Luis Corzo's Los Pasaco

Collecting and re-constructing pieces of evidence of his own abduction as a child, Guatemalan artist Luis Corzo sheds light on the reason behind violence in his homeland.

At age 6, Guatemalan photographer Luis Corzo was kidnapped for ransom with his father. This was back in 1996, when an organized crime group known as “Los Pasaco” was terrorizing the country. The nation was at the time spiraling in a vortex of violence not so foreign to the current situation. Till today, Guatemala is full of stories and of countless traces that speak of violence, extorsion, corruption and death.

This, precisely, interested Corzo. Though based on his own story, his series aims at addressing the omnipresence of mass violence in Guatemala. « It’s about telling the story for a new purpose, to talk about a broader subject », he explains. “Not attempting to point fingers but rather trying to understand a bigger issue, and how we can prevent it.”

Through the reconstruction of his experience, he shows that violence hides at every corner. It may happen on the way to school – just like when a group of approximately seven men forcefully entered Corzo’s home through the garage as the family was heading out to take the children to the bus stop. It may mean to be forced to sleep buried in the soil up to one’s head. It may be an amputated finger sealed in a plastic container and hidden in the men’s bathroom of Pollo Campero. It may take the form of a group of police officers offering to assassinate your kidnappers on the spot for 1,000 Guatemalan Quetzales each (equivalent to approximately 130 USD).

Because the reason behind violence, Corzo realized, is money – a simple reason that he understood in an unlikely situation when he met his abductor in jail. “I was not prepared to meet him but his brother”, he recalls. Yet, when unexpectedly seated across him, he decided to reveal his identity and have a conversation. “I told him my name and his eyes immediately widened. He said, ‘how is your dad, how has he been ?’, as if asking about an old friend. And then we just had a conversation. He blamed all this crime on the significant economic differences among people. Inequality, envy and need.”

Corzo thus opted for a visual language evocative of that of an investigation – cold and factual, as if telling the story of someone else. With this approach, he manages to address the reason why people leave their country, when corruption brings so much poverty that people only find a solution in violence. “I remember asking my abductor, ‘if you do one kidnapping you can use the money to start a legit business’, and he answered, ‘then kidnapping becomes a bad habit’. Easy money”.

Find out more about Corzo’s series here: https://phmuseum.com/grants/shortlisted/41522

Dad, this has reached extremes that I could never have imagined. This is too much for Luis Pedro and I. We cannot endure all of this that is happening to us anymore. I don’t know what else needs to happen so that you cooperate with them and get us out of here. We have been taken out of the capital (Guatemala City) and brought to the mountains. We both feel sick. I don’t know how long Luis Pedro will be able to resist this but it is too much. This place is much worse than where we were before. You urgently need to resolve this today. I beg you. I don’t understand what is taking so long but we cannot take it any longer. Please resolve this today, if possible. Don’t let yourself be influenced by what anybody says. We can’t take it anymore, I beg you! I beg you, this cannot be. This is not a game. The place where they have me now is terrible. They want to amputate my finger but I begged them not to. Don’t wait until that happens or Luis Pedro will get very desperate.’ © Luis Corzo

Luis Corzo, born in Guatemala is a Brooklyn based artist. He primarily works using the different disciplines of photography, but also works with video to explore the obscurities of human activity and the space in which we inhabit.

Laurence Cornet is a writer and curator based in Paris focusing on cultural and environmental issues. She is also the editorial director of Dysturb and the international photo editor at Le Monde.

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This article is part of our feature series Photo Kernel, which aims to give space to the best contemporary practitioners in our community. The word Kernel means the core, centre, or essence of an object, but it also refers to image processing.

Luis Corzo's Los Pasaco
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Juan Corzo, Jr. Residence - The abductees’ family home in which the abduction took place. On the 18th of April, 1996, at around 7:10 am, a group of approximately seven men forcefully entered the home through the garage as the family was heading out to take the children to the bus stop. While holding automatic rifles, they proceeded with their plan of abducting Juan Corzo, Jr. and his son Luis Corzo with the sole purpose of holding them in exchange for ransom. © Luis Corzo

Maria Spillari, the abductees’ wife/mother. © Luis Corzo
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Maria Spillari, the abductees’ wife/mother. © Luis Corzo

Luis Corzo's Los Pasaco
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Q.1,000. A few months later, the Guatemalan police unit captured some members of “Los Pasaco”. Juan Corzo, Sr. was contacted by a group of police officers who offered to assassinate the kidnappers on the spot for 1,000 Guatemalan Quetzales each (equivalent to approximately 130 USD) and evade trial. Juan Corzo, Sr. strongly declined the offer and he and the family decided to proceed with the criminal trial.

