In probing the reason behind the explosion of homicides in his city, Cardona, a Juárez-based photojournalist, discounted the explanation from government officials that Juárez was experiencing a cartel war. “What you see, when looking at those people being killed, is that some of them were part of the domestic drug market, many of them were citizens who were suffering from kidnappings or carjackings or robberies,” said Cardona in December 2012, during an interview for the Bradley Center’s Border Studies Collection at California State University, Northridge, which examines issues of human rights, globalization, and economic violence at the US-Mexico border through photographic collections, newspaper archives, and oral histories with journalists. “The profile of the victims is very wide, as is the profile of the perpetrators — from the army to federal police, state police, municipal police, to all other kinds 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, published earlier this year by the University of Texas Press, the works of Cardona and Texas-born artist Alice Leora Briggs join to tell the story of Juárez using a new visual language. Modeled after 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 juarenses (the people of Juárez) to create a contemporary vocabulary of violence.
Abecedario is the result a 12-year collaboration between Cardona and Briggs. In a recent interview published in Glasstire, Briggs explains, “Abecedario became a minefield, an unhinged glossary of alphabetically ordered definitions of slang terms that periodically erupt into first-hand accounts of life or death, or both.” These narrative eruptions are powerful points from which to view the landscape of terror in Juárez from the perspective of juarenses themselves. The most illuminating narratives (skillfully reported by Cardona and translated by Alice L. Driver) are those developed throughout two or three connected glossary entries — B, for baja colateral (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 dubbed El Papelerito (the newsboy) in Downtown Juárez’s Plaza del Periodista (Journalism Square), Robles was kidnapped and decapitated, his head placed at the foot of the statue and his body colgado (suspended) from a busy city overpass. The murder operation was carefully planned to coincide with the morning TV news, ensuring that the narcomanta (a message left by drug cartels and displayed on a cloth banner) reached as wide an audience as possible. In another entry, the extortion of a small business owner becomes emblematic of derecho de piso (the right to operate in a certain location) as well as how the estado paralelo (parallel or criminal state) operates through the machination of local, state, and federal authorities. “I think we live in a national, staged montage,” he tells Cardona in Abecedario. “For me, there is no El Chapo.”
Like Julio Cortázar’s famous novel Hopscotch, Abecedario de Juárez is a multifaceted work that readers can enter into variously. It might be referenced as a glossary, read as a collection of narratives, or mused on as an art book, but it is the interaction of all these dimensions that enhances its poignancy. Briggs’s 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 publication of Abecedario also bookends a larger reporting and memory project spearheaded by a group of Mexican and American journalists, artists, and intellectuals who, since the 1990s, have sought to reveal the full impact of globalization and free trade on the people of Juárez and other border towns, despite the risks involved.
Nada Que Ver, an underground photo exhibition in Juárez in 1995, showcased the photography of Cardona, Jaime Murrieta, Jaime Bailleres, Manuel Sáenz, and others — mostly photojournalists from three major newspapers in the city — El Diario, El Norte, and El Fronterizo. The exhibition included images of violence and murder in Juárez that most news outlets, even art galleries, did not dare publicize (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 collaborator of Cardona’s, wrote about the work of these Juárez-based photographers in an article for Harper’s titled “While You Were Sleeping: In Juárez, Mexico, Photographers Expose the Violent Realities of Free Trade.” Accompanied by several of these shocking photographs, the article aimed to articulate the purpose of publicly exhibiting such brutal imagery: to make visible the unacknowledged poverty and violence produced by hundreds of maquiladoras (assembly plants operated by foreign companies, primarily in the United States, with the purpose of exporting their products duty-free) that claimed there was “nada que ver” (nothing to see).
In 1998, Aperture approached Bowden with the idea of publishing a book. Juárez: The Laboratory of Our Future represented an expanded version of Bowden’s Harper’s article in collaboration with 13 photographers documenting the crisis in Juárez, including Cardona. The book features close to 100 images of violence and poverty generated by maquiladoras — there are photos of middle-school students attending school in a makeshift structure with no roofing, homes constructed of cardboard abutting a sewage canal behind a factory, and a vigil held for the 15,000 Mexican farmers made destitute by NAFTA. “I call this The Laboratory of Our Future because of what I was seeing there,” Bowden told me in an interview for the Bradley Center in 2013. “American-generated poverty in factories owned by American companies 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 in the years to come. (Bowden would later encourage Cardona and Briggs to collaborate on Abecedario, following Briggs’s work with Bowden on Dreamland: The Way Out of Juárez, published by University of Texas Press in 2010.) With the creation of Operation Blockade in El Paso (1993) and Operation Gatekeeper in San Diego (1994), the massive expansion of border security that occurred after NAFTA forced Mexico’s economic refugees into increasingly risky journeys across difficult terrain at the hands of coyotes (immigrant smugglers). Despite these increased dangers, the continued border crossing of more than half a million impoverished Mexicans each year inspired Cardona and Bowden’s next photo book, Exodus/Éxodo (University of Texas Press, 2008), one of the first published works to put a human face to the undocumented.
The two later collaborated on Murder City: Ciudad Juárez and the Global Economy's New Killing Fields (Bold Type Books, 2011), with text written by Bowden and photos by Cardona, and featuring an appendix by New Mexico–based librarian Molly Molloy. Cardona’s photographs in Murder City, although confined by the publisher to a middle section, reflect the impact of federal forces on the lives of juarenses. We see residents demanding justice for a university student who has been slaughtered by soldiers, local police officers protesting kidnappings by the federal army, and murdered addicts in the city’s poorest barrios. Additionally, Molloy’s meticulous appendix, covering 80 pages of Murder City, documents every reported murder in Juárez from January until early May 2008 and planted the seed of her titanic effort to continue tracking these murders via 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 awareness of the killings among US immigration and drug enforcement officials. More journalists, artists, and intellectuals on both sides of the border have continued providing evidence that the so-called war on drugs fails to explain the reality of violence experienced by juarenses. The Guardian correspondent and author of Amexica: War Along the Borderline (FSG, 2010) Ed Vulliamy calls this “the heresy” — explanations of events that move beyond the boundaries of acceptable public discourse. A better explanation is the term limpieza social (social cleansing), defined in Abecedario as the “systematic class-based killing that targets Juárez citizens who are deemed undesirable, including but not limited to drug addicts, residents of drug rehab centers, street clowns, petty criminals, sex workers, and the homeless” — all subjects of Cardona’s photographs.
The criminal activity and human rights violations at all levels, 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 silenced reportage. Águilas Nocturnas, for example, names a secret infantry battalion based in Casas Grandes, accused of torture, murder, and clandestine burials. Grupo Jaguares is another elite group of police and ex-military officers who kidnapped, tortured, and delivered victims to US law-enforcement agencies. The former police chief of Tijuana and Juárez, Julián Leyzaola, belonged to this group.
In sum, 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 Future, and two years after the passing of Cardona, Briggs and Cardona’s final collaboration is the indispensable culmination of an urgent call to witness the heavy human cost of free trade, and to 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.