Photographers' Blog

Life and death in the murder capital

WARNING: GRAPHIC CONTENT

San Pedro Sula, Honduras

By Jorge Cabrera

“Come in if you would like to and try to leave when you still can.”

Some weeks ago, I went to cover a soccer match in San Pedro Sula, considered the industrial capital of Honduras. It also bears the less honorable title of being the most dangerous and violent city in the world.

San Pedro Sula, the country’s second largest city after Tegucigalpa, has a homicide rate of 169 per 100,000 people and was named the world’s most violent city for a second year in a row. Lax laws allow civilians to own up to five personal guns, and arms trafficking has flooded the country with nearly 70 percent illegal firearms. Eighty three percent of homicides are by firearm compared to 60 percent in the United States.

FULL FOCUS GALLERY: SHOT IN SAN PEDRO SULA

I arrived when most of San Pedro Sula’s residents escape to the beach. Temperatures were hitting 40 degrees C (104 degrees Fahrenheit) in the shade and the heat was overpowering. I went out for a walk with a fellow journalist who only covers crime and while we were walking he described San Pedro Sula like a supermarket for journalists looking for dangerous stories.

We entered the emergency room of a local hospital and I could sense what he was talking about. It was packed with people, most of them from low-income neighborhoods, nurses and doctors were running around, trying to tend to everyone but it was obvious that there was neither enough medical staff nor materials to treat everyone.

I could hear screams from patients and the smell was suffocating.

Night had fallen and more and more patients with wounds inflicted by violence were arriving. A man with numerous stab wounds was brought in. His hand was almost dangling from his wrist – he had been attacked by members of the Mara 18 street gang who had wanted to kill him with machetes and then tried to dismember his body. He was crying while he was telling me how he had managed to escape to a road and how people helped him. But he moved and looked around as if nothing had happened to him. He seemed to be completely unconscious of his wounds and must have been in shock.

Meet pistol-packing Judge Jimmy

Manila, Philippines

By Romeo Ranoco

Traditionally, Filipinos are gun lovers, particularly in the southern Philippines, where almost every household keeps a rifle or a pistol at home. I know someone who said “I can let go of my wife, but I can’t live without my Armalite”. Thus, I got excited when I was asked to do a gun culture picture story, focusing on a pistol-packing judge who helps train fellow magistrates and lawyers at a target range.

FULL FOCUS GALLERY: ARMED JUSTICE

When one talks about a pistol-packing judge, one person immediately comes to my mind, a legendary former police officer who traded his blue uniform for a black robe. Jaime “Jimmy” Santiago is a celebrity in his own right. The presiding judge of branch 3 of Manila’s Regional Trial Court, Jimmy was a police officer a quarter of a century ago. He rose to celebrity status when as a commander of the Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) unit in the Philippine capital city Manila, he rescued several victims and “neutralized” a total of six gunmen in several separate hostage-taking incidents. His exploits were eventually made into a full-length movie, entitled “SPO4 Santiago, Sharpshooter”.

When I came to see him at his office, I knew I was in the right place. It was quite a normal office, but one wall was decorated with an M-16 Armalite rifle and shotgun. His office is just next to the courtroom where he hears criminal and civil cases. I had the chance to see him in action, sitting on the bench and listening to lawyers from both sides arguing and issuing his orders after hearing the cases. He agreed to talk to me for a few minutes before clearing his desk of cases and our chat touched on a subject close to his heart. At one point, he mentioned an incident at a court house on central Cebu island, where a Canadian national went on a shooting spree, killing two and wounding a prosecutor. At this point, he emphasized the need to arm judges and lawyers in the country so they can protect themselves from threats coming from some disgruntled litigants who couldn’t accept losing a case.

Anxious for peace

Cizre in Turkey’s Sirnak province, near the border with Syria

By Umit Bektas

Turkey’s fledgling peace process with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) militant group is all over the headlines. After three decades of war, 40,000 deaths and a devastating impact on the local economy, everybody seems ready for peace. TV news channels and newspapers are saturated with opinions and commentary from politicians, officials, academics and journalists on what appears to be the best hope yet of building a lasting peace agreement with Kurdish militants.

But what about ordinary people in Turkey’s southeast, those most directly affected? How do they view the peace process and how might their lives change?

