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Through a Lens Darkly

Editor's note: Charles Bowden first came across the work of the Juarez street photographers while reporting on a murder in El Paso three years ago. His research took him to the dirt streets of Juarez, where drug murders, gang killings, and the disappearances of dozens of young women who work for a few dollars a day in the maquiladoras add a horrifying dimension to the border town's already desperate poverty.

Here, Bowden, a Tucson, Arizona-based author of 14 books, got to know several of the street shooters who follow the city's cycle of murders, violence, and accidental deaths with the changing of the seasons: drug murders in November and December, when the "merchandise moves north and accounts are settled"; fires and gas explosions in January as the poor try to stay warm; then turf battles and disease outbreaks in spring among the colonias, or neighborhoods.

Working for Mexican dailies with rationed color film and their own camera equipment--which ranges from primitive to adequate, but always "one lens shy of a load," as Bowden puts it--the street shooters capture the real-life face of Juarez's explosive, NAFTA-fueled economic growth. In their photographic record, which makes up much of Bowden's upcoming book, Juarez: The Laboratory of Our Future, the author sees a startling vision of our own destiny. And that future, he says, "to me looks like a face of a murdered girl."

What follows is an excerpt from Bowden's book, which is scheduled for publication by the New York-based Aperture Foundation in February 1998.

Since portions of Bowden's book ran as an essay in Harper's magazine last year, the Juarez street shooters' often grotesquely violent photographs have begun to receive critical attention. Media outlets from around the world have shown interest in their work. "I don't think these guys are gonna die rich, but they're a lot better off than they were before," Bowden says. "If nothing else, they have a much stronger sense of self-esteem--like somebody noticed."

--Julie Lyons

The white eye of the blank screen waits in the dark room. A few moments ago Jaime Bailleres was nuzzling his 13-month-old child and walking around in the calm of his apartment. His wife Graciela puttered in the kitchen and soft words and laughter floated through the serenity of their home. Outside, Cd. Juarez, Chihuahua, waited with sharp teeth. Now the lights are off as Jaime Bailleres dances through a carousel of slides.

I am here because of a 17-year-old girl. The whole thing started very simply. I was drinking black coffee and reading the Juarez paper and there tucked away in the back pages, where the small crimes of the city bleed for a few inches, I saw her face. She was smiling at me and wore a strapless gown riding on breasts powered by an uplift bra, and a pair of fancy gloves reached above her elbows almost to her armpits. The story said she'd disappeared, all 1.6 meters of her.

I turned to a friend I was having breakfast with and said what's this about?
He replied matter-of-factly, Oh, they disappear all the time. Guys kidnap them, rape them, and kill them.

Them?
Oh, he continued, you know, the young girls who work in the maquiladoras, the foreign-owned factories, the girls that have to leave for work when it is still dark. As a local fruit vendor told an American daily, "Even the devil is scared of living here." That's when my interest in border photography quickened. When I started asking around I met the herd of photographers who work for the two Juarez dailies and a fistful of bloody tabloids and other rags. I was stunned by their work because I am an American and the photographs showed a world foreign and sharp-edged. I came here with basic baggage--a belief in civility, hard work, decent pay, suspicion of any government and all authority. I am a creature of hope, a glass of wine in the evening, and music always in the air. Juarez is a city of violence, little hope, hundreds and hundreds of foreign factories, sub-living wages, vivid colors, and gory moments. I was instantly seduced and struggled not at all. I decided to write about the photographers in order to get people to look and think about Juarez, in order to get past vague terms such as free trade, NAFTA, GATT, and the global village. It was and is as simple as that.

After that initial decision, smells and sounds and tastes and blurry facts took over and I spent over a year writing and pitching one simple story about one little group of street photographers in one border crossing in a world where borders are increasingly flashpoints between races, cultures, economics, and nations. I came with little theory but outfitted with a few rough beliefs I had learned before I was old enough to make my own living. I believe that if you work all day you should be able to buy enough grub to feed you, have claim on enough space to shelter you, and live with enough security not to fear random violence or death. I believe a living wage means you can continue to live. That's about it.

