TIME contract photographer Shaul Schwarz writes for LightBox about his experience documenting years of drug-related violence in Mexico.
It has been 3 years since I first went down to cover the violence on the streets of Ciudad Juarez. At first glance, Juarez is an ordinary Mexican border city, filled with kind and helpful people. But I quickly became overwhelmed by how easily such levels of violence can consume a society. Visiting crime scene after crime scene—the parking lot of an elegant shopping mall at noon or 50 feet from the border of El Paso (rated the safest city in the U.S. in 2010) or in the middle of a busy intersection during rush hour traffic—one can feel the immense devastation and realize the human tragedy. There exists a routine: the body collectors come and the evidence is collected as citizens press against the yellow crime scene tape, wondering who is next.
But where people get assassinated doesn’t matter anymore to the ordinary citizens of Juarez. What matters is that nobody sees or hears anything; that no one gets arrested and that no one is to be trusted, especially the Federal Police. The people of Juarez are steeped in daily fear and distrust.
The continual violence on the streets of Juarez has earned the city the ominous title “murder capital of the world.” Forty thousand people have been killed in Mexico since the war on drugs began, with no end in sight. Seeing the effects ripple through the lives of ordinary citizens is the most devastating for me as a photojournalist. Well beyond the circle of traffickers, cartels and the killers, the violence and its impunity affects millions of lives on both sides of the border, permanently reshaping Mexican culture and society.
No one is pardoned from the effects of the violence. Small business owners are extorted and threatened with death by petty criminals taking advantage of the climate of fear. Young boys see the obvious power and strive to emulate the culture of the “Narcos,” adopting their clothing, playing their music and brazenly portraying their symbols.
I have come to realize that there is a fundamental and systemic collapse within Mexico’s system of governance—law and order is held at gunpoint by the business of drug trafficking. Today’s youth turn into tomorrow’s foot soldiers of death. America’s endless demand for drugs and the exportation of weapons have changed the reality of life. Despite the “war” launched at these multi-billion dollar organized crime giants, Mexico has been not been able to stop its slide as a failed state.
As difficult as it is to photograph a land so impoverished by death and the threat of it, and as scary as it is sometimes, the endurance of the Mexican people and their generally helpful and kind disposition never fails to amaze me. I have so much respect for them and am so pained by their suffering. Every time I raise my camera from my side, my own fear dissipates as I look at my Mexican compatriots who risk their lives daily for the truth. To me, they seem to try in vain to document the reality facing ordinary citizens in cities like Juarez. I am left to remember how lucky I am that I can get on a plane and leave, back to my safe city in the United States. Many of my compadres don’t have that luxury.
I am now entering the fourth year of covering this story. At a certain point, I felt that my pictures alone can no longer tell the complete story I was trying to show. About a year ago, I began filming a feature documentary to be released in early 2012. Entitled Narco Cultura, the film will be accompanied by a book of photographs.
Shaul Schwarz is an award winning photographer and filmmaker. Schwarz, a TIME contract photographer, is represented by Reportage/Getty Images. Schwarz’s work has also appeared in major publications such as National Geographic, The New York Times Magazine and Paris Match, among others. Some of the most important honors Schwarz has received over the years include the Robert Capa Gold Medal, two World Press Photo Awards and the acclaimed Visa D’or in Perpignan.
Previously, Schwarz covered the January 2010 Haitian earthquake for TIME.