– Rafael Sevilla
Once a promising boxer, American Kelly Courter found himself in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico after his dance with drugs and alcohol resulted in a horrific accident he chose to flee from rather than face the consequences. He still boxes, though now it’s his job to play the role of human punching bag for up-and-coming young Mexican fighters in unsanctioned smoker fights.
He also makes a little money on the side by helping his friend Estéban sell marijuana and repackaged prescription pills bought dirt cheap from farmacias and sold at tremendous markup to clueless turistas. It’s not an ideal existence by any stretch of the imagination, but Kelly does have one bright spot in his life, Estéban’s sister, Paloma, with whom Kelly is involved.
Though Paloma is romantically involved with Kelly, her passion lies with Mujeres Sin Voces, an organization dedicated to seeking justice for the countless young women of Ciudad Juárez who go missing every year. Sometimes the women are found murdered, but more often than not they simply disappear, never to be seen again. The polícia are no help, they more than have their hands full fighting a losing battle against the drug cartels, leaving the families of the missing to seek what justice they can on their own.
Detective Rafael Sevilla is a man close to retirement, having put nearly thirty years of his life into the drug wars. Most recently he’s had Estéban on his radar, occasionally leaning on Kelly to try and get the name of Estéban’s heroin supplier, information Kelly honestly doesn’t know having steered clear of that end of Estéban’s business. When Paloma goes missing, Sevilla can’t help but question whether there is a connection between her disappearance and her brother’s business, though Sevilla’s colleagues are more than happy to put Kelly in the frame and be done with it. Unwilling to watch an innocent man go down, and haunted by his own daughter’s disappearance years ago, Sevilla finds himself taking on one last crusade, that of the dead women of Juárez.
Unfortunately, the underlying premise of author Sam Hawken’s haunting crime novel, The Dead Women of Juárez, is rooted in reality, as the city of Ciudad Juárez experiences an alarming number of murders and disappearances of young women every year, most of which go unsolved. Like the polícia in The Dead Women of Juárez, the authorities in the real Ciudad Juárez are overwhelmed with their fight against the drug cartels, a problem that given its financial and international ramifications is deemed more important to them than that of missing local women. The resulting sense of devastation and hopelessness among the families of the young women left to cope with their loss hangs like a pallor over the city. It’s grim.
As is the overall tone of The Dead Women of Juárez, necessarily so. Given the story’s inspiration – more fully explained by Hawken in his guest post “The Futility of Justice and the Persistent Agony of Loss” – to take any of the rough and ugly edges off would be doing a disservice to the issue upon which Hawken is trying to shine a light. Accordingly, Hawken pulls no punches when describing the horrific violence visited upon his characters, and there is a quite a bit of it. But the matter-of-fact manner in which it is presented makes it clear this is not violence for violence’s sake, but rather a conscious decision on Hawken’s part to drive home the casual brutality which permeates the lives of the characters and the dangers they face just trying to eke out an existence.
Yet, despite all the physical destruction meted out in The Dead Women of Juárez, it is the emotional devastation which leaves the biggest impact, both on the characters and the reader. Kelly and Sevilla are men living with an endless inner ache, the type that can only result from unresolved loss. Similarly, the families of the missing women shuffle through a hollow existence, unsure whether it would be better to fill the hole of loss in their hearts with definitive knowledge of their loved one’s death or to nurse the belief that their sisters and daughters will be found alive.
That feeling of desperation tinged with hope is one Hawken captures in a way that is almost uncomfortably palpable. It’s a feeling which stays with the reader long after the last page has been turned, one which makes The Dead Women of Juárez an undeniably eloquent and haunting work, and certainly one of the best I’ve read this year.
The Dead Women of Juárez is available from Serpent’s Tail (ISBN: 978-1846687747).