Q & A with filmmaker Mark Aitken

Mark Aitken is an award-winning filmmaker whose works include Forest of Crocodiles and Until When You Die. His latest, Dead When I Got Here, focuses on the Visión en Acción asylum in Juárez.  For more information, visit his website


It’s the only place I know in Juarez that gives me real hope- Charles Bowden

Photo via Twitter

Photo via Twitter


By Virginia Isaad

Ed Vulliamy’s “Amexica, War Along the Border” and the late Charles Bowden’s “Murder City, Ciudad Juárez and the Global Economy’s New Killing Fields” inspired you to make this film. What was it about their works that was so inspiring? 

I read Charles Bowden’s, Murder City in 2011. The book is about Ciudad Juárez in Mexico, a city that frequently trumps Mogadishu for being the most violent in the world. Juárez sits in the epicentre of global free trade, just across a line from the US. The most lucrative trade is of drugs and arms, although the clothes we wear, machines we use and people we employ are also traded. The trading causes the line between these two countries to be very porous. But we insist on the line. On one side there is the developed world. We’re told the other side is yet to be developed. On both sides, we insist on this line defining us in relation to them.

There is a character in Murder City called Miss Sinaloa. A diva driven crazy after being gang raped in Juárez by police and dumped in a mental asylum in the desert run by its own patients. The crazy place, where the lunatics are running the asylum.

I want to know more about these people from the city of death who look at each other and ask what they can do to help.

I visited the asylum in the desert. I meet Pastor José Antonio Galván, an evangelical street preacher from Juárez. I don’t share the Pastor’s beliefs but he is one of those believers who works with the problems. He isn’t waiting for a solution that promises to eradicate whatever sets us apart from them. His diagnosis is simple: people are in trauma. The way forward is for them to help each other as best they can. This is a beleaguered promised land populated by outcasts. An asylum from the madness.

What was the most surprising thing you learned while making this film?

The facts account for an unlikely truth. A city of 1.5 million where eight people are murdered every day with impunity should not herald people of light. Yet here they are – generous, kind, loving, crazy people who allowed me to make a film about them. They set an example for us all.

What was the most challenging aspect?

Presenting these people with the dignity they deserve rather than as pitiful beggars in need of our help.
What was your goal in making this film and what did you do to ensure that you achieved that vision? 

See above in terms of goals. I worked very hard and to shape a complex story and place into something that wasn’t going to scare an audience away or make them feel disgusted. Mental illness, death and Juárez are difficult subjects to broach in a film.

How did you orchestrate the reunion of Josué Rosales with his daughter? What was that experience like for you? 

I was inadvertently the catalyst for their reunion. Josué asked me to look for his daughter in California but she found me and my film online. I then spent 8 months carefully planning the steps to get them together. It was strange to be privy to such a family gathering, especially with a camera but I think the film was a part of their reunion and in some ways, might have made it easier. There are no scripts for absent parents and deprived children.
Considering the poverty and violence that pervade the area, what do you think about the work Pastor Galvan is doing?
I think Pastor Galvan’s work is essential. Those 120 patients would all perish if Galvan was to stop his work. But they are not solely dependent on him. They are dependent on each other. This is the most progressive and special thing about Vision and Action – the asylum.
 What would you want the audience to take away from this film?
Compassion and kindness can be found in the most unlikely places. We need to overcome our fears and delusions of comfort and privilege to fully comprehend what it means to be alive.
The film was funded through a Kickstarter campaign. To learn more about screening the film contact Mark.
See also: Susana Seijas’ take on the film here

Mexicanos en Exilio Press Conference, Wednesday, Feb 25, Offices of Carlos Spector

(Summary in English)
The Mexicans in Exile organization will hold a press conference Wed Feb 25 at the Offices of Carlos Spector. The group will discuss violence in the Valle de Juarez and the fact that government forces have allowed criminal groups to exercise control over the region and its residents. Since 2009, the population of the Valle de Juarez has been persecuted, displaced, murdered and disappeared and the government has done nothing to stop this violence. The state has systematically ignored complaints presented against criminals in the region. In Mexico, in Chihuahua and in the Valle de Juarez, authorized crime rules. Mexicans living in exile are victims of authorized crimes of the state.
Subject: Mexicanos en Exilio Press Conference, Wednesday, February 25
Papacho, Toga y Meño: Crimen Autorizado. El Valle de Juárez exige justicia y el arresto de los oficiales que facilitaron los delitos en contra de los ciudadanos de la región.

1430 E Yandell, El Paso, Tx.
Febrero 25, 2015
13 hrs

Este 25 de febrero Mexicanos en Exilio insiste en señalar su posicionamiento ante la violencia y el despojo en México y en el Valle de Juárez, Chihuahua: fue y sigue siendo el Estado.

