by Sam Hawken
It should be a surprise to no one to learn that Mexico is an incredibly violent country. While it was never the most peaceful place, things have exploded in the last six years and over 50,000 people have been killed. The numbers of the kidnapped, extorted and abused are even higher. It’s an ongoing tragedy ripe for exploration in fiction, but with The Dead Women of Juárez I chose to focus on something that’s been going on for far longer, though the rest of the chaos has overshadowed it: the deaths of women in Ciudad Juárez.
Starting in the mid-1990s, women began to die in Ciudad Juárez. These were not ordinary killings, but were marked by a particular brutality. The women were not just murdered, but tortured and raped, sometimes for long periods of time. During the same period, even more women began to simply vanish. In time these would be called the feminicidios. They are still going on.
Criminal justice in Mexico is virtually nonexistent. According to the New York Times, “in 14 of Mexico’s 31 states, the chance of a crime’s leading to trial and sentencing was less than one percent.” Nationwide the conviction rate doesn’t top 10 percent. Try to imagine a similar state of affairs in your country. I expect most will find the very concept beyond their capability to process. For the families of the victims of feminicidios, the conviction rate was even worse, largely because the authorities showed virtually no interest in pursuing investigations. A few were put in prison, but the numbers of the dead far outstripped those blamed for the crimes.
I first became aware of this situation in the mid-2000s when Amnesty International started a campaign to get the word out. Since I am a writer, I felt the best way for me to do my part was to simply do what I do, and I started work on what would become The Dead Women of Juárez. I knew I wanted to inform my readers about the kind of place Ciudad Juárez is and the kind of people who lived there. I wanted to make the issue of the dead women central to the plot by showing how one death affected two very different men.
The first of the pair is Kelly Courter, an expatriate American, a former professional boxer who fled a broken life of addiction and tragedy to play out the remaining years of his existence. He hires himself as a punching bag for younger, hungrier Mexican fighters, but makes his real cash helping his drug-dealing friend Estéban make sales to the dwindling number of tourists brave enough to cross the border from El Paso. Kelly’s girlfriend, Estéban’s sister Paloma, makes the plight of Juárez’s dead women her life’s work.
The other is Rafael Sevilla, a Mexican policeman sliding into a less than graceful retirement, his own life a hollow shell after a cataclysmic event shattered his world. He orbits around Kelly and Estéban and even Paloma, seeking some measure of accomplishment in his work and peace in his heart. What happens next will tie all four of them inextricably together and leave no one unscathed.
It was not an easy book to write. I tend to produce pages quickly, but in the case of The Dead Women of Juárez I struggled to make it all work. I finished the first draft exhausted and when I read over it I decided that it didn’t read the way I wanted it to and jettisoned an enormous chunk of my manuscript and wrote something entirely different. I really wanted to get this right, and not only deliver a satisfying crime novel, but also a novel that was true to the experience of Juárez. And there was the matter of doing justice to those characters, who demanded the most careful of treatment.
One thing I did not explore deeply was the “city under siege” aspect of Juárez. The drug war has complicated things greatly since I began work on the book in earnest and that situation can easily suck all the air out of a room or a story. I made the deliberate choice to set that aside and pay strict attention to this critical issue. If the authorities were taking a lackadaisical attitude toward the feminicidios before, they were ignoring it entirely now that the bodies were piling up eight, nine, ten a day. The men killing Juárez’s women had the ultimate cover for their crimes and I wanted to deny them that cloak of violence. The Dead Women of Juárez should be raw and painful and maybe sometimes unpleasant, because there is no good to be found in the story of Juárez’s tormented dead. The best anyone can hope for is to preserve some semblance of honor and humanity in the face of a terrible evil.
At the time I finished The Dead Women of Juárez I had never published a novel, despite years of trying with other manuscripts. A year after I wrote the first line of this one, I turned in the completed work to my agent, who quickly found a great home for it at Serpent’s Tail in the UK. I’ve gone on to work with that house a couple more times subsequently, but I don’t think I will ever be happier than I was when The Dead Women of Juárez garnered its first professional praise. That others have since said nice things about the book is wonderful and surreal. I wanted to give the reader the very best writing I could muster and it seems that I succeeded. No one is more surprised than I am.
The Dead Women of Juárez has finally made its way to the United States in print form. Of course I hope you read it, but not just for my own satisfaction. I hope that after finishing the last page you will want to know more and do more. I want the book to have made some kind of difference. You can help that happen.
Sam Hawken is a writer of contemporary crime novels and other fiction, who makes his home near Washington, DC. Current events in Mexico are his preoccupation, and The Dead Women of Juárez from Serpent’s Tail is his American debut. His second Juárez-set novel, Tequila Sunset, is due in the UK in November 2012. http://www.samhawken.com