My city, my work, my life

September 14, 2009

It was 11:30 at night in Ciudad Juarez just south of the U.S. border when we reporters heard on the police frequency that a man had been left hanging on the chainlink fence of the Seven & Seven bar, the same place where a few days earlier 11 people had been gunned down.

Once we were sure that the information was real, we approached the bar only after coordinating between ourselves via walkie-talkie. We arrived at the chilling scene, nervous about covering such an incident, and noticed several cars cruising the area around us.

We managed to work from a distance for a short time until the police sealed off the area, blocking our access. I managed to take several photos of the Dantesque scene in which I could see a man’s body with his hands handcuffed to the fence in the form of a crucifixion. We stayed nearby until they removed the body to be taken to the morgue.

Military and forensic experts inspect the body of a man who was killed outside a nightclub in the border city of Ciudad Juarez August 31, 2009. A man was handcuffed to a fence and shot several times by drug hitmen outside a nightclub, according to local media. The assailants also left a warning message, known as “narcomanta”, at the site of the shooting. REUTERS/Alejandro Bringas

Violence in Ciudad Juarez increases from day to day, in spite of the war against narcotraffic being waged by the city, state and federal governments. That war simply doesn’t work, and the number of dead has continued to increase since 2008, hitting a new monthly record high of 248 murders last July, the majority related to contract killings within organized crime.

This wave of violence has been increasing ever since President Felipe Calderon launched his “crusade” called Operation Chihuahua, which instead of reducing the violence, death and drug trafficking has seen them increase.

The death and violence has affected me as I capture the murders and executions of civilians and police with my camera. What moves me to cover this, in spite of the great personal risk, is the chance to show others what I live daily and reflect on it through a photograph.

Two women hug as forensic workers inspect a crime scene in the border city of Ciudad Juarez July 30, 2009. Local government deputy Claudia Lorena Pérez Marrufo and her companion were fatally injured after a drive-by shooting incident. More than 12,300 people have died in Mexico in a three-way war between rival cartels and the army since President Felipe Calderon deployed thousands of troops against the cartels in December 2006. REUTERS/Alejandro Bringas

One cold night in November 2007, marked the beginning of the war between cartels. We still didn’t know anything about the rivals as we listened on the radio to an exchange of threats between La Linea, cartelof the Carrillo Fuentes family, and Los Chapitos, cartel of Sinaloa. They played narcocorridos (folk music that glorifies the feats of drug bandits) over the police frequency to announce an execution, and I remember the incredulous looks of the police agents to learn that their frequency had been intervened. They seemed to ask themselves, “Who will be the next to fall, gunned down, dead, where, when….?” This was after a “narco-list” had appeared with the names of agents targeted to be assassinated.

This violence in which I live now, incomparable to any time in the past, began to escalate with the 2008 arrest of former police chief Saulo Reyes Gamboa by agents from the U.S. and Mexico, when he tried to bribe an agent to smuggle five tonnes of marijuana into the U.S. Nobody expected such a violent reaction, neither local officials nor journalists. We never imagined what was to come – murders and executions in a war that never ends.

A relative reacts after arriving at a crime scene where 17 patients were killed at a rehabilitation center in the border city of Ciudad Juarez September 2, 2009. About a dozen hooded gunmen burst into a Mexican rehabilitation clinic near the U.S. border on Wednesday, lining up patients before killing 17 of them. The attack was one of the deadliest in President Felipe Calderon’s three-year war against drug cartels, despite the presence of 10,000 troops and federal police in Ciudad Juarez who constantly patrol the city’s streets. REUTERS/Alejandro Bringas

I remember that the first to fall dead were local policemen on duty. The image of a bullet-riddled patrol car with a dead sergeant draped over a bloodied steering wheel, his bulletproof vest perforated by high caliber bullets from an AK47 assault rifle, nicknamed the “goat’s horn” for its curved magazine, was the first in a long succession of images to begin the criminal unleashing never before seen in my city.

