“The wrong side” of the Mexican borde

Re-enactment of a crime scene at Tijuana University, Tijuana. Photo by Jerome Sessini

Re-enactment of a crime scene at Tijuana University, Tijuana. Photo by Jerome Sessini

In 2008, two years after a crackdown on drugs was announced in Mexico, photojournalist Jerome Sessini was drawn to “the wrong side” of the U.S.-Mexico border.

He had been to the country before; his first trip was in 1995. He met his wife there 10 years ago. But it has become a different place since then, he said.

From 2008 to 2011, over the course of six trips, he spent about nine months covering the impact of violence on society in Culiacan, Tijuana and Ciudad Juarez.

During his first stay in Juarez, 70 people were killed, he says in his book on the subject, “The Wrong Side: Living on the Mexican Border,” published by Contrasto s.r.l.

At least 47,000 people were killed in drug-related violence from December 2006 to September 2011. Sessini estimates even more.

“You know it’s violent, but when you’re in the field, it’s totally different,” the French photographer said. Media may exaggerate some things, but “in the case of Mexico, there’s more violence than what the media says.”

For local journalists, it’s almost impossible to cover the situation. Cartels may put pressure on them, threaten to kill them or even follow through with their threats. And anyone can be involved, he said, so it’s hard to know who can be trusted.

It’s not like Libya or Iraq, where you know who and where the enemy is, Sessini said. In those countries, you can typically avoid certain areas and remain safe. In Mexico, death could be at your doorstep, at the bar or in the car next to you.

“I knew by experience it was dangerous,” he said. “But you don’t feel danger. There are no signs of danger.”

Locals have accepted their “destiny to live in a violent country.” In Juarez during the early years of his project, the streets would empty by 5 p.m., leaving the city “like a ghost town.” In 2011, it was almost back to normal, he said.

He hopes his project will provide a new perspective for people to see a different aspect of the drug war.

“I sensed nothing there but despair, resignation and fear,” he says in his book. “I could never do anything for them. I ended up by accepting this. This book is my only contribution.”

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