Picture power: Living dead of the drug war

Multiple track marks from injecting heroin are seen in the legs of a Mexican man in Ciudad Juarez

As 2012 draws to a close I have invited five photographers to talk about the backstory to one of their pictures taken this year.

I'll be publishing one each day this week so be sure to come back and catch the latest instalment.

In the first of these, Louie Palu explains how he met Frank, a long-term drug addict, in the Mexican town of Ciudad Juarez while working on a project focusing on the troubled US-Mexican border.

Palu is known for his long-term work, spending five years covering the conflict in Afghanistan and prior to that 15 years documenting mining communities in Canada.

Here, in his own words, are his thoughts on his latest body of work.

Louie Palu

Over the past year I have worked on a project examining the violence and drugs that have plagued the border between the United States and Mexico. At one point over a period of a month I covered more than 110 murders in two separate Mexican cities.

When most people in the world hear about Mexico and drugs, many seem not to make the connection that organised crime and drugs has with their own communities. There is no single country in the world that is not affected by illegal drug use. Mexican drug cartels have grown into the world's most powerful and violent organised crime groups based on the proceeds of illegal drugs.

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I have learned over 21 years as a photographer that there is rarely a quick fix in building trust and a relationship to see into people's personal lives”

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When I was in Ciudad Juarez in December 2011, the Mexican border community experienced multiple murders on an almost daily basis. But, as I drove through Juarez in July 2012, it was hard to imagine the slaughter. There are signs that the security situation may be improving after thousands of murders, even as clandestine graves are discovered in the Juarez Valley in the past few days. The Juarez/El Paso border area is one of the most valuable drug trafficking points of the entire US-Mexico border and has suffered a tidal wave of tragedy for its control.

However, for those not killed in the bloodbath between warring cartels and Mexican security forces, the legacy of the ongoing flood of drugs and violence continues to consume many lives. When I started covering the conflict over a year ago I wanted to look beyond the body count, which exceeds 50,000 in the past few years.

I immediately began to look at related social issues such as mental health and drug addiction. After touring several Mexican border communities it didn't take long to realize that Mexico lacks the sufficient social infrastructure to handle the surviving casualties of the drug war, who are in the thousands. Many journalists have reported on Juarez solely on the basis of the once world-leading murder rate. I felt that there were many deeper layers to the story that were being overlooked, especially since they carried long-term consequences for Mexicans.

The manner in which I work as a photographer is to spend as much time in the field as possible, months and even years of repeated visits. In this case I continually worked in the poorer areas of the city that were affected by the drug trade.

Louie Palu

Louie Palu

Louie Palu is an award-winning documentary photographer whose work has appeared in numerous publications, festivals and exhibitions internationally. He has been awarded a National Magazine Award, Photojournalist of the Year, Hasselblad Master Award, Alexia Foundation documentary photography grant, Aftermath grant and is a Bernard L Schwartz fellow with the New America Foundation.

Palu's work has been featured in the New York Times, Time, Newsweek, the Atlantic, BBC and Sunday Times Magazine. His work is in the permanent collections of the National Gallery of Canada, The Museum of Fine Arts Houston and George Eastman House. Palu is best known for his long-term studies of social and political issues, which include extensive studies of the conflict in Kandahar, Afghanistan and the drug war in Mexico.

Through a colleague I found a small shelter operated by a reformed ex-con and former gang member who has spent the majority of his life in prison. He set up the shelter for almost anyone looking to reform their ways or needing help from violence and drugs.

In many cases I usually don't take many photographs on my first visits to places like this; it's not about getting a news photograph. I prefer to get to know my subjects over long periods of time. I have learned over 21 years as a photographer that there is rarely a quick fix in building trust and a relationship to see into people's personal lives.

I continually returned to see the Pastor, as he is known, to let him know that my intentions are a long-term commitment to the story. In time he introduces me to several ex-gang members who are the cannon fodder of the drug war. Some have mental illnesses, some have lost family members to violence.

I have conversations with many people there and walk around the neighbourhood with my camera on my shoulder, but rarely use it. I do this continually so locals see me around frequently, letting them know I am not a threat. Juarez is the kind of place where if you are not thoughtful about your activities someone could cause you serious harm.

Between covering murders or researching drug-related stories, I stop by Pastor's shelter. One late afternoon as the sun turned golden yellow and the Pastor fixed the roof of the shelter, a man walked up to us and stood beside me.

I had been talking to Pastor for a couple of hours; the man greeted Pastor and turned to me and introduced himself. He spoke perfect English and looked to be in his 50s. He was 37. He pleaded with Pastor to help him get clean from an addiction to heroin, something Pastor says he has tried many times before. He had first used heroin at the age of 17 when he lived in Los Angeles and has been using it ever since. He tells me that several years ago his drug use got him deported back to Mexico from the United States.

He says his name is Frank and proceeds to show me the track marks on his legs. His legs looked as though they had been consumed by a form of the plague. He says that so many of his veins have collapsed in his arms and legs from a lifetime of heroin addiction that he is now reduced to injecting into the veins in his groin. For me his legs looked like the human landscape of total desperation.

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Sometimes taking pictures is about going back to a place over and over again to find something you can't see or find”

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His wife Pat had come along with him. She is a former rock (crack) cocaine addict and threatens to leave him if he does not get clean this time around. He goes on to tell me his life story in a capsule. He crossed the United States border illegally when he was seven years old and got addicted to drugs in the US. He has been in and out of jail for years because of his addiction. Without sufficient rehab programmes, prison only made his addiction worse. Several years ago he got deported back to Mexico and continues his struggle with addiction here in Mexico where he says drugs are much cheaper than in the US.

