New Internationalist

Journalism in Mexico: ‘Seeing my own death’

Issue 455

Award-winning reporter Sandra Rodríguez Nieto on the dangers of writing from the drug-war frontline.

The most recent occasion when I had the vision of my body, shot and left lying on the ground, was in early May. I was in Islas Carolinas street, one of the poorest areas of Juárez, in the western part of the city.

As we walked between the dust and the stones, a relative of a woman who had disappeared was telling me about the power the Aztecas gang had in the area. This gang, composed of prisoners and ex-cons, is the executive arm of the Juárez cartel.

Without stopping to think, I blurted: ‘Still? I thought the Aztecas were pretty much finished.’

‘No...ooo!’ she responded. ‘Don’t you know that they come from prisons on the other side? The “buddies” come over from El Paso [in Texas].’

Perhaps it was the air of pride that I detected in her voice when she mentioned the ‘buddies’. Or the details of the interview that we had just completed, during which I had learned that shortly before she disappeared the missing woman had been visiting the gang’s quarter in Juárez prison. Or perhaps it was my interviewee’s description of the way in which the gang, four years after being hammered by US and Mexican government forces, had maintained territorial control in this part of Juárez.

Stringer/Reuters
The rule of impunity: 10,000 killings since 2008 in Ciudad Juárez, only 3% investigated. Stringer/Reuters

‘All unknown cars are watched,’ she told me, at the precise moment at which she climbed into my car.

That was when the image came to my mind, briefly but clearly, warning me that there might be a certain level of danger. My body inert, bleeding from some orifice, dark circular marks left by the burning passage of lead through skin – like other bodies I had seen in the city.

The image quickly subsided and our loose conversation about the Aztecas and the drug-sellers continued. The last thing I wanted to do was to make my guide feel uncomfortable or criminalized by any indication of uneasiness in her company.

I am not the only reporter in these parts who has such thoughts. Since 2008, more than 10,000 people have been assassinated in this city, mostly with firearms, and in the majority of cases without the perpetrators ever being arrested.

Two of my colleagues on El Diario – the reporter Armando Rodríguez, in 2008, and the photographer Luís Carlos Santiago, in 2010 – became victims of the criminality which Armando wrote about in the newsroom we shared.

One colleague told me shortly after Armando’s death: ‘I don’t get into the van with my wife. I tell her to go ahead with the children. I’ve told her, if she sees me being shot at, just to carry on so that she and the kids don’t get it.’

Another said, as we were following the funeral cortège of Luís Carlos in September 2010, that at his own funeral ‘I don’t want anyone to open my coffin’. I responded that my main wish at my funeral was that no politicians be allowed to attend and that someone would play Radiohead’s Lucky.

Impunity and inaction

Various governments have attributed the wave of violence to the dispute between different criminal groups competing for the control of drug trafficking into the US.

As has been shown on several occasions – especially in US courts – members of the Mexican police force, at all levels, regularly participate in the business of drug trafficking.

Institutional corruption and inaction are such that the state government has officially said that it will not investigate thousands of homicides registered in this city (especially where AK47s or 9mm firearms are involved) because they show signs of being the work of organized crime – and that type of crime should be investigated by the federal government.

The federal government, for its part, says that as the deaths pertain to organized crime, and as homicide is not a crime contained within the federal law on organized crime, then its forces cannot investigate either.

Citizens are left vulnerable, not knowing how to defend ourselves and from whom

Impunity has been fuelling violence since 2005. When I asked an adolescent parricide whether he had feared being caught, he said he had not, because he thought that his felony would be taken as just another drug crime and so would not be investigated. ‘We’re in Mexico,’ he commented. ‘It’s a corrupt country. The police are just for show. There are so many deaths.’

When, in 2008, murders on the frontier began being counted in thousands – and became the prime cause of death – I made a comparison, for El Diario, between the cases of crimes registered in the period 2008-10 and the number of cases presented to the judicial authority. Only 3 out of every 100 went ahead. In 97 per cent of cases, state investigators reported that there was ‘no trail’ to follow.

In this climate, murderers can act with freedom and anonymity, enjoying the indifference and complicity of the state. Citizens, meanwhile, are left vulnerable, not knowing how to defend ourselves and from whom.

Journalists are especially exposed. Attacks against them have multiplied. The organization Article 19 estimates that 66 reporters have been murdered in Mexico, nine of them in the past 18 months in Veracruz, a state just south of the border.

The disdain shown by the authorities in not investigating these crimes is unbearable.

The state claims that it is fighting ‘a war on drugs’ and yet its neglect of people addicted to illegal drugs is almost total. In the case of Juárez, only 30 per cent of those who seek help get it.

There were 54 deaths by overdose of illegal substances between 2008 and 2010. The ‘war of drugs’ in the same period claimed 7,000 lives and turned Juárez into the most violent city in Mexico.

graphic

I believe this figure proves conclusively that the supposed remedy ‘against drugs’ is at least 100 times worse than the supposed ills of consumption, with the added aggravation that forbidding the trade fuels corruption in state institutions. The resulting social deterioration in places like Juárez leads to extreme criminality and out-of-control carnage.

Going around Ciudad Juárez is one way of getting close to the stories that illustrate the human cost of drug prohibition decisions taken in circles far removed from the population. Economic opportunities have bypassed many thousands of people here (like the woman I was interviewing in Islas Carolinas) who earn a pittance working in factories and who live at the centre of danger and scarcity. For these sorts of reasons I have never questioned the importance of living and being a journalist on this border.

In Juárez, the murder files are prolix when it comes to expert details from the scene of crime. The folders include scores of precise descriptions of the quantity of shots, the calibre of firearms arms used, and, in a way that seems quite insistent to me, the position of the body of the victim on the ground.

Perhaps for this reason, when I sense danger, I never see in my mind an image of an aggressor – only that of a body left lying on the ground.


Sandra Rodríguez Nieto is an award-winning investigative journalist who fearlessly exposes local corruption and failures of the judicial system. Her book, La Fábrica del Crimen (The Crime Factory) was published by Temas de Hoy earlier this year.

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