 

So I wind up in a pleasant room with a glass of wine, surrounded by photographers, and I bathe in the flow of images. The photographers, like Jaime showing me his slides, are the next logical step in my effort to understand a place where beaming 17-year-old girls suddenly vanish. Juarez/El Paso constitutes one of the largest border communities on this earth, but hardly anyone seems to admit the Mexican side exists. Within this forgotten urban maze work some of the friskiest photographers still roaming the streets with 35mm cameras. I think that they are capturing something: the look of the future, and the future to me looks like a face of a murdered girl. This future is based on the rich getting richer, the poor getting poorer, and industrial growth producing poverty faster than it distributes wealth.

Until recently in Mexico the workers got one-eighth the wages of their U.S. counterparts. Such generosity no longer prevails and wages now flutter somewhere between one-tenth and one-fifteenth of those in the United States. In the auto industry, it looks like this: U.S. autoworkers at union plants average $16.75 per hour, Mexicans take home the equivalent of $4.50 per day. I realize this statement sketches something that sounds and looks like a cartoon. We have these models in our heads about growth, development, infrastructure. Juarez doesn't look like any of these images, so our ability to see this city comes and goes--mainly goes. A nation that does not have jury trials, that has been dominated by one party (Partido Revolucionario Institucional, PRI--Institutional Revolutionary Party) for most of this century, that is carpeted with corruption and poverty is touted as an emerging democracy marching toward First World standing. The snippets of fact that once in a great while percolate up through the Mexican press are ignored by the U.S. government and its citizens. Mexico may be the last great drug experience for the American people, one in which reality gives way to pretty colors. So I come to the photos and the street shooters as a way to literally give people a picture of an economic world they cannot seem to acknowledge or comprehend. Juarez is not a backwater but the new City on the Hill, beckoning us all to a grisly state of things.

I've got my feet propped up on a coffee table, a glass of wine in my hand, and as far as the half-dozen photographers present for the slide show are concerned, this is my first day of school, and they're not sure if I've got what it takes to be a good student. After all, not many come here if they have a choice, and absolutely no one comes to view their work. The photographers of Juarez once put on an exhibition. No one in El Paso, separated from Mexico by 30 feet of river, was interested in hanging their work, so they got a small room in Juarez and hung big pictures they could not really afford to make. They called their show "Nada que ver," Nothing to see.

"We're getting closer to the events," Jaime explains. "We don't think we are artists because we have no people here who can tell us if this is art."

The street shooters are mainly young and almost always broke. Pay at the various newspapers runs from the equivalent of $50 to $100 a week and they must provide their own cameras and transportation on the job. Film is rationed by their employers to cut expenses.

"We are like firemen," Jaime explains, "only here we fight fires with our bare hands."

The slide presentation clicks away. An empty bullring flares up on the screen and a sign below a green platform shouts in huge letters, "DIOS ESTc AQUe" (God is here). Jaime's friend Alfredo Carrillo stares intently at the images. He is 21 years old and until four months ago worked in radio. Alfredo is a well-set-up kid with quick eyes and a ravenous hunger for photos. Jaime is giving Alfredo tips on how to handle various light conditions and how to frame different scenes. A dead junkie lies on the sidewalk and his brother crouches over the body and weeps. A child of seven is pinned under a massive beam. He and his father were tearing apart a building for its old bricks when the ceiling collapsed. Jaime says that the child is whimpering and saying he is afraid of death. He lasted a few minutes more.

 

A hand reaches out from under a blanket--a cop cut down by AK-47s in front of a mansion owned by Amado Carrillo Fuentes as the police were checking out a van parked on the street. Carrillo was a local businessman. U.S. authorities calculate he moved more than 100 tons of coke a year across the bridge and into El Paso. Carrillo was estimated to be earning the equivalent of $200 million a week, and to the joy of economists, this business is hard currency and cash-and-carry. To my untrained eye the dimensions of the dope business are simple: without it the Mexican economy would totally collapse. A gold ring gleams on the cop's dead hand; for Bailleres it is a study in the ways of power. Alfredo says, "All these young kids dream of being Amado Carrillo." He is not smiling when he says this.

