Ricardo Delgado Herbert
Alexandre Meneghini  /  AP
Painter Ricardo Delgado Herbert shows an image of Jesús Malverde, sometimes known as the "generous bandit", "angel of the poor", or the "narco-saint", in his atelier in Mexico City.
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updated 7/1/2011 6:12:31 PM ET 2011-07-01T22:12:31

Dozens of plastic foam heads rain onto the stage. Four drug traffickers in fringed jackets and sparkly pink cowboy hats bat them into the audience with toy AK-47s. All the while, the cast croons, "Let them slit our throats, let them pack us up ... let them not ask any questions, let them not investigate."

This is cabaret, Mexico style. Las Reinas Chulas, or the Beautiful Queens, parody drug violence in a show the women first produced in 2005 and that still fills nightclubs around Mexico, including a performance in the tourist town of Taxco this weekend.

Like other aspects of Mexican society, violence now pervades the arts. From paintings to movies to opera, the killings and kidnappings that dominate headlines are now the topic du jour for artists trying to process what's happening to their country. Many artists say they also hope their work helps to spark change in a society that seems to be growing numb to the daily bloodshed.

Dead bodies, blindfolded and hands tied, blot bucolic landscape paintings. Pieces of a car window shattered in a shootout provide material for glittery bracelets that are part of an art installation. A famous narco-ballad about a female drug trafficker who kills her lover becomes an opera.

"Art always tries to talk about where we are heading," said Ana Francis Mor, a performer with Las Reinas Chulas, who have been invited to perform in the U.S. and Europe. "It's a thermometer for society."

Story: Mexico's hottest fashion craze: 'Narco Polo' jerseys

Even as the art flourishes, audience reaction and public support have been mixed, mirroring Mexico's ambivalence about how to cope with the wave of violence that government figures show has so far taken at least 35,000 lives. Other estimates peg the body count at around 40,000.

"Every day we hear about the corruption, the killings, the impunity, and it feels like all of that is closer and closer to us, yet no one does anything, no one says anything" said Semiramis Huerta, a cabaret actress in another show, "The United Narcos of Mexico," which closes with corrupt police and drug traffickers dancing in a chorus line.

Mexican art has long reflected the country's violent history, from the murals of Diego Rivera and David Siqueiros that dramatized the horrors of the Mexican Revolution to novels and narcocorridos detailing in word and song the entrails of the drug trade.

'Hell' and Herbert
Narco themes have been showing up in visual arts for at least a decade, especially in states such as Sinaloa, home to a powerful cartel of the same name, where violence long predated President Felipe Calderon's late 2006 crackdown on organized crime. But in the last two years, more exhibits have gone national and even international, and the sheer amount of such art has climbed.

A movie, starkly titled "Hell," about a town overtaken by a drug lord who is also the mayor, swept the Arieles, the Mexican Oscars, this year. A Mexican art installation that reached the 2009 Venice Art Biennial in Italy includes a person mopping the bare floor with a mixture of water and blood.

Painter Ricardo Delgado Herbert showed his portraits of monster-like hit men holding handguns or automatic rivals at an exhibit of Latin American art in Miami Beach in March. The title of the collection, "Glorious Pistols from A to the Zetas," refers to the Zetas drug cartel, which is notorious for its gruesome violence.

Now the 36-year-old artist from the city of Tampico is working on a series of paintings depicting drug traffickers and soldiers as both saviors and executioners in the Stations of the Cross. It's his way of expressing how Mexicans are trapped in the crossfire between two forces that are neither completely good nor completely bad, Delgado Herbert said.

The artist grew up in the northeastern state of Tamaulipas listening to corridos and watching low-budget movies about cowboy detectives who chase after narcos.

Story: Mexico president defends drug war tactics

He began painting the characters with crooked teeth and popped-out eyes in the aftermath of a 2004 shootout between soldiers and gunmen in Matamoros, across from Brownsville, Texas. He said that's when he realized "those characters I heard about growing up were among us and were confronting us."

