brown Female” 67). Most researchers seem to agree that those few people who have so far been tried and convicted are only scapegoats, and that the real perpetrators have to be sought in the context of organized transnational drug cartels and/or among high-ranking U.S. and Mexican officials.
The Juárez femicides have prompted a wide range of cultural and media responses on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border, including several documentaries, two Hollywood movies, one Mexican film, at least twenty short films on Youtube, TV news shows, art exhibitions, works of music and poetry, investigative journalistic accounts, novels, interviews, as well as academic conferences (Gaspar de Alba and Guzmán 3). All in all, one can note a preponderance of responses originating in the United States, and, according to Steven Volk and Marian Schlotterbeck, also a domination of fictional accounts:
Yet many of these earlier fictional responses are seriously compromised by inadvertently replicating the blaming-the-victim paradigm, often combined with a view of the femicides as an exclusively local Mexican problem and/or an attempt to reaffirm patriarchal values by suggesting that order in Juárez can only be reestablished “when female passivity is reasserted” and “the ‘proper’ [i.e. patriarchal] relations between men and women are reestablished” (Volk and Schlotterbeck 122, 132; also Domínguez-Ruvalcaba and Corona 10–11). This view has recently been challenged by a growing number of feminist and Marxist analyses of the Juárez murders that try to locate the reasons for the pervasiveness and viciousness of these crimes in a combination of cultural, social, political, and economic changes the border region is currently undergoing (see Domínguez-Ruvalcaba and Corona; Fregoso and Bejarano; Gaspar de Alba and Guzmán; Staudt; Wright). In the following, I will analyze the representation of the Juárez femicides and their traumatizing effects on the Juárez / El Paso community in four recently published accounts: Teresa Rodriguez’s journalistic account The Daughters of Juarez (2007), the documentary Señorita Extraviada (2001) directed by Lourdes Portillo, the feature film Bordertown (2006), directed by Gregory Nava, and Alicia Gaspar de Alba’s mystery novel Desert Blood: The Juárez Murders (2005).These texts have been selected in order to examine the extent to which they provide a counter-narrative to earlier traditional, patriarchal, and family-centered media representations that merely strive to reaffirm a conservative social order. In particular I shall analyze the degree to which these sources regard the femicides not merely as a Mexican problem but as a structural and highly significant transborder issue that has its roots in the region’s current political and economic developments, as well as its pervasive social and cultural changes.
Teresa Rodriguez, The Daughters of Juárez (2007)Of all the primary texts discussed in this essay, Teresa Rodriguez’s journalistic account of the murders in Ciudad Juárez is the most recent one and traces the crimes as well as the course of investigation chronologically from the early beginnings in 1993 until the publication of her story. A U.S.-based anchor and investigative reporter for the Univision television network, Rodriguez traveled to Ciudad Juárez on four separate occasions to conduct her own investigations and interview numerous people, including many of the victims’ relatives, but also state officials, law enforcement officers, civil rights activists, local journalists, as well as alleged suspects, including a “one-on-one sit-down with the alleged mastermind behind the murders, Egyptian chemist Abdel Latif Sharif Sharif” (xii).
What distinguishes her text is an attempt to place her findings within the historical development of the city, the context of NAFTA, and of political controversies between Mexico’s National Action Party (PAN) and Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). While she leads her readers through the chronological development of the murder cases and the various theories that emerged, Rodriguez’s main focus lies, on the one hand, on bringing individual victims’ stories to life with the help of detailed accounts of their personal circumstances and their activities during the last few days before their disappearance. In this way, she clearly manages to dispel the maqui-loca myth of female maquiladora workers assumed to be “living la vida loca, or una vida doble, of a border metropolis, coded language for prostitution” (Gaspar de Alba and Guzmán 3) by emphasizing that these women were devoted mothers, daughters, or sisters who contributed their share to the family income while often also being active in their communities. On the other hand, Rodriguez launches a devastating critique against the incompetence and failures of Mexican authorities (xii). Against this backdrop, she outlines the untiring efforts of many of the victims’ mothers and relatives to form their own activist movements in order to publicize the crimes and force authorities to take action. While these forms of grassroots activism serve to emphasize the crucial role of these women as courageous survivors who, despite external pressures and threats, manage to take their lives into their own hands, these accounts ultimately also reinforce Rodriguez’s central point, the utter inability or unwillingness of Mexico’s official authorities to handle this crisis.2
The book is primarily devoted to a thorough and in-depth investigation of the cases of the three (groups of) early suspects: the bus drivers named Los Toltecas; the youth gang Los Rebeldes; and the first suspect, the Egyptian Abdel Latif Sharif Sharif, whose background as a two-time convicted sex offender facing deportation from the United States to Egypt and avoiding this fate by voluntarily moving to Mexico receives a large share of attention. While Rodriguez’s detailed account of Sharif’s sex offenses committed in the United States ensures that the severity of his crimes is not belittled, her main aim in recounting his story is to demonstrate how he, as well as the members of Los Rebeldes and Los Toltecas, were framed as perpetrators by Mexican officials due to mounting public pressure to solve these crimes.
