dominic bracco II – life and death in the northern pass

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EPF 2011 Finalist

Dominic Bracco II

Life and Death in the Northern Pass

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“There are two ways of thinking about living here; either you go on every day and when it’s your turn to die you die, or you live every day in fear.”
– Daniel Gonzalez, 26, a resident of Ciudad Juarez who later moved to El Paso, Texas.

Sprawled across the tail end of the Rocky Mountains where the starved Rio Bravo pushes mud through a barren desert valley sits Ciudad Juarez, arguably the most violent city in the world — historically known as ‘El Paso del Norte’ or ‘The Northern Pass.’ The last three years the city of 1.5 million has seen over 8,000 murders.

As the drug war rages on violence has become more sporadic and faceless. Random crime has increased. Car jacking, robberies, and assaults are a daily occurrence.In the past five years, over 10,000 businesses have closed in Ciudad Juarez and up to 230,000 people have fled their homes. The economic downturn has exacerbated destabilization.

Drug bosses often offer the equivalent of a factory worker’s weekly wages to perform an execution. The most vulnerable social group is ‘Los Ninis’, young men and women who earned their name from the phrase ‘ni estudian, ni trabajan’ (those who neither work nor study).

According to a recent study by the Colegio de La Frontera Norte, up to 45 percent of all Juarez residents between 14 and 24 fall into this category and make up a quarter of the city’s total homicide victims. Massacres of Juarez’s youth are common – they have been gunned down at parties and targeted at rehab centers. They are killed indiscriminately.

The first mass killing of youths took place in January 2010 when 15 teenagers were gunned down at a party. Another massacre of 14 teenagers took place in October.

Without work or real incentive to work, young people are increasingly turning to the cartels. According to Miguel Parea, a local Juarez journalist, the mentality of many youth is fatalistic: “they say it’s better to die young as a rich man, than to die poor as an old one,” Parea said.

An earlier edit of the project was published on BURN Magazine, sections of the project have been published in The New York Times Magazine, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal.


Dominic Bracco II specializes in documenting the effects of Mexican and North American policies on the border region where he was raised. He has degrees in journalism and Spanish literature from The University of Texas at Arlington. Past clients include The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and The New York Times Sunday Magazine. Dominic is also a founding member of the collective Prime. He is based in Mexico City. His project “Life and Death in The Northern Pass” was a 2011 Alexia Foundation Professional Grant Finalist, won 2nd place in spot news in the 2011 POYi competition, and was a finalist for the 2011 Michael P. Smith Fund For Documentary Photography.

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30 Responses to “dominic bracco II – life and death in the northern pass”

  • a civilian-mass audience

    When you reach the top, keep climbing.”

  • Dominic.. important and poignant work, thank you and please stay as safe as you can!

    I know it’s past the deadline, but I think it’s never too late to sign this:

  • Some of the saddest pictures I’ve seen for a long time. Has to to be yet another good case for legalising drugs.

  • This goes very deep.
    Congratulations to the finals.
    Very good work.

  • Geeze, David. And you used to be such a fun guy! Time to go and watch the beavers damn up my creek again. Nothing wrong with the photographer’s work, just tired of this stream of misery we’ve been seeing here lately. Done that. Seen the sequel.

  • I’m with Harry on this one: the “war on drugs” doesn’t seem to be helping the people of Ciudad Juarez; not at all. The photography is first rate: not for the first time I find myself appreciating the medium of photography whilst viewing scenes of violence and despair. An uncomfortable situation and rightly so.

    What comes across very strongly is the humanity of Dominic’s subjects; who are, for the most part, caught up in a tragedy not of their making. Very powerful work Dominic; you are documenting one of the most important episodes of U.S. / Mexico history and showing the government of both countries seemingly powerless to end the continuing violence. Congratulations, thank you and stay safe.


  • Jim, if this was happening in your town, would you be so flippant?

  • This essay shows why photojournalism exists: to bear witness to events that would never be seen otherwise. Painful and unpleasant as the realities shown here may be, they must come to light before the international community can try to address them. The people of Ciudad Juarez deserve no less. They must feel terribly alone in their nightmare existence. The least we can do is see and acknowledge what they are living day to day. A dear friend of mine is a 70 year old nun who lives and works with the poor in Ciudad Juarez. Sr. Julia risks her life to be there but says she could be nowhere else.