"My work has been my constant complaint," he said. "I paint what I don't like."

'An outlet'
A similar sense of disillusionment drives painter Gilda Lorena Martinez, whose series, "City of Sand and Blood," hung in the halls of the Mexican Congress in April.

Martinez has called Ciudad Juarez, Mexico's most violent city, home for 20 years and she started putting her feelings on canvas in 2008, as murders in the city were soaring.

She had to shut down her art school, moving it to her home, after a neighboring business received a bomb threat. One of her art students was killed outside his house. Conversations about who was leaving the city or where mothers were sending their teenagers to study outside of town became common.

In her series, ghostly figures with anguished faces are captured in beige and gray, the hues of the desert that surrounds Ciudad Juarez, accented with blood-red brush strokes.

"I was simply painting what I was feeling, as an outlet," she said, adding that for five months she became seriously ill from the stress of the insecurity surrounding her. "It's my way of saying, 'Look how fractured we are as a society.'"

While some artists say working with violent themes has helped them process how the lives of Mexicans have changed, others have a more political message. They say they're chronicling the complexity of the country's security situation and how it's tied to the insatiable demand for drugs in the U.S. and other first-world countries.

Artist Lenin Marquez Salazar, who was born and grew up in the Sinaloan town of Mocorito, paints the rich landscapes of his agricultural state, but with a macabre twist. Into the pastoral frame, he adds bodies of blindfolded men with their hands and feet tied or wrapped in blankets, duplicating the daily images of drug trafficker victims.

"We forget we're a global society and that what happens somewhere else is affecting us here," said Marquez Salazar, 42, who has exhibited his work in the United States and Colombia. "I want to create awareness about this, not as a complaint, but as a way of expressing what I'm seeing."

Another Sinaloan artist, Teresa Margolles, included the floor-mopping piece in her installation at the Mexican Pavilion of the 2009 Venice Art Biennial. She collects artifacts from crime scenes, which are rarely secured in Mexico, unlike in the U.S., such as pieces of glass or cloth dabbed with mud and blood.

Story: Mexican ex-presidents open to legalizing drugs

Margolles, who's based in the Sinaloa capital of Culiacan and has long worked violent themes, created the art show to fulfill "a social function of mourning, of marking the disappearance of a generation," said Cuauhtemoc Medina, who curated Margolle's 2009 exhibit.

"Theresa and I were guided by our disbelief that the 8,000 people killed nationwide by then didn't count," added Medina, one of Mexico's top art curators and critics. "There is such a social blindness that they need 35,000 dead people to realize this is a total disaster."

Eliminating 'blood'
In some cases, artists have been asked to exhibit their work at government-run museums, only to have them blocked or edited for being too violent.

Medina said Margolles' installation titled "What Else Can We Talk About?" was supported by federal and private funds, but Mexico's Foreign Relations Department pulled out of the exhibit's organizing committee two weeks before the inauguration at the biennial. He said the government didn't want to be associated with the themes of the work.

The Foreign Relations Department didn't respond to a request for comment.

In Ciudad Juarez, officials at the city's Archaeology Museum of the Chamizal edited the name of Martinez's series down to "City of Sand," eliminating the world "blood," when it premiered in February.

The Reinas Chulas have resisted softening their work, and the change in their audience's mood has been palpable as real-life violence has grown, said Mor, one of the group's founding performers.

The crowds used to laugh at the group's antics, which include political satire and outlandish costumes. Now, many of the narco jokes elicit an awkward silence.

"In the last two years, the jokes began to take on a different meaning," Mor said. "Some people do seem shocked, but in the end we all laugh, because what's happening hurts us too much."

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Explainer: Mexico's drug cartel bosses

  • The nefarious drug lords of Mexico's underworld have emerged as the world's most wanted criminals.

    They're savage, rich and ingenious in their ability to move massive shipments of narcotics into the United States and worldwide. They manage trafficking organizations like CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, and one kingpin was even listed as No. 41 on the Forbes list of the 500 most powerful people in the world.

    The following are key players in Mexico's drug wars.

