by Christopher Woods

Imagine that you are a teenage orphan living in the slums of Guatemala City. Death squads roam the barrio, killing children indiscriminately, shooting them and then disfiguring the bodies. Your younger brother is murdered and you know it is only a matter of time before you are killed. The only way out is to escape. A priest from an orphanage arranges passage for you to the States, not only for a better life, but for life itself.

Unfortunately for you, the coyote who transports you and some other children has other plans, and once you reach the States, you are victimized again. An immoral cantina owner plans to make you and the other children sex slaves.

This is how Martha Everhart Braniff's new mystery suspense novel, STEP OVER RIO, begins.

The novel, set on Houston's East side, traces the extremely frightening and dangerous life of Alex Sifuentes. Once he escapes the cantina during a government raid, he is taken in by a curandera and shaman, Obispa, who is a guardian for the persecuted children. She arranges for him to stay with Elizabeth Grant, a HOUSTON CHRONICLE reporter investigating child trafficking. Eventually, Alex Sifuentes becomes a willing participant in a Harris County child trafficking investigation. Persuaded by federal special agent Luke Santa Maria, Alex joins a gang so that he can provide information for the investigation.

STEP OVER RIO is well orchestrated, providing lurid and violent details about Houston's dark sex trafficking trade while creating adrenalin charged action. The narrative leads to a climactic scene in which the sex trafficker kingpins and authorities confront each other during a religious ceremony on the East side. Braniff provides many shocks and surprises along the way, keeping the reader riveted until the final page.

Martha Everhart Braniff, long an advocate for abused children, knows her material well. She was the founder of Houston's Child Advocates, Inc., and co-founder of the Texas Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA). STEP OVER RIO is a novel that needed to be written. It also needs to be read. Most of us who live in Houston are unaware of the dark underworld of sex trafficking operating in our city. Braniff's novel will educate and enlighten, and hopefully encourage us a society to find a way to end the abuse once and for all.


Woods - What inspired you to write STEP OVER RIO? Sometimes a writer must search for subject matter. Other times, the subject matter finds the writer. How was it for you?

Braniff - I was attracted to the crime of child sex trafficking because through my professional experience, I have worked with kids who are victims of human traffickers, and I chose the mystery/suspense genre because it is the most popular literary form. Additionally, I wanted to create awareness about human trafficking, the second largest and most profitable crime in the world surpassed only by drug trafficking.

One particular boy inspired me to create the main teenage character, Alex Sifuentes. In the early eighties, I met a teenager who had escaped from El Salvador during an oppressive time when there was an attempt at land reform. He was well educated, and at one time had been in the “upper” class, but his father sided with groups that wanted portions of the land to be returned to the indigenous people. Due to his father’s brave position, this boy’s entire family was assassinated by a death squad -- except for him. He escaped, came to Texas illegally, was detained in Houston’s juvenile detention center, and was about to be sent back to Salvador, a certain death sentence.

I met him while teaching art at the detention center and took it upon myself to go to federal court on his behalf, where I learned illegals have no rights in this country, not even the right to speak for themselves. However, through persistent interruption of the court proceeding, my friend and I were able to convince the judge to allow us to try to find a foster home, which we did. I’ll never forget that boy, the look on his face when we were able to help, the profound loss he had experienced.

Woods - Can you share a bit about your own background and your involvement in Child Advocates?

Braniff - I founded Child Advocates, Inc., the Harris County Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) Program, in 1984. Over the past thirty years I have worked with abused children and child immigrants. Along with the Austin CASA director, I co-founded the Texas CASA Association, and I served as board chair of the National CASA Association. My focus has always been on abused and neglected children and their right to live in a safe and happy home.

Woods - This novel obviously required much research on your part. How did you go about it?

