Life and Death in The Northern Pass

by Dominic Bracco II

This project aims to humanize violence in Mexico, specifically in Ciudad Juarez, which represents a microcosm for destabilization that is spreading across the country.

“There are two ways of thinking about living here; either you go on every day and when it’s your turn to die you die, or you live every day in fear.” - Daniel Gonzalez, 26, a resident of Ciudad Juarez who later moved to El Paso, Texas.
Sprawled across the tail end of the Rocky Mountains where the starved Rio Bravo pushes mud through a barren desert valley sits Ciudad Juarez, one of most violent cities in the world  – historically known as El Paso del Norte or The Northern Pass.

May 4, 2010 1:51 am – EMT workers Adrian and Gorge hardly stop to lower the Delilah Radio Show blaring over their two-way radios from El Paso. “What – what did they say?” Gorge responds, “Two dead by firearm.” Later Adrian and Gorge find a couple murdered minutes earlier idling in their small white pickup.  The woman was far into her pregnancy. Adrian declares them dead. The couple’s heads touched in a last embrace. A single bullet entered the man's skull and took all three lives.

Mexico’s past is filled with class-based conflicts and violence.  The Mexican Independence from Spain in 1810, The Caste War of the Yucatan, The Reform War, The Mexican Revolution, the Zapatista uprising, the Tlatelolco Massacre, and finally the current conflict between cartels and the Mexican government have all been rooted, in sorts, in the frustrations of an underrepresented and impoverished underclass that lacks economic mobility and genuine political voice. Ciudad Juarez is the city, which has seen the most violence. The drug war demolished its infrastructure (material and human) as Juarez continues falling deeper into a recessive pattern of violence, economic hardship, and social indifference. A statistic released six months ago stated that every three hours someone in the city is executed. Last year (2010) 3,100 individuals lost their lives in Ciuada Juarez alone.

In Juarez, the war goes beyond the cartels and Mexican authorities. It is a conflict that involves the mothers, sons, factory workers and everyday citizens. I make photographs of violence through the eyes of the average person living in Ciudad Juarez hoping to somehow humanize the situation.

1) Calderon’s “War on Corruption”
After the 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States, security on the Mexican border increased, resulting in excess drugs in the city. Traffickers began paying locals with illegal drugs rather than cash, and the city soon became a burgeoning market for drugs itself. People that once moved drugs from region to region, or worked for the Juarez Cartel in any capacity, began to sell drugs in their local colonias, factories, and schools. Soon a city that was merely a pit stop in the global drug trade, became one of the most strategic and important drug markets for Mexican cartels. By the mid 2000s the Sinaloa and Gulf cartels battled the local Juarez Cartel and the corrupted municipal police department known as “La Linea” for control of the city.

Many police were murdered, the violent drug cartels ruled the streets, and eventually the local government requested aid from Mexico City, which resulted in the deployment of the Mexican Army to Ciudad Juarez. Two years later, escalating violence and accusations of human rights abuses led to the Mexican Army’s withdrawal from the city. By April 2010, several thousand fully armed Federal Police replaced them, which had no effect on the continuing bloodshed. In recent months, the city has grown more violent as police are overwhelmed with unsolved murder cases and can do very little to investigate crimes. I’ll continue to cover the peripherals of violence as I work, contrasting intimate images of the common citizen’s life with the bloodshed that surrounds them.

2) Generacion Ni Ni y Las Pandillas (A lost generation and the gangs)
­­Generation “Ni Ni” – coined from the phrase “ni trabajo – ni escuela” (without school or work) – is Mexico’s largely forgotten youth between the ages of 15 and 30 years old.
June 7, 2010 8:14 pm - Rosario Hernandez Guereca holds back her relatives as they curse at United States Border Patrol agents who shot and killed her 15-year-old brother from across the Rio Bravo. According to eyewitnesses, the shooting occurred after Guereca and several other teenagers crossed into the United States and retreated back to Mexico once they were spotted. One in their group was detained by the U.S. Border Patrol and at least one of the boys threw a rock from the Mexican border into the United States toward the Border Patrol agent. In retaliation, the agent fired several rounds hitting Guereca in the head. Officials would later say that Guereca was assisting members of the group in crossing illegally into the United States by learning the patterns of border agents. They would label the 15-year-old boy a “coyote” or smuggler.

