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"If I Die in Jurez" by Stella Pope Duarte (University of Arizona Press, $16.95 paperback)

With the signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1993, young Mexican women began taking jobs in U.S.-owned maquiladoras, or factories, in Juárez.

Many became unwitting victims of gruesome murders as they walked home from work at night. Critics have long accused Mexican authorities of callousness, even complicity.

Stella Pope Duarte's vital and eloquent novel, "If I Die in Juárez" (University of Arizona Press, $16.95 paperback), centers on these horrific, unsolved crimes, which have been dubbed the maquiladora murders. She relies on three young characters to tell the story.

I asked Duarte why she decided to use fiction rather than nonfiction to chronicle the plight of these women.

"This story is a very painful one not only for victims, but for their families and friends as well," she explained. "Several documentaries, books and films, and numerous articles have been written, (but) a story told from the perspective of three young girls has not been done in this way."

Ominously, she added: "I also was cautious about protecting the identity of the women, as I know there are retaliations from police and investigators."

Duarte relied on extensive research and interviews to create her three protagonists: Evita, a street urchin; Petra, a factory worker; and Mayela, an Indian girl of Tarahumara heritage.

Was Duarte ever overwhelmed by the subject matter?

"Absolutely, lots of times," she acknowledged. "The worst was when I read details of the mutilations.