    (Source: Msnbc.com research, The Associated Press and Reuters)

  • Shorty

    Image: Joaquin Guzman
    Damian Dovarganes  /  AP FILE
    Joaquín Guzmán.

    Name: Joaquín Guzmán Loera
    Nickname: El Chapo (Shorty)
    Cartel: Sinaloa
    Born: April, 4, 1957
    Bounty: $5 million (U.S.), $2 million (Mexico)
    Background: The billionaire drug lord is Mexico's most wanted criminal on both sides of the border. The 5-foot-6-inch Guzmán is known for his use of sophisticated tunnels to smuggle cocaine from Mexico into the United States in the early 1990s. He escaped a maximum-security prison in a laundry cart in 2001. Since, he's been blamed for igniting bloody turf wars throughout Mexico. In November 2010, Guzmán was listed at 60th among the 68 most powerful people in the world by Forbes Magazine.
    Personal affairs: Guzmán married an 18-year-old beauty queen in 2007. A year later, his  22-year-old son, Edgar, died in a shootout with rivals. The grieving father ordered 50,000 red roses for the burial.

  • Sidekick

    Telemundo
    Ismael Zambada García

    Name: Ismael Zambada García
    Nickname: El Mayo
    Cartel: Sinaloa
    Born: Jan. 1, 1948
    Bounty: $5 million (U.S.), $2 million (Mexico)
    Background: Zambada, a former furniture worker and farmer, is Joaquín Guzmán's partner and like his narco buddy, a fugitive from the law in Mexico and the United States. He's notorious for having plastic surgery and disguising himself as he travels throughout Mexico. Of course, he lives under a false identity. Zambada has been involved in drug trafficking for more than 30 years. There's no sign of his retiring.
    All in the family: Trafficking is deeply embedded in the family DNA. His wife, Rosario Niebla Cardoza, three sons and four daughters help dad with extensive narcotics distribution and money laundering. Both his brother and son have been arrested in Mexico.

  • Executioner

    Telemundo
    Heriberto Lazcano

    Name: Heriberto Lazcano
    Nickname: The Executioner, El Lazca, El Verdugo, Z-3
    Cartel: Los Zetas
    Born: Dec. 25, 1974
    Bounty: $5 million (U.S.), $2 million (Mexico)
    Background: Lazcano deserted the Mexican army's special forces in the late 1990s to join the enforcers for the Zetas cartel, which takes its name from a police radio code in which "Z" means "commander." He is now considered its leader. The gang's break with a former ally, the Gulf cartel, ramped up violence in 2010 in parts of Mexico, where the Zetas have been blamed for slaughtering police officers, politicians, scores of migrants and the family of a fallen marine in retaliation for his involvement in bringing down a drug lord. Lazcano and his extremely loyal bodyguards are constantly on the move to avoid capture.
    Catholic ties: The 36-year-old drug lord was born in a poor farming town near Tezontle, a town now populated with opulent homes and a new Catholic church in honor of Pope John Paul II, which Lazcano reportedly funded. The Archdiocese of Mexico says it was aware and has since distanced itself from the chapel.

  • Brother

    Joe Raedle  /  Getty Images
    Vicente Carrillo-Fuentes

    Name: Vicente Carrillo Fuentes
    Nickname: Viceroy
    Cartel: Juarez
    Born: Oct. 16, 1962
    Bounty:$5 million (U.S.), $2 million (Mexico)
    Background: Fuentes inherited the Juarez cartel from his brother, Amando Carrillo Fuentes, who was known as the "Lord of the Skies" because of his private fleet of Boeing 727 jets used to traffic cocaine. After his brother's death during plastic surgery, Vicente ramped up the violence by creating a group of bloodthirsty killers, including corrupt police officers, known as La Linea. They're known to decapitate rivals, especially members of the Sinaloa cartel, and dump their mutilated corpses in public to instill fear. This cartel, backed by the Zetas, works closely with a U.S. prison gang, the Barrio Azteca, to carry out murders. Federal authorities blame the Juarez cartel for hundreds of deaths and disappearances, since the cartel took over the trafficking corridor in 1993, The El Paso Times reported.
    Mystery man: Little is known of Fuentes, expect he is the third of six brothers and has six sisters.

