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One photographer's view of the deadly U.S.-Mexico frontier

The U.S.-Mexico border fence west of Ciudad Juárez and El Paso, Texas, near the state of New Mexico. (Photo: Louie Palu/ZUMA Press)

It was the killings that initially drew me to the idea of exploring the U.S.-Mexico border. According to government figures, there were 47,515 drug-related killings in Mexico between late 2006 and late 2012, though many experts put the death toll much higher. Every aspect of Mexican life is affected by organized crime and its endless struggle for control of the distribution of marijuana, methamphetamine, cocaine and heroin. Most of the drugs are destined for the United States and Canada.

Photographer Louie Palu describes the dangers of reporting in Mexico to The Globe and Mail's Hannah Sung.

I began my field work in 2011. I crisscrossed the length of the U.S.-Mexico border, from Texas to California, travelling to places such as Laredo, Cuidad Juárez and Tijuana as well as down the Pacific coast to Culiacán, Sinaloa, home base to one of the country’s major organized-crime syndicates. In just one month, I covered more than 110 murders in Mexico. There’s no way of knowing how many of those deaths involved people who were in the wrong place at the wrong time. I was at a crime scene once in Culiacán where the killers went into a medical clinic to shoot someone and ended up killing five bystanders as well.

What I learned is that Mexico is a land of extremes. You could be having a beer on a beach while just a few blocks away someone is dumping dead bodies. I saw heavily armed Mexican police who were unable to do much but mop up after multiple shootings. One day I heard a woman in Ciudad Juárez complain to police cleaning up a murder scene: She wanted them to open the road to traffic faster because she needed to get home to make dinner. It is well-known that some cartels kill before the 6 p.m. news so their hits will make the evening newscast.

As long as its justice system allows criminals to operate with impunity – which, after all I have witnessed and everyone I have interviewed, I have concluded it does – Mexico will continue to be rocked by the drug trade and its violence, no matter what economic gains the country makes.

Canadian photographer Louie Palu is a Bernard L. Schwartz Fellow with the New America Foundation. This project was supported with a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

A U.S. Border Patrol agent questions three men at the U.S. border crossing in Laredo, Texas. Increasingly, border agents search vehicles travelling into Mexico for weapons and bundles of cash. (Photo: Louie Palu/ZUMA Press)

Borderline: Chapter 1

Laredo: Highway to the promised land

What is fundamental to all drug trafficking from Mexico is that you have to make it to the U.S. interstate. Interstate 35 runs north from Laredo, Texas, to San Antonio, a route that is strategic to legitimate and illegitimate economy alike. Once on the highway, the North American continent opens up and drugs can go anywhere. Their value climbs as they move north; the price of a kilo of uncut cocaine in the United States could start at $18,500 in Tucson or San Diego but might increase to $32,000 or more by the time it gets to New York or Toronto. But first, traffickers have to get past 20,000 U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers.

Click for map of Laredo, Texas

Border agents are increasingly watching southbound traffic to Mexico as well. They intercept large undeclared sums of money and guns. Lots of guns. Firearms are largely illegal in Mexico, so the cartels buy their weapons from accomplices in the U.S. and smuggle them into Mexico.

I visit a lab at the Laredo port of entry and am introduced to other complex issues that challenge border agents. Thousands of insects, including the Asian long-horned beetle, weevils and many other critters are captured attempting to piggyback their way into the U.S. They are found in shipments of every kind, from flowers and vegetables to wood pallets. Some of the shipments are crated in wood, sometimes from Asia, and if the wood is untreated or the shipment goes unchecked, a whole host of creatures, some with the ability to wipe out trees and crops, can cross the border. One of the officers jokes that they are tasked with catching mostly “drugs, thugs and bugs.”

But most customs officers I talk to say that illegal drugs are the biggest challenge and take up the largest part of their resources. Smugglers attempt every possible imaginative manner of getting drugs through. One load of drugs is hidden inside a cargo of frozen squid. In another load, liquid cocaine is injected into a shipment of watermelons and some of it is dissolved into bottled drinks. Often smugglers try to store or pack drugs in sophisticated compartments built into vehicles. Contraband is thrown at the border in countless ways in order to overwhelm border security – although many loads get intercepted, many others get through.

Voters in Monterrey, Mexico wait in line to vote in the July 1, 2012, general election. The election gave photographer Louie Palu a chance to take pictures and interview people in areas journalists usually can't go. (Photo: Louie Palu/ZUMA Press)

Borderline: Chapter 2

Monterrey: Deep inside cartel country

The city of Monterrey, located in the border state of Nuevo Leon, about 225 kilometres south of Laredo, Texas, lies along one of the main drug-trafficking routes into the United States. Monterrey is Mexico’s second-richest city, with much of its economy directly tied to legal trade at the border.

