Shadows come to life on Mexico’s northern border

March 2, 2009

It’s 10 pm and there’s a cold wind blowing in the parking lot of a strip mall in Ciudad Juarez. This is our “base” of operations where two other photographers and I await news from a radio tuned to the police frequency. One of my colleagues reads a newspaper while the other describes to me his experiences covering the violence. His experiences are stories of terror.

Suddenly over the radio waves come the clear sounds of a “narcocorrido,” or Mexican folk music that glorifies the feats of drug bandits. One of the photographers jumps. “It’s going down,” he says. Baffled, I ask what he means. “The bandits interrupt the police frequency with that music as a signal that they’re about to deposit a package (victim’s remains).” It’s a sober warning and clear example of the power of narcos along much of Mexico’s northern border.

Forensic workers stand next to 11 of 16 slain bodies dumped in an abandoned lot in the border city of Tijuana September 29, 2008. Police found 16 bodies dumped in the seedy Mexican border city of Tijuana on Monday in what the state attorney general’s office said could be a revenge attack for the arrest of a local drug gang hit man. REUTERS/Stringer

Shadows come to life here. They move, threaten and make their presence felt. Silence is broken by the crack of bullets followed by sirens, the rumble of army and police patrols, sobbing, and finally more silence…It’s just another day on Mexico’s northern border. Two, three, ten…who counts them? The numbers make sense only to statisticians that keep tabs on the anonymous bodies that pile up in the city morgue.

Soldiers patrol a boulevard in the border city of Reynosa in the state of Tamaulipas December 8, 2007. REUTERS/Tomas Bravo

What happens here is no different from what goes on in other places like Reynosa, Nuevo Laredo, Tijuana, Culiacan, Guerrero, Michoacan, and even Monterrey. It’s more of a feat to name places that do not suffer from narco-violence. Covering it is like covering a war. We have to deal with the threats of narcos and with the pressure put on us by the police and army. The military convoys, the dark uniforms of the federales (federal police), the checkpoints and the yellow tape that marks crime scenes are all part of the new landscape. My friends tell me that this is the new Colombia. I don’t doubt it one bit.

A federal police searches a group of passengers for drugs and weapons as others stand guard at a check point in the border city of Rio Bravo in the northeastern state of Tamaulipas, Mexico January 10, 2008.  REUTERS/Tomas Bravo

The narco-culture has a long history in Mexico. The only thing new about it is the unprecedented level of violence. Residents of neighborhoods rich and poor receive undesirable visits in the form of hooded policemen investigating crime scenes, or assassins and soldiers in gunfights that often take innocent victims. Desperate parents listen to shots as they wait for their children to be evacuated from school.

A policeman carries a child away during a gun battle in Tijuana, in Mexico’s state of Baja California, January 17, 2008. A shootout on Thursday, after police agents moved in on a drug cartel group, left four people injured and forced the emergency evacuation of a school in Tijuana, according to the local media. REUTERS/Jorge Duenes

Friends of mine that live in cities like Tijuana almost never go out at night to drink or eat any more for fear of losing their lives in a shootout. And if a policeman appears in the same restaurant they will quickly ask for their food to take out, because so many policemen are publicly executed by narcos. The psychosis dominates daily life. Residents are hostages in their own homes, suspecting anything and anyone that is unfamiliar. The tourist areas dedicated to the permanent flow of Americans that cross the border to drink and dance are now all but deserted thanks to the U.S. government’s warnings. “Stay away from bloody Mexico.”

A woman reacts after arriving to a crime scene where a relative was gunned down in the border city of Ciudad Juarez August 22, 2008.  REUTERS/Tomas Bravo

Nobody knows for sure if the guy next to you is a narco soon to be executed or if he is the executioner. If you go to a dance hall and one of them wants your girl he will have her, by whatever means. It’s frightening to speak to police because you never know which side they work for. They take photos of us and arrest us for asking questions, as their way of finding out why we are there. Taxi drivers, gasoline pumpers and hotel employees are among the anonymous informants watching the movement of the police, the army and everyone else.

Forensic workers and soldiers carry the bodies of three soldiers found dead in the community of El Barro, some 20 km (14.9 miles) away from Monterrey, northern Mexico October 22, 2008. REUTERS/Tomas Bravo

One night a taxi driver that didn’t know who I was began to describe in detail the assassination of soldiers that happened here last November. The driver was a “hawk,” an informant for the Gulf Cartel, and admitted it openly.

A simple phone call to a journalist or a newsroom turns into orders about what they can and cannot publish. Assassins converted into editors return to the crime scene to “peruse” photographers’ pictures and decide what they want published. Sometimes we get a direct threat to leave the area. “There’s nothing for you here, a——-. Leave now or you will be next.” And then there are the fake checkpoints where the details give them away – sneakers instead of boots, AK-47 instead of R-15 (the AK-47 is the narco weapon of choice). This is the Old West, except that the victims are counted in the thousands.

