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.

The Dead Women of Juárez author Sam Hawken.

Illustration by Bianca Stone.

I met Sylviano at a Ciudad Juárez funeral in early 2011 when he told me to hop in the navy blue hearse he was driving to a cheap cemetery. Chubby and chatty, he carried the stains of a hearty meal on his shirt and the velour seats in his Cadillac were pocked with holes from dropped cigarettes. The air conditioning didn’t work either so dust—and the scent of the body in the back—kept rushing up at me.     

Then, and later on, Sylviano was my guide to the death business of Juárez—which is only now coming out of its boom years–but just as importantly, he was also the kind of guy only “Murder City” could produce: dependent on bloodshed but inured to it, helpful, loud, not-so-clean, and honest only up to a point. Anywhere else, he would have been considered pure sleaze. Amid the dust and sorrow of Juárez, he fit right in.

These are the kinds of characters who dominate Sam Hawken’s strong but imperfect debut novel, The Dead Women of Juárez. Part crime thriller, part deep-dive into depravity, this is a book about men who fuck up a lot and may or may not be redeemed—primarily a Mexican cop who slugs from whisky bottles and an American boxer paid to have his face pummeled.

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Sure there are women, too; the disappearance of one in particular brings the two men together. But mostly las mujeres quietly appear and disappear. They and the economics of Juárez, where poorly paid workers put together car parts, smartphones, and ovens, are mostly the backdrop for a story about men sloshing in the gutter and trying not to stink like sewage.

For the border, of course, this is a common theme. Oliver Stone’s latest film, Savages, picked up where Traffic left off, while Hawken’s book traces over themes of violence and corruption that also appear in Roberto Bolaño’s novel 2666, in Charles Bowden’s endless journalistic opus on the horrors of Juárez, and in newer books like Ioan Grillo’s El Narco.

But Hawken, who grew up in Texas, tries to be a little more down to earth. On his blog, he has rejected comparisons to Bolaño because, unlike the Chilean fabulist, he says he isn’t trying to write literature. Indeed, I felt like his goal was far simpler: By sharing his fascination with Juárez, he wants to make us like the unlikable and the ugly—while telling a good story. These are honorable goals. In the case of Juárez, many Americans who claim to care about the city are too quick to assign blame to capitalism or NAFTA or American drug demand without really listening to the individual stories of guilt, innocence, and unintentional error which also play an important role.

Hawken opens the book with a beating. Kelly Courter, the American, is in a back-alley boxing venue as the hired punching bag for a more promising young Mexican fighter egged on by a small crowd shouting “Kick his ass to death!”  The fact that Kelly survives seems heroic. He’s tough. He’s vulnerable. When he gets paid $200 in a bathroom “that reeked of urine and shit” by a promoter named Ortiz, I thought that in a better world this is what Rocky VIII would look like. But Kelly is even more interesting and messed up than that.

Later on, we learn he also has, or used to have, a serious problem with heroin. His job, to the extent he has one, is slinging dope to tourists with his girlfriend’s brother, Esteban, who uses Kelly to deliver the drugs because he blends in better with the gringos looking for a high. Hawken makes a lot of the fact that Kelly is white—it calms the tourists’ fears, plays a special role in his interaction with Mexican police, and seems to come up in every new conversation. Just like some of the overdone drug slang, this is one of the book’s flaws. It is neither necessary for the story (the dude’s name is Kelly, we don’t need to be reminded he’s American) nor does it make sense in the context of today’s border. In Juárez and elsewhere, there so many different skin tones and deportees speaking English that someone like Kelly, a bilingual 30-year-old, wouldn’t stand out for long, if he stood out at all.   

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Hawken gets a few other things wrong, too. With the American tourists hitting bars and brothels, for example, Hawken’s timing is simply off. In Juárez, Tijuana and elsewhere, the floods of Americans looking for fun disappeared when the bullets started flying. Whenever I visit the Juárez bridges at night, all I see are Mexicans coming home from shopping or work, walking slowly with empty eyes.   

What Hawken gets right, though, are the Mexican cops and prosecutors. The second half of the book focuses on the investigation of yet another Juárez woman who has disappeared. There have been hundreds, if not thousands, of these since the early ‘90s, and Hawken and his characters are among the many to be haunted by the posters of missing young girls that hang from telephone poles all over the city. Kelly’s girlfriend, Paloma, is one of the activists who puts up those posters. She works with a groups searching for the missing—until she disappears. At the time, Kelly is in drug-induced stupor, so he and Esteban get fingered as the main suspects.

Their case is an example of crime and punishment, Juárez-style. Needless to say it’s not pretty:

Kelly only heard the thud of his skull against the lower doorframe and then the asphalt outside. He caught a boot to the ribs that he couldn’t block or twist away from. He sensed a descending fist before it crashed it into his face.