El pasado 18 de febrero la Fiscalía General de la Zona norte presentó, en calidad de detenido, a Mauricio Luna Aguilar a quien se vincula con al menos 20 homicidios en el Valle. Al lado de Mauricio fueron presentados otros integrantes del cártel de Sinaloa: Isidro Soto Aguilar, alias el “pantera” y líder de la célula; Juan Carlos Nuria Gómez, alias el “parral”; Karina Carrillo Griego; Jonathan Arturo Torres Rodríguez, alias el “Jhon”; Antonio Carrillo Griego, alias el “Toño y/o el tio”; y Juan Cuellar Cereceres, alias “Quintana.

A estos arrestos se agrega el homicidio de los también integrantes del cártel de Sinaloa Leonardo Rubén Morales Rodríguez, alias “el Toga” y Jesús Manuel Morales Rodríguez, alias “El Meño”. “El Toga” había sido arrestado en 2012 y liberado pocos meses después.

Desde 2009 la población del Valle de Juárez ha sido perseguida, despojada, asesinada y desaparecida sin que el gobierno haya hecho nada; sistemáticamente fueron ignoradas las denuncias y quejas presentadas contra estos individuos en las distintas instancias de impartición de justicia ¿De qué otra forma habría sido posible que una sola persona asesinara a 20 personas?

En México, en Chihuahua y en el Valle de Juárez impera el crimen autorizado.

Frente a este teatro, levantamos nuestra voz. Estaremos presentes víctimas del Crimen autorizado y del Estado:

  • Jorge Reyes Salazar
  • Israel Estrella Chávez
  • Lucía del Carmen Rangel
  • Gerardo Gamez
  • Víctor García Archuleta y Armando Archuleta
  • Sandra Flores
  • Miguel Murguía
For more information, contact:
Alfredo Holguin (President of Mexicanos en Exilio): (915) 727-8344
Carlos Spector (Attorney for Mexicanos en Exilio): (915) 544-0441

Susana Seijas’ take on the film Dead When I Got Here

Susana Seijas is a London-based journalist, producer and media consultant whose work has appeared on CNN, BBC, PBS NewsHour, Slate, and The Times of London among others. She was previously based in Mexico where she reported on the drug war. To learn more, visit her website. Follow her @susanaseijas1


Raúl, a teenager with teeth like a shark, bites part of another boy’s ear off.   Milena, a beautiful 21-year-old woman can’t stop sobbing. She was raped after leaving work in one of Juárez’s infamous maquiladoras.  There’s someone wailing in a caged room. Outside, in the sunlit cement patio, a young man flashes a toothless grin while an elderly woman brushes the same floor, over and over again.

Welcome to “Visión en Acción,” a mental asylum in the Juárez desert run by its own patients. Mark Aitken, a London-based filmmaker, spent several weeks living in the asylum – capturing the daily lives of people with varying degrees of mental health disorders. Outside the asylum, the desert scenery is strewn with abandoned tires, discarded plastic bags and homeless dogs rummaging in garbage.

What Aitken saw inside the asylum was “something out of your darkest nightmares,” he says of his time filming people who had at one time or another experienced extreme trauma and violence. Yet what he captures in “Dead When I Got Here” is hope and compassion in the most challenging of circumstances. “I learned that upsetting people with extreme imagery was going to compromise any possibility of empathy” he said.

Josué Rosales, a former heroin addict, was brought to the front gates of the asylum on a stretcher, his fingers black with gangrene and “nearly dead” when he got there. After months of recovery Rosales now manages the asylum with a compassion he never knew he had when he was taking drugs or sleeping rough. The asylum was founded by Pastor José Antonio Galván, a swashbuckling, born-again Christian, who now dedicates his life to picking up people most of us would turn away from.  The asylum runs on about  $10,000 USD per month of fundraising money to feed and house its 100 plus patients.

Apart from revealing the drudgery of maintaining an asylum in the Chihuahua desert, Aitken’s lens exposes the devastating consequences of decades-old government corruption, impunity and neglect – where the poor and destitute fend for themselves, their plight worsened by Juarez’s drug-related violence.

Many of the people who end up at the asylum have experienced the worst of Juárez.  There are women who were gang raped, left for dead and dumped in the desert. Men who fell prey to the narcos pushing drugs in their barrios, became addicts and arrived deranged.

In 2010, when Juárez was the “murder capital of the world,” 10 or more people a day were gunned down. Former President Felipe Calderón’s (2006-20012) military deployment to Juárez spiked violence to levels never seen before anywhere in Mexico.

