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Filmmaker: Border life crime-filled

Amanda Johnson | Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Film and television producer Barbara Martinez Jitner stressed Tuesday the dangers female factory workers face in their jobs and on the streets in cities along the Mexican-American border.

Martinez Jitner spoke to an audience in the Hesburgh Center Auditorium in a speech titled “Femicide at our U.S. Border: To be a Woman in Juarez is a Death Sentence.”

The Multicultural Student Programs and Services and the Gender Relations Center brought Martinez Jitner, the first Latina ever nominated for a Golden Globe and an Emmy – for her work on the PBS series “American Family” – to speak of her research in Juarez, Mexico.

She began working with Amnesty International in 2000 after spending time studying the effects of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) on the lives of the Mexican people. NAFTA, signed in December 1992, allows free trade between U.S. and Mexico. Analysts have linked the agreement’s implementation to an increase in factories in Mexico, where labor is cheaper, Martinez Jitner said.

The population of border towns skyrocketed, since “thousands upon thousands” of factories are located in these regions between Mexico and the U.S., she said. Juarez’s population climbed from 300,000 to nearly 3 million – and most of the people, she said, are workers.

The factories in Mexico prefer female workers because they are willing to work longer hours for less pay, Martinez Jitner said. Female workers make up almost 99 percent of the force. But, in reality, “most of these women aren’t women,” she said.

“They are fourteen, fifteen, sixteen-year old girls working these factories for approximately fifty cents an hour.”

Since they live on the border – a kind of middle ground between the U.S. and Latin America – they receive third world country wages but pay first world country prices. It takes six hours of work to buy a gallon of milk, Martinez Jitner said.

Worse than the plight of the workers in unsafe, exploiting factories is the fact that their life outside the workplace is also plagued with dangers, she said. Border towns have a rich history of smuggling among other criminal activities, she said.

“Traditionally it’s been trafficking of drugs, but now it also now there is a new [kind of] trafficking – trafficking of human beings,” Martinez Jitner said.

Women in these towns are being kidnapped, raped, tortured and sometimes sold into slavery, she said. The minority of bodies that are found weeks later often have their organs missing, she said.

In 2002, Martinez Jitner followed Eva Canseco from Tijuana to the U.S. in her documentary, “La Frontera.” Canseco experienced the horrors of the factory life Martinez Jitner spoke about.

While filming the documentary, Martinez Jitner’s tapes were stolen repeatedly; to the extent she hired a bodyguard to protect her camera. One of her assistants was abducted and beaten by the Juarez police, she said.

Martinez Jitner chose to continue filming her documentary, she said, feeling the need and duty to document Canseco’s story and share it with audiences.

Canseco worked in a factory to earn money to pay off the taxes on her farm. She quickly realized, after moving to Tijuana, that “the worker is a slave.”

With a face deeply scarred because the factory would not provide masks for its welders, Canseco received a pink slip.

At 30, she is too old for factory work, Martinez Jitner said. The managers in Juarez want younger workers with more nimble fingers.

The film focuses on her journey to the United States, where she hopes to seek out an opportunity to provide a better life for her family.

Martinez Jitner said she has been able to enact some change with her film.

She said she knows her documentary struck a chord with the factory managers because now workers aren’t allowed to speak to journalists and filmmakers about their jobs. She said they must even sign confidentiality waivers to get hired.

Toward the end of her lecture Martinez Jitner showed a short clip of the opening scenes of her upcoming movie “Bordertown.”

The film – due out later this year – features Antonio Banderas and Jennifer Lopez in the lead roles. Martinez Jitner served as the movie’s executive producer. The movie will follow two journalists, Lopez and Banderas, as they travel to Juarez to investigate the disappearance of several women.

In the last fourteen years, more than 475 women in Juarez have been brutally murdered, Martinez Jitner said. More than 5,000 are still missing.

“People are worth more dead than alive,” she said.

“Bordertown,” which is mostly in Spanish and features English subtitles, is inspired on the story of a 14-year-old girl in Juarez who was raped by a bus driver and another man then left her for dead in a shallow grave.

The girl managed to climb out of the grave, received amnesty in the U.S. and identified the bus driver who raped her. But the Mexican authorities let the convicted rapist walk free, Martinez Jitner said.

Martinez Jitner encouraged the audience to visit amnestyusa.org/bordertown, a Web site Lopez launched, where users can download digital petitions asking the United Nations to put pressure on Mexico to end the violence against women, as well as encouraging the U.S. to push Mexican factories to set up safer working conditions.