  • Ex-cop

    Telemundo
    Jorge Eduardo Costilla

    Name: Jorge Eduardo Costilla
    Nickname: El Coss
    Cartel: Gulf
    Born: Aug. 1, 1971
    Bounty: $5 million (U.S.), $2 million (Mexico)
    Background: A former Matamoros police officer, Costilla heads a cartel that allegedly grew out of bootleggers during the American Prohibition. He has been charged in the U.S. with 12 counts of drug trafficking and money laundering and is also wanted for assaulting federal officers with Kalashnikov rifles. He used to work closely with the Zetas cartel but now is at the forefront of a war to annihilate them.

  • Meth man

    Name: Nazario Moreno González
    Nickname: El Mas Loco, El Chayo
    Cartel: La Familia Michoacana
    Born: March 8, 1970, in Guanajuatillo, Michoacan
    Bounty: $5 million (U.S.), $2 million (Mexico)
    Background: González specializes in trafficking crystal methamphetamine. He was raised a Catholic but converted to Jehovah's Witnesses. He requires each of his gangsters to carry his own Bible, which is compulsory reading. He invokes principles of divine justice when setting out to defeat his enemies and is a fan of the "Godfather" trilogy and the film "Braveheart."

  • Strongman

    Name: Héctor Beltrán Leyva
    Nickname: El Ingeniero, El H
    Cartel: Beltrán Leyva Cartel
    Born: Feb. 15, 1965
    Bounty: $5 million (U.S.), $2 million (Mexico)
    Background: He and his five brothers trafficked tons of marijuana, cocaine and heroine across the border. The brothers broke ties with the Sinaloa network in 2008 after brother Arturo Beltrán Leyva was arrested by Mexican special forces. The brothers blamed faction boss Joaquín Guzmán for the capture. Arturo was gunned down a year later by Mexican marines.

    In 2004, officials in New York and the District of Colombia indicted Beltrán Leyva on trafficking charges.

Photos: Narco culture permeates Mexico, leaks across border

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  1. Tijuana, June 2009: Mexico's drug culture is defined by guns and money, to be sure, but it includes sex, movies, music and even a heavy dose of religion. It also extends across the border into the U.S.

    Since 2008, photojournalist Shaul Schwarz has been documenting that culture. Presented here are snapshots of that coverage, starting with what makes it all happen: cash. This stash was confiscated and the alleged courier, seen at center, was detained by Mexican soldiers.

    "Since the beginning of President Felipe Calderon's drug war in 2006, Mexican officials have held press conferences to show detained suspects," Schwarz notes. "At the same time the violence persists" -- with nearly 35,000 people killed through 2010. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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    Ciudad Juarez, August 2009: Three young men died in this shootout in the parking lot of a shopping mall. In the first half of that year, more than 1,000 drug war deaths were counted in Juarez alone. The city of 1.3 million has been the center of a drug turf war between the Sinaloa and Juarez cartels. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Ciudad Juarez, August 2009: Residents of a neighborhood survey the site where a body was found, presumably another victim of drug turf clashes. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Mexico City, July 2009: Mexico's drug and gang culture has a strong religious streak. Thousands of devotees seen here attend a mass for Santa Muerte -- Saint Death -- a mythical figure condemned by the Catholic Church but embraced by many poor and criminal elements. This gathering is outside a shrine in Tepito, a gritty neighborhood famous for its street markets brimming with pirated and stolen merchandise.

    "Its violent and dangerous streets serve as a sort of mecca for Santa Muerte followers," Schwarz says. "Tepito is also home to the most popular Santa Muerte shrine, which sits outside a modest home. On the first day of every month, the shrine fills with followers who come bearing statuettes of the saint. Some pilgrims make their way from the subway on their knees; many smoke weed or cigars with their saints." (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Mexico City, October 2009: Devotees of Saint Judas Thaddaeus inhale glue out of plastic bags to get high as they gather outside San Hipolito church during the annual pilgrimage honoring the saint.

