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Louie Palu captures horrors of the Mexican drug war

Louie Palu worked in Afghanistan, but he recently traded one war for another closer to home.

Warning: Slideshow contains graphic images. 

Palu spent a year photographing the drug trade in Mexico, from checkpoints in Texas and Arizona to villages deep in drug cartel territory. He has seen hundreds of murder scenes and has learned the multitude of ways smugglers attempt and succeed to bring drugs into the United States.

In addition, he wanted to document daily life of the people who, despite being surrounded by violence, still call Ciudad Juarez and other gang-heavy Mexican cities home.

Hear the Palu's full interview with Take Two on kpcc.org.

On why he decided to focus on the Mexican drug war:

"I had covered the war in Kandahar, Afghanistan on and off for about five years. As soon as the popular media arrived in Afghanistan, I felt like my time was there to move on.

I really felt like Latin America wasn't getting enough coverage. I really felt that what was going on in Mexico and I feel spilling over into the United States with the drug war needed more coverage.

I've always been drawn to stories that not enough media are covering and I felt like the Middle East always gets this bloated media coverage, and it was time for Mexico to get a little more coverage."

On how he stayed safe during his reporting:

"Keeping a low profile is hard to do when you pull two big cameras out. I would rent a hotel in one part of town, go out the back door, and stay in a hotel in another part of town.

My biggest fear was that, at night, gunmen would come into my room in the middle of the night and take me away, hood me and take me away and either kidnap me or...they haven't killed a foreign journalist yet, but I feel like in any conflict there's always this one point where things change, and I didn't want it to be me."

On a moment when he felt threatened:
"As I was taking photos, this guy walks up to me and starts talking to me very aggressively. I could tell immediately the tone, the kind of guy he was, how he was in my face that I was in really deep trouble.

This guy was a gang member from one of the bigger gangs in Juarez. I told him I was a journalist and I was here photographing daily life, but he didn't believe me.

He stepped away for a second to talk to his friend before he came back, he said, 'Hey wait here, I want to talk to you more.' The discussion became, should we leave? If we leave now, it'll look like we're running away.

We decided to stay, because we were being honest. He came back and said, 'Hey, while I interrogate you come over to my barbecue and have some tacos, man.' I drank a bit of Coca-Cola, had some tacos and we had a sit-down."

On how the many drug-war related murders affect civilians:

"In the total of a month I covered about 110 [murders]. The thing that made the biggest impression on me...is I turned around and right behind me, a school had just let out and there were all of these elementary school children staring at this scene of this man dying.

I just think that it's another one of those cases where if you're going to have security and you're going to have violence, you have to build a social infrastructure.

The mental illness, the trauma that people are experience in Mexico is in the hundreds of thousands. Building that social infrastructure builds a dam or a firewall so that these people build productive lives and don't end up going down the wrong road."

On how life in Mexico goes on despite drug violence:

"I wanted to show some daily life, because what people need to understand is that it's not like you walk around every day and there's gunfire and people are killing each other.

It happens in the city and some parts of the city you don't even know it's going on. I wanted to show that there is daily life there. That not everybody's killing each other."

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