This story is adapted from Ricardo C. Ainslie's The Fight to Save Juarez (UT Press).
Elena first met Hernán at a bar. She was in her early twenties, hanging out in a Juárez club frequented by people involved in the drug world, people who partied hard and were always flush with cash. Elena spotted Hernán across the room and asked a friend to introduce them. She was aggressive that way. She was also strikingly attractive and had a wild streak that made her uninterested in stable men with stable careers.
Elena and Hernán (all the names in this piece are pseudonyms) soon became a couple, of sorts—he already had a wife and children, and other mistresses. But Elena was different than the docile women he was accustomed to. If he pushed her she pushed back. She was not afraid of his violent character—her father was abusive, as were many of the men she’d been with since her adolescence, when she’d discovered her sexuality. That discovery had given her a power she’d never before experienced, as if something unknown and unanticipated had opened up within her. She had felt no fear that night at the bar when she walked across the room to meet Hernán, only a sense of opportunity.
In the cartel culture, braggadocio is the lingua franca, and flash and pretense often mask substance. Elena figured out quickly that Hernán was the real deal. For all his dime-a-dozen narco posturing—the abundance of cash, the ever-present gun, the gold jewelry—there was plenty of evidence pointing to his status as a midlevel narco within the Juárez cartel. Hernán was, in fact, one of many operators who helped the Juárez cartel move product across the border. He was something of an entrepreneur who ran his own crew, recruited his own mules, and sometimes invested his own money in his deals. He operated as a franchise of sorts, although he was under the control of the cartel.
Elena saw one of the first signs of Hernán's status during an encounter with the municipal police. One afternoon she and Hernán were in his new pickup truck speeding down the Avenida de las Americas, one of Juárez’s main boulevards. The windows were down and the sound system was blasting narcocorridos. Elena and Hernán were having a grand time. They’d been on a partying spree that had lasted several days. Suddenly, a police patrol car was in pursuit, lights flashing. Hernán cursed, but pulled over. When the officer approached the truck and recognized Hernán, his entire demeanor changed. “I’m sorry, sir,” Elena remembered the officer saying. “Can we escort you anywhere?” The Juárez cartel owned the police.
As a child in Juárez, Elena had grown up in roiling poverty, but she was outgoing and spunky and for a long time there was an inner optimism that transcended the reality of her family’s economic circumstances. In elementary school she’d even imagined herself becoming an archaeologist or an astronaut.
Elena’s father, though, was gruff with the children and abused their mother. He drank and partied with his friends, and they never knew if he would come home at night. He barely provided for the family; Elena’s older brothers helped support the household even though they were only adolescents and had to drop out of school to do so.
As a teenager, Elena was always out and about. The boys and men who wanted her were legion. There were nights when Elena didn’t return home, and she would walk in the door when she damned well felt like it. Her mother deemed her incorrigible. When she was 14, she ran away. For almost nine months her family didn’t know where she was. She slept at her girlfriends’ houses or stayed with men in the cheap motel rooms where they spent the night. Elena felt no fear in this abandon; she was full of the self-confidence that comes with commanding beauty.
By the time she was fifteen Elena was working as a waitress in a restaurant, visiting her family only sporadically. In her neighborhood, most kids her age were no longer in school and gangs were everywhere. In this world, everyone had friends and neighbors who were involved in the drug trade, helping to transport, warehouse, and package drugs, and sometimes running them across the river into El Paso. The only people with money that she knew were people with ties to the Juárez cartel.
One day Elena caught her mother in a reflective mood. They sat down to drink a cup of coffee at the small, worn table in the barren room that served as both living room and kitchen in the family’s cramped three-room house. As they sipped their coffee, Elena’s mother told her that she hoped Elena would have a better life and find a better man than her father. Elena told her mother something that she had never acknowledged, even to herself, until that moment: she had no interest in getting married. “I want to be an amante, not a wife,” she said, using the Spanish word for a lover.
What she meant, she later told me, was that she wanted to be a narco’s mistress. There was greater honesty in that than in a conventional marriage, she thought. Such an arrangement would also give her the comfort of knowing that no one owned her, that she could leave any time she wished.
Elena discovered that she was pregnant after she and Hernán had been together for less than a year. His response was to buy a house for her. The house was in a working class neighborhood, and most of the people around her were employed at the nearby assembly plants. But her home stood out. It was two stories and had a wrought-iron fence with a postage-stamp yard in front, plus a large backyard with concertina wire along the top of the fence. When their child, Pedro, was born, Hernán attended his baptism, which cemented for Elena the notion that while she was not