On December 11, 2006, newly-elected Mexican president Felipe Calderon ordered 6,500 soldiers to the state of Michoacàn to attack the increasingly powerful cartels that had cropped up there. It was the first strike in what has become a long and drawn out war that has claimed more than 60,000 lives.
When photographer David Rochkind arrived in Mexico in early 2007, he didn’t know what he would photograph. While the tragedies and horror were soon staring him in the face, he made the decision to photograph the people caught in the crossfire, not the violence.
“This story is about more than just body counts on the border and I was interested in conveying that,” Rochkind told Business Insider.
The approach paid off. In Heavy Hands, Sunken Spirit, Rochkind attains never before seen access with the migrants, addicts, and regular people devastated by the drug war.
After 9/11, the U.S. tightened its border controls, which forced more cocaine to stay in Mexico. It led to a oversupply of cocaine in the Northern border areas, like Nogales, Sonora (pictured). Here, police perform a security sweep, looking for drug dealers and users.
Security sweeps, like this one, are common for Mexican police forces on the border. They search anyone they deem suspicious.
The border between the U.S. and Mexico is thin. Nogales, Arizona is on the left, Nogales, Sonora is on the right. Tunnels are found often, transporting drugs and people.
The increased drug violence has coincided with an increase in kidnappings and robberies of migrants trying to cross into the U.S. This man was trying to cross illegally into the U.S., but he was turned back.
Violence and extortion against sex workers has become prevalent in border areas. Often, federal police are carrying out the offenses, leading to widespread criticism of human rights in Mexico.Here, a prostitute undresses for a client in a motel in Nogales.
Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua, near the northern border, is an epicentre of Mexican drug violence. More than 3,000 drug-related murders have occurred there over the last two years. Here, soldiers search young men for drugs, weapons, or signs of drug use.
“Narco” is a huge part of culture for many Mexicans. Narcoculture has its own music, literature, film, language, and clothes. Here, a young man wearing clothes associated with Narcoculture argues with a police officer at a drunk driving check.
Nortena bands sing corridos, or ballads, that tell a story. Some sing narcocorridos, which tell the stories of famous drug dealers. There have been a wave of killings of musicians that sing narcocorridos.
The violence touches everyone. In Cuidad Juarez, this family mourns the death of their 14-year-old daughter who was shot.
The violence is devastating for families. These people mourn the death of two sisters, who were murdered along with 13 others during a birthday party in Cuidad Juarez.
Mexico’s northern border states have seen elevated rates of drug injection use, up to 10 to 15 times the national average. Here, a man arrested for drug possession stands in his jail cell.
The increased drug use has been accompanied by increases in HIV and STI infections among drug users. Here, a woman injects heroin in front of her boyfriend and the child she is babysitting.
One of the main reasons that the drug trade is so powerful in Mexico is that poverty limits job opportunities and alternative ways of life. This young boy and his family have been sleeping outside ever since their tin and cardboard shack burned down.
Rochkind became friends with a group of migrants that was riding on the tops of trains to the U.S. border. He hopped along for the ride. It’s a dangerous life for migrants in Mexico today. Many are kidnapped and put to work by the cartels.
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