The last time Rodrigo Abd took an assignment in Mexico was 2009, when the veteran Associated Press photographer spent 20 days in Ciudad Juárez covering the drug war. The conflict was big news back then, and for many U.S. readers, it became the narrow prism through which everything in Mexico was viewed. Eventually, the bloodshed in Juárez passed on to other areas of the country and slipped from the international headlines. In the years that followed, Abd covered political turmoil and natural disasters across Latin America, embedded with U.S. forces in southern Afghanistan, and earned a Pulitzer Prize with his colleagues for coverage of the civil war in Syria.
In April, Abd returned to Mexico after eight years away. Once again, his assignment focused on a story that has dominated the U.S. news cycle: the border and Donald Trump’s plan to build a wall along it. Along with longtime AP-Mexico correspondent Chris Sherman, Abd loaded up a car and set off to traverse the nearly 2,000 mile divide, from east to west, weaving back and forth between the two countries and cataloging the stories of the people they encountered along the way. In an interview with The Intercept from his home in Lima, Peru, Abd described how he began the assignment considering what U.S. readers might think about at the mention of the border — “drugs, war, killings” — but how as he traveled the vast terrain, deeper realties about the region revealed themselves.
Having spent nearly a decade living in Guatemala and understanding the tremendous risks Central American migrants face in making a run for the U.S. border, Abd was awed by the ease with which delivery trucks moved seamlessly from Mexico into the United States.
“It’s so easy to migrate TV screens that are coming from China, assembled in Mexico,” he said. “For people, it’s a nightmare.”
Last month, the Department of Homeland Security reported that apprehensions have dropped to lows not seen in decades, a trend the Trump administration has attributed to its hard-line positions on immigration enforcement. Abd saw evidence of that dynamic in the largely empty migrant shelters that dot the Mexican side of the border. As one border resident described it to him, in recent months, it’s been as if an imaginary wall has taken shape in the spaces where Trump plans to one day place a physical structure.
Like any responsible foreign correspondent, Abd found himself desiring more time with the people and places he visited, from the reporters in Nuevo Laredo who have stopped writing stories due to pressure from organized crime to the ranchers in the Arizona desert demanding more action from the Border Patrol in their areas. Abd was transfixed by what he described as the “unique song of migration between the U.S. and Mexico.”
“I was surprised to see how families are divided and go on Sundays to have a barbecue on the other side and how they share this unique territory,” Abd said. “Even though there is fear that things could really change if there is a wall, people still think that that unique territory is going to be the same — that the families are going to be border families, half on half, and that they will continue to have this relationship.”
“There are those stories that you can only learn about by being there,” Abd explained, like the school he visited where dual citizen students load up with their passports and travel from their homes in Mexico to attend class in the U.S. “I think that there are many, plenty of those stories along the border. The thing is that we don’t see them because we are only focusing on the freaking wall and in the drug war and in the tunnels, and there is a lot more.”
“I am not saying these things are not important,” he went on to say. “They are important, for sure — a wall or different migration policies will affect, really, millions of people. But at the same time, it’s important to give to the readers a more complex story.”