I met Katie Orlinsky – award-winning photojournalist from New York City – at a birthday party in December 2012. We started to talk and I mentioned that, earlier that day, I had interviewed documentary maker Bernardo Ruiz about his film Reportero (click here for interview). Katie, who was familiar with Ruiz’ documentary, told me that she too was working on a project about the drug war in Mexico, focusing on the story behind the well-known narrative of the fighting between cartels and the army; the innocent victims trapped in a cycle of violence and crime. Immediately intrigued by each other’s work, Katie and I had a long conversation about Reportero, her own photo story project and her upcoming gallery event organized by the Alexia Foundation themed “Stories that Drive Change”. (Katie was awarded first place in the 2012 Alexia Foundation Student Awards and last month, on the 23rd of January she submitted her final project at the Foundation’s gallery event) We made a deal; I would help her do research and collect data for her story, and she would allow me to publish her project on my blog. Her exhibit was a roaring success and naturally I am very proud to present you with Katie’s project:
Innocence Assassinated Living in Mexico’s Drug War
“Asesinato” is the Spanish word for murder. The term has become ubiquitous in Mexican daily life, plastered across newspaper front pages and heard everywhere from the evening news to the corner store. Yet behind the well-known narrative of these daily “asesinatos” lies a less covered story: the innocents trapped in an environment of violence, misery and crime.
Mexico’s pernicious violence is more than an armed conflict. It is a humanitarian crisis that has changed the lives of tens of thousands of innocent people. The total drug war death toll has now reached over 50,000 people since 2006. Most murders leave behind a family struggling with loss and financial survival.
“Innocence Assassinated” focuses on the living victims of Mexico’s drug war: orphans, widows, female inmates and young people growing up in neighborhoods inundated by drug gang violence. It aims to tell the story of those who have been left behind.
The feminization of the drug war is an important facet of this emergency. Women have been widowed at alarming rates, left to fend for themselves in a shattered economy. Some are easily lured into criminal activity such as drug trafficking and kidnapping, at times the only financial options available to support their children and elderly parents. these past three years have seen a 400 percent increase in the number of women imprisoned for federal crimes in Mexico.
In addition, there are countless children that have been orphaned and scarred by a childhood engulfed with violence and insecurity. An entire generation has known nothing but the drug war. Soon they will be teenagers, lacking the education, family structure, and economic security necessary to protect them from recruitment by gangs.
The story of the drug war is often simplified. Six years of gruesome tabloid photos, frightening gossip and six-digit death statistics have numbed the public. But a deeper contextual understanding of the conditions that have allowed the war to thrive is crucial. “Innocence Assassinated” seeks to investigate the very culture of violence, misogyny and systemic poverty that has entrenched the drug war into the fabric of Mexican society.
NANCY AND MELISSA
In the fall of 2009 Gonzalo Rivera was shot and killed while attending the funeral of his best friend. His girlfriend Nancy Diaz Bustamante watched him die. She was seven months pregnant with their fourth child at the time. “He was my life. He was my love,” Nancy said, as she sat in the bedroom of the two-room, one-story concrete home she lives in with her five children in Ciudad Juarez. “It’s hard to survive. We need help.”
Nancy was still a teenager when she had her first child. She has never attended college or been formally employed, and struggles to find a way to provide for her family in Ciudad Juarez. Unemployment in Juarez and across the country – already at staggeringly high levels – has only worsened over the past five years with the financial collapse and shuttering of American factories along the border. In addition to Nancy’s financial troubles, her five-year-old son Armando has become an unruly and violent child. He is having a particularly difficult time coping with his father’s death. Armando is just one of the more than 10,000 children dealing with the death of a parent since 2008 in Juarez, a city that doesn’t even have the resources to investigate it’s own murders, let alone provide mental health services.GUADULPE SUJEY
On November 15, 2010, Guadalupe Sujey Castillo Flores was killed by a stray bullet while sitting on a bus at a gas station in Ciudad Juarez. Less than two months earlier, the twenty-two year old was reciting vows at her wedding. “She was so sweet, always kind and with a smile,” her aunt said as she sat outside the funeral home where close to sixty of Guadalupe’s family members and friends gathered to mourn. “No one expected this to happen.”
Guadalupe worked at a maquila, one of the many large factories that operate in free-trade-zone border cities like Juarez. She was riding the maquila’s private transport bus at 6 a.m. on her way to work on “Revolution Day,” a national holiday commemorating the start of the Mexican Revolution. Many people take this day off from work, but maquila workers make less than $80 a week and often try to work as much as possible.
