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Drug-war photography

Mexico is at war with the cartels. Author Ioan Grillo wonders how we should see the pictures

The video he gives me makes me sick, sad, worried and excited. It is filmed from within a group of assassins carrying out a hit, or “execution”. The image is grainy and pixellated, almost certainly filmed from a mobile phone. The author swings the camera wildly, signalling that he is pumped full of adrenaline. He points it at an assassin in his early 20s, dressed in jeans and trainers, who is holding up a Kalashnikov and squeezing the trigger so it shakes hard against his shoulder, then at an older assassin in a baseball cap and black uniform, who fires with an AR-15, the “civilian” version of the M16. And then he points the camera at the victim, whose body bounces with the impact from the bullets, blood jetting out like water as he collapses on the sidewalk.

The film shows the action we journalists miss as we try to document Mexico’s relentless narco violence. We can’t embed with the combatants, like journalists embed with US troops in Iraq or even rebels in Syria. Iconic photographs of the war in Afghanistan show grimacing soldiers in firefights, but shots of Mexico’s violence portray bodies. So should I put this execution video into the news pieces that I make? Does it have a journalistic value in helping decipher this bloodshed?

There are grave ethical problems with using it. Can you allow somebody involved with assassins to be your photographer? Would you be acting as a vehicle for their propaganda of violence, helping spread terror? And what about the victim – is it grossly unfair on him and his family to show his murder on a news programme? There are no guidelines for covering this.

The most decisive factor is security. I don’t think you can make out the faces of the killers. But if someone can it may lead to a revenge hit. I could make somebody very angry. For this reason, I decide the video is best left off the ten o’clock news.

Journalists covering Mexico’s narco bloodshed grapple with such questions day after day. Gangsters leave decapitated heads in city squares. They print messages on blankets, making serious accusations against politicians. They give the media videos of thugs torturing and murdering men tied to chairs in dark rooms. 

There has never been a low-intensity war quite like this before. Narco gunmen attack like guerrillas with rocket-propelled grenades and belt-driven machine-guns but do not possess an ideology. The government denies there is an armed conflict, yet soldiers have shot dead more than 2,000 people over five years, according to the government’s own numbers. A primitively brutal violence plays out through the high-tech media of mobile videos, YouTube and Twitter.

The bloodshed has left news black holes in areas where journalists have fled or been beaten into self-censorship. A car bomb went off in Nuevo Laredo last June, minutes from the US border, sending seven bystanders to hospital. We had no video or photos for the news bulletins because most media outlets are too scared to cover violence in the city. But despite these no-man’s-lands, we should recognise the bravery and resilience of Mexico’s regional journalists, who keep covering this conflict while being systematically attacked. War may be packed with stories of villains, but it also contains stories of bravery and compassion.

The world needs to pay attention to how this plays out. Mexico is important not just because of the morbid fascination with severed heads on internet videos, but because this is a new type of conflict that could play out in other countries. Weak and corrupt governments, criminal groups with military-grade weapons and organised-crime-dominated economies are common across the globe. A central issue in the 21st century is how to guarantee our security from these challenges and still defend our freedoms.

Ioan Grillo has spent a decade on the frontlines of Mexico’s drug wars. He is the author of El Narco: Inside Mexico’s Criminal Insurgency