    Obviously the photographer Dominic Bracco II feels the same way. He is risking his life to bring us these photos. I have not forgotten the images we saw from this essay months ago, nor will I ever forget what I have seen here today. Not only are Dominic’s photos superb but, to quote Michael Christopher Brown, “…because of people like Chris and Tim [and Dominic], there is light in dark places and humanity is less distant. People need to be reminded of what is happening beyond their backyard, lest we forget we are one and the same and that we are all in this together. We owe it to each other.”

  • Mike, misery is everywhere. It is easy to find and seems to be popular to photograph. I’m not convinced these “young guns” are going to make much of a future shooting it, though. But, I’m an old guy and tired of shooting misery years ago. Sure seems to be popular among EPF finalists, though.


    you write above, “i am just tired of this stream of misery we’ve been seeing here lately”…you write that as if we at Burn were choosing misery over light and bright…nobody would “choose” misery over light..i wish i had ten Irinas to run and this was a wholly joyful planet…i wish….however, we are not choosing , we are just facing, just reporting, just showing first a reality and second what young photographers like Dominic are doing about it…..

    honestly , i too am just tired of the “stream of misery” coming out of Mexico these days..long one of my favorite countries and cultures, Mexico now lies in a pool of blood because of the drug trade here personified by the nasty but important work of photographers like Dominic.

    as Patricia so poignantly points out by quoting Mike Brown, this war, this conflict, is just as noble and dangerous to cover as the war in Libya or anyplace else…

    Jim, i give you and others a forum here to express yourselves..and i also know in my heart you appreciate that, or you wouldn’t be here….yet in the very realm of human decency that would indeed bring a bit of light into an often dark place, it would seem prudent to me that you would at least show some respect to photographers who have either gone out on the personal safety limb to bring us essays like this, or who have the sensitivities to show us the more esoteric work that is indeed exploring the positive side of human nature which is a reality as well…

    so blast the hell out of Burn..we are here to get blasted and we can take it…but how about just a wee nod to the photographers whose talents are so so obvious and who each one way or another put another brick in the wall of a profession where you have spent your life…remember Jim, all of this that we publish here on Burn lends credence to your craft, your chosen profession..your legacy ..isn’t respecting your own the first step in creating a world of light?


    i am with both of you on that one….but who really wants drugs legal? oh yes, we do…seems like a clear way to stop the killing…but at the very highest levels, the biz is just too too big…the drug biz is big…the war on drug biz is big…greed….revenue streams abound….lots of folks benefit financially…and lots of folks die ….

    cheers, david

  • David…

    You just gave Jim Powers, once again, what he really wants: attention to himself. I am sure, if he wanted to, he could write an appropriate comment, he seems intelligent enough, but then he would be just like all the other commentators. Remember what you wrote about standing naked in front of the others? Sometimes it is good to have sympathy for the one naked, and sometimes just not.

    And with this comment all I have done is playing the Power’s game…

  • EVA…

    you are absolutely right..i of course know this intellectually…Jim would look like a total fool if nobody answered him…but i just cannot make myself make anyone look foolish even if they are…not in my nature….not in my life, not in my pictures either…i have tried, but it doesn’t work!!..funny…yet, on the positive side of this negative, often silly comments force me to write what i really believe about choices we make here on Burn anyway…so maybe in that sense it all comes out ok…maybe?

    cheers, david

  • Recently, I have started every day listening to Woodstock. It is usually uplifting.

    Although I am morbidly drawn to seeing violence, I have avoided watching news reports for several years.

  • David…

    Just prooves what comes to no surprise to me.. you’re a much better human being than I am..

  • This photographer doesn’t have to answer to anyone for his work, especially not me. And, as I said, there is nothing wrong with the photography. It’s perfectly good photography. I don’t see in what way I attacked the photographer, David. He only has to compete against the other finalists for the EPF, not resolve fundamental questions of the universe. I did not challenge him to defend his photos.

  • JIm
    I appreciate your voice here, and your persistence in the face of the flack you draw.

