Luis, my host and guide, and I were out and about in his Jeep when, at about nine at night, we came upon the Festival of San Lorenzo at the San Lorenzo church in downtown Ciudad Juarez. San Lorenzo, a third century martyr supposedly grilled to death on orders of Roman Emperor Valerian, is the patron saint of Ciudad Juarez and this was his day. His festival had nothing of the grim circumstances of his demise, nor of Ciudad Juarez’s current reputation, about it.
All was frenetic action in the courtyard to the church’s left as well as in the plaza facing it. Groups of the faithful, dressed for some reason as if they belonged to various American Indian tribes, performed highly choreographed dances to the rhythm of pounding drums. In and among the Indians, fantastical masked characters ranging in appearance from satyrs to clowns to Father Time circulated. Each dance went on and on at an increasingly frantic rate until it ended in a spasm of ecstatic exhaustion.
Eventually, after Luis and I had been at the church for an hour or more, and still in the midst of the dancing, the San Lorenzo procession arrived. Led by a pickup with a small statue of the saint attached to the roof , the procession reportedly stretched several miles and consisted of thousands of believers. On this night at least, San Lorenzo seems to have trumped the cartels in downtown Ciudad Juarez.
We were relaxing at Luis’ house the following evening, digesting another excellent dinner prepared by Nanna Chalia, Luis’s nanny when he was growing up, when the call about the body in the empty lot came. It was nearing seven when we set out into the rapidly gathering dusk. By the time we arrived at the scene almost half an hour later, there was just enough light left for me to photograph without using flash.
The victim, a young man with close cropped hair wearing a white, now blood-stained, shirt and black pants lay on the bare dirt as Federal Police officers, some wearing ski-type masks to protect their identities, examined him. It was not an extensive evaluation. The cause of death, gunshots from an AK-47, was both obvious and no doubt very familiar. Within a few minutes of our arrival, the police finished writing up their report and began the process of removing the body.
One of the officers stretched a black body bag out parallel to the victim and unzipped it. Then he took the body by the wrists while another officer grabbed the pants legs at the ankles and the two of them lifted him, sagging toward the ground as rigor mortis had not yet set in, and eased him into the body bag. The officer who had laid out the body bag then folded the victim’s arms across his chest and, with his partner holding it taut, zipped the bag shut. The two men then placed the body on a stretcher and loaded it into the coroner’s van which soon departed for the morgue.
Later that night as Luis and I continued driving around the city, we received a report of another murder victim. After much searching and consultation with Luis’s source, we finally arrived at the scene. By the time we got there a couple of TV crews and several other photographers were already in place. However, there wasn’t anything to see.
The press was restricted to an empty lot between two houses. Across the street was another empty lot containing a steep hill that loomed over the houses in the neighborhood. As we watched, Federal Police entered the lot and, using flashlights to light the way, disappeared from view around the hill. A short time later one or two returned, but that was the extent of the observable activity. After a half-hour or so Luis decided we should leave.
As we drove off we passed the other side of the hill and decided it might be worth trying to climb to the top to see what we could see. Starting up I saw figures at the top, probably forty or fifty feet above us, and I thought they were police. But they were other journalists instead and one of them shouted down that we had to climb up because the view was incredible. He didn’t exaggerate.
The hill directly overlooked the murder scene in the courtyard of a house. As police examined the body of the victim, Ciudad Juarez glittered to the horizon. The perspective made it appear that the courtyard was below street level, as if in a cave. And this seemed appropriate, given the nature of the scene I stood photographing.
To view more photographs, see www.vichinterlang.com.