Mexico: Life and Death in the Northern Pass

The scene of a young murdered couple. The woman was far into her pregnancy. The couple's heads touched in a last embrace. A single bullet entered the man's skull and took all three lives. Image by Dominic Bracco II. Mexico, 2011.

A young girl prepares for her 15th birthday party, a coming of age party known as a "quinceañera". Her family spent most of their savings on making it a happy occasion. Her father had recently lost his job and was making ends meet by making repairs to homes in the neighborhood. Image by Dominic Bracco II. Mexico, 2011.

A group of young men catch a ride in the back of a car to their friends funeral in one of the poorer areas of Ciudad Juarez. The 15-year-old boy, Sergio Adrian Hernandez Guereca, was shot by a US Border Patrol agent. Image by Dominic Bracco II. Mexico, 2011.

A family celebrates a birthday. Family parties like these have been the scene of large massacres. In October 2010 gunmen came to a birthday party and massacred 14 young people. Image by Dominic Bracco II. Mexico, 2011.

Family and friends attend the funerals of three female victims of a massacre that left 14 dead and over a dozen wounded at a birthday in Ciudad Juarez.. Most of the victims were between the ages of 14 and 20. They were herded into a corner of the house and executed. Image by Dominic Bracco II. Mexico, 2011.

A young boy keeps warm by a fire in the Diaz Ordaz colonia, one of the oldest maquila worker settlements in the city. After the passing of several free trade agreements between the US and Mexico, hundreds of thousands of immigrants left their poor villages in search for better jobs in the factories in Juarez. Image by Dominic Bracco II. Mexico, 2011.

Denise watches lights go by outside the back window of a van. Her family is from Mexico City and moved to Juarez because of domestic violence in the family. Now the family has considered returning to Mexico City because of violence in Juarez. Image by Dominic Bracco II. Mexico, 2011.

From right, "Pollo," 19, and his wife Liz, 18, try to get their daughter to stop crying. Pollo left his neighborhood after a rival gang killed several friends and began seeking him out. Now Pollo works in a factory insulating steel cables and makes about $50 a week. Image by Dominic Bracco II. Mexico, 2011.

A family decorated their home in this predominately factory worker neighborhood on the fringes of the city. Many homes are abandoned, as hundreds of thousands have fled the city due to violence and lack of jobs. Low wages and expensive transit costs have made these communities very isolated from the rest of the city infrastructure. The region is now mostly controlled by the Sinaloa cartel. Image by Dominic Bracco II. Mexico, 2011.

Los Novenos get high on marijuana and paint thinner on the soccer fields in their neighborhood. The most vulnerable social group is "Los Ninis," young men and women who earned their name from the phrase "ni estudian, ni trabajan"—those who neither work nor study. Image by Dominic Bracco II. Mexico, 2011.

A couple dances at a gang affiliated party. With infrastructure damaged from the drug war and few opportunities for work, Ciudad Juarez's youth often turn to crime to make ends meet. This gang has tried hard to keep out of the larger war, but neighboring barrios continue to try to control their barrio for extortion and to sell drugs. They have been associated with at least one vigilante killing. Image by Dominic Bracco II. Mexico, 2011.

Residents of Ciudad Juarez take to the streets to protest the shooting of a student by a Federal Police officer days before. Image by Dominic Bracco II. Mexico, 2011.

Lidia consoles her daughter Denise. Lidia and her family were forced to leave their home after members of their neighborhood retaliated against a rival gang. Lidia had left Mexico City for Ciudad Juarez to flee an abusive spouse. Image by Dominic Bracco II. Mexico, 2011.

Novenos get stoned at a friend's house. The Novenos have suffered three murders in the last year in conflicts with rival gangs. Most of these gang members never made it to middle school because the tuition was too high. Image by Dominic Bracco II. Mexico, 2011.

Blood stains the doorstep of a home where three men were executed. A witness claimed these men were "puchadores"—low level street dealers. Drug wars have claimed nearly 10,000 lives in the city as droves of young people have been given arms to use against rival gangs. Image by Dominic Bracco II. Mexico, 2011.