Towards the end of 2014, the average death tally was about 1.2 per day, according to the Diario de Juárez, as reported by the Chihuahua state prosecutor’s office.

Today, the daily death count may be down, but the ravages of impunity, poverty and a sense of hopelessness are unmasked when Aitken films the local police force picking up the body of a patient who died after 17 years in the asylum. Ironically, one of the policemen calls Rosales out for not having the adequate professionalism and experience to run the place, “to leave here is to be a coward,” Rosales responds.

Some of Aitken’s carefully edited footage makes for uncomfortable viewing – it is all asylum all of the time. Thankfully the film is gracefully interspaced with delightful, unexpected sequences, such as the conversation between two women cooking in the asylum’s kitchen. Their chitchat ranges from the look of  “a pretty potato” they happen to be peeling to whether “poor people will fit in hell.”

In the end, “Dead When I Got Here,” is a story of resurrection of Rosales remaking himself. When he first got to the asylum, Rosales says he felt “like a piece of wood” and couldn’t even speak. He needed diapers and had to lay on a bed for months. The pain in his gangrenous fingers was so acute he pleaded with others to pull them off with pliers. They asked him if he was crazy, “yes of course,” Josué recounts later, his humor unscathed: “I’m in an insane asylum!”

Not only is Rosales the film’s hero and guide but, by nothing short of a miracle, Rosales is reunited with his daughter, Vanessa, who he last saw when she was five years old, over 20 years ago.  Aitken films their reunion, adding yet another layer to the film and to Rosales’ character.  Aitken happened to be the catalyst in this father-daughter reunion after he posted information on Rosales’ whereabouts on the Internet.

Rosales emerges as a full man – a man who lost his family only to regain it, a man who had nothing and is now giving his all, every day, to help a handful of the forgotten people of Juárez help each other overcome impossible odds.

Aitken was inspired to film the asylum after reading two books – Ed Vulliamy’s “Amexica,” who wrote a chapter on the asylum entitled “Human Junkyard,” and the late Charles Bowden’s “Murder City, Ciudad Juárez and the Global Economy’s New Killing Fields.”

Bowden, to whom “Dead When I Got Here” is dedicated to, died just before the film was completed but commented on much of the material. He captured the sentiment of the film best of all:

“What’s going on there is a model. It’s the only place in Juárez that gives me real hope. But it’s a hard hope. It’s not sentimentality. It’s a hard future to face but it’s the best future I know of there. That asylum has done more for those 120 people than any American factory in Juárez has ever done for its workers. Because this asylum has given people who have lost their lives, their lives back. It’s taken human garbage and reconstructed it.”


 **Next Week: Q & A with director Mark Aitken

Commentary On Texas Immigration Decision

Thanks to Bob Kahn for sending his editorial on the Texas immigration decision. Full disclosure to listeros: I worked with Bob Kahn and Sister Suzanne at the Oakdale Detention Center in Louisiana back in 1986-87 where hundreds of Salvadorans and Guatemalans were held in one of the first remote immigration prisons designed to isolate asylum seekers from legal help, families, churches, communities… People were flown to the pine woods of central Louisiana from Los Angeles, Washington DC, Chicago and many other places in the US where they were struggling to make a living and survive after fleeing US-funded civil wars. And deported daily with no due process whatever… Kahn’s book is essential reading to understand the venality of the past and current immigration system.

Other People’s Blood: U.s. Immigration Prisons In The Reagan Decade


Also below, a statement from the Mexican SRE that will only give fuel to the idiocy in Congress and Fox News fun and games:


History of Lynchings in the South Documents Nearly 4,000 Names…NYTimes

I’m certain that some will disagree, but since I get asked to talk about the violence in Mexico and I get asked hard questions, I thought I’d share some thoughts on this article from [the] NYTimes. It reports on a new study of lynching in America from reconstruction through the 1950s….nearly 4000 documented cases of lynchings of African Americans–700 more cases than previously recorded. The worst place was Phillips County Ark. where 237 people were lynched in 1919 during the Elaine race riot. The rest of the worst places are in Louisiana…my home state.

I am often asked how to explain the extreme violence of the killings in Mexico. The only way I can explain many of these actions–whether they come from directly from the state or from criminal entities sanctioned by the state–is that they are acts of terror designed to control the population.


The Guardian reported on the Equal Justice Initiative study also quoting Bryan Stevenson:

“I also think that the lynching era created a narrative of racial difference, a presumption of guilt, a presumption of dangerousness that got assigned to African Americans in particular – and that’s the same presumption of guilt that burdens young kids living in urban areas who are sometimes menaced, threatened, or shot and killed by law enforcement officers.”