Luis Corzo's Los Pasaco
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First location of captivity. It is located in the neighborhood of “La Esmeralda” in Guatemala City’s Zone 21. For about a week and a half, the abductees were held here, in the room next to the garage at street level. Months after the abduction concluded, authorities were able to locate this residence with the information provided by Juan Corzo, Jr. regarding the house’s whereabouts. © Luis Corzo

Advisor for negotiations with the abductors appointed by the government. Asked to remain anonymous.
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Advisor for negotiations with the abductors appointed by the government. Asked to remain anonymous.

KM 32. A proof of life was left by the abductors in the back part of this sign. © Luis Corzo
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KM 32. A proof of life was left by the abductors in the back part of this sign. © Luis Corzo

Proof of life 03. Letter from Juan Corzo, Jr. to Juan Corzo, Sr.Translation:‘1st of May, 96
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Proof of life 03. Letter from Juan Corzo, Jr. to Juan Corzo, Sr.Translation:‘1st of May, 96

Juan Corzo, Jr.’s left hand. © Luis Corzo
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Juan Corzo, Jr.’s left hand. © Luis Corzo

Luis Corzo's Los Pasaco
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Proof of life 05, Pollo Campero (fast food restaurant), Av. Petapa. Two proof-of-life polaroid pictures were left behind a toilet in a bathroom of Pollo Campero. The images show both abductees blindfolded. Juan appears holding the day’s newspaper with his left hand missing his ring finger. © Luis Corzo

Luis Corzo's Los Pasaco
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Abelisario Santos. Longtime family friend and employee of the family business. Abelisario volunteered to make the first and third deliveries of the ransom money. The first ransom delivery was about two weeks into the abduction. Abelisario was instructed by the abductors to bring a large backpack full of cash and drive a small motorcycle down to Lago Amatitlán (about 40 minutes south of Guatemala City), at around 2:00 am. At the midpoint of the trajectory, he was intercepted by the abductors. He was forcefully stopped in the middle of the CA-9 highway, brought down and brutally beaten. The abductors took the backpack and fled. This portrait was taken at the precise location where he was stopped on that rainy morning. The morning after the first delivery, “Los Pasaco” insisted that they never received the money and demanded Juan Corzo, Sr. to come up with the ransom again. The family gathered more money and this is when José Luis Osorio volunteered to make the second delivery. Not yet satisfied with the payments received, the abductors released Juan Corzo, Jr. and forced him to gather the last ransom payment to grant Luis’ freedom. © Luis Corzo

Luis Corzo's Los Pasaco
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José Luis Barahona Castillo. José Luis was the leader of the group responsible for the abduction of Juan Corzo, Jr. and Luis Corzo. Years later, in March 2019, Luis Corzo received a tip (from a source that wishes to remain anonymous) that José Luis Barahona Castillo’s brother, Walter, was incarcerated in “the Little Hell”.On March 10, 2019, Luis visited Granja de Alta Seguridad Canadá, “el Infiernito”. He was forced to bribe two officers for a total of 55 Quetzales (which is equivalent to 7 USD) in order to enter the jail. As he entered, Luis was stunned to find out that Walter was no longer housed in the prison; instead, the leader himself, Jose Luis Barahona Castillo was there in the prison. With the help of another inmate, Luis was able to locate him. José Luis owns a small shop where he sells soda and snacks in the back part of the prison. Next to his small shop, he had set up a small table with two chairs. José Luis offered Luis Corzo a Coca-Cola (image 41). They sat there and spoke for nearly an hour. Luis was not allowed to bring in any type of photographic equipment, so he asked José Luis to simply write his name, the date, and the name of his hometown on a piece of paper. The paper reads:10/3/2019Jo [sic] Jose Luis BarahonaCastillode Pasaco, Jutiapa(signature)© Luis Corzo

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