Christmas, Drug Wars and Juarez

When I mentioned I was going to spend Christmas photographing Juárez, people reacted as if I was planning a trip to Somalia.

They were not that far off.

How out of control is the city of Juárez? Compare the killings there to the war in Afghanistan. In Juárez in 2009 -- a single city with only 1.5 million people--almost 2,600 people have been murdered. The number of civilians killed in the war in Afghanistan in 2009 was about 2,038 in a nation of 28 million people.

In the last two years, upwards of 4,000 people have been murdered in Juárez, compared to about 30 homicides across the U.S. border in El Paso.

Juárez is the deadliest city in the world for a simple reason: for years, several powerful drug cartels have been fighting over control of the city. The region represents an extremely profitable route into the U.S., where consumers spend enormous sums of money to get high.

On average, 10 people are murdered each day. In September alone, 476 people were killed, most of them gunned down in the street in broad daylight.

Juárez has become synonymous with murder, but the murders here are extraordinary brutal. The killings often involve extreme sadism, mass executions, decapitations and torture. From the simple (cigarette burns, bones crushed to pieces) to the macabre (being buried alive) to the unpredictable. In two instances in September, narco mafiosos burst into drug rehab clinics, lined people up against the wall, shot 28 dead, most execution style.

The observations below encompass my personal experiences on the ground in Juárez, during a brief trip. For a broader understanding of what is happening there, I'll direct you to Philip Caputo's great piece on the Narco Wars in the December issue of the Atlantic Monthly entitled The Fall of Mexico (with photographs by Julián Cardona). Highly recommend reading, linked here.

I flew to El Paso and walked over a short bridge that connects to Juárez. The difference between the U.S. and Mexico was a mere blur.

I arrived at my hotel at 3:30pm expecting to take a minute to shower and eat, but immediately, my interpreter started rolling in with calls about murders. At least five people were gunned down in locations spread citywide.

By the time I returned to my room at 9:30pm, like clockwork, Juárez had filled its quota, right before my eyes.

As it was Christmastime, I was looking for signs to take the city's pulse. The first noticeable thing was how sedate the mood was. More somber than quiet. There was very little in the way of public festivities or typical signs of holiday celebrations. Ubiquitous pickup trucks, filled with police and soldiers, roamed the streets with mounted machine guns. A candlelight vigil calling for peace, held in a large park in the center of town, brought only a handful of people.

"Bars." My driver said when I asked about good places to visit. "You can take photos of the empty bars." He said. "Everyone is scared to go into them. People who want to drink, they drink inside their homes now."

I went to a lot of murder scenes over the course of 72 hours. All involved execution style killings.

One young man was shot dead in his car, a big bullet hole in the side of his belly. His father was held back by other family members, screaming that it was a mistaken identity, his son was not involved with the narcos. The man I was traveling around town with whispered that in Juárez, there are no accidental killings. I heard that sentiment a lot, and it always felt like a way to avoid surrendering to a devistating truth: many murders were in fact cruel accidents, many victims were in fact bystanders.

Another scene I visited was in an area so deserted, the coroner's van and a police tow truck had to follow me and my driver to the crime scene because they were lost.

There's a subculture of local journalists armed with police scanners. A killing happens, and NexTel walkie-talkie beep-beeps volleys all over town, triangulating the location of even the most remote murders 24/7. On occasion, I arrived before most of the authorities had shown up. A soldier and I had to draw an invisible line with our eyes because not enough 'Do Not Cross' police barrier tape had arrived.

Once I passed a speeding ambulance leaving as I neared a scene. Although I first thought there were two dead victims, it turned out one was alive and being rushed to the hospital. He had been severely stabbed and had apparently faked his death to his killers. The other guy was not so lucky, discovered in the trunk of a car, hands bound with yellow straps, his face smashed into a swollen bloody mess of red. It looked like his pants had been removed.

Rushing from one scene to the next, Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, it was easy to forget the much wider, and more devastating, impact of all this killing. For the most part, I observed lifeless bodies, people who themselves were probably killers, as cartel-on-cartel murders are the most common. After being witness to so many scenes of death and destruction, I decided to visit memorial services for an alternate perspective.

I had a source inside a funeral home who was able to let me know when memorial services were taking place inside private homes. 9-times-out-of-10 the families were not interested in having an outsider in attendance. Given these were narco-deaths, that was not a surprise.

One very late evening, I was finally invited into a memorial inside a home. Probably because it was 20 degrees outside, I was dressed for winter in Los Angeles and my teeth were chattering uncontrollably. No one there spoke English except a young woman who walked me into a room with two open caskets. One containing an older woman and one with a middle aged man. The house was filled with grieving family and friends. Thirty or forty people reeling from the horror and tragedy. Young kids crying quietly to themselves. One woman was inconsolable, three people holding her.

What made the scene so difficult for me to fathom was that this seemed a world away from what I would have been thinking of a narco slaying. No one there looked like they were part of a depraved drug syndicate, especially the two people in the coffins. Both had been killed in front of a food stand outside of the U.S. Consulate building.

Once outside the house, a man I was with read the question on my face and said "Nunca coincidencias aquí." ("Never coincidences here"). It made the tragedy a little easier to digest, but truthfully, I think we both knew better.

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