Lost in Juarez

This true-crime book centering on a renowned forensic sculptor fails to enlighten

The rape and murder of more than 400 young women in Juarez, Mexico, since 1993--a nightmare of injustice and neglect collectively called the feminicidios--have inspired several books and films of late, despite the crimes being largely unsolved and, it seems, unsolvable.

The attacks have been variously blamed on a supposed Egyptian serial killer, several thrill-seeking bus drivers (one of whom died in prison proclaiming his innocence, as did the Egyptian), the Juarez police force, drug cartels and, more generally, the ravages of NAFTA, as many of the victims were employees of the foreign-owned assembly plants along the border.

The exceedingly dark and sexual nature of the Juarez crimes, and the sheer volume of bodies, make the feminicidios fertile ground for the "true crime" genre, a literary tradition created by Truman Capote and practiced to great effect by Norman Mailer and a few others, but that has since devolved into a mass-market trade with a premium on the lurid. Following the lead of Capote's In Cold Blood and Mailer's The Executioner's Song, latter-day true-crime writers generally take a well-known and shocking crime, learn all they can about the events and the principals, and then attempt to narrate the history of the affair as if it were a novel.

This is exactly the method employed by New York-based freelance writer Ted Botha in his new book, The Girl With the Crooked Nose: A Tale of Murder, Obsession and Forensic Artistry. While Botha is a capable writer and storyteller, and his subject, the famous forensic sculptor Frank Bender, is an interesting one, the book's contribution to the growing body of work related to the Juarez killings is small.

That being said, a few passages contribute something new to our overall portrait of the murders.

The majority of the The Girl With the Crooked Nose--a title that refers to one of the Juarez victims, the skull of which Bender uses to create a sculpture to identify the remains--is taken up by the story of Bender's entrance into and success within the world of forensic artistry. Bender, one of the founders of the Vidocq Society (a group of armchair detectives who attempt to solve cold cases), has been responsible for helping to solve, through his reconstructions, dozens of murders and fugitive cases. Botha tells Bender's story well, giving an interesting and exhaustive, if a bit repetitive, account of each of Bender's cases over the last 30 years.

This detailed career history is wrapped around a few short sections that follow Bender on two trips to Juarez, where he was invited, through his many contacts in law enforcement, to employ his talents in the feminicidios investigation. During the course of his two trips, Bender finds himself watched, hindered, lied to and even attacked by the very people who are supposed to be solving the murders.

The most interesting and potentially illuminating passage comes when Bender is approached by a consultant from the United States who is working with the Mexicans on the investigation. The man offers to take Bender to enjoy a secret whorehouse featuring the very type of young--even underage--women who make up the bulk of the murder victims. This strikes Bender as abhorrent, and he wonders, as many have before him, whether the entire investigation is merely a ruse to protect the killers. (Other accounts and narratives about the murders, including 2007's The Daughters of Juarez by Univision anchor Teresa Rodriguez and two co-writers, mention rumors of cartel-operated brothels featuring kidnapped young women used by members of the cartels as a kind of perk. Could the murders be linked to such places?)

At another point, Bender is allegedly drugged, via a margarita, by members of the local police force. In the end, Bender, for all his fame and genius, ends up being just another gringo lost in Juarez, unable to help and unable to understand why nobody in power in Mexico seems to care much about the feminicidios.

Despite these few kernels of interest, Botha's book mines too much of the true-crime vein to be of much use to anyone who is trying to get to the truth of the Juarez crimes. It has no index, no bibliography and only a few brief paragraphs of acknowledgements thanking the Benders for opening up their lives to the author.

This is a "tale" told for kicks and shocks, and due to the lack of citations, for all we know, it could be a load of conjecture.

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