Yet according to Rodriguez, the Mexican authorities’ fabrications of suspects and convictions, despite lack of evidence, are only the tip of the iceberg. She contextualizes the stories of the main suspects within an account of abject indifference and incompetence on the part of the Mexican police. She notes that the police’s response to the disappearance of the first women was characterized by disinterest, mainly because local city officers “seemed to place little value on the lives of the missing young women, in part because so many of them were not natives of the city but members of a transient population that had come to Juárez in search of work” (16; also 20–21, 35–36). In a similar vein, “authorities paid attention only when someone with clout was representing the family of the missing person” (34). Rodriguez recounts numerous instances of this form of indifference and confirms many of the feminist analyses in suggesting that this was partly also based on Mexico’s machismo culture, in which women working outside of their home “were frowned upon and often assumed to be promiscuous” (21). In addition, she also draws attention to the low status that women—even those conforming to traditional patriarchal gender values—have always enjoyed in Mexican culture (227; also Staudt 132). Numerous external experts support her account of police indifference, even though they—rather than focusing on cultural reasons—more often cite inadequate staffing and equipment, unprofessionalism, and inexperience as major problems (99–103). Rodriguez herself identifies failures, oversights, and sloppiness in almost every murder case she investigates more closely.3
Yet it is more than mere incompetence and indifference that Rodriguez charges the Mexican police with. Time and again she refers to a “growing speculation among residents of Juárez that officers from both the state and municipal forces were somehow involved” (21) in the murders, and she traces threatening anonymous phone calls received by parents trying to file a report back to the police (36). To corroborate this hypothesis of police involvement, she discusses in detail the case of María de Jesús Talamantes, who in February 1999 was allegedly gang-raped by members of the local police department while in their custody (112–20). When Talamantes pressed charges against the officers involved, her family started to receive threatening phone calls; in the end a judge dismissed all charges and set all officers free (122). According to Rodriguez, “activists claimed that this kind of threat had become a common tool used by law enforcement officers to ward off questioning by family members” (181).
In addition, she recounts in detail the obstacles faced by the small number of incorruptible Mexican and foreign officials who were called in for help at various moments. A case in point is the young staff criminologist working for the Chihuahua state attorney general’s office, Oscar Maynez Grijalva. Numerous times, he states, his reports and findings were rejected or silenced by his superiors (39). Despite his efforts to the contrary, “he realized that the officers were being told by their superiors whom to target in investigations regardless of where the evidence pointed” (40; also 199). Maynez suspects that this was an attempt by Mexican authorities to respond to public pressure to produce a solution to the crimes (201). As Rodriguez concludes, “[it] seemed that whoever tried to get to the bottom of the crimes was either threatened, fired, forced to resign, or killed” (221).
This precarious situation is also shared by foreign officials. In March 1999, the FBI was invited in, yet “Frank Evans, the FBI special agent who had coordinated the team’s visit to Juárez, told Texas newspapers after his retirement in 2002 that Chihuahua state investigators had dismissed his team’s findings ‘as not fitting with the established theory of the case’” (136). Eduardo Muriel, a criminologist from Mexico City, resigned after only one week because he was not permitted to visit any of the crime scenes, see forensic lab results, or talk to the witnesses questioned (152–55). These attempts to discourage external investigations and fabricate false evidence are complemented by widespread accounts of torture. Almost all suspects who were arrested for the murders at some point were allegedly tortured into confessing (66, 144, 190–91). In addition, the bus drivers’ defense attorneys received numerous death threats, and one of them was eventually shot by judicial police agents in a case of “mistaken identity” (214–20).
The major reason behind these shocking reports of manipulation and torture, according to Rodriguez, is rampant corruption. She points out that Mexican police officers’ “pay was among the lowest of all municipal jobs and attracted some of the city’s most undesirable candidates. […] It was widely believed that many officers accepted bribes to make ends meet or had taken the job to earn the extra side money assisting drug dealers” (16). Because the city police did not have any investigative powers, the Juárez murder investigations were conducted by the Chihuahua state police. But even among those officers, “corruption was rumored to be rampant” (21). This is confirmed by a United Nations report released in 2004 (qtd. in Rodriguez 263), as well as by Kathleen Staudt (11).
