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