Filming the Valley of Dead Girls

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While on a shoot for a documentary for Discovery, Loretta van der Horst comes face to face with death, despair and blatant corruption.

 

Ciudad Juarez on the US-Mexican border exudes a grim feel. It was once the world’s most violent city. Thousands have been killed here in a bloody drug war waged during Felipe Calderon’s presidency (2006 – 2012). In March 2013 I traveled to this notorious city for the production of a film for the Discovery Channel about the forensic science behind this city’s violent murders, especially the ongoing kidnappings and killings of teenage girls. Poor and beautiful, their innocence is exploited and their bodies, used up, thrown away in the vast desert area called the Valley of Juarez.

 

Driving through the city and out to the desert I notice there are barely any pedestrians around and funeral homes have been erected on most streets. Pickup trucks with tinted windows and no license plates, most likely belonging to cartel members, abound. We are just across the border from El Paso, Texas, the safest city in the US. But police here are masked, heavily armed and drive around in pickups, two in the front, four in the back, weapons in hand, facing different directions to have a 360 degree visual of their surroundings. I ask myself whether their masks are protecting their identity or their impunity. Mexico’s police is known as one of the world’s most corrupt.

 

Femicides

The first thing we do is meet with the forensic team in the desert area near an electrical factory where the corpse of a young female was found just a week before. The team is going to search the area for more remains. The search is fruitless, and the 300 searchers, police cadets, criminologists and anthropologists attending the operation leave the desert seemingly disillusioned. They had good reason to believe there would be more bones.

An armed officer acts as protection as the team searches the desert for bones.

 

Women are being kidnapped, exploited and killed en masse in Juarez. If anything of the likes of this would happen in the developed world, boy, would there be hell to pay; by authorities, governments and those behind the killings, but not in Mexico. Convictions in femicide cases are rare, yet authorities love to boast about solving cases of disappeared girls. “We often find disappeared women,” they will tell you, leaving out that they are referring to female runaways found at friends’ houses. Imelda Marrufo from the local NGO ‘Mesa de Mujeres’ (table of women) keeps track of the disappearances and knows many of the parents of lost girls. “Mothers alert authorities when their kids run away” she says, “and the police then considers those girls as ‘disappeared’, so they are included in the same statistics.” Meanwhile, the so-called ‘high risk’ cases, where girls are used as sex slaves and disposed of, remain unsolved.

In 2009 the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) found Mexico in violation of human rights for its failure to prevent the killing of 8 women whose bodies were found in a remote cotton field in 2001. Despite the humiliating court verdict, the female killings continued, reaching a staggering 1400 since they started in 1993. This number is reported by NGOs, the government reports less than half.

In fear of causing another scandal like the cotton field case, the government keeps a haze of fog over these cases intentionally. Long after returning from the desert search, a low-ranking official tells me a shoulder blade had been found at the far end of the long search line. It contradicts our prior information. I feel deceived and ask the team why we weren’t notified as we missed valuable images for the documentary. Later, the head of forensics tells me nothing was found and I don’t know who to believe.

 

The Mothers

Later that week we meet with Maria Garcia, a humble woman living in a garage by a highway. She can barely afford her daily meals since she was struck by grief and became unemployed after losing her daughter. I greet her and can see the pain in her eyes. She’s been crying. Jessica was only 15 when she disappeared in May 2010. She left the house to look for a job in the city center and never came back.

Skeptical of police investigators, Maria started her own investigation, visiting the shops where Jessica had been looking for a job. She obtained security camera footage showing Jessica in a shoe shop and was pointed to a nearby brothel by some witnesses. Fearless by her desperation, Maria entered the brothel, where two teenage girls were crawling on the floor, drugged, naked and asking for toilet paper. Maria believes she was intentionally distracted while Jessica was taken away in the back of the brothel.

Two years later, authorities knocked on Maria’s door and said Jessica’s remains had been found in the Valley of Juarez. The DNA profile obtained from some bones found in the desert matched with the sample Maria had given. Her voice trembles as she recounts the story; her eyes moist with pain and anger. Anger at the authorities, which she thinks acted tactlessly and did little to find her daughter.

This is a screenshot from the security video in the shoe shop Jessica visited.