Eager to find out, I traveled to southeastern Turkey to cover Newroz, the Kurdish New Year celebrations, on March 21. In the town of Cizre, near the border with Syria, with the help of a local journalist, I found the Savun family and spent the weekend with them. Theirs is not an extraordinary story, but sometimes the least extraordinary stories reveal the most.

Don’t rush for gold

Tien Shan mountains, Kyrgyzstan

By Shamil Zhumatov

“Don’t run! Slow down! Just don’t run!” I repeated this non-stop to myself like an incantation. Indeed, it is hard even to pace quickly – let alone run — when you have to breathe in the rarefied air and wear a supplied protective helmet and brand-new rigid boots with steel toes.

I also had to look out for giant trucks the size of three-story houses chugging around. It was difficult to keep my emotions under control during the few hours on this tight assignment. I was at an altitude of over 4,000 meters above sea level near the Chinese border, inside a huge open-pit gold mine at Kumtor, Kyrgyzstan’s largest gold asset, operated by Toronto-based Centerra Gold. Gigantic trucks and excavators worked non-stop in the snow-clad pit, looking like characters from a fantasy movie. As if playing a computer game, an excavator operator elegantly manipulated small joysticks – just five scoops full of ore, and almost 200 tones were loaded into a truck in about one minute.

In line with Centerra Gold’s tough requirements, I passed two medical checks before I started working at these giddy heights. A day before, we had to stay for the night at a guest house located at about 1,700 meters above sea level to get accustomed to high altitudes before ascending to Kumtor. The gold mine is the world’s second highest-altitude gold deposit after Peru’s Yanacocha mine. Some vehicles never even stop their engines in these ferocious conditions of Arctic tundra and permafrost.

A necessary evil – the kangaroo cull

Canberra, Australia

By David Gray

I met Steven O’Donnell at his house in the outer suburbs of Canberra just before dusk. He had agreed to take me on what can be described as one of Australia’s most unpopular and controversial activities – kangaroo shooting.

FULL FOCUS GALLERY: A NIGHT ON THE KANGAROO CULL

By day Steve is a professional plumber, but by night he is a government-licensed kangaroo shooter whose job is to annually cull the kangaroo population, which is estimated at over 50 million. When we met Steve was quick to explain why the thousands of Eastern Grey Kangaroos, known locally as “roos” in the Australian Capital Territory, had to be culled. Mobs of kangaroos can quickly damage the environment and compete with livestock for scarce food, impacting the livelihood of farmers.

But Steve’s main argument that stood out most in my mind was this: “After Europeans settled in Australia some 220 years ago, they chopped down millions of trees, and created much more grassland which the kangaroos have thrived on. As a result, their numbers have increased dramatically, and so in order to keep the natural balance for the environment to be sustainable (especially during a drought), their numbers have to be reduced. So actually, it’s our fault.”

Clowns, rain and elephant droppings

Myrtle Beach, South Carolina

By Randall Hill

Sweat was beading on the brow of Danny McRoberts as he ran through his chores as an animal handler in Myrtle Beach. McRoberts, an Augusta, Georgia native, had been on the road with the Cole Brothers Circus of the Stars for the last seven years. As he worked to scoop large piles of elephant droppings, he scurried in and out and between the large beasts as they performed their tricks. As his large shovel became a part of the action, it was almost as if it was an unintentional, choreographed part of the show.

Many of the behind-the-scenes workers are the same as McRoberts. Under the large red and yellow tent of the traveling circuses, the crews generally try to blend in with the background, buzzing everywhere to install and set-up the rigs performers require for the show.

“Just call me Meatball the Clown,” says Meriden, Connecticut native Josh Dummitt from his perch 3 feet above the crowd. Dummitt was standing on homemade stilts fabricated while traveling between shows. The extra height of the devices seemed to give Dummitt, 22, a bit of clown confidence, as he is the show’s youngest and most inexperienced clown. Near Dummitt stood his co-worker and veteran clown Perolito Jahir. At 5’2”, Jahir was in direct contrast to his co-worker in both size and experience. Jahir, from Pereira, Colombia, with his brother Kellan Bermudez, were 20-year veterans with the Cole Brothers Circus.

Broken and showing

Indianapolis, Indiana

By Jeff Haynes

I was on the court when Louisville basketball player Kevin Ware went to block the three-point shot of Duke’s Tyler Thornton and landed wrong on his right leg suffering a compound fracture with the shin bone protruding through the skin, with about 3 inches showing.