Thee maquila bus stopped at a gas station, unaware that the station was being robbed. Two gunmen fired bullets into the air before fleeing the scene, and one of the bullets hit Guadalupe in the neck. She died less then an hour later. In the year of Guadalupe’s death, 465 women were killed in Ciudad Juarez.BONFOLIO
On June 20, 2009, soldiers stopped a bus carrying forty passengers at a military checkpoint outside of Huamuxtitlán in the Montaña region of Guerrero, Mexico. They searched the passengers and the bus for drugs, and then allowed it to leave. Yet as soon as the driver took off, one of the soldiers indiscriminately opened fire on the vehicle. A thirty-year-old passenger named Bonfilo Rubio was killed in the crossfire.
“That they would just shoot at a bus filled with people…they didn’t care,” said Jose Rubio, Bonfilio’s brother. “It’s like they were just animals. For them it was like killing a goat.”
Days after Bonfilio’s death, while the family was still in mourning, a local army commander called their home. He offered 160,000 pesos, less than $13,000, as financial compensation for Bonfilio’s murder. The family refused. “We don’t want just any punishment, we want a big punishment,” said Secundino Rubio Peralta, Bonfilio’s father. “We won’t stop fighting.”
Drug related violence throughout the Mexican state of Guerrero is currently at an all time high, but it is nothing new for the rural indigenous communities living in the Montaña region. A collision of poverty, drug trafficking and militarization has resulted in violence and abuse against these communities for decades.
Guerrero is one of Mexico’s poorest states, but it is also the country’s largest producer of poppy. Opium poppies and marijuana are cultivated throughout the region. Corrupt military and drug traffickers make a profit from the crops, while the local population lives in poverty and fear. Between April 2005 to May 2011, human rights groups have recorded at least 200 disappearances at the hands of uniformed soldiers in Guerrero.
Movie stars like Elizabeth Taylor made Acapulco famous, but the days of sexy parties on the cliffs of this seaside resort city are long gone. La Costera, the main avenue that runs along the Acapulco coastline, still boasts gaudy hotels, chain restaurants, and attractions like bungee jumping. But instead of convertibles and tour busses, weapon-wielding federal police and military trucks now zoom up and down the street. The occasional cruise ship still docks in the city’s gigantic ports and a handful of Hawaiian shirt wearing tourists can sometimes be found meandering around the boardwalk jewelry stands, but by sunset the streets are empty and the tourists are back on their ships.
These days, there are two Acapulcos, conveniently separated by a mountain – the relatively safe, tourist-town Acapulco, and then there is the “other side,” where a war is taking place between the Sinaloa and Familia Michoacana drug cartels. When I arrived in Acapulco on the afternoon of Saturday, January 8th in 2011, fifteen decapitated bodies had been found earlier that morning outside a shopping center in the city’s commercial district. By the time I got to the crime scene all that was left was a burned out car and some roadside DVD vendors and taxi drivers, none of whom would say a word about what they saw that morning. I don’t blame them; one never knows who could still be lingering at a crime scene. In cities like Acapulco, the unassuming teenager in Adidas sneakers on the corner could be an aguilla, or hired lookout for drug cartels.
A visit to the municipal police headquarters and morgue didn’t provide any additional information, but there were a lot of bodies. The smell of death was everywhere. Families of the victims clustered across the station patio talking on cell phones, crying and angry.
Nearby masked soldiers perched atop army trucks. They remained stationed in the headquarters, with no plan of heading out into the streets. “We let them kill each other first,” an officer told me. By the end of the day the body count had doubled to thirty.JUAREZ
Ciudad Juarez is known as the “front-line” of the drug war. Minutes away from El Paso, Texas, this border city of an estimated 1.3 million people is inundated by violent crime. More than 10,000 people have been killed in Juarez since 2008. In 2010, Juarez’s bloodiest year, approximately 3,000 were killed.
During this time many residents of El Paso were too scared to cross over to their sister city, and downtown Juarez grew less busy. Once the harsh afternoon light faded, and the giant red desert sky disappeared over the mountains, it was time to go home. Evenings were quiet in a place once known for its nightlife. Even now, with life calmer and businesses reopening, people in El Paso continue to fear Juarez.
