Juárez: A dangerous place to be a woman

Sam Hawken The Dead Women of Juárez London: Serpent’s Tail, 2011.

*This contains some spoilers*

If you want a review without spoilers see, Mrs Peabody’s excellent blogpost: http://mrspeabodyinvestigates.wordpress.com/2011/12/21/17-sam-hawken-the-dead-women-of-juarez/

According to the attorney general’s office in Mexico the number of femicides in Juarez are the following: 18 in 1993; 19 in 1994; 36 in 1995; 37 in 1996; 36 in 1998; 18 in 1999; 31 in 2000; 37 in 2001; 36 in 2002; 28 in 2003; 19 in 2004; 32 in 2005; 23 in 2006; 23 in 2007; 87 in 2008; 163 in 2009; and 306 in 2010 (for detail, see, http://www.jornada.unam.mx/2011/01/02/index.php?section=politica&article=006n1pol).  That is a total of 949 in less than a decade.  The victims are women of all ages, as well as some children, and they are from all walks of life: policewomen to factory workers, sex workers to housewives.  Even in the context of more than 50,000 people killed in the so-called drug war in Northern Mexico since 2006 (http://www.proceso.com.mx/?p=276308) this is a staggering number.  The escalation since 2006 of deaths is obviously linked to the terror that is governing this region.  Justice has been nearly non-existence for these women.  There were some lack lustre manhunts, but so far there have been very few convictions and most looked like political expediency.  Therefore, Hawken’s The Dead Women of Juárez, with its tale of police corruption and cover-ups, convenient scape-goating of a former junkie boxer, and an account of shocking brutality against women is based on a terrible reality.

Hawken focuses on 5 key characters to tell his story: Kelly Courter, the recovering addict and sometimes boxer, who is in love with Paloma, an activist on behalf of the disappeared women; her brother, who is Kelly’s best friend and a drug dealer; and an alcoholic police officer, Raphael Sevilla, investigating drug offences, who, at first, attempts to cultivate Kelly as an informer, and later tries to rescue him from corrupt police.  For the first 3 out of 4 parts of the novel we follow Kelly’s story, his attempt to return to professional boxing, his close friendship and his developing relationship with Paloma up to his arrest and the savage beatings he receives from police who torture him in their attempt to get him to admit to femicides, including the death of Paloma.  The beatings are told in horrific detail, felt gratuitous and leave Kelly in a coma.  When it gets to that point it appears that making Kelly a boxer was a way of creating this sustained level of beatings as, we are told, being a boxer he is more able to withstand them than others would.

Having an unreliable protagonist, whose descent into drug-fuelled stupor coincides with the disappearance and death of Paloma, is a clever one.  We are left uncertain, as is he, as to his implication in this murder.  But, the final section does not exploit this ambiguity.  Instead, it becomes a fairly conventional police procedural.  It follows Sevilla’s attempt to clear Kelly’s name and find out who is behind the femicides.  For me, this section is the weakest, as the decisions that Sevilla makes do not appear congruent with his behaviour up to that point nor with the justice system as it is presented in the novel. The strong first section is concerned with character development and creating a realistic portrait of Juarez as a city that pulls away from the dramatic headline version and, refreshingly, shows how working people live in this city alongside the criminal elements.  This includes elements of social realism through glimpses of people’s living and working conditions, including: the harshness of working in a maquila (a factory that makes outsourced goods); insight into the tourist industry that is driven by US natives looking for a good time, which helps to sustain the sales of drugs and the sex industry; and the more banal everyday difficulties of inhabiting an urban space that has grown exponentially in the last decade (such as smog, problems related to informal housing and public transport).  Hawken does this well through the sympathetic eyes of Kelly, who operates as a type of post-modern flâneur, walking, boxing, hopping buses, dealing and running his way around the city.  I may have overdosed recently on the Forbrydelsen/The Killing (US and Danish versions), and therefore have developed a taste for complex plotting and unexpected twists, but also, Hawken’s strong opening built this expectation in its carefully developed ambiguity, and clever weaving of Kelly’s character as a damaged human being who occupies a shady moral terrain.

What left me deeply uncomfortable about this novel was the extremity of the savagery of the police.  Mexican police have a terrible reputation, so too does its justice system.  Reports here http://www.lavoz.com.ar/noticias/sucesos/asi-tortura-policia-mexico-df, here http://www.proceso.com.mx/?p=291699 and here http://amnesty.ie/news/mexico-torture-techniques-used-police-training-raise-serious-concerns testify to police abuse of prisoners.  In addition, the (in)justice system was subject of a controversial and much vaunted documentary Presunto culpable/Presumed Guilty ( Roberto Hernández and Geoffrey Smith, 2008).  Therefore, I would not come to their defence.  What made me uncomfortable were two things: the gratuitous nature of the torture and the fact that it was recounted by a US writer.

The second is a thorny one and not one I have space to fully explore here.  I would not suggest for a minute that a US author is not entitled to write about another country.  However, Mexico, as portrayed by its neighbour up north, has had a long history of mis-representation.  Having said that Hawken’s portrayal of Mexico, and, specifically Juárez, is a largely sympathetic one.  Yet, there are frequent moments in the novel where the author compares the Mexican and US system, with the former coming out unfavourably.  Again, the scales of abuse that take place in Mexico do exceed those in the US, but it still sets up a Mexico justice=bad/US justice=good dyad that I feel sensitive to.  The gratuitous nature of the torture in the novel verges on torture porn.  I have studied cases of torture and my research area is war, as a consequence I have watched/read more about how people inflict physical and mental pain on others than is probably healthy.  Although, exposure doesn’t necessarily lead to de-sensitization (in some ways the opposite), I am not squeamish.  The graphic detail and extent of the torture is excessive.  It felt, in some ways, that, wary of how pornographic an equivalent level of torture would be if it were applied to a female body, Hawkens decided to make Kelly’s body a substitute for all those murdered women.  Their torture becomes his.  Naturally, how a man is tortured (conventionally in novels and film as well as reality) is bound by different rules and cultural notions of masculinity, therefore it involves more brutal beatings and the breaking of bones rather than violating him in other ways.

This brings me to a fundamental discomfort I had with the book: if the victims are women and mostly from Mexico, why have a male protagonist at all?  In contrast to Alicia Gaspar de Alba’s recent Desert Blood: The Juárez Murders (Houston: Arte Público Press, 2005), whose protagonist is  female, can these authors not countenance women as having any power or agency when the justice system and the police are not protecting them?  When female journalists reporting on these murders (such as is imagined in Belinda Acosta’s Sisters, Strangers, and Starting Over New York & Boston: Grand Central Publishing, 2010) and women (like Paloma in Hawken’s novel) campaigners are being murdered, maybe it is impossible for them to imagine women having any power over this situation.

These reservations aside, Hawken’s book is a powerful insight into city that has become a very dangerous place to be a woman.



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