Nobody's safe: an insider's view of Mexico's drug-fuelled strife

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In 2006, the Mexican government declared war on its country's drug gangs. The result? Mexico has become a battleground, with 60,000 civilians, police and drug lords already dead. Photographer Jerome Sessini recalls the two years he spent on the narcotics frontline

These photographs were taken between November 2008 and December 2011, against a background of unprecedented violence in Mexico. Narco-insurrection, low-intensity civil war, drug war: the terms – some more simplistic than others – to define the Mexican crisis are many but often inaccurate. What defines a war? Why do certain conflicts attract more attention? Certain deaths sway public opinion, others don't. History is written everywhere, but who decides on a hierarchy of evil and of memories? In Mexico, the issues are blurred. No tyrant to hate on the one hand, and a population in revolt – therefore by virtue in the right, because oppressed – on the other. No romantic-revolutionary aestheticism possible. No good cause to defend for sensitive souls, to selective indignation. The 60,000 dead, in less than five years, will nevertheless leave a definitive mark on Mexico.

These Mexican dead lie on the doorstep of the United States, as long as the Mexicans are polite enough to die at home, their northern neighbour will pretend not to notice. To an American border guard in El Paso, to say that I am just returning from a trip to Juarez is like coming back from reporting in Baghdad or Kabul. Mexico, so near, and yet so far. A land that has suddenly become distant and barbaric for those who live on the right side – despite my efforts and my numerous trips to Juarez, Tijuana, Culiacan and Tamaulipas. I have always had the feeling of floating on the surface of things. Ceaseless journeys. Each was going to be the last, and I always returned home with a bitter taste of incompleteness and dissatisfaction. To the people who accepted me, I was an intruder, a tell-tale who would change nothing in their story. I sensed nothing there but despair, resignation and fear, as though the poor things knew themselves to be condemned in perpetuity. Their life resembled a long, anguished atonement for having committed the sin of being born in the wrong place at the wrong time. I could never do anything for them. I ended up by accepting this. This is my only contribution.

FIRST SATURDAY EVENING IN JUAREZ

Cold December night. Crime scene. A swarm of police and soldiers is buzzing around in front of the Alamos pool hall. Balaclava-covered faces, automatic weapons, sirens, ambulances, crackling of walkie-talkies. Fenced off. Everyone is fussing around the bloodstains, as useless as they are obvious, without any apparent attempt to capture those who have just been responsible for assassinating eight men in the bar. One of the victims is still alive, the ambulance men – student volunteers – take him away on a stretcher; panicked, one of them trips, falters, only just catching the deathly-pale body as it slides towards the pavement.f

A few metres away, plain-clothes investigating officers are gesticulating around a young woman in a mini-skirt. Sexy. Huddled up in a foetal position against a wall. She is crying, hiding her face in her blood-covered hands. She is the waitress at the Alamos bar, she has seen everything, the three armed men as they entered, the firing of the shots, the shouting, the dead. The silence. She hid under a pool table, beside one of the bodies. Impossible to know who killed who and why.

Settling of scores among criminals, according to a Federal policeman; gratuitous murder of innocent men, according to a forensic scientist. Apart from the murderers, certainly no one will ever know why these eight men have been killed. In Juarez, 90 per cent of murders are classified as unsolved.

First stay in Ciudad Juarez: 70 killings this week.

BARRIO BAJO

November 2009. First meeting with the Barrio Bajo gang. The wind from the Sierra Madre gives out a melancholy lament, its breath chills the bones and darkens the thoughts. One-storey chipboard houses, stray dogs, sand, rubbish, glazed stares. 'The Bible is the truth, read it'. Written in white letters on the hill that borders Juarez.

El Darwin and a dozen Cholos (Homeboys) receive me with suspicion. The oldest, Jose, is 25. The veteran. The youngest is 12, shivering on a plastic chair and dragging on a joint, fixed stare lost in the flames. The others are completely drunk, they yell, insult each other, sing narco-corridos [songs about drug dealers], talk about the sexual talents of a friend's sister, and beat an enormous Argentine mastiff with a stick. The party is interrupted, sudden silence. The group squats down, heads in. Two 4x4s belonging to the army are patrolling a few metres away.

