Sam Hawken’s The Dead Women of Juárez, reviewed.

A Murder Mystery Amid the Narco Wars of Ciudad Juárez

A Murder Mystery Amid the Narco Wars of Ciudad Juárez

Reading between the lines.
Sept. 7 2012 11:11 PM

“From the Bowl to the Mouth, the Soup Falls”

A detective investigates a murder in Ciudad Juárez, where death is a way of life.

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This is Kelly being dragged out of a car by the lead investigator, an officer named Garcia whose nickname is La Bestia. Meanwhile, another cop is trying to pull Kelly to safety, and in the end he’s the hero of The Dead Women of Juárez, just barely. A middle-aged narcotics officer, Rafael Sevilla, had been trying to get Kelly to snitch on Esteban before Paloma disappeared, and he has vices of his own.

The Dead Women of Juárez author Sam Hawken.
Sam Hawken.

Courtesy of Profile Books.

There must be a special place in the canon of slovenly literary cops for a guy who passes out drinking Johnnie Walker in his car on a scorching-hot Juárez afternoon. Sevilla, though, has an appealing softness that comes from suffering. His wife and daughter are gone for reasons that slowly become clear, so he spends a lot of time in his daughter’s room talking to a girl who isn’t there. I’ve met parents like that in Juárez. All over that forsaken city there are bedrooms filled with teddy bears and textbooks that have not been moved because someone needs to believe that life will soon go back to normal.  

Sevilla is also smart and savvy. He works Kelly like Columbo early on, and despite several mistakes he finally gets to the bottom of Paloma’s disappearance. I’ll get to that resolution shortly, but the most revealing scene in the book is not the end, but rather when Sevilla meets with the prosecutor outside a hospital room where Kelly is recuperating from a second round with La Bestia.     


The entire episode takes place over only a few pages. The prosecutor, Adriana Quintero, works for the Special Task Force for the Investigation of Crimes Against Women, which is based on a real agency. But her perfect hair, pink nails, and poise for television all embody what these kinds of offices and prosecutors typically stand for: messaging.

Living in Mexico and watching the official response to its bloody crime wave means perpetually listening to officials tsk-tsk about the country’s image. Octavio Paz, an unrivaled authority on the Mexican psyche, was among the first to insist that Mexicans have an extraordinary capacity for lying—and I think of him every time I flip through an in-flight magazine in Mexico and see that the ads inside correspond to the worst areas. Chihuahua, Veracruz, Acapulco: These are the places spending money on glossy spreads inviting tourists, and the places where bodies are showing up by the dozen. When I visited Acapulco last year with Mexico’s president, banners covered entire buildings guided residents to “speak well of Aca.” That was the official motto. Say something nice. Not “Fix Aca”—a city where more than 1,000 people were murdered in 2011—but “speak well of Aca,” as if that were all the city needed. 

Quintero, the prosecutor, shares that conviction. Outside the hospital where Kelly is recuperating, or dying, she tries to convince Sevilla to let the American’s supposed confession stand, mostly to offset the “embarrassment” that dead women present for the city.   

“This American man, Courter, you knew him well?” she asks Sevilla.

“Perhaps not as well as I thought,” he says. “But, yes, I knew him.”

The back and forth continues, subtle but strong. She tosses out the basis of her flawed narrative—“Kelly Courter was a fighter and a drug user and a drug dealer. Isn’t that right?” —and Sevilla smokes and shuffles. The impression he gives her is that while maybe he does not agree with her reasoning, he won’t do anything about it.  

Classic Mexico, I thought when I read the scene: where there is so much understood that never gets said; where avoidance trumps confrontation. Hawken never says it, but Sevilla has to know that Quintero’s rise included favors for city leaders with hands dirtied by organized crime if she didn’t just work for the capos directly. He knows no one in her position can be trusted, and that for all her niceties, his request for a more serious investigation will never happen.