Book Review - The Dead Women of Juárez

Since 1993 over four hundred women have been abducted and murdered in Ciudad Juárez and Chihuahua (both are in in the state of Chihuahua, north Mexico). Many of the women are brutally beaten and raped before being killed and their bodies dumped in the desert or on a secluded street. Others simply disappear without trace.

When the murders first began to be reported, the authorities were openly discriminatory in their public statements. According to Amnesty, sometimes ‘the women themselves were blamed for their own abduction or murder because of the way they dressed or because they worked in bars at night’.

Often, the victims are young women who work in the region’s maquiladoras. For many impoverished women in Mexico working in these sweatshops is their only option. The assembly plants have been in operation since the 1960s but rapidly spread during the 1990s after the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) came into force and created a trading bloc between Canada, the United States and Mexico. Those unfortunate enough to work under sweatshop conditions make clothes for US -based companies such as Levi Strauss and Gap.

Juárez is now the most heavily populated city in Chihuahua State and given its proximity to the US there are also high levels of drug-trafficking and crime. The women have become a lot more visible as they travel to and from work, and their new found independence inevitably breeds resentment amongst local men. Most of the murders remain unsolved and violence against women continues to this day. The city has been dubbed the ‘femicide capital of the world’.

This is the backdrop to Sam Hawken’s assured debut novel The Dead Women of Juárez. Texan boxer, and a recovering drug addict, Kelly Courter works in Juárez as a human punch bag for Ortíz, a shady boxing promoter. Kelly always loses to the up-and-coming native Mexicans. He has few friends, except for his girlfriend, Paloma, who works for the human rights organization, Mujeres Sin Voces (Women without Voices) and her drug-dealing brother Estéban. When Paloma’s horrifically mutilated body is discovered in a stretch of wasteland, Kelly is implicated in her murder and he is brutally tortured to extract a confession by the sinister Captain Garcia.

Rafael Sevilla, a middle-aged narco-cop, has his own reasons for wanting to become involved in the investigation. Joining forces with Enrique, Garcia’s disillusioned assistant, Sevilla sets out to find the real perpetrators of the crime.

Hawken draws a devastating landscape of poverty and corruption. He contrasts the innocence of the victims and their families with the arrogance of those wielding power; the deprivation of the poor with the opulent, gated-accommodation of the rich; the inexorable spread of the drug cartels with the apparent inability of state officials to halt the never ending violence in the region.

Rumours and speculation about who is responsible for the killings run rampant and many believe that the people behind the murders are being protected. As well as the suspicion that drug-traffickers and organised criminals are involved there are also theories that the crimes are the work of wealthy businessmen killing for kicks. Hawken’s taut, brutal thriller intertwines all these suppositions and powerfully demonstrates that violence against women, corruption and lawlessness are all closely linked.

Media attention surrounding the feminicidios has been eclipsed by the violent war between the drug cartels. Hawken’s politically-edged novel draws a welcome focus back to the killings. There are no easy answers but readers can get involved via Amnesty International who continues to lobby the Mexican government. As Hawken points out in his Afterword: “this problem will be solved not with a bullet, but by bringing all those responsible for the abuse and murder of Juárez’s daughters to judgment before the law.”

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