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By Zoraida Lopez
This is a repost of an article that first appeared in the March 2013 issue of Of Note Magazine.
Between 1998 and 2008, approximately one million acres of Colombian land was used for the cultivation of coca leaves, the main ingredient used to produce cocaine. The high production of Colombian cocaine has created a dangerous drug trafficking climate with the civilian population caught in the crossfire. This has led to a loss of land, forced displacement, kidnappings, massacres, and countless disappearances, which in turn have left thousands of children, including many girls, without homes or parents. The cocaine market has also produced the “mule,” a term to describe individuals at the lowest level of the drug trading hierarchy. These “mules” are often poor, young women and girls, who, because of their own desperation, carry out the jobs that no one else wants to do—transport drugs within or on their bodies.
In 2011, I traveled to Medellin, Colombia. For eight days, I lived in Pedregal, a maximum-security women’s prison where the vast majority of inmates I met were serving sentences for drug trafficking or drug related crimes. While there, I taught photography to twelve of the women who were incarcerated and later curated an exhibition of their work at both Pedregal and the Paul Bardwell Gallery in Medellin.
To understand the depth and impact of a problem as large as the cocaine industry, we need to understand the communities and networks it impacts. We must speak with the women and families who have lost their land to drug wars and to the children who have lost their parents.
In January this year, I returned to Colombia to continue my work with the women at Pedregal and to document the stories of those who have been affected by the cocaine industry. I returned because I believe that in order to understand the depth and impact of a problem as large as the cocaine industry, we need to understand the communities and networks it impacts. We must speak with the women and families who have lost their land to drug wars and to the children who have lost their parents.
These images are the result of my last two trips to Colombia. They capture everyday girls who will grow up to become women in Colombia. They underscore the conditions in Colombia that cause women and girls to be vulnerable—a vulnerability that derives from Colombia’s cocaine industry. They capture both the pain and the possibilities in their lives.
Throughout this ongoing project, I am continually moved by the resilience and hope the camera captures in these girls. They face adversity with their heads held high. This is my work: to use my lens to counter rampant stereotypical images of Latina women and girls. As a daughter of Latino immigrants, I believe it is my responsibility to show the positive spirit of these girls.
“Alejandra,” shares a one-room apartment with her sister and her sister’s baby in Medellin, Colombia. She has been living on her own for three years. She was born in a rural part of the country, but her family lost their farm to a paramilitary group and was forced to move to Medellin. She aspires to become a pediatrician.
“Clarita” and her pet bird stand along a mountainside in Minca, Colombia. Clarita’s entire family lost their home to paramilitary drug traffickers in the mid-1990s. She now lives in a small family farm with her parents, older brother, and younger sister. Her grandparents also lost their land and now live along the same mountainside.
“Gloria Maria Elena” lives in Quibdo, a small city located in the Choco region of Colombia. “Gloria Maria Elena” has never left Quibdo. Local warfare has made routine traveling within Choco, a region defined by jungles and rivers, virtually impossible. Guerrillas and paramilitary groups often battle over the land for cocoa cultivation and for smuggling routes to the Pacific Ocean.
“Maria” is serving a two-year sentence for drug trafficking at Pedregal, the maximum security prison in Medellin, Colombia. Under Colombian law, her baby will be able to live with her in prison until he or she is three years old.
Drug related crimes are a leading reason for which women are imprisoned. Many women, including "Flora," are forced to traffic drugs in order to provide for their children and families.
In several countries in Latin America, including Peru, Argentina, Bolivia, and Colombia, children are also allowed to live with their incarcerated mothers. By Colombian law, "Carla," pictured above, will receive two food and two nap time breaks a day while she serves her prison sentence with her child.
Other women, such as "Jenny" pictured above, have family members who are able to tend to their children while they are incarcerated.
Many of the women receive long jail terms for minor drug offenses, or spend months in custody awaiting trial, while the drug dealers often remain free to conduct their business. These women continue to struggle for freedom and justice.
Zoraida Lopez is best known for her images concerning race, immigration, juvenile justice, and gender relations. Her work has been exhibited at galleries including Rush Arts and Whitewall in New York City. Zoraida is currently teaching photography to youth residing in detention centers in Connecticut and to girls in the South Bronx, New York. She is the chair of the National Black Female Photographers Group-New York City chapter.
[All photos courtesy of Zoraida Lopez]