‘I Could Have Been One of Them’: Monica Ortiz Uribe on ‘Forgotten: The Women of Juarez’

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Like so many countries, Mexico has a harrowing and not-so-distant history of violence against women—most infamously in Ciudad Juárez. Since the early 1990s, hundreds of young women and girls have mysteriously gone missing from or been killed in the border town, which sits adjacent to El Paso on the Texas-Mexico border.

For Mónica Ortiz Uribe, the disappearances are personal. The 38-year-old public radio journalist grew up in El Paso, which she describes as "warm, brown, and friendly—and that goes for the people as much as the landscape." When she was a kid, her family drove to Ciudad Juárez on Sundays to eat at their favorite restaurant and pick up Mexican spices at the mercado. As news of the deaths and disappearances in Juarez reverberated across the border, Ortiz Uribe began a decades-long investigation into the violence.

Her latest project, a podcast with fellow radio journalist Oz Woloshyn called Forgotten: Women of Juárez, dives deep into the murders, which some suspect are the work of a serial killer or a Satanic cult.In an interview with ELLE.com, Ortiz Uribe discusses the complicated case, what it was like reporting on the ground in Ciudad Juárez, and her transition from radio to podcasting.

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You grew up visiting Ciudad Juárez. What was the city like back then and what is it like now?

When I was a kid, Juárez was the place we’d go to for a fun Sunday outing. My family and I would have a big lunch at a family-owned restaurant called Julio’s, which is less than a mile from the border. Right before crossing the border back to El Paso, we’d stop at a gas station and pick up a crate of glass soda bottles. Juárez was a place for leisure and family and a real-time connection with our homeland.

Today it's a violent city where people can be executed by gunshot in broad daylight while stopped in their cars at a red light. It’s a city largely controlled by organized crime [and] prone to long bursts of violence. People still manage to live their lives despite this, but not without taking daily precautions. The wealthiest families travel with bodyguards. Most of the violence is targeted, but innocent people are regularly caught up in it. That’s the case with many of the women killed as part of these serial sexual murders that the city became infamous for.

Downtown Juárez.

What first drove you to investigate the femicide crisis happening there?

[When I was a student at University of Texas at El Paso in 2003], I would look out from the lawn just outside the university library and see Juárez, which was less than a mile away. I could literally see into the neighborhoods where some of the murdered women had lived. I [would think to myself], "I could have been one of the murdered women." Had my grandparents not made the decision to immigrate to the United States from Mexico decades earlier, I might not have been standing where I was, working to obtain a higher education with my whole life ahead of me. My second thought was that I had a responsibility to tell these women’s stories.

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How different is working on a podcast from a radio segment?

Most of my radio stories average four and a half minutes in length. This podcast is five hours worth of storytelling. The amount of nuance and complexity we can share is that much greater compared to a daily news story. I’ve come to understand the broader context in which the murders occur. I can better explain not only the who, what, and how behind the murders, but more importantly, I can explain the why.

In Forgotten: Women of Juárez, you investigate all kinds of conspiracies about the women who have disappeared—from cartels to Satanic cults to serial killers—and you do it from the frontlines. How did you approach your reporting, and what new information about the case did you glean?

We reported in Juárez during another upswing in drug violence. Before our first reporting trip, a police [van] had been subject to a series of armed attacks. The number of homicides in the city was climbing. So we planned our reporting with caution. Certain parts of the city are not friendly to outsiders with ostentatious recording equipment. In those places we made sure to do our work quickly and efficiently.

We were able to highlight the important work of reporters who came before us and how their work contributed to the overall understanding of what was happening to the murdered women of Juárez. We were also able to take what was happening in Juárez and connect it to broader issues we’re discussing on a global scale, including violence against women, police brutality, and extreme economic inequality.

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What kind of emotional toll does reporting on the city's violence take on you?

Personally, the emotional toll has become more difficult the longer I cover this story. I used to think that coming home to the safety of El Paso would spare me from experiencing the effects of trauma. For a long time it did. But it’s caught up with me and I’m in the process of learning how to live with the emotional impact of covering so many tragedies.

A shrine for women’s rights activist Isabel Cabanillas, who was shot and killed while biking home in Ciudad Juárez.

What do you hope people take away from Forgotten: Women of Juárez?

I hope listeners come to care about these women and their families in the same way they might care about American women and families. I hope they realize that just because these families live on the other side of a steel border wall doesn’t mean they’re not worth thinking about. I hope our listeners think about how they can help the most vulnerable among us by doing things like voting, volunteering, speaking out, and fairly paying the essential workers closest to them, including housekeepers and home health care workers. Also, when we can travel again, when Americans vacation to Mexico, I hope they are more conscientious of people who cater to them by treating them with respect and tipping them generously.

Rose Minutaglio Staff Writer Rose is a Staff Writer at ELLE.com covering culture, news, and women's issues. This content is created and maintained by a third party, and imported onto this page to help users provide their email addresses. You may be able to find more information about this and similar content at piano.io This commenting section is created and maintained by a third party, and imported onto this page. You may be able to find more information on their web site.

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