#Open journalism No news is bad news

Your contributions will help us continue to deliver the stories that are important to you

Support The Journal
Dublin: 11°C Friday 20 May 2022

Violence, addiction, funerals...How Mexico's drugs war impacts regular people

An incredible snapshot of Mexico’s present situation – one that will be looked at for decades to make sense of Mexican culture and society.

imageFamily members mourn at a funeral for two sisters that were killed at a birthday party massacre with 13 other victims in Ciudad Juarez. (Image: David Rochkind)

AFTER LOOKING THROUGH his book, Heavy Hand, Sunken Spirit, photographer David Rochkind wants the reader to feel they have seen something "violent and heavy".

That seems to run counter to his decision not to photograph the bloody violence he encountered over two-and-a-half years living in Mexico, studying the people consumed by a terrifying drugs war.

"I didn't want it to feel anonymous, or that it could be a photo taken in any location of conflict in the world," he told TheJournal.ie in an interview this week.

His objective became the reality. Looking through the online exhibition, which is just a small sample of the work, the viewer feels like they have been invited into other people's lives. A terrifying peephole into real existence, not a televised version of war in a far-off land.


Rochkind's project began with an initial four-week long visit to Mexico in 2007 but soon grew to a 30-month venture.

"There wasn't any set end-date," he explained. "I was going to finish when I had told the story I wanted to tell. I wanted to make sure I did that in terms of geographic and thematic diversity."

The 33-year-old, originally from Detroit in the US, said he wanted to tell Mexico's story - not one that was just focused on the violence and the border.

"Violence is a big part of that story but I wanted to look at what Mexico is - and how the conflict has affected her people and her culture."

He did this by touching on a raft of subjects, including lack of opportunities, poor social welfare systems and the growing power of drug cartels.

imageA view of the border that divides Nogales, Arizona at left and Nogales, Sonora at right. Tunnels used to transport drugs and people have routinely been found between homes on the border. So far, there has been little violent spillover into the US, but recently US citizens have been killed with more frequency in Mexico. In March 2010, two US Consulate workers were gunned down in Ciudad Juarez.

"I think the conflict and the violence is now at the forefront of everyone's mind," Rochkind continued. "It has changed the daily routines of people living in cities where there is violence...but even in places which are relatively untouched, the outlook of residents was changed."

There was also a shift in how potential migrants looked at the journey across the US border. The American Dream has become a little less tangible for many as the risks in front of them have been heightened by kidnappings and killings on the trains.

imageMigrants riding a train in Mexico.

imageA man who had just been returned to Mexico after trying to illegally enter the US stands across the border at a Mexican customs and immigration office in Nogales, Sonora.

"The balance of risk versus reward is now different," explains Rochkind. "The idea has changed. Before, America was also wrapped up the idea of falling off a train or getting lost in the dessert. Where once these dangers were, now there are genuine threats of murder as outside forces take advantage of impunity."

Rochkind knows these fears because he tried not to lose sight of the real story in Mexico - the people.

"With all the stories I do, I'm always reminded and surprised of how the subjects are just regular people. You can lose sight of that from afar, especially the way we cover these issues in newspapers and on television. We can forget that they are just like you and me.

"Then you go to a funeral, ride on a train and - it sounds cliché - but you reminded that we are all the same."

imageFamily members grieve during the wake of a 14-year-old girl who was shot and killed in Ciudad Juarez.

Asked how he was trusted by the families he shot, he says:

In photography, 5 per cent is taking the picture; 95 per cent is getting in the position to take that picture.

He adds that he did use 'fixers' (journalists who knew the cities) - usually for safety reasons - but, often, the images came after particular families became comfortable enough for him to use his camera.

He also noted that if he spent long enough on a particular issue, he could find the right location to shoot.

imageA prostitute undresses for a client in a short-term love motel in Nogales, Sonora, where she entertains both Mexican and American customers.

The photographer, who was on a brief trip to the US before returning to Haiti where he now lives, says he put a lot of thought into what images to include in the book.

"I thought a lot about pictures like that (referencing the image below of the strip club). I didn't want to use them for gratuitous purposes but they do highlight issues that I wanted to bring up. The cartels are branching out - into prostitution, rings, sex trafficking and strip clubs. These images show that.

"That image - taken in a strip club where the women work as strippers and prostitutes - to me, looked like they were all high. It shows the lack of authority and the culture of impunity - that you can do whatever you want."


That impunity of the cartels can lead to a life of fear for those in positions of so-called authority.

Police men often wear masks - not only when they are being photographed - but in everyday life.

#Open journalism No news is bad news Support The Journal

Your contributions will help us continue to deliver the stories that are important to you

Support us now

"They don't want people to know who they are or who there family is," explained Rochkind. "In one instance, there was a firefight between some police force and a cartel. Someone on the official side was killed and his name was published in a newspaper. A few days later, his whole family was killed."

Law enforcement and military are "very aware of the potential risks".


In February 2013, a human rights watchdog estimated that about 60,000 people had been killed between 2006 and 2012 in drug-related violence.

Human Rights Watch criticised security forces within the country.

Rochkind recalls: "The cartels in Mexico are ruthless, meting out an awesome brutality where heads are rolled into crowded discos and dismembered bodies are abandoned on busy streets."

The following is a sample of his work, in his own words and images:

Heavy Hand, Sunken Spirit is a project about the social costs and consequences of Mexico’s violent drug war. It frames the violence as a symptom, as opposed to the problem, and one of a variety of symptoms that will haunt the country for generations.
This country is in the midst of a 'conflict' in every sense of the word, and when documenting this conflict it is important not to reduce what is happening to a series of nearly anonymous images of carnage that could be happening anywhere.
I am not creating a story about violence that happens to be set in Mexico, but rather a story about Mexico’s present situation, offering a snapshot of a time that will be referred to for decades as people look for answers to make sense of Mexican society. I want each image to convey a sense of Mexico, her color, and her culture.
The wounds of this war bleed into every corner of the country, staining the very fabric of Mexican life with violence, death and fear. The psychology of the country is also changing, as people become accustomed to horror and distrust, weakening an already fragile democracy. I am most fascinated by the space between what Mexico has always been and what this carnage is creating.  The heat of the conflict is melting two worlds together, making a singular Mexico defined as much by violence and tension as by history and culture.

imageCiudad Juarez, Chihuahua is at the center of Mexico's drug violence, with more than 3,000 drug related murders in just two years. President Calderon has sent thousands of soldiers to the city to try to stem the violence. Here, soldiers search young men for drugs, weapons or signs of drug use in downtown Ciudad Juarez.

imageDuring his time in Mexico, Rochkind visited a small prison in the hills of Nogales, "a pretty grim place" which held about a dozen people in several cells for short periods of time. There, he photographed a man arrested for drug possession.

imageA young boy sits on a couch with a neighbour high in the hills of Nogales, Sonora. He and his family had been sleeping outside ever since their tin and cardboard shack burned to the ground two weeks before. Even before the accident, the family had no water or electricity and their only source of income was selling scavenged trash.

imageA young man wearing a style of shirt and hat associated with Mexico's Narco Culture argues with a traffic police during a routine drunk driving check point.

imageMembers of a Nortena band sit in their tour bus after performing in Mexico City. Many Nortena groups sing corridos, or ballads, that tell a story. Some of these are narcocorridos, ballads that tell the stories of famous drug dealers.  There has been a wave of killings of musicians that sing narcocorridos.

imageA woman shoots heroin in front of her boyfriend and a child she is babysitting in a small shack where she lives in Tijuana, Mexico.

Follow David Rochkind on Twitter, check out his website or buy his book here.

Read next: