As a child, author Stella Pope Duarte dreamed of writing, but she never dreamed she'd end up writing about violent crime.
"I always loved literature as a kid, always. I loved to tell stories," said Duarte, a Phoenix native and adjunct creative-writing professor at Arizona State University and Phoenix College. However, said Duarte, "That's not something that I said when I was 12 years old: 'Someday, I'd like to write about murders.'"
When Duarte learned about the serial mutilation and murder of more than 400 young women in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, since 1993, she knew she could not ignore it--so she began her latest book, If I Die in Juárez.
It took Duarte about four years to write and publish the book, which was released this April. She spent three of those years researching the crimes, often traveling to Ciudad Juárez to interview victims' families.
Though her book is fictional, it's based on victims' stories. She used three main characters to illustrate the conditions and culture in Ciudad Juárez, which is across the border from El Paso, Texas. The story switches among the girls: Mayela, Evita and Petra.
"I tried to get the different layers of Juárez," said Duarte. "In any city, you have layers and layers and layers of people, and the way they live, and I wanted to capture that."
Like the characters, the victims all fit a particular profile: dark-haired, slender young women, ranging in age from 11 to 22 years old.
"They're easy prey," said Duarte. "They are very poor people, very hard-working, and have never been dealt with fairly at all by the police, by the authorities that are supposed to protect them. Many of them really are told, 'Just get out,' literally, of the office, and stop bothering them."
Ciudad Juárez is home to migrant families seeking work. Many of the victims worked in maquiladoras, factories set up by foreign companies, mostly American. In many families, these were the first women to work outside the home.
This created a problem, said Duarte, because the men in these families ceased to be the sole providers, and that challenged their machismo. That, said Duarte, combined with extreme poverty of the transplanted families and the exorbitant wealth of local cartels, contributed to the hate crimes.
"You know, we think in America that we're poor. No, we don't understand poverty. I went there several times, and I could not believe the poverty," said Duarte.
The cartels' vast wealth allows them to get away with the murders.
"Money silences people," said Duarte. "If somebody wants to take a young woman and torture her and do whatever, hey, nobody's gonna talk."
Duarte said she spoke to one woman whose uncle was ordered by a cartel to take the blame for one of the murders. They threatened to kill the entire family, so the uncle went to jail.
She said that although more men are murdered in Ciudad Juárez as a result of cartel activity, the murders of the women are far more horrific. During her research, Duarte read descriptions of the mutilations.
"It's horrible. They're graphic. You can barely read through them. ... I've said to myself, 'I can't do this anymore,'" said Duarte.
"One woman told me that her daughter was given to her in a little box. That's all they could find, but it was her daughter," said Duarte.
"When you have a woman's body whose eyes are gouged, insides, entrails, and arms chopped off, and legs chopped off, and raped and beaten and done all kinds of hideous torture to, it's more than that. It's more than a murder," said Duarte. "It's like they say, a 'femicide,' a hate crime against women."
Duarte said that though she was shocked by the sadistic nature of the murders and saddened by the pain of the victims' families, she continued on.
"I stayed, because I understood that I either stay the course, or I won't be fulfilling the purpose that I've been put on this Earth for. So I stayed," said Duarte.
The Mexican government got help from the FBI in forensics training to identify the victims. Women's organizations, funded in part by American groups, have aided in Ciudad Juárez. The murders continue, said Duarte, but are now far fewer in number than in years past.
News articles and her book have brought public attention to the issue, which has been instrumental in the improvement in Ciudad Juárez, said Duarte--but the attention must continue.
"I tell you that changes have been made because the world is looking at Juárez," she said.
Stella Pope Duarte will discuss If I Die in Juárez with the book club at the Murphy-Wilmot Branch Library, 530 N. Wilmot Road, at 10 a.m., Saturday, July 26. Admission is free. Call 594-5420 for more information.