Click for map of Monterrey, Mexico

The day after I arrive in Monterrey to cover the July 1, 2012, general election, a small plane crashes in a nearby valley, killing two men. Any death out of the ordinary here could be related to organized crime. As it turns out, it is nothing more than an accident.

On election day, one of the polling places located in a downtown bus station opens an hour late. Chaos sets in as three lines of people fight over which line is the right one. Before the first vote is cast, word comes in of an assassination north of the city. I drive out into the countryside, looking for the murder scene. I tell locals I am covering the election so I can have a free pass to go into areas normally off limits to outsiders, without raising the suspicions of the cartel. I speed down the highway toward the town of Reynosa, which sits on the U.S. border, and pass the location where 49 decapitated and mutilated bodies were dumped at the side of the road in May.

I move up and down the highway until I find the scene on a rural road. I am in the middle of nowhere – overwhelmed by the loud shrill of the cicadas and the morning’s heat and humidity. The police tape keeps me and other journalists far away from the body. Masked and heavily armed soldiers and federal police are close by and I am too far from the body to get good photos.

The streets of Monterrey are packed during the July 1, 2012 general election. Monterrey is Mexico’s second-richest city and much of its economy is directly tied to legal trade at the border. (Photo: Louie Palu/ZUMA Press)

I get back into the city and continue to use the election to visit dangerous neighbourhoods. Everywhere I go, there are halcones, known as “falcons,” which are lookouts for the cartel-affiliated gangs in the area. I get into Colonia Independencia and visit polling stations. Most of this neighbourhood is poor and understood to be controlled by affiliate gangs of the Zetas. Journalists rarely come here unless there is a murder, so everyone on the street looks surprised to see me. People at some polling stations greet me nervously and wonder what I am doing there. Eventually they accept my presence.

Hours later, as the results start coming in, I go to the office of a National Action Party mayoral candidate who was just elected as the first female mayor of Monterrey. Her jubilant supporters surround her – dancing and waving their hands in the air.

A Mexican soldier stands guard by a bullet-riddled vehicle in which two men were executed by drug cartel assassins in Culiacán, Sinaloa, Mexico in March, 2012. (Louie Palu/ZUMA Press)

Borderline: Chapter 3

Ciudad Juárez: The cartel battleground

One of the particularly heinous tactics Mexican cartels use to pressure rival gangs is something called “heating up the plaza,” which involves one gang of thugs invading another’s territory and indiscriminately shooting up the place. Authorities crack down and flood the crime scene and the local cartel is suddenly under the spotlight. That’s what happened in December, 2011, in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, which sits across the Rio Grande from El Paso, Texas. I spent two weeks in Juárez then and covered 64 murders.

Click for map of Juárez and Culiacán, Mexico

The greater Juárez region is one of the most valuable smuggling sections along the border because of its close proximity to U.S. Interstate 10. No other town on the Mexican border sits so closely to such a long stretch of a major U.S. highway and, consequently, the area has been hotly contested between rival cartels. Between 2009 and 2011, Ciudad Juárez became known as the world’s murder capital, with a reported homicide rate of nearly 300 per 100,000. In the first month and a half of 2011, CNN reported, Ciudad Juárez averaged eight murders a day.

As I drive through Juárez six months later in July, 2012, it’s hard to imagine the slaughter. There are signs that things are turning around, with new businesses opening. It’s ironic because the relative peace and quiet indicates the Sinaloa Cartel has finally conquered the territory.

Sinaloa is the cradle of Mexico’s narco-trafficking. Places like Novolato, Culiacan and Badiraguato are the birthplaces of many key organized-crime figures – some living, some dead, some in jail. Joaquin Archivaldo Guzman Loera (a.k.a. Chapo); Amado Carrillo Fuentes (a.k.a. Lord of the Skies); Miguel Angel Felix Gallardo (a.k.a. El Padrino); and Ismael Zambada Garcia (a.k.a. El Mayo) – these are some of the principal actors in the drug underworld. They all hail from Sinaloa and today, they represent the main cartels, which have fought for – or formed alliances with each other – for control of Ciudad Juárez.

