Take Two for April 2, 2013

Picture This: Louie Palu captures horrors of the Mexican drug war

Louie Palu/ZUMA Press

Luis Avila Archulata age 40, an ex gang member who grew up and spent his whole life in Arizona after crossing the U.S. border with his mother at the age of 2. Luis was a drug addict and was jailed multiple times in the U.S. and finally deported to Mexico where he now lives. He was recruited into gangs in the U.S. and was first exposed to drugs in the U.S.

Louie Palu/ZUMA Press

Marisol Espinoza, a 20-year-old woman from Chiapas, Mexico in a shelter for deportees and migrants the night after she was deported from the United States. She crossed the into the United States and walked through the Arizona desert for 6-days until she was arrested by the U.S. Border Patrol.

Louie Palu/ZUMA Press

Marisol Espinoza, a 20-year-old woman from Chiapas, Mexico in a shelter for deportees and migrants the night after she was deported from the United States. She crossed the into the United States and walked through the Arizona desert for 6-days until she was arrested by the U.S. Border Patrol.

Louie Palu/ZUMA Press

A woman who was found beating herself in the downtown of Ciudad Juarez, Mexico seen in a privately run shelter for the mentally ill west of the city. Due to a lack of state social infrastructure many people with extreme mental illnesses are brought here.

Louie Palu/ZUMA Press

A man shot multiple times in drug related violence is pulled toward a stretcher by a medic in Culiacan, Sinaloa, Mexico.


Warning: Slideshow contains graphic images. 

In our regular series, Picture This, we've been focusing a lot on war photographers. While today's guest, Louie Palu, did work as a photojournalist in Afghanistan, he's since turned his lens on a different kind of war. 

Palu recently spent a year photographing the drug trade in Mexico, from checkpoints in Texas and Arizona to villages deep into cartel country. He's been witness to hundreds of murder scenes and has learned of the multitude of ways smugglers attempt and succeed to bring drugs into the United States.

In addition, he wanted to document daily life of the people who, despite being surrounded by violence, still call Ciudad Juarez and other gang-heavy Mexican cities home. He joins us to talk about why he decided to train his lens on Mexico, how he stayed safe, and what he hopes his photographs communicate to the world. 

Interview Highlights

On why he decided to focus on the Mexican drug war:
"I had covered the war in Kandahar, Afghanistan on and off for about five years. As soon as the popular media arrived in Afghanistan...I felt like my time was there to move on. I really felt like Latin America wasn't getting enough coverage. I really felt that what was going on in Mexico and I feel spilling over into the United States with the drug war needed more coverage. I've always been drawn to stories that not enough media are covering and I felt like the Middle East always gets this bloated media coverage and it was time for Mexico to get a little more coverage."

On how he stayed safe during his reporting:
"Keeping a low profile is hard to do when you pull two big cameras out. I would rent a hotel in one part of town, go out the back door, and stay in a hotel in another part of town. My biggest fear was that at night, gunmen would come into my room in the middle of the night and take me away, hood me and take me away and either kidnap me or...they haven't killed a foreign journalist yet, but I feel like in any conflict there's always this one point where things change, and I didn't want it to be me."

On a moment when he felt threatened:
"As I was taking photos, this guy walks up to me and starts talking to me very aggressively. I could tell immediately the tone, the kind of guy he was, how he was in my face that I was in really deep trouble. This guy was a gang member from one of the bigger gangs in Juarez. I told him I was a journalist and I was here photographing daily life, but he didn't believe me. He stepped away for a second to talk to his friend before he came back, he said, 'Hey wait here, I want to talk to you more.' The discussion became, should we leave? If we leave now, it'll look like we're running away. We decided to stay because we were being honest. He came back and said, 'Hey, while I interrogate you come over to my barbecue and have some tacos, man.' I drank a bit of Coca-Cola, had some tacos and we had a sit down."

On how the many drug-war related murders affect civilians:
"In the total of a month I covered about 110 [murders]...The thing that made the biggest impression on me...is I turned around and right behind me, a school had just let out and there were all of these elementary school children staring at this scene of this man dying. I just think that it's another one of those cases where if you're going to have security and you're going to have violence, you have to build a social infrastructure. The mental illness, the trauma that people are experience in Mexico is in the hundreds of thousands. Building that social infrastructure builds a dam or a firewall so that these people build productive lives and don't end up going down the wrong road."

On how life in Mexico goes on despite drug violence:
"I wanted to show some daily life, because what people need to understand is that it's not like you walk around every day and there's gunfire and people are killing each other. It happens in the city and some parts of the city you don't even know it's going on. I wanted to show that there is daily life there. That not everybody's killing each other."


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