In 2003, as an undergraduate at the University of Texas at El Paso, Mónica Ortiz Uribe discovered a different side of the city she had called home her entire life. While covering a Día de los Muertos exhibit in the school’s library for the campus newspaper, she discovered that the altars commemorated a string of disappearances and murders that had been happening for years just across the border, in Ciudad Juárez.
Since 1993, hundreds of women and young girls have gone missing in the border town, many of whom were found to have been assaulted and tortured. The killings of these women, who often worked in factories or were students, drew international attention and sparked local social justice movements to raise awareness about the prevalence of violence against women in Mexico. Despite the widespread attention and years of violence, local investigations have resulted in few arrests, leaving many critical of local law enforcement. (Mexico also ranks among the world’s most dangerous places for journalists, and for years reporters in Juárez have faced threats or been killed for their investigations into cartel-related violence.) As Ortiz Uribe walked out of the library that day, she looked out at Juárez and was unable to shake the images of the women and their tragic deaths.
Since becoming a professional journalist, Ortiz Uribe has worked out of her hometown of El Paso as a border correspondent for a number of public radio outlets, including PRI’s The World. She has spent much of her career investigating drug violence, immigration, and the femicides that have plagued the city of Juárez. In a podcast, Forgotten: Women of Juárez, which premiered earlier this month, Ortiz Uribe—along with her cohost, Oz Woloshyn—is delving into the decades-long mysteries that have surrounded these murders. Episode by episode, the duo investigate the theories and conspiracies—from cults to serial killers—about who might be responsible for the murders. Ortiz Uribe spoke with Texas Monthly about making the podcast, and the impact that the stories of Juárez’s missing women have had on her.
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Texas Monthly: What was it about these murders that has made you continue returning to them throughout your career?
Mónica Ortiz Uribe: I was so struck when I first learned about the murders, because I didn’t see much difference between [the victims] and me. I lived north of the border and they lived south of the border, and yet there was this huge chasm between our lives. I had all of these opportunities that they didn’t. I felt like I had a responsibility to them that I still feel to this day: to use the privileges I had to tell their stories.
TM: How do you think this story has been covered by the media over the years?
MO: Attention for the story has come in waves. More recently, the women’s murders took a back seat to this larger drug war that was playing out on the border. There’s this sense of fatigue after years of violence and injustice.
TM: How does the format of a podcast change the way you might tell this story as opposed to a radio piece?
MO: Well, it gives me a much larger platform in which to explore the subject, and the timing couldn’t have been more perfect. Now I understand the border in more of its complexity than I did when I first encountered the murders of these women. As a radio reporter, I typically had four to five minutes to tell a story and present a subject that is extremely complex. Now I have five hours to dive into this.
TM: What commonalities have you noticed among the missing and murdered women while reporting these stories?
MO: Many of these women share a vulnerability in terms of being immigrants who came to Juárez from other parts of Mexico. Many of them arrived without much in terms of resources or family support to a city that wasn’t prepared to welcome them when it comes to education, housing, and protection from law enforcement. They were left to fend for themselves in a new city, and that’s really what made them vulnerable. If a criminal chose to target them, they didn’t have many resources to defend themselves.
TM: You grew up right across the border from Juárez. How have you seen the city change over the years?
MO: I’ve watched Juárez get increasingly worse in terms of violence. It was a city that many of us here in El Paso would visit for fun. I’ve seen that just transform in the course of my lifetime to a place that you think twice about going to, that you fear going to. It’s because of this escalating drug violence that really picked up to levels never before seen in the early nineties, right around the time that women started to go missing and turn up dead in the desert.
TM: How has machismo in Mexican culture contributed to this?
MO: The toxic culture of masculinity represents a tremendous threat to women’s well-being, not just in Mexico but all over the world. Among law enforcement and politicians in Mexico, they repeatedly blamed the women or asked where they were, or how they were dressed. They engaged in victim blaming that’s part of a larger culture of machismo and masculinity that also contributed to the brutality of the murders.
TM: How has reporting on these murders affected you?
MO: You start to feel helpless to find a resolution, and you wonder what more you can do and if things will ever change. There’s frustration and sorrow that comes with that, as well as the pain that these women’s families go through. Mexican American reporters that cover it—there’s an emotional toll that comes with reporting this.
TM: What do you hope people take away from the podcast?
MO: Above all, I want for our listeners to empathize with these women and their families. I also want them to reflect on how our actions here in the United States impact the lives of people in other countries, particularly our southern neighbor, Mexico. These women were robbed of their humanity when they were so brutally murdered. I want our listeners to recognize that these women’s lives are just as valuable as the lives of their own loved ones.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.