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Mexico's murdered women find a voice in `Bordertown'

A new film casts blame on both sides of the border for the scandal that is Ciudad Juarez.

February 14, 2007|Reed Johnson | Times Staff Writer

When they began shooting "Bordertown," the new Jennifer Lopez film about the hundreds of murdered women of Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, director Gregory Nava and executive producer Barbara Martinez Jitner expected that their movie would stir up strong reactions. Already, they allege, those reactions have included death threats against Nava and the cast, stolen equipment and intimidation of a film crew member during shooting in Mexico.

Since 1993, the bodies of more than 400 female victims, many raped and mutilated, have been found in the area around Ciudad Juarez, a sprawling metropolis where many poor women work for maquiladoras (factories). Scores of additional women throughout the region, across the Rio Grande from El Paso, Texas, have been reported missing.

Speaking by phone recently while en route to the Berlin Film Festival, where the film will have its world premiere Thursday, Nava said he's not surprised by the film's hostile reception in some quarters, given the issues that "Bordertown" raises and the blame for the murders that it assigns not only to the Mexican government but to the United States and to the multinational assembly plants spawned by the North American Free Trade Agreement.

"There are very powerful forces involved, you're going to be attacked," said Nava, a Mexican American who was born in San Diego. "I expect the Mexican government to get very upset about it."

"Bordertown," which does not have a U.S. release date, stars Lopez as a U.S. reporter investigating the murders and Antonio Banderas as a Mexican newspaper colleague. The cast also includes Martin Sheen, Sonia Braga and Maya Zapata as a young Indian woman factory worker whose plight exposes the crimes of Juarez.

Nava and Lopez previously worked together on "My Family" (1995) and on the biopic "Selena" (1997), about the Texas tejano singer, which helped catapult Lopez to fame. Nava said that he approached Lopez in 1998 about joining on with "Bordertown" and she agreed.

"I felt it was really something that was screaming to be talked about and brought to the surface," said Lopez, speaking by phone from Madrid. "What we hope to do with the movie is just getting people aware of what's going on down there."

Much of the film was shot in and around Albuquerque, with additional shooting in the Mexican border town of Nogales, Sonora and in Ciudad Juarez.

However, said Martinez Jitner, who also is the movie's second-unit director, principal actors were kept out of Juarez because of death threats against Nava and the cast. On the first day of photography in Juarez, a movie production assistant was arrested and questioned by local police, Martinez Jitner said. According to the movie's production notes, the police then began threatening local people who were assisting the production and to stalk the crew. Her hotel room was broken into, Martinez Jitner said, and a camera truck also was burgled and $100,000 worth of equipment was stolen.

While the filmmakers did file a complaint over the stolen equipment, they decided not to speak publicly at the time about the other incidents. "If we made a big stink, the people who would pay the price were these women," Martinez Jitner said. "Now that the film is coming out, this is the proper time."

Luz del Carmen Sosa, a spokeswoman for the Ciudad Juarez secretary of public security, said she had no record of any arrest of a movie production assistant and said it was not true that anyone had been harassed during shooting. "We totally respect freedom of expression," she said. "The city is very damaged, and it doesn't deserve to be demeaned for nothing more than personal enrichment, because truly we are making an enormous effort to clean up the image, in order to work for the benefit of the citizenry."

Over the past 13 years, the atrocities committed in Ciudad Juarez have evolved into an international scandal and a major embarrassment for the Mexican government as well as for state and regional legal authorities on both sides of the border. While suspects have been detained, and Mexican law enforcement agents have claimed success in investigating the crimes, the vast majority of the murders remain unsolved, according to human rights groups.

One group, Amnesty International, says it has documented numerous investigative delays, inadequate evidence gathering, sloppy forensic examinations, falsification of evidence and allegations of torture by Chihuahua state police in obtaining information and confessions in connection with the murders. The cause of the Juarez women has been prominently taken up by actresses Salma Hayek, Jane Fonda and Sally Field, playwright Eve Ensler and feminist activist Gloria Steinem, among others.

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