American readers may not be familiar with Sergio González Rodríguez by name, but fans of Spanish-language fiction are likely aware of him. One of Mexico’s leading writers and political agitators, González Rodríguez has been featured in the novels of Roberto Bolańo (2666) and Javier Marias (Dark Back of Time) for his research into the more than three hundred female homicides in Mexico’s Ciudad Juarez. In 2002, González Rodríguez published Bones in the Desert, an investigative account of the homicides that set out to prove that in Mexico, “the rule of law... is fiction.” Despite being banned from the State of Chihuahua and having endured chronic intimidation, he is a columnist for the Mexico City newspaper Reforma and is currently working on his doctoral degree in law. González Rodríguez is also the author of three books, The Headless Man, Infectious, and Original Evil. In his latest book and English debut, The Femicide Machine, González Rodríguez weaves almost two decades of research into a sharp narrative manifesto about the female homicides in Ciudad Juarez. He agreed to chat with Bookforum via email about the book, which comes out later this month, and is excerpted below.
Bookforum: You began your career writing art criticism for the Mexico City newspaper, Reforma. What led you to write about the female homicides in Cuidad Juarez?
Sergio Gonzalez Rodriguez: I was writing about art, films and books for Reforma when I read about the serial murders of young women on the Mexican border. So I decided to go to the border of Ciudad Juárez and El Paso, Texas to investigate the story. You must remember that in the middle of the last decade of the 20th century there were many narratives about serial killers in film and literature—and I wanted to know how much of what I read about these murders was true. I soon discovered that the crimes did happen, and they made up a drama of enormous proportions. Ciudad Juárez was held hostage by the same culture of corruption and impunity that all of Mexico now suffers from.
BF: You’ve written extensively about Cuidad Juarez, describing, in the opening lines of Femicide, the city’s geopolitical structure as “a territorial power [that] normalized barbarism.” How do you conduct research in an environment known for its inhospitality towards writers and journalists?
SGR: I began to investigate the crimes in 1996. Over the years, while I was publishing articles about them in Reforma, my method of investigation was to visit the border as many times as necessary. In spite of my discretion, I was threatened and assaulted. Criminals and policemen rumored to be connected to the murders tried to prevent my investigation. Since then, the situation in Mexico has gotten worse for journalists. Criminals routinely kill journalists—more than 70 have been murdered since 2000—and the authorities are too incompetent to control or punish the perpetrators.
BF: Has the Mexican government made it difficult to get published there?
SGR: Mexico is a semi-democratic country. There is an apparent freedom of expression to criticize the government, but the consequences are risky: the government marginalizes, discredits, persecutes, spies on, and even incriminates its critics. It displays the characteristics of an authoritarian regime. Because of this, I try to write about things other than political crime and power.
BF: You’ve written a novel, essays, as well as other works of non-fiction—which form do you find yourself most drawn to?
SGR: As a reader and a writer, I’ve observed that the novel is generally inclined to reproduce conventional forms; for example, 19th century realist ones. I think it’s necessary to develop more contemporary formal approaches—to be more flexible and imaginative in terms of narration and the handling of time and space, and to be more playful with literary traditions.
BF: You use the metaphor of the “machine” repeatedly in Femicide. In the introduction you refer to the geopolitical landscape of Ciudad Juarez as handicapped by “the war machine, the police machine, the criminal machine…the machine of apolitical conformity.”
SGR: From my point of view, the concept of the "machine" is more than a metaphor: it refers to a whole system of relations between power and people that operates through economic, political, social, and cultural dimensions. It is an interconnected system that influences reality through abstract patterns and designed practices in order to achieve specific objectives: gain, productivity, and control. This is the logic of the new global order.
BF: What are your thoughts about the future of investigative journalism in Mexico?
SGR: I predict a difficult future for investigative journalism in Mexico. Investigative journalists need to be more acute in their methods of investigation, in their analysis, with their forms—journalism needs to take on a more expressive quality, it needs to integrate an interdisciplinary perspective.
BF: Are you undertaking any new projects?
SGR: I plan to continue critiquing Mexican and Latin American political and cultural institutions. Also, I’m working on several writing projects, namely literary essays and narratives that explore new forms. I want literature to better reflect contemporary political transformations.
BF: What new forms are you currently experimenting with?
SGR: In my non-fiction I’ve tried to incorporate reportage and essay, and sometimes my own personal testimony. In other words, I want to build multiple narratives into one text. My novels more and more look to combine reality and fantasy through the subjectivity of characters; to use suspense, horror, dream, violence, and art as imaginative devices. It’s my approach towards capturing the experience of the otherness and the complexity of contemporary life.
From Sergio González Rodríguez's The Femicide Machine (Semiotext(e) 2012)
The phenomenon of female homicides in Ciudad Juárez began to be denounced in 1993. There is evidence these crimes began years before. Why were they murdered? For the pleasure of killing women who were poor and defenseless.
How many victims have there been? Of the 400 women and girls killed for various reasons from 1993 to the present, at least 100 murders were commited in tandem with extreme sexual violence. The lack of reliable information from the authorities is part of the problem.
Who killed them? Drug traffickers, complicit with individuals who enjoy political and economic power.
Where and how did the events take place? The victims were abducted from the streets of Ciudad Juárez and taken by force into safe houses where they were raped, tortured, and murdered at stag parties or orgies.
The victims’ bodies were dumped into the desert like garbage, tossed onto streets, on corners and vacant lots in the city’s urban and suburban zones, and in the outskirts of the city. In many cases the victims’ clothes and identification cards were interchanged in a kind of perverse game. Authorities refused to investigate the cases in depth. These events imply a misogynistic furor that escalated from an isolated crime to a collective ravaging; especially in terms of the “copycat effect,” in which imitators stalk victims and replicate the femicide machine’s efficiency. Impunity is the murderers’ greatest stimulant.
These are the conclusions of numerous experts in Mexico and abroad, who launched investigations on this phenomenon, independently of the Mexican government’s own investigations. Neither the Mexican state nor its government has confronted the problem during its various stages in a manner congruent with their official responsibilities. There is no mystery about these murders beyond the failure of Mexican authorities to undertake an in-depth investigation of these crimes. A number of politicians and government officials have promised to carry out investigations, and they have even publicly vowed to request help from the United States to resolve the problem. None of these promises have been kept. The facts point to a situation that extends beyond Mexico’s borders.
A report by a UN expert panel visiting the border in the fall of 2003 noted: “A total of 328 women have been murdered in Ciudad Juárez during the 1993–2003 period. Of this total number, 86 aggravated homicides have been perpetrated involving sexual violence.” Another academic study raised the figure to 144 victims in 2004. Within this universe of cases, some would be what many criminologists identify as serial murders.
The UN’s report lamented “the relative incapacity of the State to adequately solve these cases.” The true cause of such ineptitude resides in the efficacy of the femicide machine, whose functioning has evolved over time, incorporating judicial and political systems, to such an extent that Mexican authorities have sidetracked or blocked the investigations. This performance goes beyond the mere incompetence or negligence which some have cited to justify their own actions. Authorities have continually discredited those who oppose their official version of the truth: The crimes, they insist, are merely a product of domestic violence, or, more recently, the war on drug trafficking. They seek to discount the systematic and peculiar violence against women, a violence wherein organized crime and Juárez’s political and economic powers converge.
An FBI source affirmed: “Who’s behind the murders? At least one or more serial killers, a couple of drug dealers, two violent and sadistic gangs and a group of powerful men.” Mexican government intelligence officials have also sustained this view. Mexican authorities and their spokespeople have tried to minimize the events in Ciudad Juárez, seeking to shift public attention toward generalized misogynist violence throughout Mexico, ultimately confronting neither problem.
The Mexican government declares that most of the murders of women in Ciudad Juárez have been solved. In Mexico, as long as the authorities accuse someone—with or without proof—a case is deemed “solved.”
Organizations for the families of victims argue that nothing has been resolved.