Photojournalist and Pulitzer Center grantee Dominic Bracco II was interviewed by Wired about his longterm project on young people caught up in the violence of Ciudad Juarez's drug wars.
JAKOB SCHILLER for WIRED
Juarez, Mexico is a war zone.
The war is being waged by two rival drug cartels, the Juarez and the Sinoloa, block by block for control of the city and its trafficking routes. The result is extreme levels of violence, corruption and intimidation. And for the past two years, photographer Dominic Bracco II has been covering the war’s effects on the border town’s residents. While he is working there as a journalist, Bracco can’t help but feel invested in the subjects that he’s become so familiar with.
“I want an American audience to look at my pictures and see how people are living on the border as result of American policies and Mexican corruption and take some responsibility,” he says.
Bracco, who grew up on the border in Texas and speaks fluent Spanish, says he doesn’t feel constantly threatened while working in Juarez but he certainly takes precautions. Even though he lives in Mexico City, no one knows his home address. And he only flies into Juarez when he’s working on his story or an assignment.
He regularly works with the same fixer who knows Juarez well and they both do their best to stay under the radar, like driving beat-up cars that don’t attract the attention of car jackers. Bracco says the flip side of this, however, is that the beat-up cars often break down, stranding them in some of the most dangerous parts of the city.
He never calls his subjects ahead to time to let them know he’s coming for fear of who might be listening. He just shows up.
The uniqueness of Bracco’s work is due largely to his focus on a group of young people between the ages of 14 and 24 who are called “Los Ninis,” which comes from the Spanish saying: “ni estudian, ni trabajan” — those who neither work nor study.
Working isn’t an option for Los Ninis because, increasingly, the only source of employment in town is in the NAFTA-fueled maquiladora industry, which pays poverty wages. Maquiladores are manufacturing facilities that U.S. and other international companies use for their cheap labor. Many of the local businesses that offered an alternative have shut down because of the violence.
Los Ninis don’t study or go to school because even a public education costs more than most families can afford.
“They are the generation of free trade,” Bracco says. “They are a direct effect of social negligence and globalization gone extremely wrong.”
A border economy linking Mexico and the U.S. in the area around Juarez has existed since the 19th century. But this connection grew with the introduction of free trade agreements such as NAFTA. As did the ability to exploit cheap Mexican labor, leading to overpopulation, poor infrastructure and increased poverty.
Carlos Velez-Ibanez, a Regents Professor and Director of the School of Transborder Studies at Arizona State University, has been tracking the influence of economic forces on violence in Juarez. “What globalization does is it removes the barriers for over-exploitation and hyper-production,” he says.
For Bracco, 25, Los Ninis are emblematic of all the recent social and political problems facing Juarez. They’ve also become a byproduct of the drug war and are targeted by the cartels that are in constant need of new bodies to power the ongoing violence.
While many of Los Ninis have done their best to stay out of the fray, some have been lured in by cartels that offer to pay them the equivalent of a week’s salary in the maquiladores to carry out one assassination. Those captivated by the money quickly become pawns used by the Juarez and the Sinoloa cartels.
“They’re just getting slaughtered because of being born into the wrong place,” Bracco says.
Entering the drug war, according to Professor Velez-Ibanez, has become a “shortcut for young people to get around their parents’ position” as impoverished and exploited laborers in the maquiladoras.
Predictably, it took a long time to gain the kind of access to the community that Bracco now has. After identifying the youth as the main subjects he wanted to cover back in 2010, he started contacting organizations on the ground that already worked with young people. These organizations introduced him to the group of friends that he has followed ever since. The intimacy of his work is a direct result of the long-term relationships he’s built over months and months of following the same story.
“It’s definitely been a slow process,” he says.
Unlike the images of decapitated bodies and streams of blood that have bubbled up to the mainstream news coverage of Juarez, Bracco’s work often captures a quieter world where birthdays are still celebrated and couples still find moments of intimacy. While the threat of violence is ever-present, and it certainly appears in his pictures, life goes on.
“The countervailing process of human beings coming together in response to the conditions [in Juarez] is certainly part of the story,” Velez-Ibanez says. “You have neighborhood networks to push for sewage lines, for potable water, as well as for clinics and educational facilities. That’s also part of this process, it’s not just people giving up, rolling over and saying, ‘Exploit the hell out of me.’”
As Daniel Gonzalez, one of Bracco’s first acquaintances in Juarez, says, “There are two ways of thinking about living here; either you go on every day and when it’s your turn to die you die, or you live every day in fear.”
And while things have calmed down since 2010, Bracco says he still worries about random acts of violence or someone attacking his subjects.
“At the end of the day, there is only so much you can do,” he says.
Ultimately, Bracco says he’d like to keep following the story for another two years, the amount of time he estimates it will take him to complete the project. Out of everything he’s shot, he believes there are 30-40 solid pictures so far. He eventually wants to double or triple that number.
While it took a while for his work to be recognized, Bracco won several major awards and grants in 2011 including the Tim Hetherington Memorial Award at the Eddie Adams Workshop, a W.Eugene Smith Fellowship, and a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.
The funding from these awards has kept him going, and as a way to expand his project he recently teamed up with Sandra Rodríguez Nieto, a reporter with the Mexican newspaper El Diario. Together they’re building what he calls a multimedia “case study” on Juarez that will use photos, text, video, and info graphics to create a digital textbook.
That textbook will be available for anyone to use, but Bracco says he often has an American audience in mind. As an American himself, Bracco says he wants his work to hammer home the message that groups like Los Ninis and the ongoing violence in Juarez are a direct by-product of America’s economic and political decisions, as well as its drug money and gun sales.
Over the course of his work he says he’s certainly formed his own opinions about America’s economic policies. But more importantly, the experience has also changed him as someone whose has to bear witness to an ongoing cycle of brutal violence and terror.
“I’m guessing it’s like in any war zone. You gotta live. Otherwise you can drive yourself crazy,” he says. “But at the same time I’ve certainly become a better person while covering the violence. I value life and family in a whole new way. And what I’ve seen is only a fraction of what people living here have to deal with every day.”