Toward the end of her account, Rodriguez brings her readers up to date on the current state of arrests. Sharif, who was sentenced to 30 years of prison (59) eventually dies there, allegedly of natural causes, after serving eleven years of his sentence (277; also Gaspar de Alba, “Poor Brown Female” 69). One of the bus drivers is found dead in his cell after an unnecessary hernia operation. In 2004 another bus driver is convicted of eight murders and sentenced to fifty years in prison but acquitted for lack of evidence after an intervention of the Mexican president in 2005 (Rodriguez 269–71). During the same year six members of Los Rebeldes and four members of Los Toltecas were found guilty, based on confessions made under torture (270–71). In the context of Rodriguez’s earlier detailed accounts of the Mexican police force’s exorbitantly high degree of incompetence, corruption, and willful falsification of evidence, these convictions appear highly questionable and only serve to raise suspicions further.
Rodriguez’s central response to the question of “why” these murders have been able to occur is thus an indictment of Mexican authorities. While she is less interested in exploring the socio-cultural background of the Juárez femicides, her detailed focus on the endemic problems inherent in Mexico’s police and judicial systems offers a highly valuable contribution to the debate. It is unfortunate that her convincingly argued case does not provide any footnotes and (too) frequently relies on phrases such as “it was widely believed” to bolster her hypotheses. Combined with a sometimes excessive repetition of specific ideas articulated by two of her most important interview partners, Sharif and Maynez, this lack of documentation detracts from an otherwise rightfully shocking and provocative narrative. In many ways, Lourdes Portillo’s documentary can be said to focus on similar questions, yet by employing very different means.
Lourdes Portillo, Señorita Extraviada (2001)Mexican-born director and producer Lourdes Portillo has concentrated most of her artistic endeavors to date on an exploration of women living in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands. Having produced and directed a wide range of award-winning TV documentaries as well as experimental and performance video-film collages since the 1970s, she devoted her 2001 project Señorita Extraviada/Missing Young Woman to the unresolved femicides in Ciudad Juárez. In an interview, Portillo emphasizes that especially “the extraordinary lack of interest on the part of the Mexican Government to deliver Justice in the face of such atrocities” made her question their role (POV). Portillo’s documentary, which to date has won seventeen awards at international film festivals in North America, the Caribbean, and Europe (Martinez 25), offers a brief chronological narrative of the murders, the theories proposed, and the suspects arrested to date, similar to Rodriguez’s chronological framework. Yet because Portillo is convinced that no one can be trusted, her documentary focuses on what in her view constitutes the only reliable source of information: the testimonies of those victims who survived, as well as the testimonies of the family members of those victims who did not.
By providing detailed biographical background information about many of the women who were murdered or disappeared, one of Portillo’s central goals is to counteract the Mexican authorities’ tendency to defend their inaction by blaming the victims, advancing their well-known insinuation that the murdered women were leading double lives as prostitutes and/or were dressing inappropriately and hence provoked those crimes. In so doing, Portillo, like Rodriguez, tries to redeem the victims and, in addition, to give voice to many of the most recent feminist positions referred to above—even though Portillo herself refrains from exploring the socio-cultural reasons for this blatant misogyny on the part of Mexican authorities.
While Portillo alludes to a range of different theories throughout her documentary (the Egyptian Abdel Latif Sharif Sharif, an unknown serial killer possibly crossing over into Mexico from the United States, Los Rebeldes, and Los Toltecas), her central focus lies on publicizing the corruption of Mexican authorities. Yet in contrast to Rodriguez, who concentrated mainly on police corruption, Portillo emphasizes that the testimonies of victims and victims’ families clearly point towards the complicity of not only the Mexican state judicial police but also the Mexican government itself. Police corruption is highlighted throughout her documentary in the form of providing information about how the police for a long time ignored similarities between different murder cases and destroyed valuable evidence. But most importantly, Portillo throws into relief police complicity by placing center stage the story of “María” (María de Jesús Talamantes). Calling the police when her husband was physically assaulted by neighbors, María and her husband are taken to the police station and, as they cannot pay the imposed fine, detained in Piedra Jail for 24 hours. During this time, María tells us, a female and a male police officer rape her, and another officer forces her to look at photographs of women being abused and killed by police agents. At the same police station, María also encounters an officer nicknamed El Diablo, who is suspected to be one of the masterminds behind the murders. After María’s release from prison, El Diablo threatens her again at her own home. While she brings her case to trial, none of the police officers is ultimately convicted.
