Mexico's Murder Valley: one of the deadliest places on earth
The Juarez Valley on the Mexico-Texas border, a forty mile stretch of cotton fields and ghost towns, is so dangerous that even the police don't dare to enter.
Situated to the east of Juarez City – a town which held the title of the world's most violent for three consecutive years – the criminal cartels in 'Murder Valley' run drugs, weapons and illegal immigrants across the border, murdering in cold blood anyone who interferes with their business.
Today the Juarez Valley, which runs along the Rio Grande and is just a stone's throw from the eighteen-foot fence on the US border, sees more death and violence than anywhere else in North America. It has even been suggested that it could be the deadliest place on Earth.
You get used to seeing dead bodies in the streets', Alejandro Montes, an employee at the only petrol station in the town of Praxedis Guadalupe, told MailOnline. 'If you're away from your home and you hear gunshots then you could end up dead', he said. 'I've lost a lot of friends who were either caught in the crossfire or worse - they had spoken out against the criminals'.
The last of Praxedis Guadalupe's police officers were executed in 2009 by the controlling Sinaloa Cartel; they have never been replaced. The Sinaloa cartel is currently thought to be under the control of a drug lord named Zambada, who replaced 'El Chapo' Guzman following his arrest early last year. A community vigilante force subsequently established itself in the area, but following the kidnapping, torture and beheading of its chief Manuel Castro, the residents have lived in fear of the brutal treatment reserved for community heroes.
'The narcos, rather than the police, have become the authority in The Valley,' said Alejandro. 'If you want to survive, you have to live by their rules'. Today, Juarez Valley averages 160 murders per 100,000 residents annually according to the authorities in San Agustin, the only town in the region with any police presence at all. The valley was once home to a 60,000-strong community. Today only around five thousand of the original residents remain.
The rest have either fled or fallen victim to the cartel violence. Murder rates are higher in the region due to the cartels battling over territory - thugs arrive from elsewhere to kill each other in the streets.
The town of Praxedis Guadalupe looks like the set of a horror film, and for many of the residents of the region the lives they lead are not far away from the image of gang violence that Hollywood presents. Every building on the town's main street makes some form of testimony to the violence they have witnessed. The metal shutters remain closed on the buildings' windows year-round, and the majority of the shops have been abandoned.
To get access to the town's only pharmacy, you have to state your business at the armoured front door's intercom. Throughout the town one sees burned-down houses where only the charred wooden beams still stand, bullet-ridden road signs, graffiti indicating the sites of murders, holes blasted in the sides of abandoned homes.
'In San Agustin we see on average two murders a day,' Police Supervisor Umberto Mata told MailOnline.
Supervisor Mata has seen many fellow officers die during his seven years in the Juarez region. He added: 'The residents tend to stay indoors because of the violence. If on the rare occasion you do see someone in the street, they're probably one of the narco assassins'. San Agustin is the most westerly town in 'Murder Valley', and battle lines between government forces and narcotraffickers lie in the No Man's Land between the next town to the east, Praxedis Guadalupe.
'We don't go past the limits of the town,' Supervisor Mata, who saw action in Juarez City during the period of greatest violence, told MailOnline. 'It's simply too dangerous.
'I'm a wanted woman three kilometres east of here,' said Marta Armas, the only female police officer on the San Agustin force. 'I've busted enough of the thugs driving through our town with drugs and weapons for a price to go on my head.
'If I step out of bounds here, it'll be torture before they kill me. That's how they deal with police officers on their side.' The narco-traffickers who terrorise the region forbid the residents to talk to the authorities on pain of death. 'I can't talk about the terrible things they've done to me', one old woman with tears in her eyes told MailOnline. 'My husband and two sons are dead because of them. If I'm seen talking to a journalist I'll be dead within the hour.
'If I'm required to leave my office to visit another station in the valley', said Mario Fernandez, who runs the Mexican immigration checkpoint in Guadalupe, 'then I will cross into the United States and re-enter at the border I need to visit. 'If the narcos smell even the slightest hint of government forces or authority along the main road, there will be death.'