The competition in this dreamland is rough. Yesterday, Juan Manuel Bueno Duenas, 23, got in a dispute with a drug dealer. He belonged to Los Harpys. Today at 4:30 p.m. he was buried in the municipal cemetery by his fellow gang members. The campo santo was crowded with people, the afterflow of the just-concluded Day of the Dead. Carloads of guys from Barrio Chico, rivals of Los Harpys, opened fire on the procession. No one is certain how many people were wounded. The death convulsions of the Mexican economy have left the young to their own devices. Since December 1994, the currency has lost over half its value, prices have more than doubled, and jobs have disappeared wholesale. Real numbers hardly exist--in Mexico, for example, you are counted as employed if you work one hour a week. The government regularly announces that recovery is underway and regularly nothing happens in the lives of working people. The gangs of Juarez, las pandillas, kill up to 150 people a year. Accepting such realities is possible. Thinking about them is not. Survival in Juarez is based on alcohol, friendships, and laughter. But this happens in private. The streets are full of people wearing masks. Jaime was photographing a dog show at the time of the shooting in the cemetery. Now he and Alfredo sit in the safety of his home and laugh at the thought of these locos running wild in the burial ground.

This is a city of sleepwalkers, and elementary facts, such as the actual population, are given scant attention. No one knows how many people live in Juarez, though the current ballpark figure is closing in on two million. In 1994, 1.8 million poor Mexicans walked away from their dying earth and headed north. About 800,000 managed to cross into the United States. The remaining million slammed up against the fence in places like Juarez. Since then, this exodus has increased. Numbers are hard to come by but the feeling is not. Human flight from Mexico has the Mexican Border Patrol reeling. Juarez is part of the Mexican gulag, the place for the people no one wants.

The 17-year-old girl who has caught my attention was said to be found about a week after her disappearance in a desert tract embracing the city's southern edge, a place called Lote Bravo. The girl worked six days a week in a foreign-owned factory making turn signals for automobiles. She took home the equivalent of $4 or $5 a day. In a photograph of her body handed to me by one of the photographers in the newspaper morgue, she is a crumpled figure on the desert floor surrounded by police who look officious and useless. The photographer told me that when she was found her panties were down around her ankles as the police circled her still form.

According to government officials, at least 150 girls disappeared in the city during 1995. The government offered that most ran off with boys, but some people doubted this explanation, and families would wander the Lote Bravo looking for loved ones and more and more bodies kept being found. The police then blamed an American serial killer and handily arrested a suspect. Girls continued to disappear. This particular girl's home address was in a neighborhood called Colonia Nueva Hermila. It is on no map I can find, but then hundreds of thousands of people here have no official existence. A taxi company queries its drivers by radio but no one knows this colonia. The bus drivers for the poor who prowl dirt lanes with broken-down machines think they have heard of it but cannot remember where it is. Finally, the fire department tries its hand at locating Colonia Nueva Hermila and comes up empty. But they say it is not a problem. If there is a fire there, they can find it by the smoke.

 

Jaime Bailleres has projected a beautiful black carved mask on the screen. The head is tilted and the face smooth with craftsmanship. The hair is long and black. It takes a moment for me to get past this beauty and realize the face is not a mask. She is a 16-year-old girl and they found her in the park by the Puente Libre linking Juarez to El Paso, Texas. The park on both sides of the Rio Grande is dedicated to friendship between the two nations. The skin has blackened in the sun, the face has contracted as it mummified. She was kidnapped, raped, murdered. Jaime explains that the newspaper refused to publish this photograph. The reason for this decision is very loud: The lips of the girl pull back, revealing her clean white teeth. Sound pours forth from her mouth. She is screaming and screaming and screaming.

"We don't think about the editors," Jaime snaps. "We don't give a damn about the editors. We can educate people. To look. To watch. We work in a jungle."

The face floats on the screen as music purrs through the stereo speakers. No one will ever publish this photograph, Jaime tells me. I start to argue with him but soon give up. I can't deny one jolting quality of the image: it is deafening.

