Photographer Gary Coronado embedded with Tijuana’s ambulance service to document homicides related to the street-level drug war.

When Los Angeles Times photographer Gary Coronado went to Tijuana in 2017 to report on violence against journalists, he found a different story: The staggering amount of homicides caused by the street-level drug war. Along with reporter Kate Linthicum, he spent over a year working on the story, embedding with the Tijuana ambulance service, Cruz Roja, to document the killings. After a record 2,518 homicides were recorded in Tijuana in 2018, their story came out in the Los Angeles Times last month.

Roads & Kingdoms’ Leo Schwartz spoke with Coronado on the phone about his approach to trauma photography, misconceptions about the drug war, and his interest in Mexico.

Leo Schwartz: Why did you want to tell this story?

Gary Coronado: As a journalist and as a photographer, my purpose is to educate and to inform. A lot of people think that cartels are just bringing drugs to the United States, and that Mexico is only a pipeline. We have a huge epidemic of crystal meth and addiction in the United States, but they don’t know there’s an addiction problem in Mexico now too. That’s what I wanted to expose.

The way to do that was first finding out about the drug use in Mexico, and then the homicides attached to the drugs. We found out about the effects the violence has had on layers of people in Tijuana. It affected a priest whose parish in El Florido, a very poor neighborhood near the manufacturing plants called maquiladores. He was stabbed in the head with a screwdriver by somebody trying to rob his parish. He survived, and we met him. We found out about Juan Carlos, the director of Cruz Roja, who was born and raised in Tijuana, and is raising his family in Tijuana. He cares for his city and just wants to see it safe again. You have the family members who are affected. The doctors and mortician at the city morgue, where there’s an overflow of bodies. The residents of Tijuana.

Then you go and look at San Diego and how many people were homicide victims in comparison, and it’s ridiculous. Tijuana has a population of 1.8 million people and had 2,518 homicides in 2018 [in San Diego, there were 34.]

My job is to inform the public, and that’s what I felt I needed to do. I don’t want to get involved in my opinion, but the majority of guns are coming from the United States. That’s a fact, not an opinion.

Tijuana Red Cross paramedics and police officers work at the scene of a homicide, where a man around 28 was shot five times. Photo by: Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times © 2019

Schwartz: Why did you and Kate Linthicum begin to follow the drug war in Tijuana?

Coronado: In April 2017, Kate and I went down to Tijuana to report with a weekly newspaper in Tijuana called Semanario Zeta, an investigative weekly that had been receiving threats over its reporting from Mexican cartels. We were initially going to work on a story about violence against journalists, so we went along with a freelance photographer that works for Zeta named Margarito Martinez, who covers anything related to police activity in Tijuana, and a reporter named Icai Lara. That was the first time I’d seen homicides in Tijuana. I asked them what was going on, and Lara told me that the violence was from the cartels fighting for the local drug market. It wasn’t the typical “shoot them in the streets of downtown”—they were execution-style homicides happening in poor neighborhoods in Tijuana.

After that initial trip, I went back to Los Angeles and started reading a lot of books on the cartels, everything from Don Winslow to smaller journalists who write on crime and cartels in Mexico.

I went back to shadow Margarito toward the end of 2017. He has a scanner, and he would hear a call. He would listen to Cruz Roja, the ambulatory service for Tijuana, on a scanner and following the calls for “Cinco Bravo”—injury by firearm. We also went to drug rehab facilities and I interviewed the directors. I asked them who was coming in, and they said people using crystal meth. They said there was an increase in use because of how cheap it is: roughly $2 a hit. Putting the pieces together, I started thinking more about how cheap drugs were flooding low-income neighborhoods and that the cartels were fighting over them. We kept following the story from there.

Paramedics with Tijuana Red Cross prepare to transport a shooting victim to Tijuana General Hospital. Photo by: Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times © 2019

Schwartz: How do you approach these trauma situations?

Coronado: It really is difficult to cover these situations. These are people who are grieving over loved ones. It doesn’t matter that they might be involved with the sale of drugs. It’s still somebody’s family that has been a victim of homicide—an assassination. You never detach. You never don’t show some type of empathy for the family. I try to be considerate. I try to not overstep my boundaries. I really believe I have to treat people the way I would want to be treated in that situation.