Mexican soldiers inspect a vehicle at a checkpoint on the outskirts of Tijuana January 6, 2007.  REUTERS/Tomas Bravo

It’s difficult to write a level-headed account of what is happening here. I find it especially hard for me because apart from having experienced it personally, my colleagues suffer it daily. Impunity is rampant, and we’re all victims.

The widow of slain state prison guard Rodolfo Garcia holds his photograph after a memorial service outside the state government building in the border city of Tijuana April 20, 2007. REUTERS/Tomas Bravo

By many accounts this is just the beginning, with the worst yet to come. Meanwhile the state of the economy, ignorance and poverty continue to fuel the fire of this war that seems all but lost for now. All we photographers can do is remain on alert knowing that at any time a few more lives will be snatched in the endless dance of life and death. How many more? Only time will tell.

Forensic workers look at the slain body of police commander Mario Sanchez after being executed by unidentified gunmen in San Nicolas de los Garza, Monterrey May 19, 2007. REUTERS/Tomas Bravo


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And now a word from Wyatt Earp: “Wow, you seem to take it more seriously then they did in my day, pardner. Back when there was Doc Holliday and the O.K. Corral, people fought over horses and stagecoach robbery and lousy gambling. Now they fight over medicine? Why the heck would you fight over medicine?” (That’s my idea of what Wyatt Earp would say about all this, anyhow. The drug that the narcos and the gangs are fighting over is cocaine, which was a medicine in the 1880s and 1890s and gave us the word “Coca” in Coca-Cola. – Ricky R.)

Posted by Ricky R. | Report as abusive

I know perfectly well that mexican authorities are either corrupt or incompetent in the fight against drug cartels and are to blame for much of the violence, but americans must understand that there is another side to the matter: as long as the demand for drugs an the supply of weapons remain in the US even the most well meaning and able government in Mexico and its border states will be unable to stop the bloodshed, and the “endless dance o life and death” will be that: endless

Posted by Art | Report as abusive

SO sad that your country is going thru’ this. I’m from Colombia and know what you are talking about. Nice post.

Posted by Bryan | Report as abusive

I really hope that this scourge does not come to South Africa as it has in this part of the world, we have enough problems of our own , it would seem that the grass is definitly never greener on the other side.

Posted by Greg G | Report as abusive

Maybe it’s time to admit the War or Drugs is a failure. Maybe it’s time to legalize drugs and take the profit and violence out of the trade. Maybe it’s time for the World to see drugs as a social problem and instead spend the equivalent effort on education and treatment for those want help. Which is worse extreme violence destabilizing countries from the tip of South America to our front door here in the US or legalized personal drug use. Which is worse thousands of dead innocents and a culture of killing and corruption throughout Mexico or a solitary strung out cocaine addict. Maybe finally it’s time to put the guns away by taking the profit out of the illegal drug industry. Legalize it and tax it and don’t you think the crime would subside.

Posted by chris | Report as abusive

Wow, these are some great pictures.Chris, I agree with your view on taking profit out of the equation and letting people make their own decisions to stop the widespread corruption as a result of the cartels.I found this video about the corruption in law enforcement in Mexico and some more about the current status of the U.S.-Mexico relations. xico_s_serious_problem/

Posted by SnapCracklePop | Report as abusive

I agree completely with Chris with one thing to add. Does anyone really believe that its the guns in America that are causing the problem? How ignorant can we be? As long as there is a demand for the drugs (due to them being kept illegal) there will be a demand for weapons. There are other parts of the world that make guns you know…not just American gun manufacturers.You can see right before your very eyes how worthless and ineffective the ‘war on drugs’ is. do you really think the ‘war on guns’ will be any different?Wake up people, the truth is staring you in the face.

Posted by Dustin | Report as abusive

Your are right, corruption is the disease, you can not think about it without related to this violence. And the people that you shoud trust are the ones that not. Thanks for posting this.

Posted by James | Report as abusive

It is unfortunate that this is going on, but in war against drugs a government must do more than just an ad campaign, we all know how successful Just Say No To Drugs was.I agree that its time to start thinking about ligalizing the drugs, if the taxes are as high as those placed on cigs it would really help our gov. with the bailouts!BTW there many places in Mexico that one can visit that have not been impacted: san miguel de allende, queretaro, puerto vallarta, veracruz, huatulco, puerto escondido… Mexico is a huge country

Posted by Goose | Report as abusive

[…] Shadows come to life on Mexico’s northern border […]

Posted by Massacre central (5) | Jack’s Newswatch | Report as abusive

“..We need the US Marines to take over Ciudad Juarez…clear it all…that way I can go back down there and hang out in the bars and have a drink, like in the old days without fear of being shot….it’s time for Semper Fi….”

Posted by American Tourist | Report as abusive

just like the marines have cleaned up Afangistan. thanks for the help a.h.

Posted by oldgingo | Report as abusive

Thanks for the story and photographs. All the more reason why the United States needs to contol its borders.

Posted by Thomas Semesky | Report as abusive

Excellent pictures, bad performance of the officers in the frontier.Thank you for the pictures and letting us know a little piece of the reality.Best regards,Rita

Posted by Rita | Report as abusive