Snapshots make Juarez stand still. You can run from photographs but you can't really hide. This seems to keep the photographers going. A shooter is desperate to get the shot of a man who has cut off his genitals in a moment of serious depression. But by the time the photographer arrives, the mutilated man is in the ambulance and the doors are closed. So the shooter pops open the back doors and clambers in. The man lying there is in shock, his crotch a pool of gore. He raises his head just as the photographer leans forward and goes click. The photographer is no fool and he knows this photograph will never be printed. He just wants it all.

His name is Jaime Murrieta and he is in his mid-30s. He never turns off his police scanner. He beats the cops to many crime scenes and once got a meal from the city for rescuing someone from a blaze when he arrived ahead of the firemen. He has photographed over 500 murders. Once he crouched over the bloated body of a girl raped and murdered. The corpse exploded. He sighs when he thinks of the Pentax he used. It never worked again. Now we are in a car moving through downtown Juarez at about 60 miles an hour. The streets are clogged with people and we miss hitting them by inches. I feel like I am in a long dolly shot from an Indiana Jones sequence. It is seven minutes after five in the afternoon and Murrieta has just heard of a shooting in Colonia Juarez, down near the river. He is exploding with sheer joy. "I love violence," he tells me.

The other night around 11, two women and a 12-year-old girl drove a Dodge Ram Charger down the streets of Juarez. All three were shot in the head with a .45, a caliber favored by the federal police. Murrieta got some shots of them slumped in their car seats. This morning he covered the funeral and was beaten by the relatives, who were narcotraficantes. He showed me the contacts of the bereaved a few minutes before the murder call came over the scanner. He is tough on machines and burns out his clunkers in three or four months. No matter, he must keep changing vehicles anyway so that the gangs don't recognize what he is driving. Recently, seven rounds ripped through his car and somehow missed him. He has been beaten by the police several times and faced bullets and knives. Street shooters in Juarez face a critical audience of cops, gang members, and drug dealers. Murrieta has a photograph of his swollen face after one such beating. He smiles as he displays it to me.

"Yes, I am afraid," he admits. "But I love my work. I am on a mission and everything has its risk. God helps me." He has this dream of his death. Someone is coming at him with a gun or a knife and there is nowhere to run. As they fire at him or shove in the blade, he raises his camera and gets the ultimate murder photograph. "I will die happy," he insists. At the moment, he's been warned that a contract killer is looking for him. He is not that easy to find. It has taken me days to rendezvous with him since he moves ceaselessly through the night, comes and goes from the newspaper without warning, and seems to live more in his car than under any other roof.

 

In Colonia Juarez, the body we have come to see sprawls in front of the doorway of a corner grocery store. Three rounds from a .38 Special went through the head, five tore up the chest. That was 12 minutes ago. Francisco Javier Hernandez was also known as El Pelon, Baldy. According to optimistic police figures, he is murder number 250 this year in Juarez. At 5 p.m. he was 20 years old. He was a junkie, and he also sold drugs. He belonged to the pandilla called K-13, a group noted for its arsenal of guns. A crowd of his fellow gang members stands silently in the street.

Jaime Murrieta leaps out of the car and hits the street running. At first the police keep him back, but then I offer the captain a pack of Lucky Strike cigarettes and the officer's face brightens. I light one for him--there are these moments when I love Mexico. Jaime scurries into the crime scene as the captain and I savor a smoke. His face is absolutely serene as he crouches over the body. Hernandez wears trousers and boots but his coat is almost off and the wound in the chest is visible in the good light that all photographers pray for. A pool of brilliant red blood frames his head like a halo. The storefront is pure white with a painting of Mickey Mouse. A sign over the doorway says "SIEMPRE COKE." Across the street is a pink house where drugs are sold. A fat girl smiles at the body. Her T-shirt says "KISS ME, I'M YOURS." There was a killing at this very corner four months ago.

