A Chilling Look Inside Mexico’s Violent Drug War


A young girl walks by a caravan of police vehicles during a security sweep looking for criminals and drug dealers. Law enforcement officials along the border say that increased border security has resulted in more drugs staying in Mexico, which has elevated crime and created a variety of social problems. The consequences of this conflict are felt, and exhibited, throughout the daily lives of many communities in Mexico.

Heavy Hand, Sunken Spirit documents the social costs and consequences of Mexico’s violent drug war. We recently talked to Detroit-born, Haiti-based photographer David Rochkind about his experience photographing a conflict that he says is increasingly “melting two worlds together, making a singular Mexico defined as much by violence and tension as by history and culture.”

How long did you work on this project? Did you live in Mexico the entire time you were working on this series?
“I started the project in 2007 with a trip to Nogales, Sonora. At the time I was living in Caracas, Venezuela and didn’t know the exact shape that the project would take. In 2009 I decided to move to Mexico City to be able to work on the project more consistently and with more depth. The last images I shot for this were in 2011.”


This stretch of the border divides Nogales, Arizona at left and Nogales, Sonora at right. There has been little violent spillover into the US, though recently US citizens have been killed with more frequency in Mexico. In March of 2010, two US Consulate workers were gunned down in Ciudad Juarez.

It looks like you had an incredible level of access. Can you talk about how you came across most of your shots/subjects?
“Every situation required a different approach, but the most important thing is just to be kind to people. You have to make sure that the people you are working with understand that they are not simply props in a tableau that you are creating; that you are not only interested in them to the extent that they can help you make an interesting picture. I found that people are usually open if you are honest with them and are truly interested in the story they have to tell.”


Members of a Norteño band sit in their tour bus after giving a show in Mexico City. Many Norteño groups sing corridos, or ballads, that tell a story. Some of these are narco-corridos, ballads that tell the stories of famous drug dealers. There has been a wave of killings of musicians that sing narco-corridos.


Followers of La Santa Muerte, or Saint Death, attend a mass that takes place on the first day of every month. Many drug dealers and criminals follow Santa Muerte, as it is believed that she looks after those that the Catholic Church rejects. Saint Death is one part of a broad Narco Culture that is emerging in Mexico.

You started this project in 2008. How do you think the situation in Mexico (in the cities where you were photographing) has changed since then?
“In the years that I was working on this and living in Mexico I did see the situation change. On my first trip to Nogales, for example, people were just barely starting to talk about the violence and its effect on the community. But over the years, in the north and beyond, the violence and the number of deaths grew. It became a constant presence on the TV and in the newspapers and peoples lives were altered by it.”


Members of the Mexican army burn a field of Marijuana in the state of Sinaloa. Mexico was once primarily a transit route for drugs to the United States, but the country is increasingly becoming a producer of marijuana, cocaine, heroin and methamphetimines.

I imagine that you put yourself in some pretty compromising situations in order to make these photographs. Can you talk a bit about how you were able to make these images without being harmed?
“You always have to determine what level of risk you are willing to take. I think the most important thing is to understand that you are working in a potentially dangerous situation and you are not immune to that. It is important to do research before you go so you can understand what the potential dangers are and how to minimize them. I almost always worked with local contacts and journalists who better understood the situation on the ground and could help me navigate it. And if something ever felt too dangerous, even if I couldn’t say exactly why, I would leave. It is important to trust your instincts.”


Drug use and drug addiction has risen over the past 5 years, bringing with it a variety of social problems that the country will be dealing with long after the violence ends. As security on the border tightened more drugs remained in Mexico allowing the cartels to create a homegrown market. In addition, small time dealers have been increasingly paid with product instead of money. Here, a woman shoots heroin in front of her lover and a baby they are supposed to be caring for.


A pregnant 14 year old girl was shot in Ciudad Juarez. Her father and 2 siblings have also been killed, leaving behind a grieving family trying to make sense of their new reality.

What were some of the more memorable moments you experienced while making this work?
“I was especially struck by some of the personal stories of loss that I heard. If you spend enough time covering the conflict in Mexico you are bound to witness truly heartbreaking things—children killed at a birthday party by masked gunmen, a pregnant teenager shot and killed in the street, or a man killed while waiting in his car at a traffic light.

“So much horror was happening and, in some cases, perhaps by necessity, it seemed like the violence became a seamless part of people’s lives. But amidst all of this, you still found warmth, generosity and beauty. I remember a group of migrants offering me food and water on top of a train as we all headed north. They knew that I was American, had an expensive camera and probably had a wad of cash in my pocket and could get off the train at any time, but they were still looking out for me and offering to share the little that they had.”


Central American migrants ride atop a freight train carrying cement as they head north in an attempt to enter the US. Traveling by train has become more dangerous as kidnappings and robberies have risen in recent years with increased drug cartel activity.

