The Women of Mexico's Drug War

For the incarcerated in Ciudad Juárez, it's a fine line between victim and perpetrator.

PrisonPortraits_Expo08-615a.jpgKatie Orlinsky

War is complex. Sometimes there are obvious victims and clear perpetrators. One good. One evil. Black. White. But more often, participants in a war fall into a hazy middle category: They have committed crimes and suffered from them; inflicted wounds and salved their own.

U.S. photographer Katie Orlinsky moved to Mexico in 2006, just after graduating from college. The drug war surrounded her, and she quickly realized that women -- not just men -- were serving as its weary warriors, ferrying contraband and kidnapping kingpins. Between 2007 and 2011, the number of women incarcerated for federal crimes rose 400 percent. Orlinsky began to wonder: Who are these women? Innocent victims of a broken system? Cold-hearted criminals? Both?

In 2010, she entered the female prison in Ciudad Juárez and began photographing the convicted women inside. Below, she answers questions about the project.

Why did you want to photograph these women?

I've worked with a lot of women that were very much the standard victim role -- they lost their husband, they lost their parent, they lost their brother. But I wanted to see all the stories of women in Mexico. I just thought they would have a really interesting insight into the drug war.

Tell me about Claudia and Eunice, the women in slide 8.

Claudia is the sister of Eunice, a model. Eunice was 19, and she is the reason I did this story.

I was working in Juárez, with the local photographers for El Diario. This was 2010, and people were dying every day. It sounds callous, but we would basically sit there and wait for the police scanner to say, 'There's another dead body.'

One night the other photographers were all looking at these photos. And it was me and this other woman, the only other female photographer. And we're like, 'What are you guys looking at?' And they said, 'We're looking at photos of this sexy chick.' And it's Eunice. They told me how she was arrested for kidnapping. Because of her notoriety as a model, the Juárez media latched onto the case. And I was like, 'Wow. I want to meet her.'

They said, 'No, there's no media access to her. No one can see her.'

And I was like 'Alright, we'll see about that.' So I went to the prison.

Why are women like Claudia and Eunice getting involved with crime?

Almost every single woman told me a story about a boyfriend or a husband. The women were arrested alongside them. Also, many of women can't support their families, so they commit crimes.

In prison, I met a woman there who is a schoolteacher. She was sophisticated. She was gorgeous. She was smart. She taught English and math and Spanish. But the teachers don't get paid anything, so she couldn't support her family. She also sold cosmetics on the side.

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Julie Turkewitz is a New York-based journalist. She also writes for the New York Times.

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