    Judas Thaddaeus is the Catholic Church's patron saint of desperate cases and lost causes, but in Mexico he is also known as "the saint of both cops and robbers (and prostitutes), as well as one of the biggest spiritual figures for young people in Mexico City," Schwarz says. "He has become the generic patron saint of disreputable activities. His biggest – and most important shrine – is at Hipolito, one of the best preserved colonial churches." (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Mexico City, October 2009: This shrine in the Colonia Doctores neighborhood pays homage to both Santa Muerte and Jesus Malverde, reputedly a bandit killed by officials in 1909.

    Jesus Malverde is revered by many as a Robin Hood who stole from the rich to give to the poor. Several dozen such shrines exist in this neighborhood and in Tepito, where the cults thrive. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Tijuana, June 2009: A shrine to Santa Muerte sits above a home in the notorious Colonia Libertad neighborhood. The shrine is walled in by the old border fence separating Tijuana from San Diego. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Tijuana, March 2009: A man peeks through a fence toward the U.S., studying Border Patrol movements before crossing. New fences are constantly being built to deter illegal immigrants and drug traffickers.

    In 2010, President Barack Obama ordered some 1,200 National Guard troops to the Southwest border and also signed a $600 million bill to fund 1,500 new Border Patrol agents, customs inspectors and law enforcement officials. But the U.S. has also had to pull the plug on a troubled $1 billion "virtual fence" project meant to better guard stretches of the border. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Tijuana, June 2009: Federal police pat down a stripper during the raid of a large dance club. Several nightclubs in the notorious downtown red-light district were raided that night. Other parts of the strip continued as normal, with foreigners approaching young prostitutes as families with small children walked by with little notice and mariachis played on. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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    Ciudad Juarez, December 2008: A woman's body lies on the autopsy table where it was discovered that she was raped and then murdered in what was made to look like a suicide.

    "Violence against women has also surged in correlation to the daily multiple uninvestigated and unpunished homicides," Schwarz says. "The coroner's office is open 24/7 and employs more than 100 doctors, technicians and investigative specialists, who cover Ciudad Juarez and northern Chihuahua state." (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Tijuana, June 2009: The drug culture is often portrayed by Mexican cinema. Here director Antonio Herrera films a scene for "Vida Mafiosa" -- Mafia Life -- a low budget film glorifying the culture. "This is the only thing selling at the moment for me," Herrera said at the time as he worked to complete his seventh narco film. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Tijuana, November 2010: A scene from "El Baleado" -- The Shooting Victim -- shows young men being executed shortly after smuggling drugs in from a beach. The film was produced by Baja Films Productions, a family-owned company that almost went out of business until family member Oscar Lopez, a San Diego resident, convinced his father to make a narco film. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Tijuana, April 2010: Los Angeles gangsters hang out at the production of a narco film. One of the gang members (not pictured) was an extra in the film. "That was a good excuse for them to come down to TJ and party where the drugs and women are cheap," Schwarz says. "It's common for gangsters/narcos to want to appear in these films." (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Mexico City, October 2009: Devotees of Saint Judas Thaddaeus gather outside San Hipolito church. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Tijuana, June 2009: Young Mexicans in the Colonia Libertad neighborhood smoke pot and hang out at a spot overlooking the border with the U.S. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Burbank, Calif., April 2010: Alfredo Rios, better known by his stage name "El Komander", walks down a street just outside the studio of his agent and music producer. From Sinaloa, El Komander is one of the hottest singers/composers of "Narcocorrido" songs, which glorify the drug culture.

    "He regularly performs at private parties for Sinaloa's cartel members as well as composes songs for/about them, at times even commissioned by the drug lords," Schwarz says. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Tijuana, April 2010: Narcocorrido performer "The Scorpion" (whose real name is Amador Granados) shows off his belt while on the set of a Baja Films Productions movie that translated into English means: Seagulls Don't Fly Alone. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Culiacan, March 2009: A man and his two sons visit Culiacan's main Jesus Malverde shrine, located across from a McDonald's and near the state legislature.