Your book, Heavy Hand, Sunken Spirit: Mexico at War, was released in 2012. How did you know when this work was complete and ready for publication?
“It is hard to know exactly when any work is complete. The issue doesn’t end and you never finish telling the story of every angle of the issue. But there does come a point when you have told the story you wanted to tell in a way that has a beginning and an end, and that really shows what you saw and felt.”


A man who has just been returned to Mexico after trying to illegally enter the US stands right across the border at a Mexican customs and immigration office in Nogales, Sonora.

As you are currently based in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, do you find many similarities between the ongoing situation there and what you found in Mexico?
“The issues that people are dealing with on a daily basis really are quite different in Haiti. There is extreme poverty, public health disasters and a total lack of infrastructure. But I find that in many places there are several overarching themes that remain the same—corruption, lack of educational opportunity and lack of economic opportunity.”


A prostitute undresses in a short-term love motel in Nogales, Sonora, where she entertains both American and Mexican customers. The drug cartels have been increasingly diversifying their business into prostitution and human trafficking.


Two young men are arrested for burglary in Mexico City, Mexico. Violent crime throughout Mexico is rising. The intimidation and reach of the drug cartels affects witnesses, police and lawyers, many of whom are afraid to get involved with any type of criminal trial. Impunity throughout the country is spreading.

You mention that for people of Mexico the scars will linger on long after the violence subsides. In your opinion, what must be done/what will it take for the violence to subside?
“I really don’t know. It is a difficult question and not one that I set out to answer. It is important to deal with the issues of corruption, education and jobs, but I don’t know if that is enough or everything.”

via A Photo Editor

  • tony cartel

    how painful and sad to treat human this way by kidnap,trafficking,drug addiction and many criminal influences to make human loose their lives good these have been notified….big ups to any body who fought hard to stop these act………………

  • william casey wesley

    Not even a clue about what to do? How about this; end the the drug war! The war on drugs is really a war on low prices, by sustaining prohibition the profit margin on all sides increases, there is more money for the prisons lawyers police and military as well as more
    money for the growers sellers cookers and transporters. Make it legal to use any drug, as it is in Germany, as it is in much of Europe. Did alcohol prohibition prevent its consumption? No, it did not. Does drug prohibition prevent consumption? No it does not, did alcohol prohibition make a gangster empire possible? Yes it did. Does drug prohibition make a gangster empire possible? yes it does. The biggest supporters of the Drug war are the people making the most profit off of it. It strikes me as cowardly to take no stand, what right have you then to lament?

  • ec

    This is so sad. They are a good, strong, humble people. Law Enforcement has to take control of this and quick. Catch them and shoot the SOB’s…

  • mwh

    arm the civilian population, create a militia, let them take back their country…

  • I can see where this is a no win situation here in the United States and Mexico. Will only get worst with time. Alot of people are going to die without it getting any better and the sad part is most will be innoccent ones. The Gov. needs to Declare a real war, or legalize it all around the boards like prohabition, open the doors, then close or regulate it different. Stop the violence.

  • B A Weirich

    Mexico has a ban on ALL firearms. That is nationwide. The local police (not all) are on the ‘take’, money,paid protection of the cartels, or just sta ying alive.

  • Bee Aich Wetwork

    Willliam Casey lol. Yes, end the drug war and legalize drugs! This will completely solve the problem! The cartels, and their ilk, who profit from not only drugs, but human trafficking, extortion, prostitution, they will just say hey, now we are going to become clean. Screw all this money, the drug war is over, and now we are going to take millions maybe billions in pay cuts, and sell drugs the legit way.

    What ivory tower, safe and secure bubble are you living in brother? Guess you never dealt with these types of people before. THEY WILL KILL YOU without a blink of an eye.

  • Jammstar

    Mexico does not ban all firearms. It does have regulations.

    Mexicans must register firearms with military authorities.

    Many farmers and ranchers own firearms, and – obviously – there are a slew of private bodyguards, security agencies, and other people with firearms.

  • [email protected]

    I think working Mexican is alright in America, but all the devils who break our laws should be instantly be put to death. It would stop a lot of them from entering our country. Many Mexicans would fight FOR our country, not against it like many of the Muslims are.

  • Guest

    Mexicans need to take back their country and stop letting their culture turn into one of gangbanging and drug dealing. Their country used to be known as a tourist destination spot. Why aren’t Mexicans more angry at their government for failing to control their country? They always seem so pro-Mexico, aren’t they ashamed that people have come to see their country as a drug infested dump? Admittedly that might be part of teh difference between first world and third world nations, those in first world nations work to progress their countries and to turn it into something better, those in third world nations either don’t have the means to or are just too apathetic to do so.

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