“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.

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.   

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.

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.

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.

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