DPP Home Profiles Don Bartletti: Movements of Sand

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Don Bartletti: Movements of Sand

As an L.A. Times photojournalist and a longtime resident of Southern California, Don Bartletti immerses himself in the lives and the stories of the U.S.-Mexico border

This Article Features Photo Zoom

After 15 hours on a northbound freight train from the Guatemala border, Santo Antonio Gamay, 22, cries out from exhaustion and prays that he can outrun Mexican immigration officers at the approaching checkpoint in Tonalá, Chiapas, Mexico.
Covering the drug war and clashing cartels in Mexico, Central America and even Canada isn’t his first time in a war zone. It was in Vietnam that he honed the skills of a photographer. He didn’t go as a journalist, but as a draftee. Haunted by the images of the first photograph that resonated with him at 11 years old—the destruction left in the wake of a tornado in Fargo, N.D.—he realized that a good photojournalist needs the same observational skills as a good soldier. Every moment of every day, like a soldier, the photojournalist must be ready, finger on the shutter, and prepared to shoot.

Bartletti has been traveling to Juárez, Tijuana and Culiacán as part of the L.A. Times award-winning coverage of the cartel-fueled drug wars in their special feature “Mexico Under Siege.” Since January 2007, when Bartletti and the Times staff set a precision focus on the drug war along the U.S. border, almost 10,000 lives have been claimed by the cartels and the law enforcement trying to stop them. The cartels are winning. The body count grows, the plague spreads, and Bartletti is capturing it all with his camera.

His photos take us to the cemeteries where the drug lords and their runners lie entombed in permanent shrines, mausoleums featuring air conditioning and plasma televisions. Families and whole neighborhoods descend on the weekend to celebrate their dead criminal benefactors. If danger looms large on the mountain tracks followed by migrants, then the threat is immeasurable for Bartletti and the team from the Times as they follow this story for more than two years now.

At the scene of an ambush, Bartletti was struck not only by the brutality inflicted on the undercover police officers, but by the childlike curiosity of the Mexicans in town. “The Mexicans crowd around,” he says. “All these people are interested, getting closer and closer. [In the U.S.] they would have walled this off by a mile. These were the guys trying to do what’s best and they were ambushed. I can only mill around them, mix in and capture the story.” His voice drops; his face reveals the concern and sympathy he has for these people who he has been following essentially for his whole career.

The story of the migrant is strikingly similar to the citizens caught in this war. “The cartels have infested every part of the community—the judges, the police, the stores…,” Bartletti says before recounting the story of a painter who he has been following for a year. He shows me a photo of the artist painting an exquisite mural on the ceiling of a drug lord’s mausoleum, and he has gotten to know him as a man who wants nothing to do with the cartels. But to work in Tijuana, or Juárez, or Culiacán, is to work for the cartels.

“Jose Moralia tells me that he’ll work for anyone, and the businessmen, the farmers, the fishermen are all running drugs,” says Bartletti. “He can’t say no.”

There are two ways to freedom: the route Bartletti has followed before or to the pauper’s grave, where he captures shots of overworked morgue technicians burying another victim of the cartels’ violence. What story does another body tell? In Bartletti’s experience, in the stories he has heard, families will lie and try to move on.

“I’ll ask her how her husband died, and she’ll say a traffic accident,” Bartletti shares. “It was always a traffic accident. Most likely because they were shot in vehicles, in a drive-by or ambush, and then crashed into a light pole.”


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