A U.S. Drug Enforcement Agent (DEA) aims a flashlight down a 17-metre-deep drug smuggling tunnel that runs almost 220 metres under the U.S.-Mexico border from a small industrial building in San Luis, Ariz., just south of Yuma. (Louie Palu/ZUMA Press)

Borderline: Chapter 4

Yuma to Nogales: Tunnels and blisters

My first day in Arizona begins in Yuma, where the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) is holding a press conference about a drug-smuggling tunnel found south of here in San Luis, Ariz. An agent carries out a medium-sized box of methamphetamine that was seized in an investigation leading to the tunnel’s discovery and says it’s worth more than $1-million.

Click for map of Yuma, Ariz. and Nogales, Mexico

I drive down to San Luis where the DEA gives me access to the tunnel, which is located in a small industrial building. There is a neatly cut square hole in the tiled floor, where a 16.7-metre-deep shaft with a built-in ladder leads to a 220-metre long tunnel to Mexico. Agents estimate that it took one year to construct.

The next day I make my way toward Nogales, Ariz., where the desert terrain is vast and unforgiving. The temperature is 40 when the sun is out. Then a storm hits and the temperature sinks to 24. Many roads are flooded and washed out. I cross over to Mexico and visit the San Bosco shelter for migrants and deportees. I meet two men who were just deported. They have severe blistering on their feet from walking through the desert – a common injury among migrants. One of the goals of a Mexican migrant is to get to either Tucson or Phoenix. From there, they can get safe passage to cities throughout the United States.

I spend most of my time with several of the deported women – two of them walked for six days in the desert before the U.S. Border Patrol appeared and their coyote (a person who facilitates an illegal border crossing) abandoned them in the desert. They were held for three days before being deported to Mexico.

The cartels are heavily involved in human traffic as well as drug traffic. Migrants gather in staging areas such as Altar, Mexico, which sits directly south of the border area between Sasabe and Nogales, two towns in Arizona. The cartels not only approve who crosses but they also take a cut of the fee. Migrants cross the border in groups ranging from 14 to 32 people, paying a fee of $3,000 to $5,000 a person. Those who are not able to pay their coyote up front must send money back to Mexico to complete the payment.

Mexican heroin addicts prepare needles for injecting the drug along the levee in Tijuana, Mexico. (Louie Palu/ZUMA Press)

Borderline: Chapter 5

Tijuana: The drug war's living dead

My journey to Tijuana starts when I take a cab from Chula Vista, Calif., to the San Ysidro border crossing. I walk across with my bags right past Mexican soldiers and customs officials. I do not have to show any identification and no one asks to look at my bags.

Click for map of Tijuana, Mexico

Tijuana seems to have much more energy on its streets compared to other Mexican cities along the border. Only a few years ago Tijuana was ravaged by cartel violence, but this has abated. The police and army presence is much less obvious and, with a good crowd on the street, I don’t feel the same tensions as in the more violent cities.

I head to El Bordo – the levee – which is a concrete structure that sandwiches the Tijuana River. El Bordo used to be the staging ground for migrants waiting to cross into the United States, but with heightened border security, the area is now mostly populated by deportees, many of whom are heroin addicts.

Increasingly, over the last several years, more and more heroin has become available cheaply in Tijuana. Drug addiction on the Mexican side of the border has skyrocketed as drugs sit longer on the border waiting for the right time to evade U.S. detection efforts. Many of the addicts say only the worst stuff is sold here – the high-quality drugs go north. They inject in several parts of their arms, some in their necks. Some mix a cocktail of meth and heroin and shoot up.

I visit with an organization that operates a needle-exchange program, a Mexican NGO funded by various organizations such as the UN and the Baja California Health Department.

The furthest western edge of the U.S.-Mexico border fence juts out into the Pacific Ocean near Tijuana, Mexico. (Photo: Louie Palu/ZUMA Press)

In the rickety old van, we drive down a ramp into El Bordo on the river and pass a handful of addicts hobbling side to side like zombies. Some of them begin to chase the van, with wild dogs in tow. Every time we stop, mostly male addicts and the odd woman line up to re-supply themselves with the tools to get high again. Some are mentally ill, some shoot up as soon as they get needles and others hand in numerous used needles. I lose count of how many addicts I see – it seems like well over 80 over a distance of approximately three kilometres.

I wake up early the next morning and plan to cross back into the U.S. on foot. The line is so long and snakes in so many directions it is impossible to see the end. People offer various more efficient ways to cross for different amounts of money. There is a micro-economy built around crossing that involves food, coffee and, of course, faster crossings. Many jump the line. No one complains. This organized chaos is just a way of life.

Photography and reporting by LOUIE PALU   Interactive by CHRISTOPHER MANZA   Editing by MICHAEL SNIDER and ALEYSHA HANIFF