Marco Appel El Diario -- Proceso (2-23-13)
Translated by un vato for Borderland Beat
Brussels -- The cadaver of a man lies under an intense yellow light from the street lights. His face is hidden by the angle from which the photograph was taken. An abundant stream of blood flows from his head and goes down the badly paved street. Four police officers are walking a few yards away, they seem to ignore the body.
It is the scene of a crime committed in March, 2010, in the Colonia Paso del Norte, in Ciudad Juarez (Chih.) The image, apart from morbidness and yellow journalism, still poses questions for the spectator; it's the work of veteran Dutch war photographer Teun Voeten, and is part of the graphic book, Narco Estado: Narco-violence in Mexico.
The work, from the Belgian publisher Lannoo, received financial support from the Pascal Decroos Fund for Special Journalism in Belgium and the Emergency Fund of the Magnum Foundation in New York.
From 2009 to 2011, Teun Voeten visited Mexico several times. He was impressed when he learned that Ciudad Jarez was one of the most dangerous cities in the world. During that time, he took photographs related to violence not only in Juarez -- which he visited 10 times --, but also in Culiacan, Sinaloa, and Morelia, Michoacan.
Howard Campbell, professor of archeology and researcher on Mexican affairs at the University of Texas, speaks about Voeten's work: "In his work, the 'day to day-ness' of another body being found is represented by a soldier who takes a picture of the body with his cell phone.
Meanwhile, the chiaroscuro images of sinister Juarez streets provide the backdrop for a modern underground war whose victims are almost all poor. As Voeten's gallery of photographs shows, Juarez is a place where drinking, drugs and cheap sex are key business elements, and the participants in that business have hard, fast and short lives."
In an interview with Proceso, Voeten comments that at the beginning of his project, he contacted Juarez authorities and asked to be allowed to accompany police officers when they went out to crime scenes.
"I got a lot of cooperation from the Mayor's office. I realize it was easier for me as a foreigner to be allowed to accompany them, because this represents a huge risk to local journalists; the narcos may consider them allies of the police," he explains.
He points out that it was the previous administration who was so helpful, and he says: "The current one wants to give the impression that there is no more violence in Juarez."
The photographer also asked the military for permission to accompany them; however, he says they made excuses and he was not able to obtain permission. "It was a Mexican style 'No'", he says with a smile.
In the introduction to his book, as well as in the interview, he states that documenting narco-violence is a challenge, because the opposing groups "are hidden players, unknown, who operate from behind a veil of secrecy."
He assures us that he has witnessed every kind of act of barbarism that humans are capable of committing against fellow humans. "In Sarajevo, during the Bosnia-Hersegovina war, I fled from snipers who were firing at civilians in an enclosed area where they were also starving to death.
" In Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, I was there at the start of the genocide and saw hordes hunting their victims with machetes. In Kabul (Afghanistan) and Grozni (Chechen Republic), I walked through residential neighborhoods that were in ruins and alongside people who were begging for food."
He also mentions that he got his "dose of madness" in the conflicts in Sierra Leone and Liberia, where he dealt with totally drugged child soldiers. More recently, he says, in Libya he saw bodies that were piled up after a massacre.
Despite this, he assures us that nothing compares with the extreme narco-violence in Mexico.
"In Rwanda, for example, they would kill people but they would leave the bodies alone. In Mexico, they first savagely torture the victims, then they dismember them, mutilate them, hang them; the murderers show off their savagery in very creative ways: the sadism I have seen in Mexico I haven't seen in any other part of the world. In Sierra Leone, I witnessed insanity, but In Mexico it is totally demented," he states....-continues on next page-
Voeten, from his training as an anthropologist, offers an explanation for what is happening in Mexico.
To begin with, he defines it as a "war," but of a kind that experts in security matters call "new wars." The conflicts in Afghanistan, Sierra Leone, Rwanda, Bosnia or Liberia are examples of this phenomenon.
These wars, unlike conventional wars where States face each other with professional armies in defined battle fields, are characterized by being prolonged, low intensity conflicts in which ideology does not matter and where hostile factions use religious and ethnic causes as pretexts. In that context, the civilian population becomes the target of attacks.
In those "new wars" -- Teun goes on -- the absence of the rule of law, the chaos and anarchy, becomes an end in itself, "a necessary precondition for the war lords to exploit local resources, like drugs or minerals, and they may create a black market under their control." Such conflicts are not financed by central governments, but through murky agreements between rival factions with criminal elements, he explains.
And, he points out: "In Mexico, that 'new war' phenomenon has gone farther. Rival factions no longer need to develop links with international crime because they are already criminal mafias."
What surprised Voeten most was the impunity that prevails in the country. In his book, he notes: "98% of the murders in Ciudad Juarez are not resolved, and they probably will never be.
One feels very vulnerable knowing that at any moment, for whatever reason, one can be riddled with bullets and the murderers will get away without any worry. The majority of murders are classified as 'related to drug trafficking' and the investigations go nowhere.
"In any case, forensic services cannot keep up with the work load. Opportunistically, 'unorganized crime' flourishes in this generally lawless atmosphere, in which the State is no longer able to guarantee the safety of its citizens; parts of Mexico are under the de facto control of organized crime."
--The title of your book derives from that analysis-- Voeten is asked.
--That's right. It was my idea. It has to do with the concept of failed states. There are regions in the country where the State has lost control: Tamaulipas, Ciudad Juarez, parts of Michoacan, Durango... I believe that in these cases, it is justified to talk about a narco-state. There are great areas where the State is totally infiltrated by narcos, corruption and impunity.
Campbell (at left) --author of the book, Drug War Zone--, who contributed to Voeten's book with an introductory text, agrees with this interpretation.
"The Mexican narco-state -- suggests the academic-- is a political and economic system in which international drug traffickers, the U.S. drug market, as well as bankers and government officials, all work hand in hand.
Each partner to the agreement does its part. The politicians appoint convenient police and military in a particular territory. The traffickers transport cocaine by boat, submarine and trucks from South America.
"The drug lords organize the cultivation, or industrial production, of heroin, marijuana or methamphetamines, as well as its transportation to U.S. markets. Mexican police and soldiers protect the merchandise for the most powerful cartels and attack those shipments that do not have the regime's support."
And he closes: "U.S. businessmen and consumers never tire of the benefits and cheap 'highs' from smoking, sniffing or injecting the merchandise. This is a perfect system for those who benefit from its fruitful monetary harvest and its hallucinatory pleasures."
For his part, Voeten comments that many of his friends and colleagues criticize him for focusing on what they consider a "marginal criminal problem." Faced with these comments, the anthropologist responds that his work focuses on sociopolitical conflicts.
Along these lines, he states that narco violence in Mexico is not "an isolated case of mafia war," and that, on the contrary, "it has immense social and political implications."
And he warns: "The erosion of civil society and its gradual replacement by organized crime; the birth of a new class of excluded persons and disposable people who choose a criminal career that ends in death; the devaluation of human life, all these elements present a nightmare scenario of what our future could be."
All photos are of photographer Teo Voeten's new book 'Narco Estado'