The second area where corruption and complicity are rampant, according to Portillo, is that of the Mexican government, and she devotes a substantial part of her documentary to establishing a potential link between the Juárez murders, the Mexican government, and drug cartels.4 In her final analysis—also supported by the Executive Secretary of the Latin American Federation of Associations of Families of the Detained-Disappeared, Judith Galarza—, it is the changing nature of Ciudad Juárez with its illegal narcotics trade that provides a fertile breeding ground for institutional corruption, especially since maquiladora owners condone drug trafficking and drug consumption on location as it increases productivity. As Irene Blanco, Abdel Latif Sharif’s lawyer, concludes: in Juárez, justice is corrupted at the highest levels, the highest police and governmental authorities are directly or indirectly involved in the underworld of organized narco crime, and no distinction can be drawn between the legal authorities and the world of illicit drugs and crime any more—a position which is confirmed by an unidentified witness as well as by Galarza.
In her brief discussion of Portillo’s documentary, Elvia Arriola notes that “although a political and economic context is critical for grasping the breadth and depth of the gender violence that accompanies globalization, the film does not dwell on this context;” instead, “images of indigent, powerless, and grieving families confronting law enforcement and political systems that systematically fail them” are emphasized (26–27). Arriola moreover quotes the essay “Missing the Story” by feminist reporter Debbie Nathan, emphasizing that Nathan “rightly criticizes Señorita Extraviada for its failure to highlight the presence of the maquiladora industries and their power to set standards of worker treatment that encourage general hostility toward poor working women” (28). While current studies of the Juárez murders confirm that these contexts are indeed crucial, it can nonetheless be argued that by focusing on the rehabilitation of the socio-cultural reputation of the victims, on the one hand, and by highlighting the complicity and corruption of the Mexican government and police, on the other, Portillo’s documentary courageously raises an issue that not many other sources dare to address so openly.
Gregory Nava, Bordertown (2006)The fictional movie Bordertown, directed by California-based Gregory Nava and starring Jennifer López, Martin Sheen, and Antonio Banderas, was released in 2006—without, however, being screened in the United States, where it went straight to DVD in January 2008, owing to a lack of mainstream distributors’ interest in the approach and subject matter of the film (Gerson). The movie focuses on the U.S.-American journalist Lauren Adrian, who is sent to Ciudad Juárez to investigate the femicides on behalf of the Chicago Sentinel. Once in Juárez, she encounters her friend and former lover Alfonso Díaz, who likewise devotes his energies to creating more public awareness for the murders through his local newspaper, El Sol de Juárez. Teaming up with Díaz, Adrian gradually begins to understand the seriousness of the problem she is confronted with. While both Rodriguez and Portillo had focused almost exclusively on highlighting the complicity and corruption of Mexican authorities and thus insisted that the solution to the crimes had to be found in Mexico, Gregory Nava from the start places the transnational nature of these crimes center stage.
Similar to Rodriguez and Portillo, one of Nava’s central strategies is to counter the maqui-loca myth by creating sympathy for the Juárez women, which he accomplishes by developing the composite picture of a strong and courageous survivor named Eva Jiménez, who initially came to Juárez in search of work at one of the maquiladoras to help her family in Oaxaca. When Eva gets brutally raped by two men but is able to escape alive and subsequently wants to testify against the perpetrators, she is persecuted by the Mexican police and others who try to silence her.
Whereas Rodriguez and Portillo had both placed the women of Juárez center stage, Nava’s commercial production, created for an international audience as well as a U.S. market, also devotes considerable screen time to developing the story of the U.S.-American journalist Lauren. In the course of the movie, Lauren begins to identify with Eva by reflecting on her own background as the daughter of migrant workers, who saw her mother die at an early age, her father getting shot, and who had to work in an orange grove, exposed to pesticides, in order to make ends meet. Investigating the murders and talking to Eva ultimately allows Lauren to reconnect with her past (which she had previously denied), a development that is symbolically illustrated by her change of haircolor from an artificial blonde back to her original black.
Like all representations of the femicides discussed in this essay, the movie Bordertown also presents a combination of different theories on the escalation of the murders. While it includes references to El Diablo as well as to organ harvesters and the suspected gang of bus drivers, one central aspect that links Bordertown to Rodriguez’s journalistic account as well as to Portillo’s documentary is the corruption of the Mexican police. Throughout the movie, police officers are represented as accepting bribes (much like everyone else in Juárez), actively obscuring the murder investigations, threatening Eva’s life, and condoning the politically motivated drive-by shooting of Alfonso Díaz. The impression the film creates is that absolutely no Mexican authorities can be trusted.
