Photo Essay Mexican Drug War

Dead bodies make for some of the most shocking photos to come out of Mexico’s drug wars, but they only tell a small part of the story. While Mauricio Palos’ portfolio about violence in Mexico contains a disturbing image of a decapitated head lying casually under a box, overall the images are more poetic, more thoughtful. The bodies are there, they’re just not the focus.

“Mexico is multifaceted country and it’s impossible to see this story from only what’s going on in the streets,” says Palos.

Palos, 32, grew up and still lives in Mexico. The project includes photos of protesters during the 2012 presidential elections and of ranchers and hunters in the area near San Luis Potosí because he knows the story of violence is more complicated and layered.

“Overall this project was triggered by the idea of violence, but more broadly it’s also an ethnographic study of Mexico,” he says. To understand the violence, he says, you have to understand the country.

The Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) won the presidency in 2012 after being sidelined for a dozen years. For the 71 years before that, it had a strangle hold on Mexican politics and was known for cutting deals with the drug cartels and turning a blind-eye to their operations. During the 2012 elections is was accused of buying votes and paying television stations for favorable coverage. It's this context that makes photos of the protest a necessary part of the project.

The rancher photos in San Luis Potosí are inspired by the story of Don Alejo Garza Tamen, 77, a ranch owner who killed four members of a cartel who tried to take over his ranch for their own purposes. Palos couldn’t visit that exact ranch, but he found and photographed another ranch that he thought was similar to try and give a sense for what it’s like to live in the kinds of rural areas threatened by the cartels who like to use the ranches for hideouts and training areas. The story is an understandable microcosm of the larger, incomprehensible problem.

Palos calls this section of the project “La Ley del Monte,” or the law of the mountain. It’s a term used to describe those places that sit outside the law for various reasons. For him it’s an appropriate title for these rural areas that often have to defend themselves because no one else will. But it’s also an apt title for the entire project (which he hopes to turn into a book) because the violence in Mexico has created its own set of rules.

In the section called “Come and Take It,” Palos photographed people who have fled the violence and re-settled in the United States, including Marisol Valles Garcia, who shot to fame after she took the police chief job in the border town of Praxedis. It was news not only because she was so young, just 20 years old, but because of the danger she put herself in. Her predecessor was tortured by cartels and then beheaded. Valles Garcia lasted just a couple months before the death threats forced her to flee.

In another story, Palos photographed the residents of Ayulta, Mexico, who evicted both the cartels and the government from their town because they said they couldn’t trust either. The town is one of several in Mexico that have taken the law into its own hands because of a lack of trust in the government. The goriest photos in the project are from Juarez and Acapulco, which have both been areas of intense violence.

Palos, who recently joined the Boreal Collective, is currently in Mérida, the capital of the state of Yucatan, working on a story about the long history of conflict between the indigenous communities there and the various groups who have tried to enslave or exploit them. It’s another story that doesn’t seem to fit neatly into the theme, but Palos says there's a thread. The drug war isn't just about drugs he says, but also about economic disparities, control of land, and racial hierarchies, all of which fueled the conflicts in the Yucatan.

"What we experience today reaches back into these moments," he says. "I realize that at this point the story seems messy, and it’s complex journey, but it will all come together."

Part of La Ley del Monte is being produced with help from FONCA and pieces of the story have been published in COLORS Magazine, The Wall Street Journal and Gatopardo Magazine. The project is also part of TLC Posse, a collaborative documentation of cross-border issues in North America. TLC stands for Tratado de Libre Comercio, the Spanish for North American Free Trade Agreement. TLC is Palos, photographer Brett Gundlock (Canadian), and photographer Dominic Bracco II (American). Follow @TLCPosse on Twitter.

Only 10 minutes away from the beaches of Acapulco, a world of extortion and killing thrives. Coroners carry a body through Barranca de la Laja, an impoverished neighborhood with few roads, that clings to a hillside. The body, decapitated and with the legs dismembered, was buried in the floor of a residence in the chronically violent neighborhood. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)

I grew up traveling to Mexico. It was an easy trip into Baja from Ventura County, Calif., my home. We would camp on desert points and surf for days. I always found the dusty peninsula and the country as a whole surprising, welcoming and exciting. It was not until the series of trips I took there in 2017 with Josh Partlow, our Mexico bureau chief, that I truly felt afraid. Afraid for my safety. Afraid for what Mexico had become.

