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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For her part, she knows that Sevilla is a good cop who knows his place and won’t say a word as the case moves forward. Because speaking up, they both know, gets you killed. For many in Mexican law enforcement—despite billions of dollars spent on security—it is still better to let the system just keep going according to the rule that human rights investigator in Juárez once told me when I asked why so few cases lead to convictions: “del plato a la boca, la sopa se cae.” From the bowl to the mouth, the soup falls. In other words, somewhere along the way, the system breaks down. The soup spills, the guilty get off, the authorities give up—and with a shrug of the shoulders, everyone moves on.

Sevilla, though, does not move on. He manages to find Paloma’s killer, a horribly depraved individual with a lot of power, through legitimate and illegitimate means. We are meant to believe that he represents all that is wrong with Juárez, and that’s pretty believable as far as it goes. But I worried that Sevilla’s response to the killer and his eventual fate— “Sevilla felt nothing for the man’s death” —was less than credible. Was this just Hawken being lazy? Or is true that a cop like Sevilla, having seen so much, would really feel nothing when he went from observer to protagonist?

I thought of Sylviano, the hearse driver. At one point, he brought me up to main public cemetery in Juárez, an isolated outcrop on the city’s outskirts that will be full years earlier than planners expected.


We arrived at sunset. Other hearses were departing but at the graveyard’s edge, the latest arrivals could be found. Beside graves cut open and ready for the next day, there were piles of dirt marked with white crosses and black paint that told us names and ages. Most were young. And this being the final resting place for the poor, there was nothing to keep the scent of death in the ground. It pushed into us like a thug looking for a fight.

But Sylviano didn’t even seem to notice. Kicking the dry unforgiving earth, he smiled more than seemed normal, to me at least. He seemed to be enjoying the tour, and he was always happy to talk about the business of death. “If people don’t die,” he said, “my family doesn’t eat.”

This is what the drug war in Juárez has created: a city full of people for whom violent death is the norm. It’s the kids who hang out at crime scenes and talk about what kind of gun killed the bloodied corpse in the alley. It’s the forensic investigator whose computer’s My Photos folder is full of dead women.

And maybe it’s cops like Sevilla. How would someone like that feel when he found his own path to justice, when fired those fatal shots? I still think he would feel something. But I suspect it would not be remorse.  


The Dead Women of Juárez by Sam Hawken. Serpent’s Tail.

Damien Cave is Mexico-based correspondent for the New York Times who writes frequently about the drug war and immigration.