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Book Review: Before the War


Book Review Before the War By Alejandro Cartagena Reviewed by Colin Pantall The history of Mexico’s drug industry makes for fascinating reading. Marijuana and heroin production flourished in the 1930s after the collapse in the price of gold and the discovery of a demand for recreational drugs. The illegal drug industry expanded, addiction rocketed and by the end of the decade Mexico had a drugs crisis on its hands.

Before the War. By Alejandro Cartagena.
Self-published, 2015.
 
Before the War
Reviewed by Colin Pantall

Before the War
2nd Edition.
Photographs by Alejandro Cartagena. Edited by Fernando Gallegos.
Self-Published, Mexico, 2015. In English. 102 pp., 1 booklet, 1 poster, 1 foldout Risograph, Offset printing., 11¾x9¼".


The history of Mexico’s drug industry makes for fascinating reading. Marijuana and heroin production flourished in the 1930s after the collapse in the price of gold and the discovery of a demand for recreational drugs. The illegal drug industry expanded, addiction rocketed and by the end of the decade Mexico had a drugs crisis on its hands.

In 1940, a solution to the problem was proposed; legalization of drugs. Heroin became available on prescription, illegal drug dealing (almost) became a thing of the past and addicts had their habits decriminalized. Mexico was way ahead of its time, too far ahead of its time for some.

The legalisation didn’t last. Under pressure from the US and Canadian governments, strict prohibition laws were introduced and punitive military actions were taken against the peasant marijuana farmers of Mexico’s Sierra Madre. The War on Drugs had begun.

Before the War. By Alejandro Cartagena. Self-published, 2015.

In the last 10 years, that war has taken a huge toll on human life; according to historian Froylan Enciso, it has led to 100,000 deaths and 26,000 disappearances since 2006.

This loss is the background for Alejandro Cartagena’s new book, Before the War, his follow-up to the excellent Carpoolers. But where Carpoolers was a supremely simple book that ticked all the photobook boxes with excellent design making the pictures speak directly to the audience, Before the War is a more complex affair, as it should be for a book that is essentially a documentation of the drug wars and the toll they have taken on the people of Mexico.

Before the War. By Alejandro Cartagena. Self-published, 2015.

The book comes in dossier form, in a beautiful cardboard envelope with a zip-rip flap that opens into a series of crudely printed booklets. It looks great and feels great when you open it.

Flip up the flap of the envelope and there's a text that tells you how many people have died in this drugs war, the devastation that it has reaped and the fact that nothing is clear. There are lots of bad guys, but who and where they are is sometimes murky.

Before the War. By Alejandro Cartagena. Self-published, 2015.

Then you're into the booklets. The first one I opened tells stories of the brutality of the war, the summary executions, the arbitrary murder and theft and the involvement of the government and the law in sustaining both the war and the cartels. There's no romance here, no black hats and white hats to make things easy.

Other booklets show portraits, landscapes and posters. And nothing is clear. You read what you like into them. Of course you're guided certain ways. So someone young and fresh becomes a victim, someone with eyebrows that meet in the middle is a member of a cartel. These are pictures that invite us to judge, except we might be very much mistaken in how we’re judging. Such is life.

Similarly with the landscapes. These anonymous roadsides with their brush and their dust become meeting points and murder sites. Who was killed, who was tortured.

Before the War. By Alejandro Cartagena. Self-published, 2015.

A poster titled the good and the bad demonstrates the asymmetry of the drug wars; the apparent innocents on one side opposed with the guilty and convicted or shot down on the other.

But in some respects Before the War does take sides and is absolute. All violence is wrong and though there is a blurring between the innocent and the guilty, or between the supposed forces of law and order and those of the criminals and cartels, there is a sense of clarity in Cartegna’s attitude towards corruption, brutality and extrajudicial ‘solutions.’

Before the War. By Alejandro Cartagena. Self-published, 2015.

We see this in the story of the peasant whose family are being held hostage on his farm. He heads to the city to get the ransom (he is told that if he doesn’t, his children will be killed first). But the farmer is stopped at a military roadblock, where the soldiers see his trembling hands. The farmer is interrogated. He nervously tells the soldiers what has happened.

The soldiers leave him and return with the five men who took his family hostage. The officer asks the farmer if he recognises them. “I am scared for my family,” the farmer mumbles.

And with that, the five men are taken outside and shot in the head “Your family is safe now,” says the officer.

Except of course they are not safe. Nobody is safe when that is the culture of justice that prevails.

Before the War. By Alejandro Cartagena. Self-published, 2015.

Before the War is not the most transparent of books. It's a bit messy in some ways. But it is ambitious in its scope. It is the start and not the end of a project that will develop into something altogether grander and more accessible, something that might one day lead to the end to the hypocrisy, corruption, and killing that have devastated great swathes of the country.—COLIN PANTALL

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COLIN PANTALL is a UK-based writer and photographer. He is a contributing writer for the British Journal of Photography and a Senior Lecturer in Photography at the University of Wales, Newport. http://colinpantall.blogspot.com

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