The Women of Juárez

A new screening of Mark McLoughlin's 'Blood Rising' and accompanying exhibition by Brian Maguire reiterates the harrowing plight females have faced for over two decades in the Mexican city

Brenda, Rubi, Veronica, Esmeralda, Ana Maria, Rosa Virginia, Erika, Paloma … all of them young Mexican women from poor backgrounds, who had families, hopes, dreams and ambitions just like any other woman in any other country. All of them dead.

They represent a mere handful of the 1400 women abducted, tortured, raped, mutilated, killed, dumped or disappeared in the northern border town of Ciudad Juárez since 1993. The ongoing plight of their families and official indifference towards their grisly fate form the core of Blood Rising, a feature-length documentary, which will be screened at the Foyle Film Festival on November 20, prior to the opening on 28 November of an exhibition in Derry’s Void Gallery by Dublin-born, Paris-based artist Brian Maguire.

Maguire’s is a quiet, comforting central presence in the film. It follows his involvement with some of the bereaved during the time that he spent in what director and co-producer Mark McLoughlin describes as '… the most dangerous place in the world.'

He frequently registers as helpless and bereft of words in the company of the grieving mothers, but it is deeply touching to see their emotional responses when he hands them each a powerful portrait of their daughters, returning their vibrant images to the family home where they take pride of place among ornaments, knick-knacks and whimsical posters.

'I have worked in some frightening places, across the Middle East and Africa, but I have never seen such absolute, unimaginable levels of violence as I saw in Juárez,' says McLoughlin. 'The mothers are more courageous than anybody.

'They live in the shanty towns, amongst the very people who have done their daughters harm. But they are unshakeable in their determination to get truth and justice, even after so many years of silence from the authorities.'

In spite of being beautifully shot, chilling and affecting, Blood Rising, which was premiered at the Savoy cinema in Dublin in 2013, is still to receive the international theatrical release it so richly deserves. It has been screened in arthouse cinemas in the UK and the United States, in universities, at festivals and at the European Parliament, where a deluge of questions were subsequently directed towards the Mexican government.

Given its horrifying subject matter and the potential risk to families, one wonders whether McLoughlin and Maguire have been cautious about allowing a distributor to cut loose with it. 'Not at all,' says McLoughlin. 'I guess it’s not really a theatrical film, though we had hoped for a wider pick-up.

'What interests me is its human rights impact. We are currently orchestrating a major campaign, taking a legal case against the Mexican government to oblige them to investigate all the uninvestigated cases. We’ve got a number of influential organisations like Amnesty International and Frontline Defenders behind us. It’s horrifying to think that 98% of these cases have not been properly investigated.' 

This single startling fact leads one to deduce that in order for such violent criminal activity to be so effectively swept under the carpet, the cover-up and corruption must have been sanctioned at high levels of official and government circles.

'It goes literally right to the very, very top in Mexico - and the US are implicitly involved as well,' says McLoughlin, unequivocally. 'I’ll give you one example. Juárez borders the Texan town of El Paso. Right on the border there are hundreds of factories, the biggest names of this world are all there.

'There are major US shares in all of these firms and the drug cartels also have huge shares in them – I suppose it's a clean way of laundering their money into legitimate business. But the whole thing is all twisted. There are gun shops every square mile along the US border, making the American arms industry a whack load of money out of Mexican cocaine.

'It’s really easy to get across from the USA into Mexico - though not the other way, of course. But then the consumers of the drugs are in the US not in Mexico, so there’s all kind of cross-pollination between them.'

In this climate, the female workers who do menial, poorly paid work in squalid factories and manufacturing plants the so-called maquiladoras, where materials and equipment are imported on a duty-free basis and the products exported, often back to the country of origin  are small fry indeed.

McLoughlin explains that if they are visible at all, it is as an expendable commodity - more often than not a sexual commodity  at the mercy of powerful men or abusive relations, many of whom are involved in the drugs trade.

The families who welcomed Maguire into their shabby homes are decent, industrious and religiously devout. The suffering on the prematurely aged faces of the mothers testifies to the slow drip feed of shock in discovering that their daughters were innocent, unsuspecting victims of sickening, senseless crimes.

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'There are three likely motives for the murders,' says McLoughlin. 'The first is a tit-for-tat situation between criminal gangs and drug dealers, where the wife or girlfriend of one leader will be killed to piss off the leader of another gang.

