Pope Francis delivered an emotional mass in the border city of Ciudad Juarez on Wednesday, calling for more action to help those who have suffered from the violence and chaos caused by the ongoing War on Drugs in Mexico.
“Let us together ask our God for the gift of conversion, the gift of tears, let us ask him to give us open hearts… open to his call heard in the suffering faces of countless men and women,” he said. “No more death! No more exploitation! There is still time to change, there is still a way out and a chance.”
Some of those victims filled the seats in a crowd of 200,000 worshipers gathered to hear the Pope speak. But other people closely impacted by the drug war's violence were across town during the mass — behind bars in the city's notorious facility for female prisoners.
The number of women imprisoned for federal crimes in Mexico has boomed in recent years — increasing more than 400% between 2007 and 2010, according to a study by Mexico's National Women's Institute. An estimated 80% of the women incarcerated in El Cereso, in Ciudad Juarez, were convicted of drug-related crimes. The Pope himself visited the prison as part of his trip, reportedly telling inmates that only locking people up isn't the solution to Mexico's rampant violence.
The profiles of the female inmates of El Cereso go beyond the "beautiful narco-girlfriend, or the glamorous yet dangerous 'Queenpin'" role that has become prevalent in pop culture depictions of the drug war, according to Katie Orlisnky, a photographer who has documented the impact of the drug trade on women. They've worked as "humble spies, smugglers, lookouts, decoys, and bait," Orlinsky says. A dearth of economic opportunities in a city where crime and drug gangs have become commonplace leaves some women with few other options. In many cases, violence, fear and coercion are also factors.
"Women fending for themselves in a shattered economy, many of them widowed in the violence, are increasingly drawn into criminal activity, such as drug trafficking and kidnapping, which some see as the only options available to support their families," Orlinsky writes in the introduction to her photo series, The Juarez Women's Prison. "The prison population increasingly includes young women who were coerced or manipulated into committing crimes, or women simply guilty of being with a boyfriend or family member in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
Before the Pope's mass, Orlinsky shared the stories and images of some of these women with Refinery29. See more, ahead.
Editor's note: This story has been updated following the Pope's visit to Juarez and El Cereso prison with additional details and reporting.