Reporting on the Mexican Drug War Without Getting Killed

Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP/Getty Images

In 2012, I sat down with Mexican peace activist Javier Sicilia. It had been about a year since his son and three friends were brutally murdered, and I asked him if he was afraid of being so vocal against the drug war in Mexico. He told me that there was an important difference between fear and terror. Fear, he pointed out, is actually healthy. Terror is like a sickness — it paralyzes you. The question is, when does the line between the two get crossed?

This is a question that Mexican journalists grapple with every day. Those that are young — the 20 and 30 somethings still trying to make a name for themselves in the field — face a particularly acute dilemma: How do they take the risks that are at times necessary to break big stories, without getting themselves killed?

It’s early February, and it’s raining heavily in Mexico City when the news comes out. Three bodies were found in Las Choapas, located in the state of Veracruz, near the Gulf of Mexico. Gruesome discoveries like these are not uncommon in Mexico, much less in Veracruz, a state torn apart by drug-related violence. But today’s news still weighs heavy — one of the bodies found belonged to union leader Eduardo Guillen, and another belonged to journalist Gregorio Jimenez, who’d gone missing almost a week ago.

Jimenez worked for newspapers Notisur and El Liberal. He’d been reporting about kidnappings, among them, Guillen’s. Last week, at least five gunmen forced Jimenez out of his home and drove him away in an SUV. Officials in Veracruz have speculated that Jimenez was killed in a personal vendetta, but few believe this — journalists and activists across the country are asking for full investigation.

Jimenez is one of more than 100 journalists who have disappeared or been killed in Mexico since 2000, according to the PEN American Center for freedom of expression. Fifteen of those have been in Veracruz. Although violence against journalists is a widespread problem in Latin America, Mexico is currently one of the most dangerous countries for reporters in the Western Hemisphere. A week after Jimenez is found, the National Association for Hispanic Journalists issues a statement condemning the violence against journalists in the country.

“This is enough. How much longer will local and national government leaders cross their arms and do nothing about the growing number of journalist murders?” the group’s president, Hugo Balta, asks. He exhorts presidents of both Mexico and the U.S. to do a better job of protecting journalists.

A few days after Jimenez’ body is discovered, I head to the outskirts of Mexico City with my colleague Ramon to do a series of interviews with Central American migrants who are passing through a town that is known for ongoing violence. With us is a group of young and ambitious Mexican journalists, all college students.

Ramon explains some basic safety measures. Have a contact back home who knows where you are, and what time you are supposed to be back. Call this contact at pre-arranged times. If possible, go everywhere in groups. Do not walk off on your own. He takes names and last names. Ramon has been doing this for years and is one of the bravest people I know. It’s fine guys, it’s all standard procedure, he jokes. He chats with the driver.

It’s one of those hot days in Mexico’s central valley, so dry it feels like the inside of your nose is cracking. A fly is stuck in the car and buzzes around the back, providing a soundtrack to the silence that’s fallen over the group of college students in the back seat as we drive closer to our destination. They want to go on this assignment, and I admire them, but I wonder if they are thinking about Gregorio Jimenez, the journalist whose body was found last Tuesday in Veracruz. Or about Regina Martinez Perez, killed in 2012, also in Veracruz. Or Alberto Lopez Bello, killed in 2013 in Oaxaca. The list goes on and on.

When you are a journalist, especially a young journalist, you are starving to break the big stories. It has to do partly with your energy level and youthful recklessness, but also with a desire to break into a world that doesn’t yet respect you. Add to that equation a lack of responsibilities — you might not have a family to support — and it’s good fuel for bravado.

Caution can have consequences. Take one colleague of mine, who, at a starter stint for a big news organization in Mexico City. She had to tell her editor one night that she refused to go unaccompanied to a notoriously dangerous neighborhood to report on a brutal murder. For weeks, she obsessed about whether her decision had hindered her young career.

But ambition also has its repercussions. Another colleague got his first break as a reporter at a violence-ridden border town, and went from having absolutely no journalism experience to seeing dead bodies at crimes scenes nearly every day. As a result, he developed an anxiety disorder that he still grapples with today.