    "The narco culture is becoming more and more mainstream and the shrine draws people of all walks of life," Schwarz says. "Many visitors leave Polaroid photos with pithy notes giving thanks to Malverde."

    "The image of his mustachioed face, bedecked with a neckerchief, a gold chain with a pistol charm around his neck, and a large belt-buckle with a pistol around his waist can now be found all over the U.S.," Schwarz adds. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. El Monte, Calif., April 2010: The Bukanas De Culiacan band gets ready to perform during the launch event of "Movimiento Alterado," a new form of Narcocorrido gaining popularity. "Narco music clubs are mushrooming all over L.A., and up and down the West Coast," Schwarz says.
    "It's a social movement of people who came from nothing and dream of a chance out," said Joel Vazquez, the band's manager. "It's a lot like hip hop or gangsta rap, except it's Mexican culture, not black." (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Pico Rivera, Calif., April 2010: Partyers use the bathroom at El Rodeo Night Club, one of the many big Narcocorrido clubs in the Los Angeles area. "The cross-over music scene and culture is generating hybrid fashion trends and lifestyle ties between the Sinaloa mainstream, in Mexico and the Mexican-American mainstream culture in L.A.," Schwarz says. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Ciudad Juarez, August 2009: Police protect a crime scene where two bodies were found in the desert near the border with the U.S. Much of Mexico's drug violence is due to turf wars for control of the border routes. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Culiacan, July 2009: The Jardines del Humaya Cemetery hosts many grave sites dedicated to drug traffickers. Some are two- and three-stories tall; many have bulletproof glass, Italian marble and spiral iron staircases.

    "Inside the mausoleums are pictures of the deceased, often men in their 20s and 30s, and signs of Santa Muerte and Jesus Malverde," says Schwarz. "And, as in many of the cemeteries found in the drug-war inflicted Mexico, rows of freshly dug graves await their new tenants." (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Apatzingan, April 2010: This home hadn't been touched in the two years after it was shot at and burned down by soldiers in a deadly attack on members of the La Familia drug cartel. Many of its leaders were born in this town, and in December 2010 one of its founders was killed by soldiers there. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. The religion

    Culiacan, July 2009: A young man makes his way to the shrine of Jesus Malverde. Culiacan is the capital of the northwestern state of Sinaloa, long a hot bed of drug cultivation. For decades traffickers have worshipped at the shrine, helping to spread Malverde's fame. "Followers call Malverde the Robin Hood of Mexico," Schwarz says. "Critics say he has become a symbol of crime. Drug traffickers claim him as their own." (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. Tultitlan, November 2009: Santa Muerte devotees attend a service in the courtyard of a church with a 65-foot-tall statue of the mythical figure. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. Angeles National Forest, Calif., August 2009: Santa Muerte worshipers gather in a creek just outside Los Angeles. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. Ciudad Juarez, August 2009: This bridge to El Paso, Texas, is one of the legal border crossings into the U.S. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. Tijuana, March 2009: Mexico's military shows off the results of a raid on a party: assault weapons and the arrests of 58 people. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  29. Culiacan, July 2009: A new inmate kisses his wife goodbye as their daughter cries.

    The Culiacan prison is notorious for violence and riots. "Security forces most often stay outside just along the perimeter of the prison and do not go in to the living quarters themselves," Schwarz says. "Weed, other drugs and cell phones along with statues of saints are common inside this typical Mexican jail." (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  30. Tijuana, March 2009: A drug addict sits in a tent where he lives along the border canal with the U.S. "The border canal has become a regular spot for junkies to use heroin," Schwarz says. "While the Mexican police do nothing, the U.S Border Patrol are just out of jurisdiction." (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  31. Mexico City, October 2009: Jose Garcia Pichardo prays and smokes a cigar at the Santa Muerte altar in his bedroom. Pichardo said he once was a drug dealer and that two years earlier the Santa saved him from the police. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  32. Ciudad Juarez, August 2009: Women spread flour to soak up blood where a young man was murdered. Nearly 3,000 people were killed in the border city that year, and another 3,000 in 2010.

