Drug war ghosts
WARNING: GRAPHIC CONTENT
By Tomas Bravo
The memory is still fresh. I close my eyes and I can feel the tension. First the explosions… then the screams… then the silence.
The trickles of blood on the concrete make their way as small, red rivers to form a puddle, quickly dried by the sun. The bodies lie there, surrounded by police tape, waiting to be checked by forensic technicians. The prying eyes of the neighbors are fixed on the laughing police officers and the reporters who are speculating on the reasons for the execution.
Moments later the bodies are bagged and placed in a van, ready for their penultimate destination. If they are lucky they have family members who will recognize them at the coroner’s office and are able to give them a burial. In the worst cases, they will end up in a mass grave, next to others without names but similar in their wounds and histories in a parallel world.
Once the forensic experts and police officers are gone, only murmurs uttered by the curious crowd are left. A girl dressed in a school uniform looks at the blood on the pavement in horror, at the impact of the bullets on the wall surrounding the school and at the signature the killers left behind to make sure everybody knows who are responsible for the killings: “Z”
When I was offered the job of covering Monterrey and the so-called “Narco Wars” I had no idea what was coming. I arrived in March 2007 to a thriving city, stained only by isolated cases of violence. But in 2011 the 1,000 executions in the previous 12 months had been surpassed and the situation was out of control. People’s behavior and their routines had changed drastically. Night life was prohibited; no one wanted to be a victim.
The attacks on bars, executions of civilians and police in broad daylight and shoot-outs between rival gangs led to a rude awakening from the dreams of progress and welfare. Covering Mexico’s northern border also changed my life dramatically. Previously I lived in Guatemala and Honduras where what I had seen made a deep impression on me but nothing had prepared me for this.
It was a challenge and I committed mistakes in the beginning – mistakes that luckily didn’t have fatal consequences. I wasn’t the only one who had to live up to the changes. My colleagues who used to cover the occasional guy killed in a bar brawl or those who perished in a car accident were going through the same experience.
Threats became real and a few weeks after my arrival, hitmen kidnapped local journalists Gamaliel Lopez and cameraman Gerardo Paredes, both from TV Azteca, while they were leaving the University Hospital. Their bodies were never found and the guild would never be the same again. There was no margin for errors.
According to Reporters sans Frontières (Reporters without borders) and Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), Mexico is one of the most dangerous countries to work as a journalist. Colleagues from all over the country have suffered abuses while working, either from gangs or authorities and in the worst cases they have disappeared or have been executed. State and federal authorities rarely act in defense of journalists; there are neither investigations nor arrests made. Simply nothing.
While on assignment on the northern border I witnessed the worst human miseries: children killed or injured by stray bullets during clashes between rival gangs, headless corpses strung from bridges and overpasses, chopped off body parts thrown onto the street with threatening messages from one gang to another or to the government.
These deaths are just numbers for some media outlets, and for a large part of Mexican society, they are numbers that swell the statistics but have no face or name. Nobody was really interested.
People would say that those killed probably had something to do with it, that they “were involved somehow.” The conjecture above reason and the stigma annihilated logic, only the families left behind knew of the struggle.
The stress was huge. You live literally from day to day and the price is high. Threats, death and post traumatic stress disorder come with the job. For some of us it’s just a bitter experience, whereas others fare worse; they are kidnapped, tortured and killed, sometimes in front of their families, sometimes along with them.
The job has become Russian roulette but you don’t have the control of the trigger. Others do. To feel the cold metal of the muzzle pressed against your head, listening to the simple question “Do you value your life?” is something I don’t wish on anyone.
It’s hard to remember the most difficult situations. There’s always a lump in my throat or a lost tear, and the ghosts continue to be there, drunk on the adrenaline of the assignment.
I have always walked hand in hand with those who have allowed me to photograph them – their pain is often mine. Frequently I had to control my emotions at a funeral or at a crime scene, holding back the tears, gathering the strength to keep going.
I’d be lying if I said that my mind is okay after a little more than nine years covering the violence. I’d like to believe it is but every coverage leaves its mark; some difficult to get rid of. The tears of the people who cry for their loved ones, the threats, the adrenaline, the errors, and the shreds of the soul are left at each step.
Seeing the emptiness in the eyes of those who await the return of their loved ones back home, already knowing that such a return is impossible, is the emptiness I feel inside of me.
Now, since I’m living in Mexico City, everything looks so far away. It’s like I’ve woken up and the nightmare is finally over. I don’t hear the gunshots, the shooting blocks away from my house, nor the grenade attacks, nor the constant coming or going of sirens that break the silence of the night, nor crying or screaming.
But I know the problem is still there, fueled by corruption and disinterest of the authorities – the reality of a society that has been humiliated and oppressed forever.
I express my love and appreciation to all my friends and colleagues with whom I have shared moments of tension and journalistic joy, the exchange of experiences and solidarity in complex times. My respect for those who were threatened and also to those whose lives were blinded by bullets, hatred and stupidity. I share solidarity with those who have left their homeland, have been chased away by threats and left without the support of the media they work for.
Words or pictures do not stop bullets, and in the end, a story is not worth a life.