The construction of the eighteen-foot tall fence along the US-Mexico border by the American authorities seven years ago made the situation worse for many residents of Juarez Valley, they say. Frustrated by the heightened security and greater difficulty of crossing into the United States, many of the narco-traffickers turned to kidnapping and extortion within the local community in order to continue earning.
The 17-year-old daughter of a pharmacy owner in the valley had been kidnapped on the day before MailOnline arrived in his town. He asked to remain anonymous for fear of repercussions.
'They came in the night to our house and took her from her bed,' he said, speaking with tears in his eyes of his awful experience. 'We were held at gunpoint in our own room while they took her.
'This morning we had a phone call from her captors. They made us listen to her being raped down the telephone, before demanding four thousand dollars by the end of the week.' Many residents in the area have been the victims of kidnapping, and say that the tactics of the kidnappers are very difficult to deal with.
'If you agree to a ransom price too quickly then the kidnappers will raise it,' said one man, whose father was the victim of kidnapping from which he never returned. His father was found decapitated three weeks after he disappeared from a restaurant where he had flashed too much money under the noses of a group of cartel members. 'They send you pictures of the person being mutilated, and tell you the more you delay the worse they will be', said his son.
The murder was never reported by the Juarez newspapers, nor was the crime ever solved by police investigators, who many residents claim ignore much of the horrors in the valley as they concentrate on Juarez City.
'There were eight other kidnappings in the valley that week', said his son. 'How can we expect results when the police don't even come here anymore?' Kidnap victims in Murder Valley rarely return to their families. 'It's easier for the cartels to kill them rather than instigate any sort of revenge plan when they return', he said
'I can't go to the federal police', he added. 'They have the reputation of being involved with the criminals here. Even if I find a police officer who is honest and tell him my problem, the narcos will find out I have been talking and then kill me'. 'The federal police in this town are the ones who make trouble for the locals', said the young man, who continues to live with his widowed mother. 'They have no respect for anyone and beat me up if I do anything they don't like'.
In 2008, the Sinaloa cartel (run by 'El Chapo' Guzman who last year was detained by Mexican authorities) declared war on the Juarez cartel, leading to an explosion of gang violence in Juarez City. As El Paso's neighbour soaked up the world's attention, few noticed the savagery being committed just ten miles to the east, in a farming region carved out of the Sinaloan desert. As the authorities began to take control of the city again in 2012, much of the business of borderland narco-trafficking moved into the Juarez Valley.
Many residents of the valley fled as a result of the violence. The sudden drop in manpower put an end to local industry, and today unemployment rates are high.
'Many people from the region, or who come here from other parts of he country, end up working as killers for the cartel', says Supervisor Mata (whose surname translates to Supervisor Kill). 'When people are desperate and haven't been able to feed their family for months, the cartels offer them money to kill people, and they take it. 'Other people arrive here from other parts of Mexico thinking that by working for the cartel they will eventually become a powerful drug lord,' he said.
'This makes it difficult because anyone here could secretly be a narco assassin. In other troubled parts of Mexico such as Michoacan, the government have records of who the gang members are. Here we have no idea because new killers are recruited just as soon as the previous ones are killed or arrested.
'At one point last year I was talking to an eighty-year old man I had pitied for his frailty. When I asked to conduct a routine search he pulled a gun on me. It's the fact that you never know who you're dealing with makes this area so dangerous.'
'We see a lot of ghosts', said Juan Valdez, a Praxedis resident who gave his name as a famous Colombian coffee brand in order to remain anonymous, 'especially in the old disco.' In 2010 there was a terrible shooting in the town's 'Roses Disco', during which three young girls were killed.
The building is now completely abandoned, much like the rest of the town's entertainment businesses. The floors are covered with the faeces of the pigeons and stray dogs which now inhabit the building, and the locals claim that in the evenings the ghost of one of the murder girls appears in a blood-stained dress, watching silently from the main entrance.
'I haven't moved away because my family lives here,' says Alejandro Montes who has seen many friends die as a result of the violence. 'It's possible to make a life for yourself here, it's just a different set of laws to what apply elsewhere.
'If you stay out of the narcos' way you'll survive,' he smiles. 'Just duck out of sight when you hear bullets.'