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North America
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Drugs, Mexico
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Behind the well-known narrative of cartels and crime lies a less covered story of Mexico’s drug war: the innocent victims.
Katie Orlinsky

2012 — student winner

In 2006, newly elected Mexican President Felipe Calderon declared war on the drug cartels. His intention was to stop the violence, corruption and narcotics trafficking that had been increasing since 2000. Seven decades of one-party rule in Mexico had ended and shifted the balance of power amongst drug cartels and corrupt officials. But Calderon’s war on drugs only made the situation worse.

The total death toll of Mexico’s drug war has now reached over 40,000 people since 2006. Every murder leaves behind a family struggling with loss and financial survival. Mexico’s pernicious violence is more than an armed conflict. It is a humanitarian crisis that has changed the lives of tens of thousands of innocent people.

The feminization of the drug war is an important facet of this emergency. Women are left widowed at alarming rates, left to fend for themselves in a shattered economy. They are easily lured into criminal activity such as drug trafficking and kidnapping, often the only financial options available to support their children and aged parents. The past three years have seen a 400 percent increase in the number of women imprisoned for federal crimes in Mexico.

In addition to women, there are countless children forever scarred by a childhood engulfed with violence, death and insecurity. In Mexico’s most dangerous city Ciudad Juarez, plagued by violence, poverty and unemployment, over 10,000 children have been orphaned since 2008. Soon these children will be teenagers, lacking the education, family structure, and economic security necessary to protect them from recruitment by gangs and cartels.

Behind the well-known narrative of fighting between cartels and the authorities lies a less covered story: the innocents trapped in violence, misery and crime.

When I started photographing the drug war in 2010, I spent months following ambulances, going to crime scenes, and visiting morgues, funeral halls and hospitals. These are places where the drug war is often illustrated. But they are also the places where the story ends. I want to photograph where the story begins.

Innocence Assassinated is a project that focuses on the living victims of Mexico’s drug war: orphans in Ciudad Juarez, women in the Juarez prison, “narco-refugees” in border towns, and young people growing up in neighborhoods inundated by drug gang violence. The project documents the women who have been left behind, and a generation of children who have known nothing but the drug war. This project seeks to go beyond external "narco" indicators like clothing and tattoos, and document “narco-culture” by exploring the very culture of violence, misogyny and systemic poverty that has entrenched the drug war into the fabric of Mexican society.

A deeper contextual understanding of the conditions that have allowed this war to thrive is crucial. With the support of the Alexia Foundation, I will have the time to not only explore the culture and environment surrounding the drug war, but to develop the relationships and trust necessary to work intimately with the most vulnerable members of Mexican society.

The story of the drug war is often simplified in the U.S., despite the two countries’ geographic proximity. Six years of gruesome tabloid photo spreads, frightening gossip and six-digit death statistics have numbed the public. This project aims to show a human, intimate and relatable view of the survivors to foster both empathy and action.

While the focus of the project is victims, stories of resilience, beauty and hope will also be featured. In Ciudad Juarez, teenagers dressed as angels visit crime scenes in order to bring something positive to the horror. In the Costa Chica, men work without pay as volunteer policemen in order to protect their own communities. And across Mexico, hundred-person caravans for peace travel to the country’s most dangerous neighborhoods in solidarity in order to raise awareness. With such scenes, I hope to share not only the tragedy but also the dignity of the people of Mexico.

Through still photography and multimedia I will paint a nuanced picture of life in Mexico that even foreigners can relate to. Returning to Mexico to conduct video interviews with family members of the disappeared and killed will be a particularly important addition to the project, made possible with the support of the Alexia Foundation. Over 40,000 people have been killed in Mexico since 2006, and there are countless survivors waiting to tell their story.

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Reyna Sanchez, 15, on the way to her quinceneara in Colonia Zapata, one of the most dangerous and crime-ridden neighborhoods of Acapulco. Katie Orlinsky/Alexia Foundation
Josefina Campa heads home after working in a maquilla factory in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. Over a decade ago factories and free trade zones established in US-Mexico border cities like Juarez led to an influx of low wage, largely female workers from poor, rural areas of Mexico. These women often find themselves alone and anonymous in the big city and become easy prey to drug gang violence and recruitment. Katie Orlinsky/Alexia Foundation
Ciudad Juarez residents stand outside their homes at 1 a.m. after the murder of two men on a nearby street. Katie Orlinsky/Alexia Foundation
Guadalupe Sujey Castillo Flores, a 22 year old newlywed woman who was killed by a stray bullet in Ciudad Juarez. Katie Orlinsky/Alexia Foundation
The mother and aunts of Guadalupe Sujey Castillo Flores mourn, a 22 year old newlywed woman who was killed by a stray bullet in Ciudad Juarez, mourn at Sujey's funeral. Katie Orlinsky/Alexia Foundation
Children in the orphanage Casa Hogar Tres M's in the Guadalupe pueblo of El Valle outside of Ciudad Juarez. This area is notorious for drug war related violence, and nearly half the residents of the town have fled. Katie Orlinsky/Alexia Foundation
An inmate and her daughter in the Ciudad Juarez Women's Prison. More women are participating in Mexico’s drug war than ever before, and more are getting arrested. According to the Mexican government's National Women's Institute, the number of women imprisoned for federal crimes in Mexico rose 400 percent between 2007 and 2010. Katie Orlinsky/Alexia Foundation
A young boy stands by a community police force in the Costa Chica of Guerrero, Mexico. Daily life in the region is defined by extreme poverty, drug trafficking and military harassment. Katie Orlinsky/Alexia Foundation
Day of the Dead in Patzcuaro, Michoacan. Four days earlier over 18 were killed in nearby shoot-outs. The Mexican state of Michoacan, where President Felipe Calderon launched the drug war, is one of the country's most violence plagued regions. Katie Orlinsky/Alexia Foundation
The Montaña region of Guerrero, Mexico. Drug related violence throughout the Mexican state of Guerrero is currently at an all time high, but it is nothing new for the rural indigenous communities living in the Montaña region. A collision of poverty, drug trafficking and militarization has resulted in violence and abuse against these communities for decades. Guerrero is one of Mexico’s poorest states, but it is also the country’s largest producer of poppy. Opium poppies and marijuana are cultivated throughout the region. Corrupt military and drug traffickers make a profit from the crops, while the local population lives in poverty and fear. Katie Orlinsky/Alexia Foundation