In contrast to Rodriguez’s and Portillo’s accounts, however, Bordertown’s central critique does not restrict itself to Mexican authorities alone, but foregrounds the transnational actors and interests involved in the Juárez murders. The exploitative effects of NAFTA, combined with the joint capitalist interests of Mexican and U.S. politicians as well as the profit-orientation of the maquiladora owners themselves (many of whom are presented as unscrupulously rich U.S.-Americans or binational Mexican-Americans) are, according to Bordertown, the central factors that contribute to the ongoing exploitation and devaluation of the Juárez women and thus limit any interest in solving the murder cases. The ultimate analysis of the femicide causes offered in Bordertown thus echoes the feminist-Marxist perspectives that emphasize the maquiladora workers’ position as “sexually fetishized commodities” and “defenseless property with little worth in the capitalist market” (Monárrez Fragoso 59, 61) who “might not be worth the worry” (Wright 187). In other words, Bordertown suggests that, as long as both Mexican and U.S. companies profit from the status quo, and as long as it is less expensive to fill the maquiladoras with new workers than to investigate the murders, the culture of murder that has developed in Juárez will continue to be denied and concealed because, from a neoliberal capitalist perspective, investigation is less profitable than cover-up.
A typical case in point to highlight this transnational capitalist complicity is the Salamanca family, who owns several maquiladoras in Juárez and many of whose members have dual citizenship and freely admit that they can easily buy politicians on either side of the border. The entire family belongs to both the United States and the Mexican jet set. At one of their parties, we see a Mexican archbishop intermingle with Japanese CEOs and U.S. Senator Rowlings rub shoulders with high-ranking Mexican state officials. In a dramatic scene, Eva recognizes her own rapist, the wealthy Ariz Rodriguez, among the party guests as well.
This reference to the involvement of high U.S. officials reaches its dramatic climax when Lauren returns to the United States with her brilliant story lavishly praised by her boss only to find that Senator Rawlings has bribed her newspaper’s editor not to print it in order not to endanger U.S. government plans to expand NAFTA to Central America. In this way, the movie suggests, transnational corporate interests dominate the political agenda of both the United States and Mexico, and these powerful transnational actors will use their financial clout to prevent anyone from interfering. While Bordertown initially draws attention to the corruption rampant among the Mexcian police, the movie’s final scenes prompt viewers to ask themselves whether the United States is really any different from Mexico in this respect. As Marco Salamanca observes laconically: “There are two sets of laws in any country […] The laws for the rich and powerful people, and the laws for everybody else” (1:35). For this reason, the film ends with Eva testifying in court while at the same time taking justice into her own hands and setting fire to her rapist because no officials on the U.S. or the Mexcian side of the border were and are willing and able to stand up for justice. The murder of Alfonso Díaz, on the other hand, is never investigated. Eva takes over his newspaper to continue her single-handed struggle against the authorities, aided by Lauren, who, disgusted by the corruption entrenched in U.S. media, gives up her career at the Chicago Sentinel and relocates to Juárez. In this way Bordertown ends with a very strong transnational feminist message: two courageous women from either side of the U.S.-Mexico border join hands to fight an unwinnable war against the corruption and complicity engendered by transnational capitalist interests. This transnational framework, which clearly distinguishes Bordertown from Rodriguez’s as well as Portillo’s interventions, also plays a central role in Alicia Gaspar de Alba’s novel.
Alicia Gaspar de Alba, Desert Blood: The Juárez Murders (2005)Alicia Gaspar de Alba, professor of Chicana/o Studies, English, and Women’s Studies at the University of California at Los Angeles, has been involved in the struggle for publicizing the fate of the women of Ciudad Juárez for more than ten years. In 2010 she brought together state-of-the-art analyses of the background of the femicides in her collection of essays Making a Killing, while in 2005 she published a fictionalized mystery novel titled Desert Blood on the same topic. In a disclaimer prefaced to the novel, Gaspar de Alba explains that the victims represented in her book—similar to the character of Eva in Bordertown—“are a composite of real-life victims” and that she has “taken liberties with chronologies and facts” (Desert Blood v); yet she also emphasizes that her fictional account is based on four years of research into the murders “and a lifetime of personal experience in the social, political, economic, and cultural infrastructure of the U.S.-Mexico border that makes it possible for such crimes to take place with impunity” (Desert Blood v).5
The fictional plot of Desert Blood centers on Ivon Villa, a college professor in Los Angeles, who returns to her native city of El Paso to adopt a baby from Cecilia, a Mexican maquliadora worker in Ciudad Juárez. When Cecilia is brutally murdered just before Ivon can meet her, and when a day later Ivon’s sister Irene gets abducted after attending a fair in Juárez, Ivon is convinced that there exists a link between those two crimes and is determined to both find her sister and investigate Cecilia’s murder herself. What distinguishes Gaspar de Alba’s novel from the start is that, even more strongly than the movie Bordertown, it foregrounds the transnational and transborder dimensions of the Juárez femicides and highlights both U.S. involvement as well as U.S. responsibilities on all levels.