He goes back to his car and fetches a bag of personal belongings and returns. I follow him into the shelter as he asks me about my work and what I am doing. He seems genuinely interested. As Pastor prepares his bed for him, he sits down outside his room and we continue our conversation before he begins his rehab. I ask for permission to photograph his legs and he agrees.

In all the months I had been working and travelling around looking for compelling pictures, this one literally walked right up to me.

For me the image of this man's scarred legs shattered by years of drug abuse symbolised the war on drugs. Every injection he made seemed to lead him to only one possible solution, which was treatment for his affliction, because no jail, police or scarcity of drugs could ever stop his addiction.

Louie Palu is a Bernard L Schwartz fellow with the New America Foundation and was supported with a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

Phil Coomes Article written by Phil Coomes Phil Coomes Picture editor

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  • rate this

    Comment number 23.

    18.Phil - "Does, by legalising all drugs in an attempt to control, mean there will be more use, I think so..........."

    You may think, but that does not mean it will automatically be true - the evidence from Portugal et al is that legalisation does not increase usage......

  • rate this

    Comment number 22.

    Phil/18 is right, at least where heroin is concerned. If supply is cut, price rises - but addicts do not (cannot) choose to cut consumption. So they commit more crimes to feed their habit. Addiction should be treated as an illness, with the drug officially provided (it's not expensive) under controlled conditions, making it easier to wean users off the habit. This was done until the 1960s.

  • rate this

    Comment number 21.

    After decades of waging this war people still continue to take drugs. Nothing will stop them, threats of imprisonment, shock horror adverts of the dangers. Legalisation of all drugs seems the only intelligent move now. They were all legal up to the 1920s and people managed.

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    Remove all speed limits and we rely on all drivers to use care. Remove drug laws and guess what? The law is a signal as well as a limit. Some humans will challenge those signals because there is immature excitement in doing so. The outcomes are paid for by the rest of society - those who are mature and responsible. Better to pay for policing than hospitalisation!

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    Half the reason these people end up in these situations is not because of legality, because, like alcohol in the prohibition, people find a way, it is because of the pre-designed social image attached to being a 'junkie'. By demonising and reviling them, it pushes them into becoming their own stereotypes.

    With acceptance, help and support, we can do far more to fight it than with guns and prisons

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    Does, by legalising all drugs in an attempt to control, mean there will be more use, I think so. The problem won’t be controlling the supply, but controlling its use. We can’t control the recreational use of alcohol.

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    Always nice to further your career on the back of an unfortunate dead person, and how nice of the BBC to help out too.

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    All the time the Daily Mail panders to its readers ignorance the problem of drugs will persist. Legalise, and help rather than criminalise and punish.

    Only by decriminalising the drugs industry can it be controlled to some extent

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    Some really thought-provoking comments here.

    There seems to me to be some truth (to a greater or lesser extent) in all the comments.

    Perhaps the greatest threat to our humanity, is the investment in polarized points of view, whatever they may be. truth seems to me, to always be the colour grey.

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    When it comes to Drug use we need a referendum on wether ALL drugs are illegal (Including Alcohol & cigarettes) or if ALL drugs are legal (meaning EVERYTHING)... You can't have a two step system as it does not work.

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    People have no direct experience of death so never fear it on a daily basis MrMuttley. Hard work on the other hand.....

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    I'm afraid your words mark you out as someone who has their information fed to them by the reactionary sections of the press. Did you read the bit in paragraph four of the article that says the body count is around 50,000? You don't think that if such a high casualty rate doesnt scare people off the threat of forced labour will work do you?

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    I'd like to see large prison work camps for these offenders that pay for themselves through hard labor. Drugs are being used to anethise people from reality but a hard days work should wake them up. Zero tolerance will work when the punishments fit the crime. Having to wake up from some opium induced slumber and work hard is what junkies fear most.

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    Unfortunately 3 strikes doesn't work because many of the pushers are users themselves and hopelessly addicted!
    3 strikes creates the biggest prison population in the world and a huge black hole of wasted money , resources and people.
    Decriminilize and educate - same as how we winning the war on the nicotine drug.

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    @7 Clueless

    We need more housing not jails.

    Anyone who thinks drug taking is solely a problem of the Western world is living in cuckoo land. As for number 7's zero tolerance approach? Well we only have to look at the countries who use this policy, to see it clearly does not work.

    PS: Hope you enjoy them Arnie films over xmas.

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    @7 empiredown.
    Zero tolerance has been tried and it didn't work. Even if you were to literally authorise police to shoot people found in possession of drugs right there on the spot without bothering the courts people would still take drugs and therefore someone would sell to them.

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    Zero tolerance is necessary with drugs because they wreck societies not just individuals. The pushers should be punished severely rather than treated with mandatory life sentences, or capital punishment where applicable. Those with repeat offences of possession the same. Three strikes and you are out.

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    The ravages of drug addiction can be devastating on the body. Just as the ravages of a nicotine addiction can be devastating to the respiratory organs. Or the ravages of alcohol addiction on the liver and kidneys.

    Nobody is arguing that addiction to drugs is a bad thing, but why is it that we demonise these certain substances whilst allowing Nicotine and Alcohol to be sold freely?

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    Our body politic has been moribund for at least a decade. Our 'representatives' exist in a dream of either extreme postmodernism or puritanical hypocrisy. Reforming our drug laws will at least go some way to resurrecting the self evidence of our parliamentary system.

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    all the crooks getting fat on the narrowminded stupidity of western laws


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