Once popular Mexican towns deteriorate as warring drug cartels provoke killings, drug addiction and violence

Only 10 minutes away from the beaches of Acapulco, a world of extortion and killing thrives. Coroners carry a body through Barranca de la Laja, an impoverished neighborhood with few roads, that clings to a hillside. The body, decapitated and with the legs dismembered, was buried in the floor of a residence in the chronically violent neighborhood. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)

I grew up traveling to Mexico. It was an easy trip into Baja from Ventura County, Calif., my home. We would camp on desert points and surf for days. I always found the dusty peninsula and the country as a whole surprising, welcoming and exciting. It was not until the series of trips I took there in 2017 with Josh Partlow, our Mexico bureau chief, that I truly felt afraid. Afraid for my safety. Afraid for what Mexico had become.

The assignment started with a text from my editor, Nick Kirkpatrick, asking if I wanted to travel to a “sketchy narco zone,” in Guerrero, one of Mexico’s most violent states. The stories I had read about Mexican journalists being assassinated throughout the country for covering the violence and cartels were numerous. The country is second only to Syria in the number of journalists being killed on the job. But this is Mexico, a country and people I admire and respect. I knew with proper planning this was a story I wanted to photograph.

We started in the “Tierra Caliente,” or Hot Land, an opium-producing region in the mountains of Guerrero that provides drugs to sustain America’s heroin habit. This is a place where impoverished rural towns are terrorized by drug lords with names like “El Pez,” the Big Fish, and “El Tequilero,” a name that needs no translation. We met the relatives of the murdered, victims of multiple kidnappings, and vigilante groups that took up arms to protect their neighbors. It became obvious this was only a chapter of a larger story.

We witnessed a mustachioed cartel member carrying an assault rifle beating a man senseless in Acapulco, the world’s second most dangerous city according to homicide statistics. The once posh resort town is now a narrow beach strip frequented mostly by Mexican tourists and semi-abandoned neighborhoods ruled by gangs and violence.

In the border town of Tijuana, I met Cesar, a 27-year-old heroin addict who had started using at 18, the year his mother had committed suicide. Fluent in English and Spanish and boasting an encyclopedic knowledge of music, Cesar seemed to have charm and the ability to be successful. Instead, gripped by addiction, he is emblematic of the skyrocketing domestic drug use now present in Mexico.

Jalisco is one of Mexico’s most prosperous states. It is dominated by Jalisco Nueva Generacíon, now considered the country’s most powerful cartel. We found ourselves at the scene of a homicide. Luz Margarita Ramirez Gallardo had survived two gunshots to the head a month ago, on the Day of the Dead, a traditional Mexican holiday. Now she was dead, slumped in the seat of a van outside her home in Guadalajara. The hit men came back to finish the job they had failed to complete the first time.

Drug demand remains high in the United States and these areas of Mexico suffer greatly trying to fulfill that need.

In Mexico, The Price of America’s Hunger for Heroin

Acapulco is Now Mexico’s Murder Capital

Mexico’s Drug Trade Hits Home

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