Photographers' Blog

Emotional toll of covering Mexico’s dead

WARNING: GRAPHIC CONTENT

By Jorge Luis Plata

I’ve been a photojournalist for the last 11 years. As a photographer from the Mexican provinces and working for a local newspaper, we do it all. We cover everything from political events to fashion, natural disasters, gun battles between police and narcos, executions to commercial ads.

Since 2006 I have increasingly been covering the dead; the players and the victims of the drug war. Sometimes one is not aware how badly this can affect you emotionally.

There was a moment when I realized I couldn’t sleep very well. Although I was tired I just couldn’t sleep. I remembered that as a small boy my grandmother would take me to visit these women who perform “limpias” (spiritual cleansings) to banish the bad spirits or the “malas vibras” (bad vibes) that had taken over a person’s body and mind.

It was time to pay Soco a visit, I trust her more than any doctor. When she saw my face she said determinately that I needed at least three cleansing sessions. She said that I looked stressed and very scared. I told her that I wasn’t scared but she insisted that I was.

“You are scared because of all the death you have seen. You are filled with the brutal endings of all these people you have photographed. These people can’t find eternal peace because someone else took their lives violently and their spirits have nowhere else to go but with someone else and they have gone with you.”

Bieber fever spreads to Mexico

By Henry Romero

The security fence surrounding the hotel in the upscale neighborhood of Polanco, Mexico, where Justin Bieber was scheduled to give a news conference, was impressive. It was far away from the main entrance of the hotel – far enough away to make sure that the throngs of frenzied girls would not be able to trample their object of lust to death. Girls still dressed in their school uniform endured the sun for hours, screaming or singing his songs together, without knowing each other but bonding through their love for him.

When we, the photographers and journalists, were walking past to get into position for the news conference, the girls begged to come along with us “Sir, let me carry your equipment; don’t you need an assistant?; Pleeeease, I love him sooo much, please, take me with you…….” while they hugged the fence and held pictures of Justin pressed to their hearts.

One of them was holding onto a life-sized cardboard cut-out of Justin like it was the real thing; Justin – the cardboard lover.

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.

Los Galgos Guapos (The Handsome Hounds)

By Erin Siegal

I’d never really known a galgo, or greyhound. To me, they were simply those weirdly skinny creatures in the NYC dog runs that looked like yawning alligators when panting, so rail-thin that they practically disappeared unless they turned sideways.

But now?

Well, let’s just say that I think Dreamboat’s name is pretty accurate.


“Dreamboat,” a.k.a. U.S.S. Dreamboat, enjoys a bath.

In Tijuana, Mexico, the Caliente racetrack is famous. In the city’s heyday, high-end thoroughbreds charged past glamorous crowds of onlookers; photos of the horses still adorn the walls in the casino’s basement administrative offices. Today, however, a different kind of animal bursts from the starting gates each day: American greyhounds.

Notes from a mariachi journey

By Carlos Jasso

When I found out that mariachi music had been added to the U.N educational and cultural agency, UNESCO’s, intangible cultural heritage list, I decided to find out what the mariachis themselves thought about it. I went to the famous Garibaldi square, known as the “home of the mariachis”. I wanted to capture a sense of the atmosphere and emotion of this place where many Mexicans go to celebrate, to party, to fall in love, to reminisce, all to the background music and lyrics of the mariachis. Another visually interesting scene I wanted to illustrate was the Xochimilco canal where locals and tourists alike hire small boats and are serenaded by mariachis.

6:30am Garibaldi Square

Glasses, bottles of tequila, piles of rubbish and a few drunkards were strewn on the square as the shutters of the cantinas were pulled down. Scattered groups of tight trouser wearing, black mustached, sporting Elvis Presley gelled haircuts, big bellied, silver belt buckled musicians were playing with full enthusiasm to the last party-goers and the street cleaners.

As I crossed the square listening to the mariachi music I saw an elderly man sitting on his trumpet case and leaning on the door of a news paper kiosk. He saw me and the moment I grabbed my camera he looked down.

Willing to die for change

By Claudia Daut

The day the Occupy Wall Street movement called out for global support and Mexico City was on the list, I decided to take my 12-year old son to the Monumento de la Revolucion where local activists, accusing bankers and politicians of wrecking economies, were expected to gather.

