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What We Learned This Week: Documenting Violence in Central America

By David Schonauer   Friday August 7, 2015


As we noted this week, Ruben Espinosa, a photographer for the Mexican investigative magazine Proceso who had fled his home state of Veracruz after being harassed, was among five people found slain early Saturday in an apartment in Mexico City.

Espinosa, 31, was the 12th journalist who worked in the state of Veracruz to be killed since 2011. He specialized in covering social movements and was involved in protests seeking justice for the journalists killed in Veracruz.

The Los Angeles Times reported that had been tied up and that his face showed signs of a severe beating. He had been shot twice in the chest.

A photojournalist in Veracruz and a friend of Espinosa told the Times that his friend had asked the Veracruz government for protection many times. “It’s practically impossible for us to work now, and the impunity of previous murders have brought us to this point,” the journalist said. “Our work is becoming a death sentence for us.”

Over the past three years, we have featured many stories about photographers working to document violence and corruption in Mexico and Central America at our sister publication, Dispatches From Latin America. Today, in the aftermath of Espinosa’s murder, we review several of our recent reports.

1. Inside El Salvador’s “War With No Sense”


This June, with gang warfare surging, 677 murders were committed in El Salvador, a nation of six million people. If this level of killing continues for the rest of the year, noted Time magazine’s LightBox blog  last month, El Salvador could become the most murderous country outside a declared war zone, topping neighboring Honduras, which is also being torn apart by gang violence. The blog featured the work of Italian photojournalist Patrick Tombola, who has been documenting the violence. Tombola, who has covered war in Syria, says he was shocked by the bloodthirstiness of the gang members, many teens. “We are talking about a whole generation of people that is being affected,” he said.


2. Raising Arms Against El Salvador’s Gangs


Freelance photographer Manu Brabo recently went to El Salvador to conduct a workshop at El Faro, an intrepid investigative publication, and ended up photographing a war. With gang violence rising to extreme levels, the military is being used to fight crime. Twenty years ago, notes the New York Times, the military was killing guerrilla forces and their civilian sympathizers during the country’s long and bloody civil war. Now, despite the cautionary lessons of history, civilians who were once victims of the military are calling for strong-arm tactics. “The feeling of hate toward the gangs was intense,” Brabo said. “At first you do not understand it, but after a while, you see what is going on and you can understand what people are experiencing. It is continuous stress. It is constant paranoia.”


3. Capturing the Residue of Paranoia in Mexico


It is just that note of paranoia that photographer Monica Alcazar-Duarte studies in her series “Your Photographs Could be Used by Drug Dealers,” which focuses on two neighboring towns on the Pacific Coast of Mexico—Ixtapa, filled with tourist hotels, and Zihuatanejo, where most of the hotel workers live. The title comes from a conversation she had with a soldier while asking for permission to take his photograph. “The soldier's answer summarized a sense of paranoia with which people in Mexico cope everyday of their lives,” says Alcazar-Duarte at LensCulture.  Her images capture what she calls the “ambiguity and tension that floats in the air.”


4.  Searching for Peace in Guatemala


Guatemala’s 36-year civil war may have ended in 1996, but peace has been elusive. Organized crime and drug traffickers continue to operate with impunity, while street gangs that originated in Los Angeles have found outposts in dusty villages. Meanwhile, the nation’s many indigenous groups – who were promised much under the ambitious accords that ended the war – find themselves under siege from forces that want their land, notes the New York Times. The newspaper's Lens blog recently spotlighted the work of Mexican-American photographer James Rodriguez, who has been living in Guatemala to document the continuing search for justice.


5. In Guatemala, Exhuming the Dead to Make Room For More


Saul Martinez, who was born in Guatemala and raised in Glen Cove, New York, returned to his homeland as a news photographer. Recently, he has undertaken a project in which, noted the New York Times’s Lens blog, there is “palpable heartbreak.” Martinez has been photographing the bodies of Guatemalan children put into mass graves after being removed from burial niches because their parents could not — or forgot — to pay the upkeep fee. But just as sad is the underlying reason for the exhumations: Guatemala’s high levels of violence have created an unceasing demand for new burial spaces.


6.  Guerrero and the Disappeared, by Matt Black


Photographer Matt Black has spent years documenting life in impoverished indigenous communities of southern Mexico for an ongoing project called “The People of Clouds.” Last year, while Black was working in the regions of La Montaña and the Costa Chica, in the state of Guerrero, 43 students from the Ayotzinapa Normal School, in the nearby city of Iguala, went missing. Many of the students came from the same regions that Black had been photographing, and after their disappearance, he spoke with some of the students’ family members and with citizens who are struggling to defend themselves against the rampant crime and poverty. The New Yorker featured his work in May, along with a video Black shot in Guerrero. See it below:

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