In the course of her mystery novel, Gaspar de Alba touches upon many of the theories that have hitherto been advanced concerning the Juárez femicides, yet in almost all cases, they are placed within a transnational framework. Apart from introducing a fictional version of the Egyptian Sharif named “Dr. Amen,” she has the expert on serial killers, Bob Russell, discuss the serial nature of these murders by pointing out a possible cross-border connection: “it could be a guy from El Paso crossing over to commit his crimes because he knows there isn’t a death penalty in Mexico” (85). This transborder link is further strengthened by the narrative’s drawing attention to the specific role of El Paso as “the largest dumping ground of sex offenders in the country [until 2002]” (234), in reference to which a U.S. police officer wonders aloud why “no one had ever drawn a connection between the rising number of sexual perpetrators in El Paso and the escalating sex crimes in Juárez” (273). But also the fictional perpetrators identified at the end of the novel have, according to Gaspar de Alba, links to both sides of the border: Irene was kidnapped by a transborder porn and snuff film ring, whose members are a mixed group of Mexicans and Texans, who move the bus in which they keep their victims back and forth across the U.S.-Mexico border (291). In addition, Desert Blood also highlights an otherwise little-discussed fact, namely that the victims are not only poor Mexican girls but also American ones (23, 196), a fact which is frequently concealed by U.S. media which want their audience to believe that the killings are a local “Mexican” problem.
For Gaspar de Alba, the transnational dimension of these crimes constitutes one of the main reasons for their continuation as well as the concomitant silence and inaction on the parts of authorities and the media on both sides of the border. Ivon, for example, is repeatedly struck by the pervasive silence surrounding these crimes, not only in Mexico but also in the United States, and the fact that, even as an El Paso native, she has not heard of them before. She learns that transborder non-profit organizations such as the U.S.-based Contra el Silencio were “formed in response to the lack of interest or concern” shown by the authorities on both sides of the border (319; also 23, 40), and that authorities on both sides of the border refuse to take full responsibility. When Irene has disappeared, the El Paso police tells Ivon that “the case is not in the EPPD’s jurisdiction” (166), whereas the Mexican police argues that “because Irene was last seen sitting on the El Paso river bank, this is probably a case for the American authorities, not the Juárez police” (165).
Yet the problem goes beyond mere official indifference. Like Rodriguez and Portillo, Gaspar de Alba also indicates that authorities on both sides of the border are actively and directly implicated in those crimes. On several occasions, she foregrounds the complicity of the Mexican police: they burn the clothes of victims, thus destroying evidence (45); when they notice that Ivon and her cousin William distribute leaflets and question some Juárez locals about the disappearance of Irene, they pick up Ivon and William and try to kill them, only releasing them again after Ivon is able to flaunt her connections to powerful Mexican media people (215–20). Gaspar de Alba also suggests that the U.S. Border Patrol is actively involved as well. Captain J. Wilcox, Chief Detention Enforcement Officer, turns out to be one of the perpetrators (308). Ivon early on suspects the complicity of the Border Patrol. However, when Wilcox gets shot during the U.S. police raid against his porn ring, the El Paso Times commemorates him as an officer who tried to infiltrate the porn ring and died honorably in the line of duty (327).
A second major focus of Desert Blood is its analysis of the cultural and gender dimension of the Juárez femicides due to “the overt sexualization of the bodies—not just murder, but violation and mutilation of the maternal organs, the breasts and nipples, the wombs and vaginas” (333). Focusing on the link between patriarchy, sex, and pornography, the novel anticipates some of the most recent feminist analyses in interpreting these crimes as a result of a clash between an overly sexualized U.S. border culture and the more conservative Mexican gender roles as well as the Mexican patriarchal social discourse according to which independently acting women are regarded as whores who endanger Mexico’s established patriarchal social order (Gaspar de Alba and Guzmán 17). Even attending innocent parties or using make-up reduces women to prostitutes, a view that is not only shared by conservative Mexicans but, according to the novel, also by prostitutes themselves: “No wonder these crimes haven’t been solved, thought Ivon. From the prostitutes to the police, everyone thinks it’s just about sex, it’s just about the girls going off with men” (Gaspar de Alba, Desert Blood 186). What makes the situation even worse is the fact that these gender stereotypes already seem to have been inculcated into the minds of young Mexican children. At one point Ivon encounters a little boy in one of the colonias who sells old barbie dolls to tourists with the words: “‘Maqui-Locas […] Muy cheap!’” (43).
