While investigating the reason behind the explosion of killings in his city, Cardona, a Juárez-based photojournalist, contradicted government officials’ statement that Juárez experienced an antitrust war. “What you see when you look at the people killed is that some of them were part of the domestic drug market, many of them were citizens who suffered from kidnapping, carjacking or robbery,” Cardona said in December 2012 during an interview for the Border Studies Collection from the Bradley Center at California State University, Northridge, which examines issues of human rights, globalization, and economic violence at the US-Mexico border through photo collections, newspaper archives, and oral histories with journalists. “The profile of the victims is very broad, as is the profile of the perpetrators – from the army to the federal police, the state police, the city police to all other types of people.”
Cardona, known throughout his career for his photographs of violence in Juárez and the US-Mexico border region, died in 2020. Two years later in Abecedario de Juárez: An Illustrated Lexicon, released earlier this year by the University of Texas Press, combines the works of Cardona and Texas-born artist Alice Leora Briggs to tell the story of Juárez in a new visual language. Modeled on the groundbreaking work Home Ground: A Guide to the American Landscape (Trinity University Press, 2006) Abecedario takes the form of a visual glossary, combining black and white sgraffito drawings with the voices of the Juarenses (the people of Juárez) to create a contemporary vocabulary of violence.
Abecedario is the result of a 12-year collaboration between Cardona and Briggs. In a recent interview in bezelexplains Briggs: “Abecedario has become a minefield, a derailed glossary of alphabetically ordered definitions of slang terms that regularly erupts into first-hand accounts of life or death, or both.” These narrative outbursts are powerful starting points for exploring the Juárez landscape of terror from the perspective of the Juarenses themselves. The most revealing narratives (cleverly reported by Cardona and translated by Alice L. Driver) are those developed in two or three contiguous glossary entries – B, e.g baja collateral (Collateral Damage), tells the story of a 23-year-old man, Sergio Arturo Rentería Robles. In November 2008, following the unveiling of a small statue called El Papelerito (the Newsboy) in Plaza del Periodista (Journalism Square) in downtown Juárez, Robles was kidnapped and decapitated, his head and body placed at the base of the statue colgado (suspended) from a busy city flyover. The killing spree was carefully timed to coincide with the morning television news to ensure that the Narcomant (a message left by drug cartels and displayed on a cloth banner) reached the widest possible audience. In another entry, the extortion of a small business becomes a symbol derecho de piso (the right to operate in a specific place) as well as like the estado paralelo (Parallel or criminal state) operates through the machinations of local, state and federal agencies. “I think we live in a national, staged montage,” he tells Cardona Abecedario. “There is no El Chapo for me.”
Like the famous novel by Julio Cortázar heaven and hell, Abecedario de Juárez is a multi-faceted work that readers can engage with in different ways. It can be called a glossary, read as a collection of stories, or viewed as an art book, but it is the interplay of all these dimensions that enhances its poignancy. Briggs’ drawings, inspired by both Cardona’s photographs and her own, are not lifeless reproductions of frailty and death, but instead have the powerful effect of connecting us across time and place. The release of Abecedario also supports a major reporting and remembrance project spearheaded by a group of Mexican and American journalists, artists and intellectuals who have been trying to expose the full impact of globalization and free trade on the people of Juárez and other border towns since the 1990s, despite the risks involved.
Nada Que Veran underground photo exhibition in Juárez in 1995, showed the photography of Cardona, Jaime Murrieta, Jaime Bailleres, Manuel Sáenz and others – mainly photojournalists from three major newspapers in the city – El Diario, El Northand El Fronterizo. The exhibition included images of violence and murder in Juárez that most news outlets, even art galleries, dared not publish (most of the work was shown in the photographers’ homes). But in 1996, New Mexico-based journalist and author Charles Bowden, who would become a longtime Cardona collaborator, wrote an article about the work of these Juárez-based photographers Harpers entitled “While You Were Sleeping: In Juárez, Mexico, Photographers Expose the Violent Realities of Free Trade”. Accompanied by several of these shocking photos, the article aimed to articulate the purpose of the public display of such brutal images: to expose the unacknowledged poverty and violence endured by hundreds of maquiladoras (assembly plants run by foreign companies, mainly in the United States, with the purpose of exporting their products duty-free) who claimed there was “nada que ver” (nothing to see).
