Due to the excessive violence of the Mexican drug cartels, Juárez gained the reputation of most dangerous city on earth. A recently graduated doctor and a PhD student have experienced the violence at close range.
Get the picture and get the fuck out
War photographer and anthropologist Teun Voeten (1961) published a book of photographs, Narco Estado, Drug Violence in Mexico, last month. As a PhD student, he wants to "dig deeper" by interviewing the killers who perform the bloody executions.
"I was always very careful - my strategy was: go for two weeks and then leave. Get the picture and get the fuck out. You are at risk all the time. You get used to the violence, while you should be on your guard and after two weeks you are completely drained. And I have the luxury of coming or going at any time. Can you imagine what it's like for the people who live there?
"I have a picture that reveals just how little life is worth in Juárez. It shows a pauper's graveyard in the desert and on a fallen, rusty sign it says M-N-I: Masculina Non Identificado. The authorities always say the criminals kill each other off, but there is a man of flesh and blood in that anonymous grave. What a way to die.
"About 2007, when things really started to erupt in Mexico, Juárez was called the most dangerous city on earth – more dangerous than Baghdad or Mogadishu. I grew very curious and went to see it. Many of my colleagues felt I was "paparazzi crime chasing". I'm known for my portrayals of social-political conflicts, so they thought: what does he want with a gang war between a bunch of locals?"
"But there's more to the situation than meets the eye: it's the complete disintegration of a society. Organised crime is assuming more and more state functions, undermining the monopoly of violence. The drugs cartels are exceedingly violent organisations that can carry out their relentless predator capitalism without any interference; it's all possible in a country with a weak government where crime and authority are inextricably intermingled.
"Usually, conflicts concentrate on eliminating the enemy. Usually, human beings have an innate aversion to excessive cruelty and have a natural respect for the mortal remains. But in Mexico, the violence has a communicative dimension: people are atrociously butchered and the bodies are displayed in the most barbarous ways: chopped up in pieces, dumped in plastic bags. Drugs cartels use the social media and post their executions of YouTube. My book contains a few screen shots, and you can see them decapitating the victims with chain saws. That's to mark their territory, to show how brutal they are and to instil people with fear and terror. There's a horrible name for it: body messaging.
"In 22 years of war photography, this is the most extreme violence I have ever seen. And although the pictures speak for themselves, as an anthropologist, I want to dig deeper. After years of wandering, I've returned to the bosom of my Alma Mater, Leiden, to study this subject as an external doctoral student.
"The Mexican drugs trade has been around for seventy years, so why has it escalated now? Why is it so sadistic? Some of the killings seem to resemble Aztec rituals. I'm not saying that cruelty is in their blood, but perhaps the cartels want to imitate that particular cultural aspect, trying to be more Aztec than the Aztecs. Some theories claim that they are inspired by Al Qaida, putting the beheadings on the Internet. But maybe they are completely high on coke, which numbs their senses and makes them capable of such deeds.
"While I might ponder about the violence and its symbolic value, I still need to find some common ground between that and what actually goes on in the streets. To that end, I'm intending to interview the killers, which is difficult but not impossible. There have been mercenaries who have unburdened themselves and who see these interviews as a confession.
"I might try to interview men who have been arrested and preferably extradited to America – at least, the prisons are safe there. I want to try and establish a bond with guys have been given life sentences, and eventually tell them: Listen, you're fucked anyway, you may as well do something good for science."
‘Now there is only one murder a day’
Jorge Balderas Domínguez (1969) was recently awarded his doctorate for his work on drugs-related violence in his home town of Juárez. "Everyone has a plan B – get across the border."
"I was born there, and I've spent my whole life there: Juárez used to be a city with a busy nightlife, a bit like Amsterdam. Suddenly, the violence erupted and the restaurants, bars and clubs were all abandoned. Two years ago, when the first bomb went off, I was one and a half kilometres away. At the height of the cartel war, there were 24 casualties a day, all in public. When you look back at your daily route, you realise just how close to all those deaths you were.
"As a civilian, you're scared all the time. You don't take the kids to the park or pop into town any more. Everyone feels as if they are trapped in their own homes. I guess everyone has a plan B – get out of the country, get across the border. I know I do. Or perhaps find a quieter place in Mexico, but those are few and far between nowadays.
"I had so many questions and so few answers. How could this happen? In my dissertation, I have analysed how the violence affected social life. Civilians stories are significant because the deviate considerably from the statements by the official authorities.
"Mexican politics are one of the reasons for the mounting violence. Pressured by the United States, the current government under President Felipe Calderón has declared war on the cartels. Already, there have been around sixty thousand deaths. It has always been denied, but thanks to Wikileaks, we know that the American intelligence services are everywhere in Mexico. Nevertheless, because of the huge amount of corruption, the "War on Drugs" has hardly made a dent. The Mexican elite, both the political and economical elite, only look after their own interests. Anywhere in the world, you can see that people deal better with crime if wealth is more evenly distributed.
"In Mexico, the government is creating a police state that is very ineffectual in its response to the drugs cartels, but is tough on its own citizens and the social movement. After Occupy Wall Street, activists took to the streets all over the world, and in Mexico City, a large crowd went to the banks to call them out on their connections with the cartels. All the activists were arrested immediately, and when a new group of protesters demanded the release of the first group, they were arrested too.
"Last November, a number of academics, intellectuals and other worried civilians sent a letter to the International Crime Court in The Hague in an attempt to indict the president for war crimes. In response, the government said it would use all legal means to deal with the accusers – we're talking about thirty-thousand people here! Remember, the rate of impunity in our country is 97 per cent. In other words, only three percent of all crime reaches the courts.
"It affects everybody. I once interviewed a group of students who had been attacked by masked soldiers. They were forced to lie on the ground, after handing over their mobiles and ID cards. The girls and the men were all struck in the face. A bit later on, the attackers returned to apologise: apparently they had made a mistake. Two weeks after the interview, sixteen students were executed in the same neighbourhood. It's too hazardous to find out who is behind these attacks. There were a few brave journalists who tried, but they have all left the country now. To stay means to sign your own death warrant.
"For the local media, the violence is a source of income so they focus only on showing the horrific details, such as dismembered limbs. This thirst for sensation has to change: a quality newspaper such as La Jornada from Mexico City won't describe the trail of blood after an attack, but discusses the underlying context.
"However, there is some good news too: things are calming down. Juárez is not the most dangerous city in the world any more. Now, there is only one murder a day. Gradually, public life is stirring once more and people are starting to go to cafés and restaurants again.
"Nevertheless, the bad news is that the violence is spreading across the nation. Even so, I'm glad I'm going home after my doctoral presentation in Leiden. Despite everything, Mexico is a wonderful country."