    Part of me often agrees with you. That would be the case here.

    This essay is clearly very well done. It doesn’t get much more visceral or raw than this. There have been many Burn discussions over the motives, morality, effectivness, etc of this sort of work. Will these photographs help change the world, make a difference? I really don’t know. What I do know is that I personally just find them depressing.

    What I miss here, and miss in so much documentary work, is a sense of connection with the humanity of the subjects. There is a big big piece of the spectrum missing.


    On my computer screen, the title of this essay reads “…Nothern Pass..” Surely this is a spelling error and not the deliberate intention of the photographer?
    Please correct to “Northern”…. (El Paso del Norte). Thanks.

  • SIDNEY..

    thanks ..missed it….will fix….and i got good grades in copy editing..mostly


    i have NO PROBLEM with WHAT Jim says..i often agree with him too…it is not the content that is often upsetting to many, the condescending tone, the method, the style of delivery could use a bit of help…i am not alone in this thinking…however, you will find over the last few years i have totally defended Jim against some who actually wanted him banned, censored , etc…i would not even think of that…..he is the newspaperman i know…i like the guy…however, since he does prefer that non diplomatic style shall we say , he is bound to get some barbs back…you Gordon saying the same thing, cause no ire…folks read you, and then think about it, which is the whole point… always thank you for your comments..

    cheers, david

  • I wanted to get online today and say thank you to all of you for your comments and express the gratitude I feel to be a part of this group of finalists. I really respect all of the photographers Burn has selected this year so far and am excited to see the next two.

    A few weeks ago I attended a march in Mexico City that filled the plaza of Zocolo corner to corner with protestors who came together to speak out against the violence. Citizens of Ciudad Juarez had a large presence at the march. We listened to testimony after testimony of family members recounting the deaths of relatives, kidnappings, beheading, rape, and disappearances. A close friend caught in crossfire, a daughter kidnapped, a son shot by military, a brother tortured for extortion…the stories went on for hours. The common thread was that they all seem to be unaffiliated with criminal activity. Its something that you see first hand when you are working in Juarez. The collateral damage of the war is huge. This fact is something that the Mexican and U.S. authorities have carefully avoided by making it seem a nobel cause against corruption. If it wasn’t for the journalists working there we wouldn’t know otherwise. That said this is a complex issue. Its hard to point fingers or figure out quick solutions… I just hope my work adds to the dialog and makes sure all of these people are not simply swept under the rug.

    Thank you all again,


  • D
    ‘I just hope my work adds to the dialogue…’
    that it does….
    thanks for doing
    the work you do….

  • Yes, the stories out of Jaurez need to be told. If that’s not a proper subject for journalism, we might as well hang it up and become paparazzi.

    But the story of Jaurez’s transformation into murder city has been covered and covered quite well, so I think it’s legitimate to question the point of additional coverage. Of course there are easy answers. It’s important to bear witness to such a large scale human tragedy and to continue bearing witness after the major media moves on to the next politician/celebrity sex story. And it’s also important to try to figure out the reasons why this ridiculously brutal murder spree is taking place. Is Jaurez the laboratory of our future? An experiment in overpopulation, spent resources, unchecked capitalism and its attendant degradation of democracy and the rule of law? Or something, things no doubt, far less grand?

    I think Dominic has done very well in several ways. That first photo could well prove to be the iconic image of the tragedy. That’s certainly no small accomplishment. And I also like his strategy of personalizing it by focusing more on those affected by the violence than on the violence itself. Better to tell an important part of the story well than to try to tell the whole thing and end up doing it poorly. And frankly, this is a story that requires words and lots of them. The things that can be communicated through photography are very important, but the limitations are significant.

    On a more technical level, I like that Dominic includes intimate, medium and long shots to tell his story. That said, I think he’s very good at at the intimate shots but has more room for improvement with the medium and the long, especially the medium.

    I don’t at all mean that harshly, btw. I know that a Colonia is a difficult subject. Figure that part out a little better, Dominic, and you’ll truly have something special.

  • Thank you, Dominic, for this look just beyond the gate into our back yard. The information in your photos is something that I want to know about our back yard. It is true – the story has been well-covered. Yet, your photos bring it home to me and give me a stronger feeling and impression of this tragedy that is in part our nations making a bit better than anything else that I have seen, heard, or read.