    "As a photojournalist I have covered conflicts and wars since 1996, but Mexico’s present situation haunts me like no other," Schwarz says. "While death statistics have been documented ad nauseum, far less has been said about the broader social reality created by the drug trade. As I continue to cover this story that seems to have no end in sight, I plan to focus not only on the harsh existence in border towns, but on the culture created for millions of Mexicans and Americans inevitably involved in or affected by the drug trade and a desire for “narco luxury.” (Shaul Schwarz/ Reportage By Gett / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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Video: Mexico's lost generation

  1. Transcript of: Mexico's lost generation

    BRIAN WILLIAMS, anchor: Regular viewers of our broadcast know we've been running a series of reports we call THE WAR NEXT DOOR about the violent drug war in Mexico , just across the US border. Tonight, there's word that the Mexican military is looking for a suspected drug cartel hit man who is 12 years old. Our chief foreign correspondent Richard Engel went to Mexico and saw for himself an entire generation, really, getting swept up in this war next door .

    Unidentified Man #1:

    RICHARD ENGEL reporting: 14, 15, 16 years old, desperate, vulnerable, and preyed upon by the drug cartels . Living at a highway intersection, we meet a dozen children.

    Under the bridges and behind the bus stations in Mexico City you'll find them: They're so high, they're difficult to understand, except when they tell us they're hungry.

    Unidentified Man #2:

    ENGEL: Stoned on rags soaked in paint thinner or PVC cement. Edward is 16, but won't say how he got here. He's guarded and confused.

    Unidentified Man #3:

    ENGEL: 'The situation is great, fantastic,' he says. 'I love to drug myself and see other people destroying themselves. It's what I like best.'

    EDWARD:

    ENGEL: When I ask Edward about the future, a blank. There are 20,000 children living on the streets just here in Mexico City . Almost all of them are locked into a cycle of drug addiction and prostitution, and they're also extremely vulnerable to be recruited by the drug cartels .

    ENGEL: Sofia Almazan works at a center called Casa Alianza to help Mexico 's street children . Is the problem growing? But she says she has to compete with drug dealers who use children as runners, messengers, or just customers.

    Ms. SOFIA ALMAZAN:

    ENGEL: 'There are kids growing up to be assassins,' she says, 'because they have nothing else to lose.' Twenty-five -year-old Avalini knows how that can happen. At a rehabilitation center outside Mexico City , Avalini says she became addicted to cocaine by dating a boy in a gang.

    Ms. ALMAZAN:

    ENGEL: Now shaking uncontrollably in withdrawal, Avalini she says the gang, linked to a powerful cartel, used her to seduce a rival so it could kill him.

    AVALINI:

    ENGEL: 'I loved the feeling of adrenaline, to be in the thick of it , the power. I went in too deep,' she says. 'Do other young people like you want to be drug dealers ?' I ask.

    AVALINI:

    ENGEL: Si.

    AVALINI: 'Yes,' she says.

    ENGEL: In therapy, Avalini sits next to 17-year-old Daniella .

    Unidentified Man #3:

    ENGEL: Daniella , also an addict, involved in gangs, is on tranquilizers because she cuts herself with her fingernails and glass.

    DANIELLA:

    ENGEL: But she defends the drug cartels , here called "narcos."

    DANIELLA:

    ENGEL: 'They create jobs,' she says. 'It's dirty money, but at least they give work to the poor farmers.'

    DANIELLA:

    ENGEL: In her room, Daniella keeps a journal. At the bottom of a page is her sad self-portrait. As the drug war here, social workers worry, is creating a lost generation. Richard Engel , NBC News, Mexico City .

    DANIELLA:

    ENGEL:

Interactive: Mexico's drug-trafficking landscape

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