Imagine a big-city mayor, the chief executive of a city of more than 1.5 million people, giving an historic speech in front of no one. No one to hear his rhetoric or cheer his charges, only a single photographer at his back and his closest confidantes crowded together in a suite. The mayor is José Reyes Ferriz, the photographer is Ron Haviv, and the city is one of the most dangerous places in the world: Ciudad Juárez.
In 2010, while much of Mexico was celebrating the country’s bicentennial, Juárez was caught in a war between drug cartels, with police and its civilian population stuck in the middle. By the time Mayor Reyes gave his last Independence Day speech before an empty square—denizens of Juárez were forbidden from attending and were forced to watch the remarks on television—more than 7,000 people had died of cartel violence during his term.
With Reyes preparing to leave office, Haviv made his first trip to Juárez. "The story had been going for a few years," Haviv says as he describes why he wanted to see Juárez with his own eyes and camera, "but it seemed like after a little spike, it had dropped off the radar. Some colleagues had been working there, but there was more to understand about the impact of that spike."
Haviv’s coverage of Juárez took place during the bicentennial—a period of national celebration and pride—but his photos aren’t dominated by fireworks and parades. He shares a photo of a young girl who has returned from an Independence party, the colors of the Mexican flag still painted on her face. "She had just come home from school, and there was a body a couple hundred feet away." She was flanked by heavily armed police. "The person had been decapitated," says Haviv.
The despair on her face speaks for an entire city, and it runs through Haviv’s entire piece, "Invisible Lines." He has captured grisly scenes of what makes up Juárez, from crime scenes to bullfighting rings to a low-key celebration of a nation’s great milestone. Nearly every shot seems to capture a sense of angst. "Some Americans, guys in places like Watts and in the hoods, can relate to this better," says Haviv. "It’s a very low level of violence that’s always there and always part of the conversation. It’s insidious."
Bodies are a constant theme in the photographs included in "Invisible Lines." They’re not particularly gruesome shots; some are splattered with blood or sometimes there’s a distant shot of a corpse. The horror is in the faces of those left behind and a city struggling with the carnage. "When tourism was big, people would walk across the border from El Paso," says Haviv. "Now there are gun battles, and innocent people are being killed."
Haviv’s pictures are reminiscent of the classic crime-scene images that seem cliché in American media: yellow tape, police vehicles, gawkers at the edge. But somehow, shots from Juárez are different. As an artist, Haviv looks for the composition and color. His photograph of three boys under a graffiti-covered overpass impresses him. "I like the expression on the boy’s face, the light." But in this shot, the boys are trying to peek at the scene of a decapitation, the same scene that spoiled the young girl’s Independence celebration.
Of the many images from "Invisible Lines," Haviv is most haunted by a shot of a small family huddled in their kitchen. The bloody scene is where a girl’s uncle was killed. She, her parents and the family dog are together in the kitchen. "We are looking at the dog licking up the blood—the look of horror in the girl’s eyes—and we think what the dog is doing is so brutal."
Juárez is brutal. A local journalist told Haviv that, on average, nearly seven people are killed every day. This amount of violence isn’t new to a trained photographer like Haviv who has dropped into hot spots all over the globe. Haviv calls the project "Invisible Lines" because Juárez is different than the other war zones he has photographed. "I chose ‘Invisible Lines’ because in Juárez you don’t really know where anything is going to happen," he reveals. "One of the reasons is that there are no lines, no borders, like in Libya, Bosnia or even Watts. There, you know where you can go and where you can’t go. People are being executed all over the place in Juárez—policemen ambushed at a red light, a photographer killed in a shopping center. And then the violence moves, going from place to place."
He continues, "I was wondering what was going on and I wanted to understand it better. It’s important to realize that, as Americans, we’re completely involved with this story."
Haviv makes it clear that he sees a larger story in "Invisible Lines," and one can sense his own disappointment with the mainstream media coverage of the war that’s gripping Mexico’s border cities. "We’re buying the drugs, selling the guns, supporting the Mexican government with weapons and training," he says. "The entire struggle is about access to sell drugs in America. The American coverage isn’t fair to the Mexican people."
His images include heavily armed police officers—many of whom may end up as victims themselves—who come from all over the country and are moved quickly from crime scene to crime scene. "The scene is reminiscent of 1980s Central America—funerals of policemen, attacks on the government, the impotence of authority," Haviv says. He features several shots of officers at crime scenes, and the impression is overwhelming. How can they appreciate the gravity of each death? "They’re heavily armed, and they drive around," he points out. "There’s a cursory investigation and only a handful
of detectives to follow up on all these murders. It’s a ritual they go through, but they aren’t achieving much."
What will become of Juárez? There’s a shot of an empty house, the wiring and piping stripped out of it. "People who can afford to leave, have left," he says. "They’ve returned to other states, leaving Juárez behind."
Those who stay will try to piece together an existence. Juárez is still a big city after all, and the violence hasn’t claimed all of it. There’s an attempt at normalcy. Despite banning spectators, the mayor’s celebratory address was still made, albeit only heard from the safety and relative calm of the people’s homes. The bullfights, which are disappearing throughout Spain and other Spanish-speaking nations, thrive in Mexico and the border cities. The nightclubs and stripper bars—hallmarks of many a border town—endure in Juárez. Haviv tells us, "Culture goes on.""
But Haviv worries for this place he has come to know so well since 2010: "If travel stops, if there’s a lack of investment, then the state will continue to collapse. It’s caught in a downward spiral."
Haviv plans to continue to return to Juárez to document the evolution of the city and the people. In the spring of 2011, he did a piece for ESPN Magazine about a high-school football coach who has built up a successful program and, in doing so, has created a sanctuary of sorts for the athletes. Such success stories are under-reported, which is one of the motivations for Haviv to venture back with his camera. Ritual, culture, despair and horror—"Invisible Lines" and the continuing story are about the people who must survive through this and despite this. The little girl will go to school. The precocious boys will run around under the bridges, except in Juárez, they’re trying to get close to another crime scene.
Says Haviv, "It’s everywhere in Juárez. Every day, they run a picture of a dead body on the front of the newspaper. It’s ingrained into the way people are living. In the first photo in ‘Invisible Lines,’ a bus drives past another crime scene. It’s everywhere—the newspaper, the media, talking to the neighbors. Everyone is being touched by it."