“Aren’t you scared?” El Paso locals will often ask me. “Yes,” I tell them. Everyone in Juarez is scared. Fear and mistrust are just a part of daily life there, like traffic jams or the temperature dropping. The citizens of Juarez continue to go on with life, whether or not eight people are killed that day. They still wait for the bus to take them home, despite rumors of bus drivers employed by criminals who prey on commuters. Women still sell homemade candy bars in the middle of the highway, as pick-up trucks filled with ski mask-wearing federal police officers go zooming by.
Violence and crime are part of the daily fabric of life in Juarez; it is nothing new. The maquilas, created in the free-trade zone along the US-Mexico border in the 1990s led to an influx of low-wage, largely female workers to Ciudad Juarez. But very quickly, these female factory workers became targets of violent crimes. Over the past 18 years, more than 1,000 women in Juarez have been murdered or gone missing, in an alarming trend known as “femicides.”
Today it is widely assumed that most deaths and disappearances are linked to the wider drug war. But some local Juarez activists say femicides are on the rise again after the murders of two prominent activists. Marisela Escobedo, a mother who fought to bring her daughter’s killer to justice, was gunned down in front of the Chihuahua governor’s office in December 2010. In January 2011, feminist poet Susana Chavez was killed and her mutilated body dumped on a Juarez street.
Women at War
It was the night shift at the offices of El Diario de Juarez newspaper in November 2010. Local journalists were about to take me to some crime scenes and we waited for the black hand-held police scanner to tell us about the next “assassinato,” or murder. In Ciudad Juarez, Mexico’s “murder capital” at the time, assassinatos were a daily occurrence, with an average of eight people killed per day.
Soon I noticed the men huddled in a corner around a bright laptop screen. “I’ll set her free!” a middle-aged crime photographer yelled. They were looking at photos of Eunice Ramirez, a slim, tall young woman with shoulder-length reddish brown hair, flawless skin and breast implants. In one of the images she wore a sparkly bikini top and jeans. In another shot, the nineteen-year-old stood between two women, all three wearing the same bright red belly shirts. We must have looked through nearly a dozen sexy snapshots, but one photo I saw on the Internet that evening struck me most. In place of Ramirez’s tank top and tight pants she wore an oversized striped t-shirt and dark blue pajama bottoms. Her hair looked limp and lifeless, and her pretty face lacked the usual heavy makeup.
The photo was taken at the Ciudad Juarez Attorney General’s Office on Oct. 30, 2010. In the picture, Eunice Ramirez stands in a line along with 14 other accused kidnappers. To her left is a tiny, frazzled-looking woman with messy hair and smudged eye makeup. This is Claudia Leticia, Ramirez’s 21-year-old sister.
The sisters were arrested as members of the kidnapping gang “El Arquis.” Ramirez allegedly worked as a part-time model and her Facebook page, stocked with sexy photos, was made public after the arrest. Her case quickly became notorious.
In November 2010, Eunice and Claudia Ramirez joined 148 other women at the Ciudad Juarez prison for women, known as the Cereso (Center for Social Rehabilitation). Two years later, the total number of women in the Cereso stood at 228. More women are participating in Mexico’s drug war than ever before and more are getting arrested. According to the Mexican government’s National Women’s Institute, the number of females imprisoned for federal crimes in Mexico rose 400 percent between 2007 and 2010. Before I visited the prison, I had spent months working with drug war widows and orphans. I associated the feminization of violence in Mexico with widows mourning over their husbands’ shot up bodies. Yet the night I saw the photos of Eunice Ramirez I began to question my assumption of women as solely those left behind on the margins. After I visited the prison, I saw first-hand the thin line that divides criminal and victim in Mexico’s drug war. The growing trend of female involvement in organized crime goes beyond the sensationalized idea of the beautiful narco-girlfriend, or the glamorous yet dangerous “Queen Pin.” Indeed, we see that wealthy drug traffickers have girlfriends, wives, and daughters who get sucked in to the life. Some of these women even excel at their newfound professions, such as the former leader of the Sinaloa Cartel known as the “Queen of the Pacific.” However, the Queen of the Pacific is not the norm; most of the women involved in the drug war will never be the queens of anything. Instead, they are humble spies, smugglers, lookouts, decoys, and bait. They are the invariably poor, female foot soldiers in a war that exploits widespread unemployment and the traditionally marginal role of women in Mexican society to its advantage.
In Juarez, the middle-aged lady selling fried potatoes doused in chili sauce on the street corner could actually be making her money as a lookout for a drug cartel. The mother driving to visit her grandmother in a distant town could have thousands of pesos of dirty money hidden in a diaper bag. The teenage girl crossing the border every afternoon on her way home from school in El Paso could have a newly purchased handgun in her backpack ready to sell on the street. Now, anyone in drug war zones like Juarez could be involved in crime, actively, peripherally, or just once.
