On Writing Prayers for the Stolen

In Mexico today women are stolen off the street or taken from their houses at gunpoint. Some women never return home from their work place, a party or from walking to the corner. They are all young and poor and pretty.

I have spent over ten years listening to women affected by Mexico’s violence as I was interested in writing about women in Mexico’s drug culture. This was a logical step for me after having written the novel A True Story Based on Lies, which is about the mistreatment of servants in Mexico. I interviewed the girlfriends, wives and daughters of drug traffickers and quickly came to realize that Mexico is a warren of hidden women. They hide in places that look like supermarkets or grocery stores on the outside, but that are really hiding places with false façades; in the basements of convents, where women live with their children and have not seen daylight for years; and in privately-owned hotels that are rented by the government –a surreal, Third World concept of a Witness Protection Program.

In rural Mexico, the poorest families dig holes in their cornfields. This is how they hide their women from traffickers. It is as if they planted their daughters in the earth so they would not be stolen. At Mexico City’s Santa Martha Acatitla Prison for women, I have listened to prisoners who have been deeply touched or have actively participated in the violence that Mexico is experiencing today. My conversations with assassins, drug dealers, women who claim to be innocent, and with famous criminals exposed cruel and tender lives. In that prison of rough, bare cement walls, I looked at drawings of shells, sand and blue fish drawn by a seventy-year-old woman who had sold fish tacos on a beach before she was forced by drug traffickers to carry drugs across the Mexican border into the United States. She told me that she liked to steal the prison’s saltshakers and rub salt on her skin so she would not forget the sea.

After listening to the women in hiding and the women in jail, as well as the women who have been victims of crime, the primary story for me became Mexico’s missing women and children. For years I had heard or read: she disappeared; she never came back; today she would be celebrating her sixteenth birthday; I am praying for a sign; she went missing; some men came for her; if I go to the police they laugh at me; she was just walking, just walking down the street; she never called back; she never called; I can see her walk through the door; that man knows where my daughter is; he took some other girls; I feel she’s still alive; somebody sent someone for my daughter; someone sent somebody for my daughter.

Although there are no exact statistics, the number of women trafficked in Mexico is very high. According to the U.S. State Department, 600,000 to 800,000 people are trafficked across international borders every year. (Note this estimate does not include those trafficked within national borders.) Most people who are stolen and sold are subjected to sex trafficking or other forms of modern slavery: forced labor, debt bondage or filmed for pornography. A woman can be sold to different owners many times, and even dozens of times a day as a prostitute, while a plastic bag of drugs can be sold once.

Prayers for the Stolen is a novel about Ladydi Garcia Martínez. She is part of a community, like so many in rural Mexico, that has been decimated by drug traffickers, government agricultural policies and illegal immigration. Her home is a village near the once glamorous port of Acapulco. Her story, although inspired by truth, is fiction.

-Jennifer Clement