One of the photos is from the funeral of Rafael Noriega, who had just gotten out of rehab when he was shot. He was living in a back house behind the mother’s house. He was the father of five children and he was shot five times behind the house. We were there the day he was shot and killed. The family invited us inside the house to talk with them about what had happened. Even then, I didn’t start taking photos. We just sat there and listened and heard their story. I don’t hide the fact that I’m a photographer. I have my camera—there’s no secret behind that. They introduced me to the mom, Bertha Peña. We asked if we could attend the wake, and they said yes. The photo of Rafael’s daughter, Dulce, and his mother over the casket is from the wake.

I got some flak from one of the friends of the family who pulled me away and said it was disrespectful to be taking those pictures, and I explained to him that I had permission from the family. We stayed until we felt it was time to go. I always try to be respectful. If I get some pushback, I try to explain myself and move forward.

Bertha Peña, 59, right, with daughter Dulce Noriega, left, weeps for son Rafael Noriega Peña, 40, at Funeraria Martinez in Tijuana. Rafael, a father of five, was found dead in his room off the back of his mother’s house with five gunshot wounds. Photo by: Coronado / Los Angeles Times © 2019

Schwartz: What are Americans’ biggest misconceptions about the drug war?

Coronado: The biggest misconception is that tourists shouldn’t go to Mexico because it’s unsafe. It’s not true. It’s unsafe for people who live in Mexico who have lower income and who are involved in drug use or selling drugs.

This is mainly people who are involved in the drug turf wars that are street-to-street. There will be one group selling on one street, and another group on the next street. They call them tienditas, or little stores. You might go buy drugs from this person on this street, and the next day that person is not selling for the group anymore, so you go back and get killed because you’re buying drugs from the wrong group. That’s who it’s unsafe for. It’s not unsafe for the person going to Mexico City who is going to the tourist areas.

You hear “Don’t go to Acapulco, don’t go to Cancún, people were shot there.” Those were not random acts of violence. These people know who they’re targeting. It’s not the days of going with automatic weapons and shooting in a public space. These are execution-style shooting with 9- millimeter handguns, and they’re point-blank.

You can go to Tijuana and go down Avenida Revolucion and do all the touristy things and walk back across the border and nothing’s going to happen to you through a drug-related shooting. I’m not saying you won’t be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and someone wants to steal your wallet. That can happen in any big city, from Los Angeles to San Diego. I’ve spent a lot of time in Tijuana. There’s great things to do. There’s great food and entertainment. They have the beach, and there’s even craft breweries now.

Concepcion Ventura, left, with her arm around her daughter Aidali Jeronimo, 21, in front of their Tijuana home where Ventura’s son Jonathan Ventura Citalan, 18, was shot and killed on a June day. Photo by: Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times © 2019

Schwartz: In your time as a photographer, has the role changed to include more reporting?

Coronado: I would say yes, in certain situations. I like to generate my own stories, and even generate stories off of photo assignments where I thought there was more there after the assignment was finished. As photographers, we are journalists too. There’s always that argument, but I think we can’t just sit around and wait for someone to hand us a good photo assignment. The Los Angeles Times has been very open to allowing photographers on staff to pursue their own ideas and projects and do some reporting and photography. I like working with reporters. I learn a lot from reporters—how they interview, how they do research, how they gather information.

Schwartz: What draws you to stories in Mexico?

Coronado: I love covering anything in Mexico. Throughout my career, I’ve reported on a lot of topics in Mexico, such as my 2006 photo series Train Jumpers [a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Feature Photography], which followed Central Americans affected by injuries from riding freight trains in Southern Mexico. I was just in Oaxaca for Yalitza Aparecio, the woman who starred in Roma. I went down with a reporter, Esmeralda Bermudez, who did a feature story.

I’m of Mexican descent. My mother was originally born and raised in Zacatecas. My grandfather was also born in Zacatecas—he was a bracero that came to the United States in the 1940s during World War II. I grew up in the culture, and I’m bilingual. I’ve always had this attraction. It’s something I was raised with. I love the culture, I love being there, I love the people, and I love traveling throughout all parts of Mexico. It’s something I believe is a part of me.

I’m just very grateful to have the opportunity to be able to work on these stories.

This interview has been edited and condensed. 

[Header image: A cluster of mass graves where unidentified bodies — the majority of them homicide victims — are buried in Tijuana after they are transported from the city’s Medical Forensic Service morgue. Photo by: Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times © 2019]