Then there are relationship killings, where domestic disputes flare up, often drug-related, and the murderer is the woman’s husband or boyfriend. But the main motive is the total and utter breakdown in respect for women. Many of them have been used for purely sexual purposes, held for days or weeks and then dumped.

'One woman’s daughter was taken by a high-ranking police officer, shut away for 19 days, stabbed and raped repeatedly and buried alive. Her body was found with her hands raised in the air, as though trying to fight off her aggressor.

'We visited the body dump where she was found. It’s a desolate bloody place. Another woman refuses to believe that her daughter is dead, even though her clothes have been found. They are being DNA tested but she insists that she is still alive.'

The scrubby wastelands around Juárez carry a discernible whiff of menace and hidden horrors, which McLoughlin, himself a former artist, has transposed onto screen with a terrible, hypnotic beauty. One of many powerful images which linger in the mind is that of a fashionable, high-heeled black leather boot, half buried in the dust, with no hint of the identity of its missing owner.

McLoughlin explains that Maguire first went there after reading a book lent to him by a friend in Sao Paulo. The stories it contained shocked him beyond belief. He felt compelled to go and see for himself, initially out of curiosity and concern, to try to bring these voices outside the country.

He couldn't believe what he found. He approached the film-maker, with whom he had exhibited in Finland some years previously, and persuaded him that they should make a documentary which would hopefully draw high level global attention to the situation.

McLoughlin brilliantly captures on camera the colour, the heat, the smell, the texture of these sinister hardlands, where middle-aged women work from dawn to dusk, returning home alone and fearful, all for a few pesos to raise the children of their disappeared daughters. And he conveys too the personal cost to Maguire, whose sad, despairing farewells lead one to imagine that it will not be long before he is drawn back to Juarez.

'He has been back, we both have,' says McLoughlin. 'In fact, I’ve been back many times. I’m making a new film there about former gangsters who are working with hip-hop artists, graffiti artists and poets to try and get children out of the gangs. There's a mountain of stories to be told.'

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Statements of intent are easily made in conversation, but only such dedicated and courageous human rights advocates as they could contemplate ongoing involvement in such a terrifying environment. McLoughlin paints a vivid portrait of the hair-raising experiences that were part and parcel of the making of Blood Rising.

'We did have some frightening encounters and very close shaves' he admits. 'We chose not to have any fixers or security, although we were advised to, because we reckoned it would be too risky to the mothers and the families.

'If anything blew up, we probably would not have got killed ourselves, but the danger was to the people we were working with. I could never live with that. I would rather kill myself if I felt we were responsible. So it was just Brian, a sound man and myself. It would have been impossible to work with a bigger crew.'

'We saw only two other white people working there. They both had bullet proof vehicles, full body armour, security details. We tried to work as under cover as possible. We used different cars, local cars, crappy hire cars and changed them every two or three days.

'We travelled with a Mexican person in the front of the car, by choice. These were people who were involved with the mothers and chose to work with us after a lot of discussion. We didn’t want to get them into any hassle but they wanted to get the story out.

The shanty towns are the most dangerous areas, so we had to be careful and plan different routes in and out. We tried to be as discreet as possible. If we had gone in there with full security teams we’d have caused a lot of attention. You can’t be anywhere for more than five or ten minutes. It gets too dangerous. You never know who’s watching you in those places.'

When the film was launched at the Savoy, it prompted some 300 or 400 hundred calls and messages to the Mexican embassy in Dublin. The response after the European Parliament screening resulted in the Mexican ambassador to Ireland calling McLoughlin to ask what was going on and some of the Mexican newspapers reporting on the story. But when Mexican television put in a request to screen the film, the producers refused.

'I always pledged to the mothers that if any one of them were not happy about it being screened in Mexico, we wouldn’t go ahead,' says McLoughlin. 'One of the mothers didn’t want it screened. She was too scared. It was too risky. They have received death threats and intimidation, just for trying to find out about what happened to their daughters.'

Blood Rising screens at the Nerve Centre at 8pm on Friday, November 20 as part of the Foyle Film Festival, with both Mark McLoughlin and Brian Maguire taking part in a post-screening discussion. Tickets are available to book now through both the festival website and the Nerve Centre box office. Brian Maguire's exhibition at the Void Gallery runs from November 28 - February 6.