The assignment started with a text from my editor, Nick Kirkpatrick, asking if I wanted to travel to a “sketchy narco zone,” in Guerrero, one of Mexico’s most violent states. The stories I had read about Mexican journalists being assassinated throughout the country for covering the violence and cartels were numerous. The country is second only to Syria in the number of journalists being killed on the job. But this is Mexico, a country and people I admire and respect. I knew with proper planning this was a story I wanted to photograph.

We started in the “Tierra Caliente,” or Hot Land, an opium-producing region in the mountains of Guerrero that provides drugs to sustain America’s heroin habit. This is a place where impoverished rural towns are terrorized by drug lords with names like “El Pez,” the Big Fish, and “El Tequilero,” a name that needs no translation. We met the relatives of the murdered, victims of multiple kidnappings, and vigilante groups that took up arms to protect their neighbors. It became obvious this was only a chapter of a larger story.

We witnessed a mustachioed cartel member carrying an assault rifle beating a man senseless in Acapulco, the world’s second most dangerous city according to homicide statistics. The once posh resort town is now a narrow beach strip frequented mostly by Mexican tourists and semi-abandoned neighborhoods ruled by gangs and violence.

In the border town of Tijuana, I met Cesar, a 27-year-old heroin addict who had started using at 18, the year his mother had committed suicide. Fluent in English and Spanish and boasting an encyclopedic knowledge of music, Cesar seemed to have charm and the ability to be successful. Instead, gripped by addiction, he is emblematic of the skyrocketing domestic drug use now present in Mexico.

Cesar Corona stumbles after injecting a “Belushi,” a combination of methamphetamine and heroin, into his neck at El Bordo, a desolate area populated by addicts and the homeless in Tijuana, Mexico. Corona, 27, says he has been addicted to methamphetamine and heroin since his mother committed suicide when he was 18. “It is my only escape,” he says.

Jalisco is one of Mexico’s most prosperous states. It is dominated by Jalisco Nueva Generacíon, now considered the country’s most powerful cartel. We found ourselves at the scene of a homicide. Luz Margarita Ramirez Gallardo had survived two gunshots to the head a month ago, on the Day of the Dead, a traditional Mexican holiday. Now she was dead, slumped in the seat of a van outside her home in Guadalajara. The hit men came back to finish the job they had failed to complete the first time.

Drug demand remains high in the United States and these areas of Mexico suffer greatly trying to fulfill that need.

A Mexican soldier throws opium poppies onto a fire during an eradication operation in the growing region of Iyotla, Guerrero, Mexico. Mexico has become a the largest source of heroin for the United States market, fueling a surge in violence in the state of Guerrero. Military operations offer scant reassurance to local residents. “This is a land without law,” said a businessman who works in the region.

A boy rides in a pickup truck past an “auto defensa,” or self-defense group, checkpoint in the town of San Miguel Totolapan, Mexico. The town has been the scene of pitched battles between “El Tequilero” and “El Pez,” leaders of two rival drug gangs.  The lack of police or military order have driven locals to form their own defense forces. A whole generation of Mexicans are growing up with homicides and cartel conflicts as part of their daily lives.

Gathering outside a home where a young man was murdered, friends and relatives mourn in Colonia Santa Cruz, a violent neighborhood of Acapulco, Mexico. The dominant drug cartel in Acapulco broke up 10 years ago. The criminals now in charge resemble neighborhood gangs — with names like 221 or Los Locos. Acapulco, once a playground for celebrities, is ranked as the second most dangerous city in the world.

Mexico’s border region is suffering spikes in violence. A funeral home owner said that business in Tijuana is up by 300 percent over last year. Drug overdoses have affected the death rate, too. Tijuana is on pace to record its most violent year in the city’s history. Carrying a new casket, a man walks past two students playing outside their home.

Many Mexicans, like this family celebrating a wedding in Iguala, Guerrero, are struggling to retain a sense of normalcy in their daily life as drug gangs ravage the area, battling for dominance in the opium market. Iguala is the location where 43 students disappeared in 2014. The whereabouts of all but one remain a mystery.

A woman descends a staircase in a hillside neighborhood of Tijuana, Mexico. Unlike previous narco wars that plagued Tijuana, the violence these days is confined largely to poverty-stricken neighborhoods that ring the city. Drug use and addiction is rising quickly. “In my world, everyone uses,” one addict in a local rehab said.

