Today’s guest blog is by author Sam Hawken. His first novel The Dead Women of Juárez was shortlisted for the CWA John Creasey Dagger. Sam Hawken is a former historian and a native of Texas who now lives on the east coast of the United States. Tequila Sunset is his second novel.
Try to imagine, if you will, a city of 1.3 million people built around a once-thriving industrial sector. Imagine, however, that the city is plagued with rampant unemployment and, worse yet, an unbelievable murder rate that kills five to ten people a day. Imagine, too, that these murders have a one percent chance of being resolved by the police.
There’s kidnapping, too. And drug use. And thuggish tactics by a heavily armed police force that occupies the city like an army. Sometimes innocent people come under fire from those cops because the good guys can’t tell the innocents from the crooks. Imagine a city that’s rotting away from all this crime. That city is Ciudad Juárez, a border town in the Mexican state of Chihuahua.
Directly across the Rio Grande, literally just yards away, is El Paso, Texas. This city has one of the lowest crime rates in the country. In fact, it’s been called the safest city in the United States. Occasionally bullets from Ciudad Juárez will strike buildings (or people) on the American side, but for the most part El Paso represents an entirely different world.
Back in 2011, Serpent’s Tail released a book of mine called The Dead Women of Juárez. In it, I discussed the ongoing problem of the feminicidios, or female homicides, a phenomenon that has made the city infamous. I chose not to discuss the outrageous violence rampaging through Juárez’s streets in favor of a more personal story about loss and tragic injustice, but I always knew that eventually I would return to tell a more complete tale. That idea turned into Tequila Sunset, another Serpent’s Tail release scheduled for November 2012.
Who is responsible for all this violence? The easy answer is the Sinaloa and Juárez drug cartels, both of which are locked in a death struggle for domination of the Juárez “plaza,” or smuggling route. But the masters of these cartels don’t just snap their fingers to make people die. To execute their orders — and I do mean execute — they have recruited the numbers of various gangs in the city, armed them with high-powered weapons and set them loose on one another. They go by the names La Línea, Los Artistas Asesinos, Los Mexicles, Barrio Azteca.
Evidence suggests that the Sinaloa Cartel is winning the war in Ciudad Juárez, but despite that fact, the most violent gang in the city operates under the aegis of the Juárez Cartel: Barrio Azteca, or Los Aztecas as they are known in Mexico. A prison gang formed in Texas in 1986, Barrio Azteca took hold of the drug trade in El Paso and rapidly metastasized into Ciudad Juárez. At the time when I began writing Tequila Sunset, it was estimated that Barrio Azteca was responsible for 85% of the murders in Juárez. Try to wrap your head around that statistic.
I wanted to know: how could two cities, El Paso and Ciudad Juárez, be so interdependent and yet so markedly different? As El Paso grew more peaceful, Juárez grew exponentially more violent. Police in El Paso cracked down on Barrio Azteca and all but drove them off the streets completely, while Los Aztecas across the border went on a killing rampage unparalleled in criminal history.
To this end I came up with a story with three characters. One, a cop assigned to the gang unit in El Paso. A second, a Mexican policeman pursuing Los Aztecas in Juárez. The third, a Barrio Azteca member dangerously balanced between both worlds and looking for a way out.
The Dead Women of Juárez took place exclusively in Ciudad Juárez, but Tequila Sunset spends most of its time in El Paso. It’s naïve to think that crime has truly vanished in that city, especially when it thrives across the border, so I wanted to explore how groups like Barrio Azteca have largely learned to exist underground, still going about their business, but subtly. It takes a cleverer cop to root out these smarter, cannier gang members, whereas on the Mexican side it requires little more than the application of brute force.
My characters could not just be archetypes, however. They had to be people. El Paso and Ciudad Juárez are populated by every sort of person, good and bad and a mixture of both. They have lives and family and crises that do not just revolve around cops and robbers. I tried very hard with The Dead Women of Juárez to depict realistically the kind of people who persevere through this kind of existence and I wanted to bring that sensibility to Tequila Sunset. Whether I succeeded is a matter of conjecture.
As for Ciudad Juárez and El Paso in a civic sense, both cities continue to survive despite of their wildly disparate experiences with crime. Juárez may be dying, but El Paso thrives. Which city is feeding off which? What does it mean if El Paso has truly exported its crime problem to Mexico to let their overwhelmed authorities deal with it?
My work is called crime fiction because it deals with that side of life, but I like to think that I’m writing in a broader sense with crime as the linchpin. It really is impossible to discuss these two cities and their citizens without addressing the issue of crime in some way or another, but it’s my hope that readers of Tequila Sunset or my earlier book will come to see them as human stories of which crime is a part, but not the whole. I was called a mystery writer once, but to me the only mystery in my books is how these people handle the intense pressures under which they’re placed. I know that if I were living in Ciudad Juárez I would be too afraid to set foot outside my doorstep for fear that I would be killed or kidnapped, and yet life continues, even for those whose job it is to step into the line of fire. In El Paso, where it is so much safer, one’s thoughts must still return to the hell that lurks on the far side of the river. Maybe you’d try to do something to help. Maybe you’d turn away. In either case, you’d be forced to make a decision, like my characters are forced to make decisions. That’s what Tequila Sunset is all about. I hope readers feel I’ve done a fair job of it.