Driving on a cold desert night to a small farming community along the Rio Grande where hit men had gunned down a man who stopped to buy a beer, the convoy of local crime photographers snapped away at a soldier manning a checkpoint. He was wearing a skeleton mask, a "mask of death,'' as he pulled over drivers deemed suspicious and who could be carrying drugs or guns. The soldiers were guarding a main highway outside Ciudad Juárez that leads to communal farming communities that mostly grow cotton and alfalfa along the river.
"He's just being a jerk," one photographer for the Diario de Juárez newspaper said of the masked soldier. "A lot of them do it."
It was a busy night but not unlike others in this dirt-road agricultural region, now known as one of the deadliest places in the world. It's an area where journalists barely venture and where politicians running for local offices are threatened into abandoning their aspirations.
Earlier that evening, the reporters and photographers who cover the city zipped to the international airport, where several hundred passengers had been evacuated following the week's third bomb scare. When it turned out to be a false alarm—nerves are jittery—the journalists flocked to their parked cars.
Police scanners told of an "executed" man in the Loma Blanca neighborhood in the Valley of Juárez, the porous stretch of land southeast of Juárez that extends somewhat sleepily for 50 miles along the Texas border and has historically been a haven for contraband and illegal immigration.
Normally, the journalists would have sped to the area and tried to scoop their colleagues for the story. But these aren't normal times. Instead, they organized themselves in a caravan and drove to the scene, keeping track of each other via cellular phones.
"We never go alone to a crime scene anymore. It's too dangerous. This way, if something happens to you, at least there are witnesses," said one veteran photographer of his beat recording the daily carnage of drug violence in Juárez and its environs. "Yes, we're scared, but we try to be careful."
When they arrived at the dusty neighborhood, dozens of people had come out of their homes, and police and soldiers had cordoned off a corner street. The only sound heard was the crying of women and babies. Underneath the yellow light of a Carta Blanca sign outside a small grocery store called La Consentida lay the body of Rogelio Ituarte de la Hoya, a 37-year-old father of five children.
"Why? Why?" wailed his mother, Ana Lozano, a retired maid who lives in El Paso, as relatives hugged and consoled her. "These murders are happening every day and no one does anything. My son was innocent. He didn't have anything to do with drugs!"
An eerie doom hangs over this ghostly border city, militarized by 4,500 soldiers and up to 5,000 federal police since 2008, and the soldier wearing the black-and-white skeleton mask at one of dozens of checkpoints erected throughout Juárez probably had a warped sense of humor. But it's symbolic of the escalating bloodshed witnessed every day, anywhere, at any time.
Since Mexican President Felipe Calderón deployed the military and federal police in 2008 across northern Mexico to halt violence among warring cartels, the deaths have mounted, and locals see a correlation.
By far, Ciudad Juárez has experienced the most violence, skyrocketing to about 5,060 murders in a little more than two years, and more than 700 from January through April alone. This compares with about 600 murders attributed to drug violence from 2006 to 2008. The Mexican government estimates 22,700 people have died in drug-related crimes across Mexico since 2006, when Calderón took office.
It's hard to keep up, but on any given day, between three and 12 people, including men, women and children, are gunned down or show up dead on streets or in ditches, sometimes hanging from a bridge, sometimes floating on the Rio Grande or nearby creeks. Many are involved in organized crime, but many are innocent. There seems to be no safe haven. People are killed in clinics, hospitals, funeral homes, shopping malls and baseball games.
"The violence is unprecedented. Never in the history of Mexico has the government lost such capacity to govern. So far this year, the homicide rate in the Juárez Valley is about 1,260 per 100,000 inhabitants," says Chihuahua state human rights representative and attorney Gustavo de la Rosa Hickerson. "This murder rate is only found on the battlefields of open warfare and could qualify as genocide."
The warfare is between the Juárez Cartel, headed by Vicente Carrillo Fuentes, and the Sinaloa Cartel, run by Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman. Although both are fugitives, they still run the show. In the past two years, however, Guzman has so far successfully encroached on Carrillo's turf, unleashing gang violence for the control of the opium trade as well as the marijuana, cocaine and methamphetamines pouring into the United States. Between 40 and 60 percent of Mexico's illegal drugs are smuggled across a 300-mile route that stretches from New Mexico to Texas, including the Big Bend National Park.