There’s a way of describing someone in Juarez by calling them “muy del barrio” or very much from a bad neighborhood or street. This is how one of Guereca’s schoolmates would describe him to me. Guereca was one of the Ni Ni – an unlucky forgotten soul in Juarez where the boundaries of crime and an honest path are often blurred by the events that cloud the city.

Over this year, I have come to know a group of teenagers from “Diaz Ordaz,” one of the poorest neighborhoods. Several of the group are involved in a small street gang known as “Los Noveno,” (The Nine) which formed to protect their neighborhood from rival armed gangs who would terrorize their neighborhood. Since its creation, the Novenos have gone through several periods of changes. Eventually they became involved in criminal activity as well, until two members were killed. Some members quit the gang, and now they have largely returned to their original, vigilante-like status in the neighborhood. Since then the group has been involved in at least one vigilante killing.
 Many view violence in Mexico as battles between large cartel organizations and the military, but less seen are the effects of smaller street gangs, who exploit the lack of security to kidnap, extort, rob, murder, and sell drugs and firearms.
3) The Economic and Social Impacts of Violence.
The recent economic downturn has only served to exacerbate the situation. With the current jobless rate increasing and local funding for public works weakening, the general ability for communities to target social issues has become even more difficult. Tourism is non-existent, once the main source of income for many locals, and foreign investors are closing factories. Over 10,000 businesses have closed in Ciudad Juarez. The jobless rate will more than likely continue to plummet. Many of the cities youth will continue to turn to crime to make ends meet. To illustrate this part of the story, I will chronicle the lives of factory workers, explore their work situation and their struggle to survive honestly in a city where the cost of living is 70 percent of that in the United States, and income is roughly 10 dollars a day in most maquiladoras (Maquiladoras are factories built mostly after the passing of the North American Free Trade Agreement that produce goods mostly for sale in the United States.) I also hope to record the life of a sketch artist whose two children were brutally executed earlier this year, and document his effort to make ends meet in a city without tourists.

 4)Those That Choose to Leave.
Many of Ciudad Juarez’s businesses have closed and are boarded-up. Homes are left vacant. Streets are empty. It is very clear that the city, once bursting at the seams, is now rapidly emptying-out. Hundreds of families have made their way into the United States, and those that cannot have sought refuge else where in Mexico. Selling a home in the city is almost impossible and going to other parts of Mexico where violence is on the rise seems pointless to many. Families that do make it to the United States often find themselves in a difficult social climate that seems to be more and more anti-immigrant  - especially in border states like Arizona, where immigration related laws have stirred international disapproval. Many still make the decision to leave, or are forced to leave. I intend to document this exodus, and follow residents as they attempt to make new lives elsewhere. I plan to end the piece with images of endless rows of burnt out businesses and houses.
Residents of Ciudad Juarez take to the streets to protest the shooting of a student by a Federal Police officer days before.
A young girl says goodbye to her mother, who was a factory worker, that was killed during a massacre.

Mexican Red cross assist a shooting victim.
A mother consoles her daughter.
Mexican Federal Police patrol the U.S. border.
Family and friends attend the funerals of victims of a massacre that left 13 dead and over a dozen wounded in Ciudad Juarez.
The bloody car of three executed plain clothes police officers.
Blood on the doorstep of a house in Juarez.
A released prisoner is seen walking through the desert outside of the state penitentiary near Ciudad Juarez.
Prisoners line up for lunch at a state penitentiary near Ciudad Juarez.
Family and friends gather around the body of 15-year-old Sergio Adrian Hernandez Guereca, who was killed on June 7th by a Border police.