I watched sleepily as the early morning light streamed through the window of my Ford Fiesta where I had spent the night in the back seat. I was on a ranch in Morelos, Mexico, about an hour south of the Texas border in the Mexican state of Coahuila, for the town’s annual “cabalgata”. During this three-day celebration, thousands of riders on horseback and hundreds more in horse-drawn wagons make the pilgrimage to Morelos where they parade through the streets, compete in rodeos, dance, and camp out, eating and drinking beer along the way.
The night before I had watched hundreds of riders trickle in to watch a rodeo held by the light of jumbo Christmas lights. Teenage boys guzzled cans of beer before lowering themselves on the backs of bulls to compete for cash prizes. An entire pig and a side of beef was butchered and cooked over the grill while the organs and innards boiled in a huge cauldron over an open fire.
I was in Morelos on assignment for National Geographic Magazine to uncover the details of a gruesome massacre orchestrated by the Zeta drug cartel that occurred in the nearby town of Allende six years earlier. For security reasons, writer Ginger Thompson and I had been only been traveling and photographing during the day, which meant I had been missing the beautiful golden light each morning and evening.
But today was different. I was up and out before sunrise, walking around the encampments, documenting the riders waking up and tending to their horses. They started fires for coffee and grilled meat for breakfast tacos. A man wandered around wearing a tall stack of hats for sale, which went quickly as the sun grew stronger and the heat settled in. There were several families from Texas who come down each year to take part in the festivities, reconnecting with their Mexican roots.
The scene was so exuberant that I could almost forget that in 2011, dozens if not hundreds of people were disappeared from this region, most from the neighboring town of Allende but also from Morelos and the larger border city of Piedras Negras. Numerous homes were destroyed, their burned-out remains a daily reminder of the destruction and disappearances that left residents traumatized with nowhere else to go.
Earlier in the trip, Thompson and I visited a remote ranch where most of the bodies were said to be incinerated. She had worked for months to gain the trust of widows and mothers of those who disappeared, victims of the massacre. They were rightfully wary of having a photographer follow them around in a town where the narcos and their families still yield quite a bit of power.
We had heard anecdotes about members of the Zetas drug cartel appearing at the cabalgata in Allende in 2010, just a few months before the massacre, riding giant black draft horses. These impressive horses left the crowd in awe and made a public statement about their wealth and power. But this year at the cabalgata, no one was suspicious of the camera or fearful of being photographed; no one was asking questions about what we were doing there.
As revelers arrived on horseback, a loudspeaker blared music and an announcer called out each family’s name as they entered the arena. Several wealthier families were accompanied by musicians playing their own personal soundtrack to make their grand entrance. The cartel’s wealth and influence has infiltrated every part of life in this region and it is impossible to draw a line between the ‘good guys’ and the bad as everyone clamors for prizes, status, and a better view of the horses on procession.