Reynosa, Mexico: where the cartels rule

By Don Bartletti, Los Angeles Times

Of all the drug cartel infested cities in Mexico that I’ve photographed for The Times’ Mexico Under Siege series over the last three years, Reynosa ranks No. 1 on the scale of creepy and last for interesting photographs.

This bulldog of a city squats hard on the other side of the Rio Grande River from southeast Texas.  It’s become a gateway for illegal drugs entering the United States and Mexican cartels are fighting tooth and nail to keep it that way, and amongst themselves for control.

The Times’ Mexico City Bureau Chief Tracy Wilkinson has written a revealing story from Reynosa, “A city behind enemy lines”: She says of the warring drug runners, “Reynosa today is less a war zone and more a prison camp.  The Gulf cartel is in control of the city, but Zetas lurk for about 60 miles in any direction.”

The creep factor over the three days I spent looking for meaningful images in Reynosa was the nagging insecurity of walking and driving in a city full of spies. The cartels have enlisted the street people: taxi drivers, taco vendors and even the shoeshine man to report the movements of policemen, soldiers — and visitors.

The only visitor in town last week appeared to be me. For security and editorial reasons, I paid for the help of a local journalist, mostly to point out dangers hiding in plain sight, and to tip me off to the news. We in the news business call such people  “fixers.”  Instead of fixing my insecurity and search for news, he seemed  more scared than I was and refused to reveal information about any shootout or bombing.

While driving on the riverside highway, “Huero” (he asked to keep his real name secret) freaked out when we approached  roadblocks and saw armed soldiers on rooftops. Sometimes the police are really cartel thugs in disguise and they hate journalists. “They’ll beat us and take your stuff.”

So I stayed in the car and aimed a telephoto through the dirty, angled windshield.  It was a struggle to sit tight and focus the distorted scene.  He’d yell out “ticka-ticka-ticka,” mimicking the rapid fire sound of my camera’s motor drive.  He would wave his hands to get me to stop shooting and stuff the gear on the floor in his wife’s shopping bag. We passed through two checkpoints without a problem. But a rifle-toting soldier on the roof of a Pemex gas station glared at me as I shot a burst of five photos — Huero floored the gas pedal of the Honda Civic and we got away OK.

When on foot, I carried one camera as inconspicuously as possible — to appear like an old “gringo” on a day trip. I ambled through Reynosa’s open market and sipped a fruit liquada in the central plaza. Making interesting pictures that reveal an emotion or an editorial idea demands that I linger a while and study the scene.  I have a long career appreciating how Mexicans seem comfortable when I linger in front them with a camera.  They’re always trusting and seem to have nothing to hide. But in this heartbroken city, too many citizens have joined the bad guys and have lost some of their national character. So, I didn’t push it. If someone turned away, I’d smile, shrug and walk on.  Only two citizens I photographed gave me their names.

Adios innocence!

See more of Bartletti’s work here.