Back in the van, as we drive forward, I look at the college kids and wonder, what do these brutal murders mean to young journalism? What does it mean to journalism in general?

One of the young students in the van is Arturo Ilizaliturri. He’s 22, in his third year at the Monterrey Institute of Technology and Higher Education, Mexico City campus. Ilizaliturri is studying communications and digital media. His hope is to one day be a print journalist, but he loves exploring digital platforms.

He tells me Jimenez’s death had a huge impact on him. “The message was that in Mexico, you can assassinate a journalist with no fear of going to jail,” Ilizaliturri said. “You can silence the press.”

He speaks with a calm that is striking for such a young man, but he’s definitely pondered the dangers of the career he’s headed into. “The truth is in Mexico, journalism is a dangerous activity. I wouldn’t say I’m scared about what could happen to me, it’s more that I worry about what could happen to my family, my friends.”

Still, Ilizaliturri is hopeful about the future of Mexican journalism. “Young people today, we are seeing that traditional media is not covering a lot of things, and that has given rise to is a lot of alternative media. It’s very promising…this is a moment of danger in Mexico, but it’s also a moment of opportunity. Those of us who want to do journalism have a lot more reasons to do it, with the hope that one day, we will not have to tell these stories.”

But how do reporters in Veracruz feel? That night, when I got back from our trip, Jimenez is still on my mind. I called up Felix Marquez is a 25-year-old photojournalist based in Veracruz. He tells me that even in the face of violence against media, there is a effervescent young journalism in Veracruz, as well as in the rest of the county.

“Of course, there is fear, not just among journalists, but everyday people who want to be informed…but I’m seeing that there is a will to fight. That yes, there is fear, but that fear is outweighed by indignation. By outrage.” When I speak to Marquez, he tells me that all day on Thursday there were protests led by young students and journalists in Veracruz. Still, most of his classmates are now opting to go into marketing and public relations. Safer bets.

I also call up Leonardo Ruiz, 21. He’s currently a communications major in Veracruz. Jimenez’s murder catches him close to his graduation. “Of course I’m scared. We live in uncertainty,” he tells me. “We live in a failed state. Of course I’ve thought of doing something else. Every day I ask myself that question. But the very reasons that are making me ask myself that question are the reasons why journalism has to exist.” So, I ask him, “Are you going to be a journalist in Veracruz when you graduate?” He hesitates. “Yes, I think so. Yes. Yes, I am sure.”

Marquez himself admits the climate of violence has changed his own way of working. “I’ve seen colleagues of mine murdered…it changes the way you think. You take better care of yourself. You are scared. You look around a lot. You take precautions against the bad guys, and you take precautions against the good guys. There’s a thin line that divides the good guys from the bad guys, and it breaks easily.”

What precautions do journalists take? As my friend Ramon explained, you gauge everyone you are talking to, and you trust no one.

In fact, many don’t want to speak on the record at all, or, like Ramon, ask that their names be changed. It’s not surprising. “There’s a lot of paranoia,” Ramon tells me. “It depends also on what states you are moving in. In the north, the paranoia is very strong. I remember a journalist there once told me, ‘In Mexico, there is no journalism. Journalism is what gets discussed in the hallways.’ In other words, journalists talk about the real stories in their offices and halls of their newspapers, radios, TV stations. But that knowledge and conversation doesn’t always make it to air.”

Young journalists tend to get their start at small publications before they work their way up the ladder, but it’s reporters at the smaller outlets who are often in the most danger. “It’s not the same being a foreign journalist, or from an agency, or from some big local paper,” Ramon said. The reporters at the small outfits, he says, “are the ones who suffer the most.”

Gregorio Jimenez, the murdered journalist from Veracruz, worked for two small papers.

At the funeral held for Jimenez, Marquez spoke to one of his daughters. “She asked me, ‘Why, if you know what it’s like out there, why do you keep being journalists?’ And I told her, ‘Because it’s in our blood,’” Marquez said. “Because they’ve killed so many of us, we have to keep doing it, it’s a social contract.”