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 Hernán’s wife, she was important. If he had other girlfriends, she believed herself to be first among equals.

“You have to come by every day to see your boy,” Elena insisted to Hernán. “I don’t care if it’s for five minutes.” And he did, Elena said. In fact, many nights he stayed over. “I don’t know how he did it in terms of his wife, but he knew how to have his way with her,” Elena said.

Hernán never kept anything related to his business in Elena’s house. But periodically he would ask her to come to one of his safe houses to help clean and repackage the cocaine from Colombia, which often arrived in kilo packets that were greasy and soiled. Hernán claimed this needed to be done for security reasons, so that the ICE dogs couldn’t pick up the scent. But it was likely also his way of assuring that no one slipped a dud or two into the stack. Hernán paid Elena $400 for that service. He could get it done for less, but he knew he could trust her.

In the narco-world, having paramours and mistresses and leaving your women with children all over town was simply part of the culture. Narcocorridos celebrated the big capos who left so many women pregnant; such expressions of virility were a staple of the macho narco-culture. Hernán’s brothers and other relatives knew about Elena and Pedro. In fact, sometimes Hernán and Elena vacationed with his brothers and cousins or associates. It was all loose, boundary-less, and dictated by the whims of men who felt entitled to have their way.

Hernán could be charming, effusive, and indulgent. He often catered to Elena’s whims. Their son was never lacking in toys and Hernán brought him many gifts; keeping Pedro pampered and spoiled was one of his pleasures. He could be that way with others, as well. “He could be very noble,” is the way Elena described it. One afternoon they had been out to eat and were driving home from the restaurant when they stopped at a light where a woman was begging for money to feed her children. Hernán reached into his pocket and pulled out a twenty-dollar bill. Rolling down his window, he beckoned the woman over. “Here,” he said. “Now go back to your house, señora, to be with your children.” The woman started crying and thanked him.

Such gestures touched Elena. They made her trust Hernán, convinced her that he had a good heart. She saw those qualities, too, in the way he interacted with Pedro and with his parents, to whom he was devoted. “As a son, friend, and father, he was very noble and good,” she said. “As a man, he was a son of a bitch.”

The latter was a reference to a darker side of Hernán. For all the ways he could be tender and indulging, he was equally capable of being vicious, aggressive, and controlling. He could come home in an expansive, manic mood when things went well, but when they didn’t, he blew in like the wrath of God, demanding, provoking, and attacking. And Elena’s nature was anything but submissive. When she felt that he was being unreasonable she stood her ground. She did not coddle him or try to smooth his feathers. That was completely against her nature. She talked back. She shouted as loudly as he did. She told him to go fuck himself.

At such times Hernán often insulted her and sometimes beat her, which only mobilized Elena’s fury all the more. She threw things at him or tried to hurt him. On one occasion she almost gouged his eye out, requiring a trip to the emergency room. Hernán’s abuse also took the form of a need to have Elena under his control. He had his police goons park on her block and in front of her house. He wanted to know where she was at all times. He did not like for her to leave the house even if it was to go grocery shopping. When she went out, he checked on her obsessively, repeatedly calling her on her cell phone.

Hernán and Elena lived lives of combustible desperation within the middle rungs of the Juárez cartel. Elena’s restless instincts and combative nature played off of Hernán’s macho disposition in ways that created an unanticipated, and perhaps unacknowledged, balance between them. Life in the cartel was full of people like Hernán and Elena, people who had grown up with nothing in Juárez’ desolate neighborhoods. Every time that Elena had unpacked, washed, and re-packed Hernán’s shipments of cocaine she made more than assembly plant workers earn in a month. There was little that she wished for beyond what she had. Her life already exceeded what most people from her background could have hoped for.

Though Hernán had always been a heavy drinker, he had never been a cocaine user. But by 2009 more and more cartel members were using coke. Over the last year of Hernán and Elena’s relationship, his violence had intensified, very likely because of his drug use. Elena felt she could always tell when he came home coked up. He was hyper and restless, and he couldn’t sleep. He also became hyper-suspicious and increasingly vigilant, but Elena was never clear whether the paranoia was a function of something real or imagined. Hernán’s job was always dangerous, and became even more so as the Sinaloa cartel started making inroads in Juárez. Many of his associates were turning up dead.

On one occasion Hernán wrestled Elena to the floor in the kitchen and put a gun to her head in front of Pedro. It was the one thing she would never forgive. She told him to go ahead and kill her. “You’d be doing me a favor,” she said.

One morning she received a call from Hernán. He was tense. He gave her very clear, specific instructions: Take Pedro to your mother’s and stay there until you hear from me. Under no circumstances was she to go near her house. Something big was taking place, although he refused to say anything more about it. That afternoon Hernán called again, only to repeat the instructions that she and Pedro were not to return to the house.

The next call Elena received was from one of Hernán’s brothers, telling her he was dead. Hernán had been shot down in the street, ambushed by an unidentified narco-commando group. Killed like a dog, she said.

At Hernán’s funeral, Elena discovered that he had at least a dozen children, only four of which were with his wife. She had always assumed that he had other lovers, but discovering that her child was not the only one outside of his marriage surprised her. Elena consoled herself with the fact that she was the only one of his consorts for whom he’d purchased a home and with the knowledge that he had participated in the boy’s baptism.

Whatever purchase such reassurances gave Elena, it was short-lived. She returned to her house two days after Hernán’s execution to find it in shambles. It was obvious that the people involved believed that Hernán had hidden either drugs or money at the house. No drawer was left in a dresser or cabinet; no mattress was left unturned. Every piece of furniture had been moved, some of it broken. The closets had all been emptied onto the floor.