    When I was 19, I went on a little adventure that took me from a room in off campus housing at Brigham Young University to a couple of days in a prison cell in Juarez and a splash of my photo on the front pages of the several newspapers in publication at the time and on the TV news.

    Recently, I decided that one of the stories I would like to do in the future would be to photographically retrace that entire journey and write up my memories of that trip. It would be a humorous story in many ways.

    I found myself a little worried though about what might happen once I get to Juarez. What kind of danger might I face? What could I do to get the pictures I want and not wind up in a terrible situation. Juarez was dangerous then, but so much more now. Would it even be worth it to take the risk?

    Yet, you have done it, 1000 times plus over.

    Well done. I would like to see your essay reach all seeing eyes in both the US and Mexico. You convey knowledge that is essential to the future well-being and understanding of each nation.

  • Dominic – Congrats on being a finalists and making it out of there safely. Please remain safe.

    The images are crushing and uplifting at the same time. People living in these towns so overrun with violence, yet trying so hard to continue to live. Can’t imagine living life that way. I wonder if they can imagine living life any other way, or has this way of life become such the norm that living quietly has become completely foreign.

    Interesting how Americans choose when and where to operate peacekeeping missions.

  • “There are two ways to lose you sanity in Juarez. One is to believe the violence results from a cartel war. The other is to claim to understand what is behind each murder.”— Charles Bowden, Murder City: Ciudad Juárez and the Global Economy’s New Killing Fields

    “Only in chaos are we conceivable.”— Roberto Bolaño, 2666

    How to express the inexpressible, its weight and weightlessness, its defiance and refusal to go away, the long march of heat-swollen grief that afflicts Ciudad Juarez….a holocaust in the desert swelter of Chihuahua, than began with the feminicidios and has simply mushroom’d into a horrid stampede of death surrounding the drugs wars….10,000 deaths over the last 3 1/2 years….and doesn’t Juarez now have the highest murder rate in the world, above Caracas?…….how does one began to tell this story…..

    What i like and admire so much about Dominic’s approach is it’s ‘novelist’ approach…i don’t mean to suggest his imagery and narrative look made up, but his pictures and his choice of images reveal a person digging at both the horror of the death-betokened streets but also the small, simpler menace that eats away at daily ritual: grief amid that white sun and sky…

    the first photograph is, as MW has written, iconic….in that image is the full measure of what murder constitutes: loss, of live and love, and silence…epic epic silence….it is that silence which not only rings the most true but also lends extraordinary power and weight to the death and the grief…

    the opening image…the extraordinary albino-reptilian dog (one of the most lyrical, menacing and power of the images), the couple in 9, the back window of 19 (Savage Detectives), the lingering lights at night, the lingering white sky with sneaker…..all these balance against the strain toward ‘life’…the dancing, the games, the bikes…the ‘normal’ life…it is that very tension that makes the work so strong….death lingers in every moment, and that is true here too….and yet, who doesn’t hear the songs sung, the laughter of the children, the running through the dust….

    the swaying of lives….

    congratulations Dominic are being chosen! :))) BIG HUGS FOR PRIME TOO! :))))

    very pleased you’ve been chosen

  • Like DAH says above it’s often the flippancy and condescension of tone under comments that irritates, not the critique per se good or bad. And not just Jim but others who really should know better. And yes I know I have been guilty of same, and going back and rereading the comment left feeling red faced. So in the future maybe one should try harder…..

    Anyway, I remember this work creating quite an impact first time around here, and it’s an important subject. Glad it’s a finalist. Congrats.

  • Hi,
    It is really a tough situation to live. I dont know what may be the solution, It is totally administrative failure of the government of the country………
    It is so risky to shot there but I must highly appreciate your courage to go there and reveal the world how the people live there.

  • Dominic – I saw this work a few months ago on Prime and was really taken back by the depth of raw emotion in each and every picture. Congratulations on this intense body of work and on the EPF nomination ==> L.

  • Too heavy for my taste. Images from the Mexican drug wars cannot and should not be captured by anyone who wasn’t born in Juarez or Tijuana.

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