Photographers' Blog

The lost dogs of Ciudad Juarez

Ciudad Juarez, Mexico

By Jose Luis Gonzalez

As a photojournalist living and working in Ciudad Juarez I’m used to seeing dead people being picked up off the streets.

The last few years have been brutal, with violence and shoot-outs every day and dead people everywhere. But it is much calmer now and corpses lying in puddles of blood are not as common a sight as they used to be. Nevertheless, some weeks ago I drove through a neighborhood and saw a couple of men dressed in hooded, white coveralls picking up another kind of corpse: a dead dog. They threw it into a container pulled by a truck and when they took off I started to follow them.

They stopped every so often, picking up another dead dog from the streets and throwing it into the container. They were collecting a lot of dead animals and when I approached the truck, I could see that there was a whole pile of them.

Maybe we have become so used to seeing death around us that we have become desensitized to the enormous number of dogs that die daily in the city. Local authorities believe that up to 100,000 stray dogs roam the streets of Ciudad Juarez. Recently, local workers have been picking up the remains of between 40-60 every day, with 4,970 dead dogs retrieved in 2012, according to the city’s head of clean-up efforts. Authorities believe the dogs died of starvation, extreme temperatures, from being hit by vehicles, or simply expired next to their owners former homes.

I decided to follow the “levanta perros” (“dog picker-uppers”) as the municipal workers who collect dead dogs are commonly called. I went to one of the low-income neighborhoods on the outskirts of the city where hundreds of empty houses stand abandoned by some of the estimated 200,000 residents who fled the city at the height of drug-related violence in 2010 and 2011. I saw so many dogs with terrible signs of malnutrition wandering around or lying outside empty, vandalized homes. They seemed to be waiting in vain for their former masters to come back.

Witness to the violent years of Juarez

Through the shattered glass one can still see the bloodstains that tell the tragic stories of each vehicle and its occupants – the men, women and children whose bodies became the center of violent crime scenes.

Bullet-riddled vehicles sit in a police junkyard in Ciudad Juarez September 6, 2010. Confiscated in crime-related incidents, more than 2,000 vehicles, some with blood and the marks from shootouts, are stored in the yard while investigations into the crimes are conducted, according to the local prosecutor's office. REUTERS/Gael Gonzalez 

Located at the 25 km marker of the Panamerican Highway outside Ciudad Juarez, the state government’s field has become a junkyard, a vehicle graveyard. Laid out in rows, the vehicles are painted with their date of arrival as well as the number 39, police code for “death,” on their windshields.

 A bullet-riddled pickup sits with other vehicles in a police junkyard in Ciudad Juarez September 6, 2010. Confiscated in crime-related incidents, more than 2,000 vehicles, some with blood and the marks from shootouts, are stored in the yard while investigations into the crimes are conducted, according to the local prosecutor's office. REUTERS/Gael Gonzalez

Bullet-riddled vehicles sit in a police junkyard in Ciudad Juarez September 6, 2010. Confiscated in crime-related incidents, more than 2,000 vehicles, some with blood and the marks from shootouts, are stored in the yard while investigations into the crimes are conducted, according to the local prosecutor's office. REUTERS/Gael Gonzalez

The state prosecutor’s office says there are more than 2,000 vehicles in the yard, ranging from new luxury models to old junk. They are kept here for as long as the investigation into each crime lasts with most of them never claimed by the victims’ families, probably because of the memories that each one invokes. Among them are many police cars.

My city, my work, my life

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.

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