Note the similarity with the Mexican practice of criminalizing all victims of violence (90 percent at least)… Note the similarity to the narrative of the murdered students in Iguala–portraying them as radicals, criminals and hooligans in order to justify their murders. The idea that the people killed in Mexico are all narcos or malandros and thus deserving of their violent deaths.

I read Bryan Stevenson’s book [Just Mercy]a couple months ago…and I can’t recommend it enough. But this new report is so important and shows the need to keep the record and to reclaim the truth of the terrorist history of our own country. I am also struck by the parallels to the current Mexican and Central American violence and forced migration…

“Lynching and the terror era shaped the geography, politics, economics and social characteristics of being black in America during the 20th century,” Mr. Stevenson said, arguing that many participants in the great migration from the South should be thought of as refugees fleeing terrorism rather than people simply seeking work.

The terror in Mexico has already claimed more than 150,000 lives and the official narrative continues to criminalize the victims. -molly

Seeing Artesia | Ending Artesia

Thanks to Taylor Levy, BIA Certified Representative at Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center in El Paso, for sending these links… -molly

Clio Sady, a professional artist, and her father, Steve Sady, a federal public defendant, volunteered with the pro bono legal team in November 2014. They published the following visual essay about the detention center in Artesia, using Clio’s drawing and courtroom sketches (photography was not permitted in the center).



Stephen Manning, an attorney from Immigrant Law Group in Portland, Oregon, was a key player in the pro bono project established in Artesia. He published an exceptionally comprehensive report detailing the efforts of this project.



More information about Artesia and family detention in general is available here:


Families continue to be detained at federal facilities in Dilley, Texas and Karnes, Texas. To support the pro bono efforts of teams in these facilities, please consider the following:

To Volunteer (attorneys and paralegals strongly preferred):

Raising bond funds to help get families out of Karnes:

Karnes Amazon Wishlist for Post-Detention Care Packages:

Dilley Bond Fund for Refugees:

13 Disappeared Per Day During EPN Tenure…Proceso

A new study of reported disappearances in the official statistics in Mexico shows that during the EPN administration (Dec 2012-present) there have been 13 disappearances each day–a total of 9,384 people in 22 months. This is more than double to rate of disappearances registered during the previous administration of Felipe Calderon. These are some of the findings from an examination of the databases of the National Register of Missing or Disappeared Persons from Jan 2007-Oct 2014 maintained by the Executive Secretariat of the National Public Security System. The database contains a total of 26,569 cases. The article below is an excerpt from the current issue of Proceso, 1997. It includes this link to numbers of disappearances per state. – Molly

Con Peña Nieto, 13 Desaparecidos Al Día (Proceso)

7 People Murdered So Far This Weekend In Juarez

At least 7 people have been killed in violent incidents in Juarez so far this weekend. On Saturday a municipal policeman was shot but survived the attack and injured the shooter. The policeman was taken to the hospital. Later on Saturday, near midnight, 5 people were killed and at least 4 others were injured when an “armed comando” attacked a house party in the Colonia Felipe Angeles. The report says at least 30 people were at the party–a birthday celebration–and included women and children. The attackers also set fire to several vehicles on the property. The owner of the house ran a tortilleria.

In another area of the city known as Granjero, a couple were attacked and the man was killed. The woman apparently survived. People in the area indicated that in the past several days there have been several execution-style murders and the residents are fearful.

Early Sunday morning, a man was executed at the Tequila Bar in the Pronaf zone near the Plaza de las Americas mall (this is a traditional tourist zone near the UACJ and the Las Americas bridge to central El Paso). -Molly

Mexico Violence: Dozens Of Bodies Uncovered In Acapulco…BBC

For those who believe that the violence is diminishing in Mexico… Consider the fact that we have no idea how (or IF) the mass killings happening now along the border in Tamaulipas or these mass graves in Guerrero even get into the official statistics. More details below from Animal Politico.

Mexico Police Find Dozens Of Bodies In Acapulco (BBC News)

Hallan 60 Cadáveres En Crematorio Abandonado En Acapulco; Dueño Ya Tiene Orden De Localización (Animal Politico)

Political Asylum Granted to Juan Frayre Escobedo, Son of Marisela Escobedo

More than 4 years after the murder of his mother, Juan Manuel Frayre Escobedo, son of Juarez activist Marisela Escobedo, was granted political asylum by an immigration judge in San Antonio, Texas… Marisela was murdered in front of the governor’s palace in Chihuahua on Dec 16 2010. At the time of her death, she was protesting the release of the murderer of her daughter Rubi. That murder case is still unsolved. -Molly

Asila EU A Hijo De Activista Asesinada En Chihuahua (El Diario)

Estados Unidos Otorga Asilo Politico Al Hijo De La Activista Marisela Escobedo (Sin Embargo)