There is no longer a gang, just a group of terrorised kids. Here the army is particularly feared, as is anything wearing a uniform in general.

Jose has a bad memory of his arrest, a week ago. He was hanging around the neighbourhood alone, stoned. The patrol had arrived silently. Eight hooded soldiers caught him. Rain of blows, to the face, in the ribs. Strangulation. He was handcuffed and his head covered with a cloth bag. Detention, torture, interrogation. For 48 hours. Secret location. The military strategy is simple, brutal: to break up the cartels at their base, arrest and torture the easy prey, petty dealers, junkies, prostitutes, and extract from them the maximum amount of information.

To come out of the interrogation alive, Jose had had to give some names.

COLONIA ZARAGOZA

Colonies have sprung up as a result of: Infonavit, a governmental social housing programme set up in the Seventies, coinciding with the development of the maquiladorasf [manufacturing plants, which produce parts for the US and have been controversial due to low pay and poor working conditions] and the coming into effect, in 1994, of Nafta, the North American free-trade agreement, which devastates Mexican agriculture and causes an exodus of the rural population, especially in the south, towards the factories of the north.

Vista de Zaragoza is the most recent colony. Little more than 10 years ago it was wasteland. Hired killers used to come and throw corpses here, like leaving rubbish by the side of a road.

Three or four kilometres more, disturbing landscape, grey world of the workers in the maquilas. Concrete blocks. Seaside without the sea. Heavily made-up adolescent girls chat to some elderly men. Bloated women with a heavy step, the image of what their daughters will be like in 10 years' time.

The glazed façade of the only OXXO [a convenience store chain] is entirely blocked by the steel bars permitting only a fleeting view into the shop's interior. From 6pm, any purchases are made through a small acrylic glass hatch cut between the bars. There is no one on the streets after 6pm.

Bad-quality cement, black water, sewage, stench, mould. Vista de Zaragoza has rotted away on site in less than 10 years, rows of skeletons of houses dying, abandoned by terrorised families, fleeing Juarez and taking with them nothing but their bad memories – and resentment.

THE CESRESO ESTATAL DE JUAREZ

Juarez State Prison, 33 kilometres of desert. The Aztecas are imprisoned in units 5 and 6. Highly dangerous, persistent offenders and hired killers.

Barrio Azteca. Gang established in the mid-1980s in the United States, in a prison in El Paso.

Escorted by two guards, I reach Unit 5. To prevent any contact with the other inmates, access to the library, the school and the gym is forbidden. All those activities that stop prisoners from going mad in detention.

The Aztecas just have the right to 30 minutes a day in the cement courtyard, 30 minutes to walk, breathe fresh air, and feel the warmth of the sun's rays on their skin.

Attempt to talk. Camera. Embarrassment. They turn their backs on me. Rebuff, menacing looks. Explicit gestures. They scrutinise me, test me out. Sometimes, furtively, an unfathomable sadness breaks through the mask.

Men in prison mutate, they become the prison, a colourless camoflage establishes itself, the skin becomes grey, like the cement that hems them in. Black hair, fixed stare, spiteful, alone in the darkness, fists clenched deep in the pockets of the grey tracksuit pants, a single prisoner comes forward, rests his head against the bars, his voice is gentle.

"I'm called Jose Guttierez Rojas, the man who never smiles."

"Why are you shut away here?"

"Murders. Six."

"Since when?"

"Eleven years."

He anticipates the next question. "I am sentenced to 50 years in prison.

"Aztecas, my family, my pride and joy, culture of my ancestors."E

© Jerome Sessini 2012. Extracted from 'The Wrong Side: Living on the Mexican Border' (Contrasto Books) by Jerome Sessini, published on Monday. The book has just been given the F Award, the International Award for Concerned Photography by the Forma Foundation for Photography (Milan). To order a copy at the special price of £22 (usually £26), including p&p, call Independent Books Direct on 0843 0600 030

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