Photographers' Blog

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.

“Where are you going Papá?” she asked. “Can you take me with you?” My daughter is still a child.

“I can’t take you. I’m going for work,” I told her as I touched her cheek, avoiding her big eyes as they searched out mine.

The winding road from Tijuana

By Jorge Duenes

A U.S. border patrol vehicle is seen from the Mexican side of the border while driving near Otay Mountain on the outskirts of San Diego, California June 6, 2010. REUTERS/Jorge Duenes

Just outside Tijuana there’s a section of the USA-Mexico border wall that follows very irregular terrain and where, attracted by its curves and steep drops, I’ve taken many pictures. It was there that I decided to photograph the Border Patrol making its nighttime rounds along the winding road in the dark.

After two months of waiting for the right weather, I asked my father and brother to drive me to a place on the highway from where I could hike to the spot I had marked on my map.

A U.S. border patrol vehicle is seen from the Mexican side of the border while driving near Otay Mountain on the outskirts of San Diego, California June 6, 2010. REUTERS/Jorge Duenes

My backpack weighed heavily on me, as I carried two cameras, three lenses, a tripod, binoculars, a tent, jacket, food and drinks. With all of this gear, I walked quickly through the scrub in a region frequented by robbers and illegal migrants. It took me an hour and a half to reach my destination atop a hill some 400 meters high.

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.

A different world, just as real.

The first time I met Angelica I didn’t know how to address him, as a man or a woman. To call him Angelica and then hear his man’s voice was very strange. The first thing I asked was how he wanted to be treated. He said that it depended on how I felt more comfortable. For me she was Angelica.


Angelica is an extraordinary person through whose story I began my own in my new country, Mexico. Mexico is enormous and full of contrasts, color, smells and flavors.

Angelica has a very unique family. Her daughter Shadra has a pet Egyptian rat. I thought, how can a girl have a pet rat and love it as any child loves a dog. She proudly wanted to show it to me and put it in my hands, but I screamed and told her I was sorry but I just couldn’t hold a rat. I was ashamed to be such a coward. Luckily she understood; she’s an 8-year-old girl with incredible maturity that allows her to accept her father as a man and as a woman at the same time. She respects and doesn’t show shame.

Flu, fear and family

News coverage is a daily activity for me, and however I get involved in a story it’s not just a job; it’s also what I enjoy doing. Sometimes I’m just an observer behind a camera, but other times I also end up being affected personally. When the new H1N1 flu virus broke out in Mexico there was an additional factor for me; it was impossible not to suffer the first days of the epidemic as the head of a family.

I thought of the photos that I wanted to take, but I couldn’t help thinking of my daughter, my wife and my mother. As Colombians living in Mexico City we were all exposed to the unknown virus. Fear and uncertainty dominated my family, friends and the millions of people with whom I share the streets of this metropolis.

Very early on Friday, April 24, I put on rubber gloves and a facemask that I bought from the corner pharmacy. The masks were still easy to find, but a day later their scarcity would become a problem. My daughter celebrated along with countless others of her age the sudden onset of vacation, not yet understanding that the break from school would become a virtual quarantine. It was recommended that children not leave their homes during the emergency. In the early days of the outbreak, the government said that the majority of the victims were young adults, but in normal flu outbreaks children and the elderly are always the most vulnerable.

Shadows come to life on Mexico’s northern border

It’s 10 pm and there’s a cold wind blowing in the parking lot of a strip mall in Ciudad Juarez. This is our “base” of operations where two other photographers and I await news from a radio tuned to the police frequency. One of my colleagues reads a newspaper while the other describes to me his experiences covering the violence. His experiences are stories of terror.

Suddenly over the radio waves come the clear sounds of a “narcocorrido,” or Mexican folk music that glorifies the feats of drug bandits. One of the photographers jumps. “It’s going down,” he says. Baffled, I ask what he means. “The bandits interrupt the police frequency with that music as a signal that they’re about to deposit a package (victim’s remains).” It’s a sober warning and clear example of the power of narcos along much of Mexico’s northern border.

Forensic workers stand next to 11 of 16 slain bodies dumped in an abandoned lot in the border city of Tijuana September 29, 2008. Police found 16 bodies dumped in the seedy Mexican border city of Tijuana on Monday in what the state attorney general’s office said could be a revenge attack for the arrest of a local drug gang hit man. REUTERS/Stringer

A picture from both sides

There was great interest in the visit to Mexico by Cuba’s foreign minister Felipe Perez Roque, especially since Mexico’s previous President Vicente Fox had broken off diplomatic relations with the island nation. Adding to the expectation was the fact that the minister’s first attempt to visit Mexico this year was canceled when Cuba was hit by a hurricane.

Perez Roque’s trip was finally reconfirmed with a packed agenda, with one event closely following the next. The first was a visit to the monument to Cuba’s independence hero, José Martí, followed by a visit to another monument to Mexico’s own hero, Benito Juárez. The monuments are not far apart, but because of the tight schedule most photographers assumed that Perez Roque would be driven between them and they went ahead to take an early position. To the surprise of a few, including myself, the minister decided to walk the distance.

Cuba’s Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque walks during a visit to the Benito Juarez monument in Mexico City October 20, 2008. REUTERS/Daniel Aguilar

As I was running alongside the Cuban delegation, between them and other colleagues that had taken up a position on the sidelines, Perez Roque suddenly turned to me and said he’d like to take pictures of us for a change. He asked me for the camera I was carrying in my hand, exactly the one with the short zoom that I needed to shoot him from so close, so instead I offered him my second camera equipped with a longer zoom.

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