Ciudad Juarez: A Photographic Testimony of Pain

Ciudad Juarez: A Photographic Testimony of Pain

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Since 2008, close to 30,000 people in Mexico have been killed in the so-called “war on drugs.” While the government claims that they are winning, Guillermo Cervantes, a history professor who grew up in Ciudad Juarez, where 7,000 have died, set out to document another part of this story, the one told in pictures by the residents of Mexico's deadliest city. In “Ciudad Juarez 2008-2010: A photographic testimony of our pain,”  Cervantes hopes to share the testimony of the people on the streets. He talks with NAM about his personal experience living in Ciudad Juarez, and the death of 13 youth during a massacre in the community of Villas de Salvacar on Jan. 31 this year. Two of them were his students at the university.


What is the goal of showing these graphic pictures?


At the end of January  2010, a group of youth, ages between 15 and 22,  were celebrating that they won a football tournament. They had a party at their house. And…at night an armed command with assault rifles interrupts the party. They murdered the youth group that were almost (all) children. The official version offered by Felipe Calderón [the Mexican president] during a visit to Japan said that they were gang members. It’s a very irresponsible accusation that offends the sorrow of mothers, brothers, family and friends.

We were astonished. We couldn’t explain how something like that would happen in our city…Blood came out the house and drained into the sidewalk.

Two of these youth were my students at the University. It really causes me indignation to hear the official account saying that they were in a gang. These were average kids... And I think that if they can try to hide and mask what’s going on in Ciudad Juarez which such lightness, what is the impression that the world is getting? The official government’s story says that we are winning the war against organized crime, that we have one of the most honest and best trained police in Mexico’s history, that civilian deaths have gone down.

I don’t want the world to ignore what’s going on in Ciudad Juarez. The book’s goal is to present the version of Ciudad Juarez inhabitants, those of us who live there, and experience and bare first-hand witness to the violence.

You speak of a change in Ciudad Juarez on 2008. How does it take place?

Everything starts with turf wars between groups that dispute the contraband routes between Juarez and United States. But the problem is not only their turf wars to control the corridor. When the cartels started fighting among each other, we experienced acts of brutal and bloody violence we’ve never seen before in Juarez. I’m not saying that Juarez was a crime-free paradise, but we weren’t used to such violent acts.

Just to give you an idea: In 2007, we had around 200 violent homicides. In 2008, there were more than 2,000. If you notice this is an absurd increment.

The federal government responds by sending thousands of people and soldiers to Ciudad Juarez…. The arrival of these military elements brings along a series of issues and a series of unprecedented crimes in Ciudad Juarez.

Yes, the turf between cartels brought violence and public executions; sometimes we found heads on the streets, bodies hanging from bridges when we were taking our kids to school, when we were going to work, tortured bodies, mutilated. Nevertheless, it didn’t go beyond affecting people morally, it was something between the criminal groups.

When the military and the federal officers arrived, we started to experience a series of crimes that hadn’t occurred in Ciudad Juarez (before) but were common in the center and south of the country. We started seeing kidnappings; traditional kidnappings in which they’d take someone and ask the family for ransom and the famous “express kidnapping.”

We hear complains that the military is [invading] homes, taking away a young man, sometimes students. Then, they [were released] with a beating. Sometimes, they didn’t return.

What is more, the military had free rein to act as it pleased.

Are you not afraid to speak publicly about this?


Somebody has to do it. It’s going to continue to go on if [no one does] anything. I want it to be over. I’ve seen how things have drastically changed in the last three years. It’s a different city.

How is daily life for a family in Juarez?

Daily life is fear. Fear is what identifies Juarez’s people. It’s fear. Fear of going to work, fear of being the victim of a kidnapping, of extortion; fear of taking the children to school; fear of stopping at a traffic light and being the witness of a shooting or a murder. And just for being there your life is in danger because you saw something that you shouldn’t have seen.

Have families united to deal with this situation?


People are isolated. Fear runs so deep that people rather isolate themselves than organize. And there have been instances when people called the “060” -which is the equivalent of 911 to denounce a crime -- and they suffered direct retribution. We’ve found people who were tortured with the famous “narco-mantas” (narco-covers) with something that read: “For calling 060.” Then there’s no trust on institutions, you don’t know who to go to for help.

What do you ask of the government?

What we would like is for the government to fulfill its mission of offering security to Ciudad Juarez’s population. If we could sum up in one word why things are the way they are, I would attribute it to corruption and nothing else. Come on…it’s ridiculous, you go to a store,  where you can buy on credit - and they can go to where a murderer is to charge him for a television he hasn’t paid, but the federal police can’t find him? And they don’t know who he is, and they haven’t seen him?

Someone in charge of investigating violent crimes is in charge of the investigations of, on average, more than 1,000 homicides. When would he investigate? He can’t.

Where is Mexico heading towards if you look at Ciudad Juarez?

This is happening in different populations in states like Chihuahua, in border states, in Michoacán. It’s not just Ciudad Juarez. It doesn’t happen in isolated areas like the government official version says. I feel there’s a phenomenon going on that sheds lights on all the weaknesses and failures of the justice system in Mexico. And that makes it possible for many people that don’t belong to the cartels to take advantage of the impunity climate…causing a spark on crime.

Are you trying to reach the international community with your book?

Through the book I’m calling on all organizations in charge of the defense of human rights to turn their eyes towards Juarez. I’m sure that if the international community turns its attention towards Juarez, if they are vigilant to what’s happening there, we will see more respect towards our human rights.

Several laws aimed at illegal immigration have been created in Arizona, alleging that violence in Mexico will cross the border into the United States. What is the United States’ responsibility on the violence occurring in Mexico?

There’s a lot of responsibility from the United States on what’s happening in Mexico. The United States has a huge market for drug consumptions, and to get there it goes through Mexico.

The United States needs to play a greater responsibility role because there is a direct cause: on the one hand for not taking more aggressive measures to control or regulate consumption of these substances in their territory. On the other, for not restricting the sales of weapons into Mexico.

From your point of view, is there a risk that violence may reach  the United States?


A 200-meters-long bridge separates Ciudad Juarez and El Paso. Those who have the possibility to cross the border [already] took refuge in El Paso, Texas. Close to 30,000 Juarez’ families have established themselves in El Paso [according to a report from Customs and Border Protection]. Many restaurants have established themselves in El Paso; they have emigrated. That doesn’t bring violence to El Paso, it brings investment; it brings jobs.

We are fighting this part of the war on drugs in Mexico. I seriously doubt that at any point this will cross the border; the United States won’t allow it.