The monument is a landmark Art Deco building, commemorating the Mexican Revolution and the perfect place if you want to protest against any set establishment.

I also thought it would be nice to introduce my son to the power of the people and that there is something other than individualism and elbow culture in our society.

Looking for an American dream

Honduran immigrant Jose Humberto Castro, 26, clings to a freight train on his way to the border with the United States in Orizaba in the state of Veracruz November 3, 2010. Every day, hundreds of Central American immigrants try to cross from Mexico to the United States, according to National Migration Institute of Mexico. REUTERS/Eliana Aponte

When I began this project about immigrants, I found a totally different world, where every immigrant had a unique story but in the end had a common objective: reach the American dream, which for many turned into the American nightmare.

Coming from so much misery, where the governments of their native countries have completely forgotten about them and where opportunities don’t exist, they have little choice but to risk taking the train in search of a better life. But for many the only thing they find is bad luck.

A Honduran immigrant stands on board a freight train on his way to the border with the United States in La Patrona near Cordoba in the state of Veracruz November 3, 2010. Every day, hundreds of Central American immigrants try to cross from Mexico to the United States, according to National Migration Institute of Mexico. REUTERS/Eliana Aponte

The day finally arrived for me to get on the train. It’s a story that requires a lot of time, patience and persistence because you never know when or how many immigrants will get on.

Seventy-two shattered dreams

Carlos, a migrant and three-time deportee, commented to me, “I’ve been there and back, too. I’m a migrant and I want a better future.” Carlos’ brother is one of the 16 Hondurans whose bodies were repatriated on September 1st after being found among the 72 immigrants executed by a drug cartel in Tamaulipas, Mexico, as they neared the border with the U.S.

I couldn’t help thinking of a recent magazine article about 800 expatriate soccer players in Europe and how, according to the author, their story might open doors for other foreign “workers” in this globalized world. It struck me that while many of those athletes were born in the slums of Latin America just like most of the 72 dead migrants, the difference was that their talent made it good business for them to cross borders.

At the same time any number of talented musicians from Peru or Bolivia, artists from Ecuador, craftsmen from Guatemala, farmers from Honduras, or laborers from El Salvador, either die while emigrating towards a better life in the U.S. or survive there with a feeling of well-being thanks to their material gains, but suffering the pain of having been uprooted. They are all migrants just like Carlos who go and return tirelessly, with the conviction that comes from having been propelled from their homes by failing economies. The enormous obstacles make me believe that they won’t have the same luck as those who entertain us with their passes and goals.

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.

Nobody to trust in Mexico’s north

The first version of the killings came from Mexico City media. “Massacre in Tamaulipas State,” said the news anchorman. Seventy-two corpses had been discovered on a ranch in San Fernando municipality, all showing signs of a mass execution.

A ranch is seen in San Fernando in Tamaulipas state where according to a Mexican navy statement 72 bodies were discovered by Mexican marines in San Fernando, Tamaulipas state, in this handout photo released by the Attorney General's office August 26, 2010. The corpses were found by Mexican marines at the remote ranch near the U.S. border, the Mexican navy said on Wednesday, the biggest single discovery of its kind in Mexico's increasingly bloody drug war. REUTERS/Tamaulipas' State Attorney General's Office/Handout  

 The blindfolded and hand-tied bodies of people thought to be migrant workers lie at a ranch where they were discovered by Mexican marines in San Fernando, Tamaulipas state, in this handout photo released by the Attorney General's office August 26, 2010. REUTERS/Tamaulipas' State Attorney General's Office/Handout

News of executions, macabre assassinations and kidnappings are commonplace in northern Mexico, but this headline was not. With journalists’ reflexes we began to plan a trip to what suddenly became the bloodiest theater in the drug war. In the past two months a candidate for governor was gunned down, two mayors assassinated, grenades exploded on city streets and the cousin of a media mogul kidnapped. In one weekend 51 people had been murdered in infamous Ciudad Juarez.

People walk past a covered-up body of a dead man on a street near a shopping center in Ciudad Juarez August 15, 2010. REUTERS/Claudia Daut

My editors asked me if I wanted to go to Ciudad Victoria, where the government announced it would send the 72 bodies for identification. I knew the routine. In less than an hour I was headed out the door to the airport with my equipment and a hastily-packed suitcase, just as my youngest daughter arrived from school.