Friends and relatives try to revive a woman after she fainted from heat exhaustion during a midday funeral for a young man. Image by Dominic Bracco II. Mexico, 2011.

A masked Mexican Federal Police officer looks over two detained alleged Azteca hitmen. The Azteca gang is controlled by the Juarez Cartel and functions much like a military. Image by Dominic Bracco II. Mexico, 2011.

A guard dog stretches the length of his chain in front of the home of a family of factory workers in Juarez. Random violence is common in Juarez. Locals live in fear of car jackings and home robberies that often end in murder. Image by Dominic Bracco II. Mexico, 2011.

Family and friends gather around the body of Sergio Adrian Hernandez Guereca, 15, who was killed by a Border Patrol agent. Image by Dominic Bracco II. Mexico, 2011.

A view of one of the poorest regions of Ciudad Juarez made up primarily of factory workers employed by foreign companies. This settlement was created after thousands came to Juarez from other regions of Mexico in search of jobs. Later these neighborhoods would become home to some of the first gangs that later would be responsible for distributing drugs for the Juarez Cartel. This picture is overlooking the Noveno territory. Image by Dominic Bracco II. Mexico, 2011.

"There are two ways of thinking about living here; either you go on every day and when it’s your turn to die you die, or you live every day in fear"— Daniel Gonzalez, 26, a resident of Ciudad Juarez who later moved to El Paso, Texas.

In the decades preceding the drug war, the population of Ciudad Juarez exploded as droves of workers came in search of jobs promised after the implementation of several international free trade agreements. Officials did little during this time to boost infrastructure. Instead policy-makers focused on keeping labor on the border cheap and competitive with countries such as China, India and Pakistan.

Up until 2011, the area of Juarez where most factory workers lived had one high school for over 600,000 inhabitants. It took years for water and electricity to make it up the mountainside to their neighborhoods. The city’s proximity to the US and the flow of drugs, coupled with limited social opportunities, helped create an environment that made Ciudad Juarez the most violent city in the world. In 2008, when the Sinaloa Cartel came in to take over the local drug trade, the cartels began employing the city's youth. The teenagers took to the streets to become sicarios or hitmen. By 2011 the death toll would reach over 9,000.

In the past five years, more than 10,000 businesses have closed in Ciudad Juarez and as many as 230,000 people have fled their homes to other parts of Mexico and to the US. The global economic downturn has exacerbated the decline in the once vibrant manufacturing center. Maquiladoras, or manufacturing plants, pay less than $100 a week to their labor force, and in a city where the cost of living is nearly on par with the US, the lure of easy livable wages from working for a cartel is an irresistible temptation to many Juarenses. Drug bosses offer the equivalent of a factory worker’s weekly wages to perform an execution. Economic devastation brought on by the raging drug war has infused and intensified crime in everyday life. Violence has become more commonplace and faceless. Random violence has increased. Car jackings, robberies, and assaults are a daily occurrence.

The most vulnerable in Juarez are Los Ninis, young men and women who got their name from the phrase “ni estudian, ni trabajan”—those who neither work nor study. According to a recent study by the Colegio de La Frontera Norte, as many as 45 percent of all Juarez residents between the ages of 14 and 24 fall into this category and they make up a quarter of the city’s total homicide victims.

Massacres of Juarez’s youth are common—they have been gunned down at parties and targeted at rehab centers. Killing is indiscriminate. The first mass killing of youths took place in January 2010 when 15 teenagers were gunned down at a party where friends had gathered to celebrate a birthday. Fourteen teens were killed in October 2010.

Without work, or a real incentive to work, young people are increasingly turning to the cartels where the boundaries between crime and an honest path are often blurred by the bloodshed and fear enveloping the city.

This story corrects an earlier version which stated that 13 teens were killed in the October 2010 birthday party shooting. The death toll was 14.