It is being called one of the most gruesome sports injuries ever to be seen on live TV and then replayed again.

I guess I was one of the lucky ones to have not seen it on TV and didn’t actually see the bone exposed from my view from the court, but I knew right away something was wrong from the reaction of Louisville head coach Rick Pitino.

The turkey shoot

Vancouver, Canada

By Andy Clark

It was a cold, damp autumn day, as I remember it, sitting in a cinder block bunker terrified I was going to loose my hand as I loaded black clay disks into the machine in front of me. Seconds later I would hear a muffled voice shout, and the machine’s springs and mechanism would suddenly and violently let go, flinging the disk out of the bunker followed by another muffled boom, boom. I would then quickly lean down, take another disk from the box and gingerly place it in the machine. It was at this point my fear would take over, worried one of the distant voices would shout too soon and thus catch and propel my severed hand out of the bunker instead of the disk. Of course this never happened and once I got the rhythm, my fear slowly subsided, well sort of.

FULL FOCUS GALLERY: SHOOTING CANADA

I think I was about 12 years old at the time and I was helping out at the annual Thanksgiving Turkey Shoot at the local Trap Shooting Club just outside Ancaster, Ontario. Each year the contest was held on the weekend before the holiday as a dozen or so members, including my dad, all vied to hit the most clay pigeons and go home with a freshly cleaned turkey donated by a local farmer. Though my dad and grandfather had versed me well in the handling of guns by that age I was still too young to take part so was therefore drafted to load the machine.

That was a long time ago now, but something I thought about as I made my way to the Vancouver Gun Club in Richmond, British Columbia recently. This was the first of two visits to gun ranges I had organized as part of Reuters pictures series on guns. The Vancouver Gun Club dates back to 1924 and is nestled amongst farmland on 39 acres of open and wooded property. The outdoor range is shotgun only and offers trap, skeet and Olympic trap shooting. It also has sporting clays plus another type of shotgun sport shooting called Five Stand. The club has an annual membership of about 400 but also offers day passes to non-members.

New Mexico’s Holy Week

New Mexico

By Brian Snyder

The high desert of northern New Mexico, with Taos as its unofficial capital, is a confluence of cultures and eras.  Native American, Spanish, Mexican and American cultures co-exist and show themselves in both modern and old ways. Holy Week in this area is celebrated in a very public manner within the safety of the region, beyond the notice of much of the rest of the United States. The rites and customs are very much of the place and cultures found there.

On Holy Thursday a youth group re-enacted the Stations of the Cross at the Sanctuario de Chimayo. The Sanctuary is a church built over a source of sacred dirt that is believed to have healing powers. It is also the destination for thousands of pilgrims from all over during Holy Week. The youth group from Our Lady of Sorrows church in nearby Bernalillo has been doing the performance for years, with new teenagers replacing the previous year’s every year or two. The whips hitting the man playing the role of Jesus are real (though the blood is make-up) and the teens are convincing in their roles as Mary, the women of Jerusalem, Veronica and Roman soldiers.

If the pilgrimage at Chimayo is well-known and better publicized, the pilgrimage in Ranchos de Taos and Talpa on Good Friday is a very local, traditional and communal activity. The several mile walk begins at the famous San Francisco de Asis church in Ranchos and from there the Stations of the Cross are marked in various fields, front yards, moradas, and capillas along the route. Four men carry a large cross and lead the procession, with several hundred believers following behind. In many ways Good Friday is the apex of Holy Week. Worshipers, including many young people, pray out loud, sing, and even chat and laugh with one another as they make their way through the countryside.

Cyprus, it’s all Greek to me

Nicosia, Cyprus

By Yorgos Karahalis

I’ve been working in the media industry since 1986 and I can’t recall the last time Cyprus, the small divided Mediterranean island, attracted so much attention since the 1974 invasion by Turkey, which stills keep the island and its residents separated.

A decision by the European Union for a “haircut” on deposits in all Cypriot banks made the country one of the top stories in the region and across the world. Various scenarios for Cyprus’s financial meltdown appeared everywhere.

After the vote by the Cypriot parliament, who delivered a loud ‘No’ to the proposal to seize depositors’ money, and the government’s decision to close banks all over the island to avoid a bank run, the idea of a violent uprising started gaining traction. The capital Nicosia, with its population of just 300,000 people, saw journalists, TV crews, photographers and famous analysts drinking coffee on the pedestrian Ledras street in the old part of town.