 

Jessica Garcia showing her resume at a shoe shop in Juarez

 

Maria’s story is so soul shattering that all three of us struggle during the interview. I notice I want to comfort her somehow but instead I ask the next question: “What would you say to your daughter’s killers?” ”If those people were in front of me I would beat them into the ground, I don’t care about my life because they took my daughter’s life away from me,” she says.

Over the course of the next days we meet several other mothers with similar stories. Some have gotten back coffins with bones; some know nothing about their daughters’ whereabouts. But what they all have in common is that none have found justice for their daughters.

Identifying the Dead

Mexico is now attempting to ‘fix’ its violent image with new investigative and forensic strategies. Naturally the authorities were more than happy to show off their skills and determination in front of our camera. We were allowed inside the morgue, the genetics lab and on any crime scenes that were likely to present itself that week.

Dr. Liliana Dorantes and her team examine bones found in the Valley of Juarez

At the morgue, the smell is the first thing that hits me; an unmistakable smell of death and decay. This is where the recently deceased end up if their cause of death is unclear or if they were the victim of a crime. When we reach the autopsy room I can just barely stand the smell and try hard not to gag. I see piles of black body bags cluttered inside a large refrigerator. Some of them are half open and showing stitched up heads and body parts. On the stretchers lie pools of blood. In the autopsy room we join anthropologist Liliana Dorantes and her team as they assemble a skeleton with bones found in the Valley just recently.

I think of Maria Garcia, whose daughter’s remains were once on the same table in this very room. Only some of her bones were found, and what was left of her jeans. Fighting the natural instinct to deny her death, Maria says Jessica’s dental features were unmistakable. According to Maria there are plenty of reasons not to trust the DNA results given by the Mexican authority, and she had to see for herself. “Jessica took very good care of her teeth, and I know them well. That is how I know it was her.”  But not all mothers are able to identify their daughters visually, and out of distrust several have rejected positive DNA matches.

But the scientists we meet do their work diligently and with discipline. Coroner Beatriz Lopez tells us about the violence she has seen, the dismembered bodies she performed autopsies on, and the innocent people that ended up on her necropsy table after firefights. As a single mother of her five-year-old Isabella she is worried about the society she lives in, the lack of respect for women and the reigning impunity and corruption. “All I can do is do my work correctly, providing the utmost detail concerning someone’s cause of death.” she says. “The rest is up to the investigators.”

 

Justice

The more time we spend in the morgue and the forensic and genetics lab, the more I feel the other side of this story pulling at us. We all feel it. We’re filming a documentary primarily about forensic science with a very poignant societal and political problem lurking beneath, but we aren’t investigating the ongoing killings further. The temptation is there, but it’s just not what Discovery commissioned and we’re not prepared (or insured) for the danger that comes with it: on our second day the local newspaper was shot at just across our hotel, I could see it from my room. This documentary will focus specifically on the forensic science rather than politics.

On one of our last days in Juarez we go on another search in the desert. This time the team is smaller. About 60 police officers and experts accompany us. The terrain is rougher this time, with more climbs and obstacles. As we follow our characters I notice some people running in the same direction. Something was found. We reach a small bush where a long white bone is hidden beneath some branches. Several doctors confirm it is a human femur. I hastily film the scene as the first camera focuses on the bone and what is done with it. Soon we are called to another spot, and again, we run, but find only cow bones. To me it looks like an attempt at distracting us from the human bone we just encountered and I am reminded of the suspiciously vague results of our first search near the electrical factory.

Though a specialized female crimes unit was created in 2012, results seem to prove the power still lies with the organized crime. Just weeks ago the house of female crimes prosecutor Ernesto Jauregui was shot at and two of his female investigators were shot, one of whom died in the hospital; warnings from the criminals who feel threatened by the unit. Meanwhile, high-risk femicide cases are rarely solved. When asking the unit about convictions, I get vague answers, or I’m told the numbers aren’t there.  Perpetrators are rarely punished, and women keep vanishing, only to be found mutilated and dumped in the vast desert, the Valley of Juarez.

Lorretta van der Horst (‘09) got her M.A. in journalism from New York University. She is currently working on the post-production of this documentary in Lima, Peru. It will be released later this year.