in 1998, opening approached Bowden with the idea of publishing a book. Juárez: The laboratory of our future represented an extended version of Bowden Harpers Article in collaboration with 13 photographers documenting the crisis in Juárez, including Cardona. The book contains nearly 100 images of violence and poverty generated by maquiladoras — there are photos of middle school students going to school in a makeshift structure without a roof, cardboard houses bordering a sewer behind a factory, and a vigil the 15,000 Mexican farmers left destitute by NAFTA. “I call that That laboratory of our future because of what I saw there,” Bowden told me in a 2013 interview for the Bradley Center. “American created poverty in factories of American corporations that pay slave wages.”
In 1999, Juárez: The laboratory of our future won the Infinity Award from the International Center of Photography, cementing a friendship between Cardona and Bowden that would prove fruitful for years to come. (Bowden later encouraged Cardona and Briggs to work together Abecedariofollowing Briggs’ work with Bowden Dreamland: The way out of Juárez, published by the University of Texas Press in 2010.) With the establishment of Operation Blockade in El Paso (1993) and Operation Gatekeeper in San Diego (1994), the massive expansion of border security that took place after NAFTA forced Mexico’s economic migrants travel through difficult terrain by coyotes (immigrant smugglers) in increasingly risky situations. Despite these heightened dangers, the continued crossing of the border by more than half a million impoverished Mexicans each year inspired Cardona and Bowden’s next photo book, Exodus/Exodo (University of Texas Press, 2008), one of the first published works to put a human face on the undocumented.
The two later continued to work together Murder City: Ciudad Juárez and the New Killing Fields of the World Economy (Bold Type Books, 2011), with text by Bowden and photos by Cardona, and an appendix by New Mexico-based librarian Molly Molloy. Cardona’s photos in murder city, although limited to a central section by the editor, reflect the influence of the federal armed forces on the life of the Juarenses. We see residents demanding justice for a college student butchered by soldiers, local police officers protesting kidnappings by the federal army, and murdered addicts in the city’s poorest neighborhoods. In addition, Molloy’s meticulous appendix, which comprises 80 pages murder citydocumented every reported murder in Juárez from January through early May 2008 and laid the groundwork for their titanic effort to prosecute those murders through Frontera List.
Defined in Abecedario, the “House of Death” refers to a serial killing site discovered in Juárez in 2004, where at least a dozen men were executed by the cartel despite US immigration and narcotics officers knowing about the killings. A growing body of journalists, artists and intellectuals on both sides of the border continue to provide evidence that the so-called war on drugs does not explain the reality of the violence experienced by Juarenses. The guard Correspondent and author of Amexica: war along the border (FSG, 2010) Ed Vulliamy calls this “the heresy” – explanations of events that go beyond the bounds of acceptable public discourse. A better explanation is the term limpieza social (social cleansing), defined in Abecedario as “systematic class-based killing targeting citizens of Juárez deemed undesirable, including but not limited to drug addicts, residents of drug rehabilitation centers, street clowns, petty criminals, sex workers, and the homeless” — all subjects of Cardona’s photographs.
The criminal activity and human rights abuses at every level, from the Juárez cartels to the Mexican state to the global free trade industry, are further illustrated in Abecedario de Juárez with terms like Crimen Uniformado (Crime in Uniform) or malandrada (criminal universe). terms like extrajudicial killing and forced disappearance may be self-explanatory, but others are eye-opening snippets of silent reportage. Aguilas Nocturnasfor example, names a secret infantry battalion in Casas Grandes accused of torture, murder and clandestine burial. Group Jaguares is another elite group of cops and ex-military officers who have kidnapped, tortured and extradited victims to US law enforcement agencies. This group included former Tijuana and Juárez Police Chief Julián Leyzaola.
In total, Abecedario de Juárez: An Illustrated Lexicon preserves the voices and images of the city’s most vulnerable residents. Almost 25 years after the publication of Juárez: The laboratory of our futureand two years after Cardona’s death, the latest collaboration between Briggs and Cardona is the indispensable culmination of an urgent call to witness the high human cost of free trade and stop pretending no hay nada que ver.
José Luis Benavides is a journalism professor and director of the Tom & Ethel Bradley Center at California State University, Northridge. He lives in Los Angeles.