The Juarez women’s prison is like a Petri dish in the complex laboratory that is the drug war’s feminization. There I heard the story of Karla Soloria, a woman who had kids too young and was simply looking for a good time. I chatted with Julia Fragozo, pulled over in a car full of marijuana and duped by the man she loved. And I finally met Eunice Ramirez, the sexy babe used as bait to lure men into kidnapping. Each woman I met in the Cereso had a unique story to tell, but at the same time they represented the larger narrative of so many Juarez women. Innocent or guilty, imprisoned or free, they have a voice, and stories that can be used as cautionary tales for thousands of vulnerable young women living in Mexico’s drug war zones.KARLA
Karla Soloria, a Ciudad Juarez native, was drawn to the fast life. Before her arrest, she worked in residential real estate, a middle-class job. As the violence in Mexico grew, the Juarez property market plummeted, and Karla had a hard time making a living. She struggled to support her son and elderly mother as a single mom.
For years, Karla was overworked, exhausted, and lonely. When her son was old enough to enter kindergarten, she finally felt comfortable leaving him at home with his grandmother, and hit the party scene. “I wanted to make up for lost time,” she recalled with a slight sense of shame. “I wanted my freedom.” There were times in Juarez when just driving across town to the bars risked death, but danger didn’t stop Karla. “Before I got to prison, I just cared about having fun,” she said. Going out with “those men” made her “feel good and important.”
The narco-lifestyle appeals to many women across Mexico. The glamour and excitement of money, dangerous men and fast cars, or the pure escapism of drinking and partying, tempts. The music, fashion and culture associated with drug trafficking has grown particularly popular in Northern Mexican cities where you can “make it” by being a criminal, or for women, by dating one. Karla’s fun was cut short one night at a party when soldiers stormed the house and found a stash of drugs, illegal guns and ammunition hidden in a back room. They arrested everyone there and Karla was sentenced to seven years for drugs and arms trafficking. She claims she is innocent, guilty only of getting mixed up with the wrong crowd. She mentioned briefly there were some off-duty police officers at the house she was arrested at, but wouldn’t go into detail.
“I regret not seeing the danger in what I was doing and trusting people that I thought I knew,” she said.
Karla had time to reflect behind bars, where she realized something a lot of women find out too late — that a fast life often ends in death. “In a way, we are safe in here,” she once told me. “If we were on the outside maybe we would be dead.”EUNICE AND CLAUDIA
Eunice Ramirez called herself a model, but in reality she was a nini. “Nini” is short for “ni estudia, ni trabaja” or “neither studies, nor works.” The ninis comprise a social group of wayward Mexican youth who are prime targets for recruitment by traffickers. At the time of her arrest Eunice had a ninth-grade education. According to records from the Chihuahua State Department of Education, she had learning problems and abandoned her studies after her third attempt to complete freshman year. In addition to a lack of education, Eunice had never been registered as officially employed in Mexico. For a girl like Eunice, beauty was her only ticket. But sometimes beauty can be an ugly thing.
“We don’t know why they came for us,” said Claudia Leticia Ramirez, Eunice’s older sister, when we met in the prison. Claudia showed me the scars she claimed the Federal Police left on her wrists when they came to her house to lead her off in handcuffs. Yet when sentencing time arrived roughly a year later, Claudia ratted out her own sister, accusing Eunice of luring the kidnapping victim to the destination where he was abducted.
When I first met Eunice Ramirez I was expecting a bombshell seductress. What I found instead was a gangly teenager with a speech impediment. Her dyed bright red hair was not glamorous, but rather struck me as a misguided teenage fashion statement. The obvious implants in her breasts, shown off in a low-cut turquoise tank top, suggested that even in prison, she did not want to let her purchase go to waste.
In his testimony, Arturo Puentes Gonzalez, the Arquis gang-leader, claimed Eunice was involved in the kidnapping because “she needed money.” Lower-level members of the Arquis gang like Eunice made only $200 to $500 per kidnapping. Arturo Gonzalez testified that Eunice first approached him via her boyfriend “David” who was allegedly involved in the kidnapping business. Eunice had recently met the victim, a rich 18-yearold son of a Juarez businessman. She said he owned several luxury vehicles, including a Hummer, and that she knew where to find him. The young man was then kidnapped at a restaurant owned by his family. His parents reported the crime to the authorities, which is rare in Mexico, and a special federal kidnapping branch rescued the victim and caught the Arquis gang members— an even rarer outcome.