In addition, Desert Blood explores in detail the fatal intersection, also noted by several feminist neo-Marxist critics (see especially Monárrez Fragoso and Wright), between these conservative patriarchal values and neoliberal capitalism: to overstep traditional Mexican gender boundaries and patriarchal social roles by accepting jobs outside the home makes these Mexican women appear not only as prostitutes but also as worthless, as the personification of “waste in the making” (Wright 186). Hence it becomes generally acceptable that they are first consumed and exploited (both as workers and as women) and then disposed of (Monárrez Fragoso 65; Gaspar de Alba, Desert Blood 323). Employing a feminist-Marxist explanatory framework, the activist priest Father Francis in Desert Blood confirms that this attitude can be interpreted as the result of a transborder cultural clash, reinforced by a clash of economic systems:
Father Francis concludes by offering an explanation for the murders that echoes Gloria Anzaldúa’s discussion of the shame and humiliation experienced by Mexican males who are discriminated against in Anglo society. Because maquiladoras predominantly hire women, “the women are being sacrificed to redeem the men for their inability to provide for their families, their social emasculation, if you will, at the hands of the American corporations” (Gaspar de Alba, Desert Blood 252).
Yet throughout the novel, it becomes clear that this conservative attitude is not just restricted to the lower classes. This is most vividly illustrated by the example of Walter Luna, an upper-class Mexican who is married to the equally independently wealthy Rubí Reyna, a feminist activist and co-host of the television show Mujeres Sin Fronteras that presents a professional world “where […] women have no borders, no boundaries, and no checkpoints” (317). While Walter seemingly accepts his wife’s public social role, he turns out to be one of the leading figures behind the porn ring that kidnapped Irene, in this way acting out his sense of humiliation and emasculation not on his wife, but on innocent and helpless victims.
Yet from the start, Gaspar de Alba highlights the fact that these conservative gender role ascriptions do not only affect Mexican women. Because Ivon’s sister Irene attended the Juárez fair as well as an after-fair party in one of the colonias in Juárez (115), she encounters the same treatment as many Mexican women in terms of not being taken seriously as a crime victim. As the police in El Paso tells Ivon: “young [American] girls should not be allowed to go across the border, much less by themselves, and certainly not to imbibe alcoholic beverages without proper adult supervision” (166). Similarly, when Ivon reports the missing Irene to the legal activist group PREVIAS, they tell her: “American girls like your sister, they like to come over to Juárez to drink and have a good time, and sometimes they end up having a little adventure” (168), which echoes the “girl-ran-off-with-her-boyfriend” line so frequently cited to concerned parents of missing Mexican girls by the Mexican police.
In the end, Desert Blood fuses this feminist cultural critique with a Marxist critique of the endemic and exploitative profit orientation inherent in transnational corporations prevalent under neoliberalism, an aspect also addressed by Nava. In his porn business, Walter works together with Salvador Peñasco, the son of an industrial park owner. Upon learning about this connection, Ivon observes that too many people, and in particular business companies and authorities on both sides of the border, profit from the continuation of those crimes. Desert Blood thus culminates in offering a structural, systemic explanation for the continuation of these crimes: NAFTA encourages the proliferation of maquiladoras, which in turn brings thousands of poor women to the U.S.-Mexico border in search of a better life; once they have started to work there, many of them are exploited both as workers and as sex objects, a profitable business for capitalists on both sides of the border.
Yet as Gaspar de Alba emphasizes at the end of her novel, her main goal was not to identify specific perpetrators: “This wasn’t a case of ‘whodunit,’ but rather of who was allowing these crimes to happen? Whose interests were being served? Who was covering it up? Who was profiting from the deaths of all these women?” (333). Because, according to Gaspar de Alba, so many parties were and are profiting from the deaths of these women, she concludes by insisting that cultural, social, economic, but also transnational structural and systemic reasons are responsible for the Juárez femicides. In this respect, the silence is “meant to protect not the perpetrators, themselves, but the profit reaped by the handiwork of the perpetrators.” (335; also Gaspar de Alba, “Poor Brown Female” 63).
In many respects, Desert Blood can arguably be said to reflect most closely the current state of criticism as well as the complexity of the Juárez femicide phenomenon. On the one hand, it, like Gregory Nava’s movie Bordertown, goes beyond rehabilitating the reputation of femicide victims by striving to actively empower all female characters, a quality of Gaspar de Alba’s work that has also been noted by Volk and Schlotterbeck, who emphasize how the novel is populated with “strong and resistant women” and features a “gynocentric community inhabited by borderlands women who have ‘unlearn[ed] the puta/virgen dichotomy’” (146). On the other hand, Gaspar de Alba most consistently contextualizes the Juárez femicides in a transborder network of social, cultural, political, and economic factors that highlight a structural, systemic U.S. involvement and responsibility and render all monocausal explanations of these crimes as local manifestations of specifically Mexican problems highly inadequate.
Conclusion/Solutions?None of the primary sources discussed in this essay ventures to propose any concrete solutions that move beyond the formation of grassroots movements and activist groups designed to put pressure on authorities to take action and/or empower women to help themselves in the face of official incompetence, indifference, or corruption—a lack which seems to correspond to the actual situation. Informing us about the absence of any recent effective measures to prevent further crimes, Kathleen Staudt concludes that to achieve any progress, “the border itself needs a binational umbrella for cooperation around human rights and security for people in their everyday lives” (146). Yet, as Staudt has noted, Mexico “is far from adopting a binational approach. Only after repeated pressure did El Paso and Juárez police departments begin to elevate cooperation over dead women at least to the level of cooperation over auto theft” (124). Yet these efforts, to date, have not led to any substantially new insights.
It is interesting to note that particularly the fictional representations of the Juárez femicides, Bordertown and Desert Blood, which highlight the transnational dimension of the Juárez femicides and hence foreground the need to search for a solution in this direction, provide an impetus that seems to correspond to the current trend in criticism. Many proposals for solutions advanced by critics tend to focus on a radical critique of national political boundaries and national legal sovereignty. Emphasizing that globalization and the spread of transnational corporations under neoliberal capitalism are key factors contributing to those crimes, James C. Harrington, for example, argues that a transnational perspective formulated on the basis of international law and transnational human rights offers the most promising approach. In his view, such a transnational legal framework can, in particular, address problems such as local authorities’ negligence or corruption, thus “eliminating jurisdictional confusions and diminishing the scandalous levels of impunity and corruption on either side of the border” (154). In a similar vein, “Héctor Domínguez-Ruvalcaba and Patricia Ravelo Blancas call for a reformulation of human rights law beyond its nation-state framework to accommodate not just human rights violations by state actors but also the just as prevalent violations committed by private (corporate) actors in what they term ‘extra-governmental’ space” (Fregoso and Bejarano 33; see also Domínguez-Ruvalcaba and Ravelo Blancas). William Paul Simmons and Rebecca Coplan, on the other hand, propose litigation before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights and civil suits in U.S. courts as well as economic development with the help of international financial institutions as additional transnational solutions (Simmons and Coplan). While none of these proposals have yet been translated into practice, such transnational approaches may indeed constitute some of the most promising ways of the future to stop this series of crimes that has been continuing unabated since 1993.
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1 The actual number of murdered women differs widely according to the sources consulted, ranging from 254 cases according to the Juárez rape crisis shelter to 500 as cited by Gaspar de Alba and Guzmán (1). Moreover, as Gaspar de Alba points out, not all murdered women were maquiladora workers, and not all of them were Mexican citizens (“Poor Brown Female” 65–66).
2 While Rodriguez’s text is thus shaped by a clear agenda, she also briefly mentions other potential theories (18, 224) as well as the potentially transnational context of these crimes on several occasions throughout her report.
3 This high degree of unprofessionalism is corroborated by various critics (see Gaspar de Alba and Guzmán 14; Staudt 33, 67, 119–20).
4 While Rodriguez only mentions this link briefly, several secondary sources have started to explore this connection (González Rodríguez; Olivera; Valdez).
5 As Volk and Schlotterbeck have confirmed, Ivon’s fictional investigations “reproduce elements of actual inquiries carried out by journalists and local organizations as she draws the readers’ attention to narco-traffickers, the local power elite, snuff-movie producers, and maquila owners” (145).
Marietta Messmer is Associate Professor of American Studies at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands. Her teaching and research interests focus on cultural and political projects of ethnic minorities within the United States (in particular Chicanas/os and Native Americans); theoretical debates on identity politics, integration, and minority rights; as well as Inter-American cultural relations. Her publications include Do the Americas Have a Common Literary History? (Frankfurt, 2002), Intercultural Negotiations in the Americas and Beyond, a special issue of Comparative Literature and Culture Web (coedited with Barbara Buchenau, 2001), and Negotiations of America’s National Identity (Tübingen, 2000). She also serves as managing editor of the series Interamericana: Inter-American Literary History and Culture, published by Peter Lang Verlag.