Elena inferred from this that Hernán had betrayed someone. She also knew that had she been home she would have been killed or kidnapped and tortured to see if she knew something. That is why Hernán had been so insistent that she and Pedro leave. There was something else that Elena noticed: The ever-present police cars that Hernán had stationed outside the house were gone. They never returned.

In the aftermath of Hernán’s execution, Elena was left alone. There was both relief and sadness in this. Elena felt that Hernán’s executioners had done her a favor; she felt unburdened even as she felt deeply mournful. She missed him and she knew Pedro missed him, but she didn’t miss the insistent, stalking calls on her cell phone. The enormity of his emotional baggage was no longer upon her.

But that absence had consequences. Hernán had purchased the house outright, so she owned it free and clear. But suddenly she was broke. He had always been clear with her: “I don’t want you to have money because I want the guy who has you after I’m dead to have to work for you like I’ve worked for you.” At the time it seemed like something theoretical, a “what if” scenario. But the “what if” was now a reality. She had no money and her son was enrolled in a private school. For the last eight years Hernán had regularly arrived at the house with a wad of cash in his pocket that she tapped to pay the bills, shop for groceries, or go to the mall. That was gone.

“I was alone and had nowhere to turn,” Elena told me. Her family was impoverished. Her first strategy was to sell her things. The house had nice furnishings, artwork, three computers, several televisions, and various appliances. Elena organized a series of garage sales to get rid of what she had. A close friend, another narco-widow whose man had also been executed and who was now prostituting herself at an expensive brothel to pay her bills, offered a proposition: “Don’t sell your stuff, come work with me. I’ll set you up.” But Elena couldn’t bring herself to do it. “My pride got in the way,” she told me. Over the first few months she sold everything she had except for the worn-out modular couches, the beds, and one of the televisions. She pulled her son out of private school.

For a year, Elena cobbled together a month-to-month subsistence, but in the end she could not stay afloat. She swallowed her pride, and called her narco-widow friend. “You should have called me a year ago,” her friend said. “You wouldn’t have had to sell all your shit.”

It was not an easy transition. Elena had been fast and loose for years, but always in control. Sex had been her terrain and a source of power. Now, she had to make herself desired and acquiesce to other’s desires. The very essence, the thing that made prostitution what it was, ran counter to the way in which Elena had used sex. She felt defeated and depressed.

The man who ran the brothel told her to cut out the moping. “This is just a job,” he said. “What you do here is not your identity, it’s just what you do to earn money. When you leave here and go home, leave this behind.” She took the advice to heart, and found some relief in it. She stopped feeling sorry for herself.

The bordello where Elena worked catered to Juárez’s professional class: dentists, veterinarians, accountants, lawyers, and plant managers. She says she made six hundred to seven hundred pesos (roughly fifty to sixty dollars) an hour, although that didn’t include the house “cut.” Her only costs were wardrobe—buying the outfits that made her alluring and desirable to the clientele. She tried to find people to take care of Pedro while she worked, but he spent many nights alone.

After a year of turning tricks Elena talked the owner into letting her be part of the management team. She started recruiting girls for the brothel. She had discovered that she had a talent for talking girls into prostitution. She would enter a bar, scan the place, and target girls that she intuited were vulnerable or amenable to her pitch. She offered them base salaries that were far and above what they made in regular jobs, and she brought them to Juárez and trained them. Most had to be taught how to dress, how to act, how to make themselves interesting to the men of Juárez’s professional class. They were unsophisticated; most had never traveled anywhere beyond Chihuahua. Elena claimed she was straight with them about the job and what it entailed. They came willingly, she said, and she described herself as a kind of sponsor or protector who made sure the owners lived up to their promises.

One evening Elena and I met at a Chinese restaurant for an interview. She placed her cell phone on the table, as she had been receiving a steady flow of calls. The calls covered a range of pressing needs; two of her girls needed wardrobe consultations (“I think the striped blouse looks good on you!”; “No, that’s not sexy enough”). One called to ask if there would be enough clients that night to make it worthwhile to show up for work (it was a Tuesday, typically a slow night). Elena responded like a harsh schoolmarm. “You’re damn right you have to show up,” she told her. “And if you don’t show, you know I’ll have someone behind you who really wants the work.”

She gave the girls no quarter. She had to threaten them with firing or else she’d have anarchy on her hands, she said. Elena was convinced that if she took a more lenient approach the girls would take advantage of her. Elena’s greatest fear was that one of them would try to take over her job.

Elena talked about her knack for recruiting girls, for knowing, intuitively, who might be amenable to doing this work and how to sweet-talk them into signing up. “I really learned this from him,” she said, referring to Hernán, who was very skilled at recruiting young women to be his mules. He ran those women like a pimp runs his whores, she observed.

Somehow, Elena had come to find the turns her life had taken to be empowering. She dreamed of starting her own brothel. Maybe she’d send Pedro off to the nuns and turn her house into a members-only, exclusive “club.” She could pilfer the membership list from her current workplace and bribe the cops from her precinct so that she wouldn’t have any problems. She was convinced that the girls world come with her rather than stay with the current brothel owner. “He’s got his head up his ass,” she said.

For the first time in her life, Elena felt she had a skill. She now knew how to run a business, manage employees, and keep track of money. The life of a madam was not the life she had imagined for herself when she was the well-tended, kept woman of a narcotraficante. But it was far better than the life she had imagined for herself as an impoverished young girl, when the dreams of being an astronaut or an archaeologist had faded away. Her time with Hernán, for all its craziness, had turned her into someone stronger, smarter, and more ruthless than she could have ever imagined.