Eunice Ramirez, Claudia Leticia Ramirez, their brother Rodolfo, Claudia’s husband “El Pelon,” Arturo Gonzalez and seven other Arquis gang members were all sentenced to life in prison. They are among the first Mexican kidnappers to receive life convictions after the passage of a “zero tolerance” law in late 2010.
Over the past few years drug cartels in Mexico have expanded from transporting drugs to using street gangs to carry out operations like human trafficking, extortion and kidnapping. According to Juarez human rights activist Gustavo de la Rosa, these local gangs often have female members. Women raise less suspicion among authorities, and beautiful women, like Eunice Ramirez, can be deployed as “honey-traps.”JULIA
Three years ago Julia Fragozo was arrested for transporting drugs. She says her husband borrowed a car to take her on a “fun” weekend away from their hometown Parachua, just outside Chihuahua city.
“I thought we were going to have a great time,” she said. Then they passed a checkpoint. Soldiers searched their car and found a large quantity of marijuana. The couple was arrested immediately. Julia Fragozo was sentenced to ten years in prison. She claims she had no idea drugs were stashed in the vehicle. Julia was 29 when we met. She was striking, with long legs, hazel eyes and wavy black hair down to her belly button. Before prison Julia worked a variety of odd jobs, including a brief stint in a maquila. Mostly, though, she stayed at home and cared for her disabled uncle and two infant children. She describes being apart from them as “a slow agony…I need them. To see them, to hug them, but they are so far away.” As we spoke, children of other inmates shouted and played badminton in the background. Children visit the prison frequently, and some young children who were born in prison or lack suitable guardians live inside the prison with their mothers.
However no one was coming to see Julia. Her family stopped visiting her over a year ago, and her husband was sent to a different prison. Not that she would have wanted to see him. She blames him for what happened and they split up shortly after the arrest.“There are bad people in this world,” she said, “I regret that I didn’t take the time to reflect on what was happening around me. I was close to people that really weren’t there for me.”
Despite her protests of innocence, Julia did admit to the same thing that almost every other woman in the prison acknowledged– trusting the wrong people. According to Lydia Cordero of the Juarez women’s organization Casa Amiga, stories like Julia’s have become increasingly common, with more women getting involved in crime because of their husband, boyfriend or someone very close to them.
Made in Mexico Sold in the USA
In 2006, newly elected Mexican President Felipe Calderon declared war on his country’s drug cartels. He intended to take a stand against the violence, corruption, and narcotics trafficking that had been increasing in Mexico since 2000. Yet the violence only worsened. By challenging the status quo — an understanding between drug cartels and corrupt officials — Calderon attempted to attack something so deep-rooted in Mexican society that he essentially attacked Mexico itself. Seven years later, the country is engulfed in violence and a war between rival cartels and authorities rages on.
Much of the encouragement for this war on drugs comes from the United States government. Since 2008, the U.S. has spent $1.6 billion to back and train Mexico’s military and police force, funds that could have been used to support social and educational programs in Mexico or to treat drug addiction in the United States. Yet despite this sizable investment, the drug war shows no sign of slowing down. In fact, the U.S. funds, arms, and manages money for the very cartels it aims to destroy.
More than 60,000 guns made or bought in the U.S. have been linked to drug cartel violence, and banks like Wachovia and Bank of America have been accused of laundering money from Mexican drug trafficking. The British bank HSBC was recently forced to pay a $1.92 billion settlement for providing a similar service to the cartels.
The U.S. is the number one consumer of drugs produced in and smuggled through Mexico. Mexican drug cartels make nearly $40 billion a year from marijuana, meth, and cocaine sales within the U.S. Anyone who purchases drugs from Mexico helps finance these cartels.—————————————————————————————————
KATIE ORLINSKY is a photojournalist from New York City. She regularly works for the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and various non-profit organizations around the world. Her work has been published in Life, Newsweek, Le Monde, Stern, Time, Paris Match, Adbusters and the International Herald Tribune among others. Katie graduated from the Colorado College with a BA in Political Science and Latin American Studies. She is currently a part-time student at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and is a contributor with Corbis Images.
Her website is: http://www.katieorlinsky.com/#
For more information about Katie and the Alexia Foundation go to: http://www.alexiafoundation.org/stories/KatieOrlinskyText and Photographs by: Katie Orlinsky