Braniff - In the early 2000s, I contacted a friend who is a federal judge. She put me in touch with a man who headed the US Marshals. He told me about an agent at the State Department who had broken up a child sex trafficking ring in Dallas. I met with this agent who was with the Diplomatic Security Service, a branch of the State Department that deals with identity fraud and trafficking cases. He was instrumental in helping me understand the magnitude of these crimes and the mindset of criminals who commit them. Additionally, the mayor’s anti-gang director described how gangs operate, imprisoning and exploiting women, youth, and children. I also interviewed the head of the INS, shelter directors, investigative journalists, and social workers.

Woods - Research alone can be dry and clinical. Was it difficult to use the research and at the same time add flesh and bone to the story and the characters?

Braniff - The research was exciting and rewarding. Everyone I spoke to was concerned about in the children and their plights. I developed five specific characters from this research: Luke Santa Maria, Javi Padilla, Mariella Guzman, Tulio Mola, and Hector Sandoval.

Woods - You have so many strong characters in the novel. You also have a way of presenting your characters, in particular the child victims of abuse, in an unsentimental way. But because they seem so real and vulnerable, it is easy for a reader to empathize with their plight. To accomplish this, you as a writer must walk a tightrope of sorts, to tell only so much and in such a way so that the reader can make up his or her own mind about the characters. Did you ever feel as though you had to restrain your own emotional involvement with the story and the characters?

Braniff - I love my characters and intend to write a sequel with all of them together again, except for two. And these two were favorites who died, one by murder and the other suicide. I hated to have these things happen, but as I understood who they were and what situations they found themselves, I knew they would die. The trajectories of their lives are based on actual people whom I learned about during my research.

In terms of emotional response to my characters, there were several times after writing a scene and rereading it, I would feel extremely sad or excited and energized.

Woods - The concluding scenes in this fast paced novel are breathtaking. How long did it take you to perfect the pace of the final chapters? It's quite a rollercoaster.

Braniff - It took me several rewrites and excellent critiques by my writers’ critique group for me to finalize these chapters. Both of the places where the last conflicts occur, Our Lady of Guadalupe Church and Palo Duro Canyon, are places where I’ve spent time thinking about how the action could work. I also received advice about weapons and small planes from experts and pilots.

Woods - Every writer hopes for a good amount of book sales. What else do you hope for regarding STEP OVER RIO? As you know, there is a longstanding debate about fiction as a way to form, shape or change public opinion. Is STEP OVER RIO a book that can educate because of its intense subject matter, sex trafficking?

Braniff - Because the story is based on actual situations, I hope it will educate and inspire readers to be aware of the crime and get involved in some way.

Woods - What can we as individuals do to help the victims of sex-trafficking?

Braniff - There are several Houston organizations that advocate and protect victims of trafficking. Freedon Place is one of the only long-term residential placement in the country for US girls who are trafficked:


Woods - You are also a poet and an essayist. Do you have a favorite form? How do you decide on a form in which to write when a new idea comes along?

Braniff - My favorite forms are poems and fiction, whether the fiction is long or short. I find
essays difficult, maybe because I have an active imagination and like to create characters, some zany, some serious. I admire essayists and love to read their true stories or opinions, but the form just doesn’t inspire me.
Woods - What are you working on now?

Braniff - I am writing the sequel to STEP OVER RIO. The working title is BEDS OF BROKEN GLASS, and the crime is domestic trafficking. Alex Sifuentes, Kate and Elizabeth Grant, Luke Santa Maria, and Obispa come together again on a quest to discover the whereabouts of a missing girl, Fiona Wolfe. She was a friend of Kate’s until she mysteriously disappeared. Hector Salazar, a gang leader, also makes a villainous appearance along with Javi Padilla, the anti-gang director.
Woods - Good luck with the new book. Thanks for taking the time to answer some questions.
Martha Everhart Braniff's website can be found here:
The Interviewer: Christopher Woods is a writer, teacher and photographer who lives in Houston. He is the author of LA LOMA, a one-character play set in a Mexican prison.

The Artist: Katrina Pallop is a playwright, photographer, and actress based in Brooklyn, NY. She is a graduate of NYU's Tisch School of the Arts. Her photographs have been published by a number of independent magazines, among them The 2River View, Calyx, and OVS. Her online portfolio can be found here.