The days in which the war is at its peak are days of insomnia during which I go out before dawn to document rival narcos left crucified only a few meters from police stations, “narcomantas” (a large cloth with a threatening message written on it) left as wrapping to a bloody head, or mutilated bodies, and return home after midnight to my waiting family worried about my work and the risks I take.

Police investigators work at a crime scene where seven bodies were found gunned down in the border city of Ciudad Juarez, northern Mexico, November 25, 2008. The bodies of seven men with signs of torture and bullet wounds were found along side three banners, also called “narcomantas,” threatening rival gangs, according to local media. More than 4,300 people have been killed in drug violence this year as cartels from Sinaloa state try to dominate the Mexican drug trade, fighting rivals and the security forces. REUTERS/Alejandro Bringas

Many times my wife and my parents, tormented by the daily news, begged me to leave the newspaper, to look for another job, but my passion is greater. They now understand what Ido and support me, but pray to God to watch over me each time they hear my radio sound.

It gets worse when we hear radio threats against specific policemen, “Mendez you’re next…you’re on the list….don’t run, we’re waiting for you..” When we hear a narcocorrido we know that minutes later there will be an execution someplace in the city. We know it’s happening, and just wait for the police to confirm.

We reporters aren’t free from the threats. Killers’ radio alerts often include the advice, “…to all the media and the Red Cross we warn you not to approach the injured, wait until they are dead, because if not we will kill you along with them if you pick them up still alive….” It is chilling to hear that on the radio.

But even our passion for journalism isn’t enough to take us too close the place where there is a “54 by a 66″ (death by firearm). On many occasions we would see people destroyed by the bullets from a goat’s horn. We’d often arrive before the police because they were afraid to get close, arriving in caravans with from five to 20 agents to seal the area. Then from less than a kilometer away would come the sad, raucous and piercing sound of bullets.

Forensic investigators inspect the body of a fugitive U.S. marshal, as soldiers gather around the crime scene, at a canal in the border city of Ciudad Juarez March 25, 2009. Mexican police have found the decomposing and badly beaten body in Ciudad Juarez, the main battleground in Mexico’s drug war. Picture taken March 25, 2009. REUTERS/Alejandro Bringas

When I return home in the early morning to my waiting family, after having received threats and seen the results of at least ten executions on my shift, I would see the streets desolate, no police patrols, only reporters heading home at the end of our shift, and others beginning theirs. The police would be in their barracks, afraid to leave even to attend a call for help. The support between colleagues, reporters, photographers, editors, is mutual. We watch over each other via radio, inform each other where we’re going and if we’ve arrived home safely. “Hey buddy ray, just reaching my 16 (home), everything 9 (fine)….where you headed, animal?”

The threatening narcomantas weren’t sent only to cartel rivals but also to high-ranking officials, Governor Jose Reyes Baeza, district attorney Patricia Gonzalez, Mayor Jose Reyes Ferriz, commander of the Army’s Fifth Zone Felipe Jesus Espitia, and even to the president himself. One of them was placed at the scene of a massacre of seven men who were themselves accused of executions, extortion and kidnappings in the city.

Other narcomantas were placed on the bodies of different victims, including one on a victim whose decapitated body was placed with his muzzled head shrouded in a pig’s mask. Another body was found inside a pot used for boiling pork. They even make fun of some of them by putting Santa Claus hats on them.

A man lies dead among evidence markers at a crime scene in the border city of Ciudad Juarez July 13, 2009. More than 12,300 people have died in Mexico in a three-way war between rival cartels and the army since President Felipe Calderon deployed thousands of troops against the cartels in December 2006. REUTERS/Alejandro Bringas

Several times when I was taking my daughter Enya to school I had to rush to one of these scenes, whether a shootout, execution or even a prison riot, with her beside me as there was no other safe place nearby to leave her. Enya was around five when she first began to understand my work. She would ask me where I was going and if there was an execution. I began to leave her in the car so she wouldn’t see the raw scenes.