Days after Luz Margarita Ramirez Gallardo was killed, her friends and family mourn her loss, including her mother, left, and Eulalia Fernandez, center, a longtime family friend. The statue of a saint was lent by a local church to offer the family comfort. Ramirez was killed by a shot to the head in front of her home, in Guadalajara, Mexico, on Dec. 5. “Everyone is afraid,” said Ramirez’s mother, who asked that her name not be used.

Guadalajara, like most of Mexico’s cities and towns, is suffering under a high homicide rate. Many of the shootings are between the Sinaloa cartel and Jalisco Nueva Generacíon which are battling over control of the city’s southern neighborhoods. A man, shot through the shoulder during a drive-by attack , is assisted to an ambulance by his parents. Many citizens have little faith in the police.

A cross stands watch over the dangerous neighborhood of Colonia Santa Cruz in Acapulco, Mexico. Many residents, exhausted by the violence and gripped by fear, have given up on their homes, fleeing to the United States or other parts of Mexico, leaving abandoned businesses and residences in their wake.

From a municipal bus window, passengers stare at a crime scene where a woman was shot to death in the San Carlos neighborhood of Guadalajara, Mexico. The woman, Luz Margarita Ramirez Gallardo, 35, was shot in the head while sitting in her car outside her home in the middle of the day. Guadalajara, Mexico’s second largest city, is dominated by Jalisco Nueva Generacíon, now considered Mexico’s most powerful drug cartel.

Aldo Monjardin, left, a district commander with the Guadalajara police, looks in the backpack of a suspected methamphetamine addict who was accosting people on the city’s south side. Monjardin noted the rise in drug addiction in the area and increasing violence.

To help quell the kidnappings and violence in their towns, citizens have formed “auto defensa,” or self-defense groups. The line between cartel members and auto defensa groups can be ambiguous, with former members of each joining the other’s ranks. Some auto defensa members jump onto a road outside the town of San Miguel Totolapan, Mexico, which was the scene of pitched battles between “El Tequilero” and “El Pez,” leaders of two rival drug gangs that grow opium in the region.

Maurilio Mendoza, comforting his niece, recounts a story of how he was twice kidnapped by drug gangs. Mendoza says it is a common occurrence among the population of Guerrero’s “Tierra Caliente,” or Hot Land. It is the heart of Guerrero’s opium growing region. Mendoza lives in Santa Rosa de Lima, one of the area’s small towns that lies on the battle lines between drug gangs.

A young man, part of an auto defensa force, stands at his post in Teloloapan, Guerrero, part of the Tierra Caliente region. Slowly, the region’s economy is being asphyxiated by the criminal groups. Business owners say that vendors of mangos, cucumbers and other produce must pay cartels one peso — about 5 cents — per kilogram they sell. Restaurants needing chicken meat are forced to buy from gang-specified suppliers. Extortion is rampant in all aspects of the local economies.

Guillermo Perez, watchful and paranoid, drives his taxi through some of the most dangerous neighborhoods in Acapulco, Mexico. Taxi drivers are killed at an alarming rate by the various gangs and cartels that battle in the once popular seaside resort. Many taxi drivers are employed as “halcones,” or hawks in Spanish. This is slang for lookouts, employed by gangs to inform them about who is entering their territories. They are often the first targets when one group invades another group’s territory.

Municipal police look for spent shell casings at the scene of a homicide in Acapulco, Mexico. While homicides are plentiful in the once popular seaside city, convictions or arrests are nearly nonexistent. Residents complain that there is rarely even an investigation into the murders of their loved ones. Here, residents walked through the crime scene unimpeded.

A man shot and wounded during a drive-by attack, is attended to in an ambulance in Guadalajara, Mexico. Guadalajara, like most of Mexico’s cities and towns, is plagued by a high homicide rate. Many of the shootings are between the Sinaloa cartel and Jalisco Nueva Generacíon.

A woman smokes a cigarette, one of three she is allowed per day, at Casa Corazon, a drug rehabilitation center in Tijuana. “Drug use has exploded here in an incredible way,” said Florina Righetti Rojo, who runs the rehab center for women in Tijuana. “What has this brought us? How many dead?”

In Mexico, The Price of America’s Hunger for Heroin

Acapulco is Now Mexico’s Murder Capital

Mexico’s Drug Trade Hits Home

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