Writer-at-large Cecilia Ballí describes what it is like to be in Juárez, where hundreds of women have been murdered in the past ten years.
texasmonthly.com: You lead off your story with a pretty jarring description of a body in the desert. Why make this the first segment of the story readers see, and how much did you struggle with that decision?
Cecilia Ballí: This was my editor’s decision, actually. I had originally placed the paragraph in a section in which I described the efforts of civilian bands to find the missing girls’ bodies in the desert. At first, I hesitated to move it to the opening of the story because I felt it could be disrespectful there, or construed as sensationalizing or objectifying the death of real, living, breathing women. On the other hand, bodies do play a central role in this story. Many people in Juárez—from the maquiladora boss to the authors of this horrific crime—see women as precisely that: bodies which are to be worked or consumed or destroyed. To some extent, this is also true for men; the morgue in Juárez processes at least one body a day, which is absurd for a country that is in peacetime and supposedly democratic. Ultimately what I hope the paragraph impresses upon the reader is the jarring contrast between death and the human lives behind the story, as well as the urgency of the situation. But it’s a gamble, since so much depends on the sensibilities and ethics of the reader.
texasmonthly.com: What about the police? You quote Oscar Maynez as saying there’s a “complete absence of scruples among the people at the top”—so when police are never charged with wrongdoing, is there any chance we’ll ever know how deeply the police are involved in the murders?
CB: The theories about police involvement range from them participating in the abduction of girls and taking part in the dumping of bodies to their cover-up of the crime and their incapability of keeping Juárez safe. It’s hard to know with any degree of certainty whether the theories are true. When Oscar Maynez talks about “the people at the top,” he is referring to those responsible for enforcing the rule of law; this would be people like the attorney general and deputy attorney generals or the city and state police chiefs. Is there any chance we’ll ever know how deeply the police are or aren’t involved in the murders? It’s hard to say. What I do believe is that if the crime is ever resolved, the justice system will not take the extra step of unveiling the whole network of people who either helped protect the criminals or fumbled the investigation.
texasmonthly.com: How many victims’ families did you speak with? What made you decide to focus on Esmeralda Monrreal’s story?
CB: In February I attended the funerals of three girls whose bodies had been found together and spoke to all three mothers. At other points throughout the three months I reported this story, I spoke with Esmeralda’s mom and two or three other women. I chose Esmeralda’s story for so many reasons. First, she was representative of the teenage girls who have been disappearing recently—she wanted to study, work, and help lift her family, or at least her mother, out of poverty. Irma, Esmeralda’s mom, is representative of the female migrants who come to Juárez from the Mexican countryside, often alone, searching for the “better life.” Her daughter had died over a year before I interviewed her, and yet her pain and her trauma—like that of the rest of her family—continued to be as haunting as when Esmeralda first disappeared. Add to that the story of how the authorities mishandled her daughter’s body, and it’s difficult to believe that this woman will ever heal. I didn’t get to mention this in the story, but at one point I showed up to a meeting of victims’ mothers, which Irma had attended with her twelve-year-old daughter Zulema, and the group had just been robbed at gunpoint. Zulema, who has had a really difficult time dealing with her sister’s loss, was an emotional mess, because one of the assailants had put his gun up to her little head. When I saw her sobbing, covering her face with trembling fingers, her body heaving, I broke into tears. What is the rest of her life going to be like? How do you help pull a twelve-year-old out of such severe depression?
texasmonthly.com: How difficult was it to go into the scary world the people of Juárez are living in, and ask people like Irma Monrreal and Jaime Hervella to share stories that are still so painful to them? Was it hard to leave, or do you have the sense that you’ve helped a great deal by telling their story so well?
CB: I never, ever imagined that reporting this story was going to be so difficult for me at a personal level. Throughout the process I found it utterly impossible to be the distanced reporter. I cried the whole time Irma told me her story, cried when we took her to the cemetery and she crumpled in agony over her daughter’s grave. Several times I had nightmares; in two of those I was being attacked, in a third I was surrounded by a circle of young women who were grabbing at their necks and screaming, “They’re killing us, they’re killing us!” In a way it was easy to leave—you can only take those kind of emotional experiences in doses—but then I felt guilty and sad to think that the women of Juárez didn’t have that privilege and had stayed behind. As far as my contribution, I think a lot of us journalists and writers maintain that idealism that our stories will help change things in some tiny way.
texasmonthly.com: You devote a large part of the story to your run-in with a man offering you a job, the same way many disappearance stories began, and what it felt like to be a woman in Juárez. How soon did you realize you’d have to make yourself a part of the story? Was writing the story any easier or more difficult for the empathy you developed for the murdered women?
CB: I can’t vouch that “many” disappearance stories began that way, but a few have, and that was enough to make me freeze when this man approached me on the street. Something about the moment felt very real, not like paranoia, and the strange exchange that we had once we were both inside the restaurant only made the situation more suspicious. About an hour after it happened, my heart was still pounding and I called my editor to tell him about it. Although he was worried for me, he also said very confidently: “That’s the story.” You can’t experience Juárez as a young, brown-skinned woman, as I was forced to do, and then put those feelings aside when you’re writing about other young, brown-skinned women. The need to use the first person was obvious. As for what this meant in terms of putting the story together, I feel it made my understanding deeper but the writing much more painful.
texasmonthly.com: In the moment you feared most for your safety, you describe feeling sad at the thought of “gambling it all away” for a story. What kinds of risks did you weigh before going into Juárez? Was reporting this story more dangerous than you had counted on?
CB: It’s funny to talk about danger, because you would think that I was really digging around, pushing crime leads that led me to very dangerous people and places. I couldn’t do this because of the obliqueness, the obscurity of the story. And yet, it was the everyday experience of Juárez that made the reporting situation dangerous! In just my first week there, I was approached by a mysterious man and I missed an armed robbery by a few minutes, only because I was running late. Juárez is simply a dangerous place for certain segments of its population. I had definitely not predicted this before I began working on the story.
texasmonthly.com: Your story ends with the thought of “how we had failed them,” the hundreds of women murdered in Juárez. What kind of failure are you referring to there, and how inclusive is that “we”?
CB: The “failure” simply refers to the fact that women have consistently been dying violently for ten years now. As for the “we,” it is only as inclusive as the reader decides to make it. Personally, I feel that any social problem of this magnitude—where the offense is not random but targeted at people of a certain gender and class and social group, and where an entire justice system is not being held accountable—belongs to all of us. The United States has profited tremendously from its proximity to Mexico, as far as cheap labor is concerned (Mexico allows the U.S. to be competitive with the Asian and European markets), and the degree of this mutual dependence is especially evident in the El Paso-Juárez region. The “we” in my closing is open-ended. It can mean we Texans, we Americans, we global citizens—or it can mean nothing at all.