Death threats are the norm rather than the exception among journalists. One colleague, Armando “El Choco” Rodriguez, was assassinated at the door of his house as he left to take his small daughter to school. Neither local nor federal police have been able to find El Choco’s killers, despite the repeated demands from guild leaders. This happened a few days after contract killers left a body hanging from an important bridge in Ciudad Juarez. The head from that body had been placed at the base of a monument named “Freedom of Expression” in Journalist Square.

Police investigators remove the body of reporter Armando Rodriguez from his car in the border city of Ciudad Juarez, northern Mexico November 13, 2008. Suspected drug gangs shot dead Rodriguez, a Mexican crime reporter who worked for El Diario de Ciudad Juarez, near the U.S. border on Thursday, the latest journalist victim of a brutal drug war in which traffickers are targeting the media. REUTERS/Alejandro Bringas

The wave of violence has altered my life, and that of thousands of Juarenses, in every way. Nightlife has been the most affected as bars, cantinas and restaurants remain deserted. Anyone who goes out at night does so at great risk.

Once, a group of contract killers arrived at a seafood restaurant looking for members of a rival band. They found them in a corner table, called out, “This is it, mothers..”, before opening fire on the nine of them, all of them youths. The scene caused a nervous crisis among all those present, customers and staff.

Killers sometimes will firebomb cantinas without worrying about who is inside. Life continues here but it will never be the same. We ask ourselves when it will reach its limit and then get better. In the meantime I have to keep working.

Sometimes it’s necessary to reach nearby towns like Samalayuca in the Chihuahua Desert, or Villa Ahumada where last February soldiers and contract killers had a shootout that ended with 21 dead – the scene was of the dead lying on snow, frozen cadavers with guns in their hands and bullet holes in their heads.

Policemen and soldiers carry one of 21 bodies after a shootout between drug hitmen and soldiers in the town of Villa Ahumada, some 130 km (80.7 miles) away from the border city of Ciudad Juarez February 10, 2009. Mexican drug gang violence near the U.S. border ended in a shootout with the army on Tuesday and killed 21 people. The killing spree began in the early hours of Tuesday when around a dozen suspected drug hitmen drove into the farming town of Villa Ahumada in SUVs and dragged nine people, including several police officers, out of their houses, sources close to the attorney general’s office told Reuters. REUTERS/Alejandro Bringas

These deplorable events that I live and relive daily happen in spite of the massive presence of the military and Federal Police participating in Operation Chihuahua. All the dead, including police and civilians, some of them innocent victims of circumstance of crimes that are sanguinary, unimaginable and inhuman, have been happening in what has been called “Mexico’s best border town….Ciudad Juarez,” a town that wants out of this war. Juarez doesn’t want to be owner of the war but it is simply immersed in it. The population is tired, we want to return to our normal life and not ask ourselves, “How many deaths did the sun rise to today?”

Every day I wake up thinking that this has to stop, and that in this city I will raise my children and try to give them the best life possible.

Bystanders look at a crime scene where a man was gunned down in the border city of Ciudad Juarez June 30, 2009. A massive army surge has failed to calm raging drug gang violence in Ciudad Juarez, a Mexican city on the U.S. border that is at the heart of President Felipe Calderon’s drug war. REUTERS/Alejandro Bringas

4 comments

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How many more have to die before we remove the reason they’re killing? Legalize marijuana, undercut cartel prices, eliminate their marijuana incomes. According to the ONDCP that’ll eliminate two-thirds of their annual profits. No business can survive that.

Posted by EndtheProhibition | Report as abusive

Thank you for your great work. I am blown away at the violence that good people have to live and work around every day.

Posted by eyesopen | Report as abusive

Alejandro, thank you so much for your insight, I hope you and your family stay safe as you continue your work. It was chilling but a real eye opener to read this.

Posted by Vivek | Report as abusive

This coverage is haunting. It feels like there’s no concept of discipline and law enforcement in that region of mexico (or is that true in general throughout most parts of mexico?).

Posted by Soe | Report as abusive