At least a hundred people now stand in the street. The guys have empty faces and arms covered with tattoos. They make the sign of the cross with the briefest gesture. Two girls of about 15 look at El Pelon. One holds a baby a few months old. They also belong to K-13. The killers are members of Los Harpys and the police are off at the moment to bag a few as suspects. The police station is nearby. Buses full of workers creep past the intersection and passengers stand and crane their heads out the windows to get a better view. No one seems upset.

A 12-year-old girl strolls down the sidewalk, drawn by the possibility of excitement. She has dyed red hair and the smooth and serene face of a child. She pushes through the crowd and sees the body. It is her brother. The contours of her face disintegrate as if she were a plate-glass window through which a rock has suddenly been hurled. She silently weeps and then the deep moans of a wounded animal rumble out of her small body. Two girls take her arms and hold her up as she slumps toward the ground.

Murrieta stops shooting. He is out of rationed film.

Politicians and economists speculate about a global economy fueled by free trade. Their speculations are not necessary. In Juarez the future is over 30 years old, and there are no questions about its nature that cannot be answered in this city. As one Mexican friend told me, "I live in a laboratory."

The maquilas have caused millions of poor people to move to the border. In 1900, maybe 100,000 people lived along the border. Now the number is at least 12 million and rising. Most of the workers are women and most of the women are young. By a person's late 20s or early 30s, the body slows and cannot keep up the pace of the work. Then, like any used-up thing, the people are junked. Turnover in the maquilas runs anywhere from 50 to 150 percent a year. It is common for workers in Juarez to leave for work at 4 a.m. and spend one or two hours navigating the dark city to their jobs. Sometimes they wind up in the Lote Bravo. The companies do offer some bus rides along certain routes. Also, they carefully screen the girls to make sure they are not pregnant: Workers at one plant complain of a company rule that new female hires present bloody tampons for three consecutive months. The work week is generally six days, 48 hours. After work some of the girls go downtown to sell their bodies for money or food or drinks.

Real wages have been falling since the '70s. And since the wages are just a hair above the starvation level, the maquilas contribute practically nothing toward forging a consumer society. Of course, as maquiladora owners and managers point out, if wages are raised, the factories will move to other countries with a cheaper labor force. It is almost impossible to get ahead working in maquilas.

 

The street shooters of Juarez are seldom allowed to take photographs inside the factories. Yet it is a challenge to take a photograph of anything in Juarez without capturing the consequences of the maquiladoras. With the passage of NAFTA, narcotraficantes began buying maquiladoras in Juarez. They did not want to miss out on the advantages of free trade.

The workers in the maquiladoras have created a new school of architecture that to date has not been seriously studied by scholars. They build homes out of odd materials--cardboard, old tires, pallets stolen from loading docks. The structures are held together with nails driven through bottle caps--a cheap bolt. Earth tones predominate. The designs flow unhampered by building codes. No school of aesthetics scolds, no committee votes, no zoning oppresses. The only limit is the energy to scavenge a world. A woman sweeps a dirt yard while a plant grows by the door in a coffee can. Washed clothes dry on barbed wire.

Electricity is stolen from power lines. Jaime Bailleres took photos of a man up a power pole illegally clamping into a high-voltage line. The man was inept: As Bailleres took his picture, the man was electrocuted.

After a while, after several months, things in Juarez begin to haunt me. I try to put my finger on what exactly is bothering me. I tell myself it is not simply the poverty--I remember being in Delta shacks in the segregated Mississippi of the '60s and people living almost like animals deep within the bosom of my own country. When I lived with these people for weeks and weeks, I consumed what they ate--wild greens picked by the road and fried in grease, bootleg liquor made in the thickets by the river. Finally, I can say what I have sensed for months: In Juarez you cannot sustain hope.

The women are standing outside the door of the American-owned maquiladora. It is payday and they want to grab their men before they drink up their wages. Most of the women are pregnant. The rest are nursing. The scene occurs every week. I keep coming here to see a friend. He is a native of Juarez and one of the highly skilled few who make good money in a maquiladora--in his case the equivalent of about $100 a week, or five grand a year. He is my guide to the dangerous barrios because he is short and dark and one of them.

