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Witness to violence: A photographer's journey below the border

By Chuck Conder, CNN
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Witness to violence: Juarez, Mexico
  • Journalist Jeff Antebi is documenting the drug cartel wars in Juarez, Mexico
  • Antebi does not photograph unmasked policemen; identifying them could get them killed
  • The government says 28,000 people have been killed by the cartels since 2007
  • Antebi: "The cartels kill indiscriminately"
  • Mexico
  • Illegal Drugs
  • Crime

(CNN) -- An abandoned car sits in the Mexican desert outside Juarez, Mexico, the doors and trunk wide open. Under a blanket in the trunk is a body. Hands tied together. A bullet in the head.

This was freelance journalist Jeff Antebi's introduction to the war between rival drug cartels in Juarez. The 40-year-old photographer, also known as the founder of the music company Waxploitation, traveled there to observe and document the violence that has gripped what many call the most deadly city in the Western Hemisphere.

"When I arrived in Juarez," says Antebi, "within an hour, over the police scanners, a body has been found. And maybe 30 minutes later, another body.

"And then another body. And by the end of the day, it was 10. The next day, 10. The next day, 10."

More than 2,000 people have been murdered in Juarez so far this year, according to police. Just this week, two students from the University of Texas at El Paso were shot and killed there.

The Mexican government estimates that as many as 28,000 people have been killed by the cartels since 2007, when Mexican President Felipe Calderon declared war on the cartels. Army troops entered the fight, and the level of violence from the cartels escalated dramatically in response.

"The cartels kill indiscriminately," says Antebi.

He arrived on the scene last December, just in time for the Christmas season. In the past, he had photographed many places where people live in poverty and despair, from the Gypsy camps of Europe to the slums of Haiti and Brazil. But in Juarez, he says, there is a unique sense of dread. "The average ordinary resident of Juarez, their life is in danger every day."

"You just never know if some distant cousin, perhaps, has done something, and someone is exercising revenge on them by killing you," he says.

As a precaution, Antebi traveled with a local reporter familiar with the lay of the land. And he avoided being out on the streets at night. "The cartels," he says, "own the night."

While visiting crime scenes throughout the city, Antebi discovered a chilling fact about police. "Only in Juarez do the good guys wear masks."

Police officers routinely wear ski masks when out in public, or investigating crime scenes, to conceal their identities and protect the safety of their families. For that reason, Antebi says, he was careful to not photograph unmasked police officers. "Those photos might be used to target law enforcement personnel when they are off duty."

There was another reason to be careful when photographing officers.

"You might be taking a photo of a policeman who is secretly working for a cartel," Antebi says. "That's something that makes murder scenes so ominous."

Politicians are also at risk of becoming targets.

This summer, Antebi returned to Juarez to photograph the national elections.

Elections held amid conflict are of particular interest to Antebi. He has photographed elections in Afghanistan and Southern Thailand, among others. But Antebi says the violence of the Mexican election season was eye-opening.

"Two weeks before the elections, several candidates in the state of Chihuahua were assassinated."

And other politicians, says Antebi, received gruesome threats. "The prime candidate for mayor of Juarez," he says, "had a severed head left on the front door of his house."

The result, according to Antebi, is that few politicians dare to openly challenge the cartels.

Journalists are in danger as well. Mexico's National Commission on Human Rights says 65 journalists have been murdered since 2000.

A recent front-page editorial in El Diario, the biggest daily paper in Juarez, has sparked national controversy. "What do you want from us," the editorial asks the cartels. "You are currently the de facto authorities in this city. ... Tell us what you expect from us as a newspaper."

The editorial was published after the assassination of one of the newspaper's photographers.

Antebi says the government is trying to crack down on the cartels, and has arrested many key figures over the last two years. But he believes those efforts have only provoked even greater violence.

"It's a very sad city to be in," he says.