The scenes are everywhere. The street shooters of Juarez spend very little time waiting. The banks are robbed between 8 a.m. and 3 p.m. The killings fill the nights--one Monday while I was there five went down in five consecutive hours. Or El Rata goes down in a drive-by shooting. The pandillas buy T-shirts emblazoned with his name to memorialize him, and the procession out of the dusty hills and shacks is led by gang members carrying his coffin. Manny Saenz snaps the picture. El Rata was 12 years old. Julian Cardona brings his camera up and captures children scavenging in a garbage dumpster. These matters can wear you down. The dry rot of government finishes the job.

Before one of the recent elections Bailleres found the reform (and opposition-party) governor of Chihuahua in a restaurant secretly meeting with the leaders of the nation's ruling party. The alarmed governor looked up at the camera and said, "I'm asking you as a personal favor not to take a picture." Bailleres fired off frame after frame. "That," he tells me with deep satisfaction, "is when I felt the power of photography." Of course, the governor made a call and the photos were never published.

Jaime Bailleres says, "Sometimes I feel like I am in Bosnia." He tells me a story to make sure my feeble gringo mind grasps what he means. The paper wanted a soft feature on the lives of the rich, so one Saturday a photographer and his editor strolled through an enclave of wealth looking for the right image. The photographer brought along his wife and two children. As a rabbit hopped across the lawn of a mansion, the camera came up. Suddenly, two bodyguards appeared with AK-47s and one said, "Give me that fucking camera and film." They forced the photographer face down on the pavement with the automatic rifles at his head. Then, in front of his wife and children and editor, they beat him about his head, ribs, and genitals. Police stood nearby and watched. That is the end of the story.

 

None of this matters. It is all a detail or an exception or an illusion. The authorities announced back in November of 1995 that 520 people had disappeared in Juarez that year and "an important percentage of them are female adolescents." By March of 1996 the mothers of the missing were demonstrating and demanding justice. Then in April the police made a sweep of the red-light district, bagged 120 suspects, and the next day announced that they had solved the case. The authorities explained that the slaughter was the work of eight apparently gregarious sociopaths who hung out in a bar called Joe's Place. We will never know how many have actually disappeared, how many of the disappeared were murdered. We will discover killers from time to time and sometimes we will pounce on a serial killer--any city of two million probably has one on the job at any given moment. But we are unlikely to square off with the issue at hand--a city of poverty that has become a kind of killing machine.

I go back to the glowing screen in the dark room one more time. I must see that blackened face again. Soft music calms me, the blackness of the room caresses me, the roar of the fan on the projector is oddly comforting. The beam of the white light defines reality now and keeps it locked up within a rectangle. Jaime Bailleres installs a slide carousel and then I hear a click and color explodes. I face again the open mouth and clean white teeth.

"Why do you want this picture?" Jaime Bailleres asks me. "You know it will never be published. No one will print it."

I have never told him the truth. I have never told him that the first night I saw the girl's face I thought it was a carved wooden mask, something made by one of those quaint tribes far away in the Mexican south. Nor have I told him that I keep a Xerox copy of it in a folder right by where I work and from time to time I open that clean manila folder and look into her face. And then I close it like the lid of a coffin. She haunts me and I deal with this fact by avoiding it.

I look up at Jaime Bailleres, the girl's face is still floating on the screen, his question about my interest in the photograph hangs in the air.

"Yes," I tell him, "You are right. No one will ever print this photograph. But I want them to see it whether they print it or not."

He sighs, the way an adult sighs over the actions of a child.
I look up at the girl on the screen. I tell myself a photograph is worth a thousand words. I tell myself photographs lie. I tell myself there are lies, damned lies, and statistics. I tell myself I am still sleeping. But she stares at me. The skin is smooth, almost carved and sanded, but much too dark. And the screams are simply too deafening.

To order a copy of this book, please call Aperture at 1-800-929-2323. The book costs $35 and contains a preface by Noam Chomsky and an afterword by Eduardo Galeano. An exhibition based on this publication will be opening at DiverseWorks in Houston in February 1998 as part of FotoFest.


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