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|Maria Teresa Ronderos||June 22nd 2011|
Blanca and Alicia
The two reporters are at a crime scene on Pisces Street between Aquarius and Leo, a rather astrological crossing in a dusty and disjointed neighborhood, much like most of the neighborhoods in Ciudad Juárez. It’s the first reported victim of their burdensome nightshift. The photographer can’t get close to the body. She’s not allowed past the yellow tape put up by the forensics team. They have been told that the victim is a police officer from the Attorney General’s Office. So she zooms in. Click, click. A boy steps into the picture. He steps out. The officers’ four-by-four drives away.
I was late. One of the reporters was already finishing up with her pictures; the other one had already hopped onto a crane that happened to be there, filmed the scene with her cell phone and posted it directly to her newspaper’s website.
We introduced ourselves. Blanca’s name, “white” in Spanish, suits her well; she’s very pale. Alicia is darker and livelier, under thirty years old. Standing there, in the middle of the street, we talk and we laugh about nothing in particular. Some neighbors stare at us curiously. It must be my Colombian accent that gets their attention.
As we reach Blanca’s car, a disproportionately tall man smiles at me from a roof. It’s the mayor, they tell me, or at least a cardboard cut-out of him, attached to a high wall that towers over the roofs. “He probably didn’t see a thing”, one of them says, laughing. We set off to her office in a shabby old car for which Blanca apologizes.
“This district doesn’t scare me”, she says. “I was born in Juárez and I’m used to it. When I was in high school, they started killing women. I remember a teacher that used to warn us: if they rape you, don’t fight back or else they’ll kill you”.
She keeps talking as she drives through this vast and dry city, full of highways that connect neighborhoods and shopping malls through sandy wastelands. She shows me a nice little park, built recently, and she explains to me that it is a part of the “We’re all Juárez” campaign with which they hope to improve the city’s self-esteem. Later on she remembers that seven boys were killed in that park while they were warming up for a soccer match. They piled up the bodies under the “We’re all Juárez” sign.
This is the first stop of the “violentour”, as another colleague from Juárez called it. It’s like what they used to do in Medellín; they would take you to a corner where someone had been “whacked” and, with their little hands, go over the bullet holes on the wall. That was back when Medellín, and not Juárez, was the place that set the hellish standards for homicide. There, in 1991, it reached a high of 384 for every 100,000 inhabitants. In Juárez, the highest count so far was in 2010, when it reached 300 per 100,000 residents, excluding missing persons. This year is likely to be worse. By the end of February 2011 the count was already 62 homicides above last year’s.
“At this rate I’ll run out of informants”, says Blanca with a shy smile. Some thirty-odd of her sources, mostly police officers and lawyers, have been killed. She doesn’t boast about the risks of her job.
The thing she still can’t control is the anguish the losses leave her with. “I feel like crying”, she says. Like the time she saw an eight-year-old boy dying in his father’s arms, both shot to death and burned. She saw the mother uncontrollably screaming at everyone: “He was an innocent boy, why did no one do anything?”
Just as we reach the office parking lot, her cell phone rings. It’s a colleague of hers, Julio, a photographer. He tells her that there’s a body in Isla Terranova. She has no time to finish the half-eaten tomato she keeps in a Tupperware box. She looks Terranova up on Google Maps, but she can’t find it. Nervous, she calls one of her informants, but he doesn’t know either.
Julio, the skinny photographer, shows up carrying two backpacks that seem too big for him—as do his glasses.
“Everyone’s there already,” he tells us in a hurry. “We’ll find the location on the way.”
We get into the car and go guessing the route, as it starts to get dark. I am too unfamiliar with the place to feel afraid. I see them so accustomed to the routine of spending the night chasing dead bodies that I feel I’m in a movie, one with high-speed car chases over highways in the middle of nowhere. A Buick with two big men and really loud music whizzes by. We see the tattoos on one of the guy’s arms. Blanca slows down. She has a bad feeling about them, zigzagging and cutting everyone off, missing cars by inches, and she says it out loud.
A City At War
After a few days in Juárez the journalists start revealing how they really feel. It’s not that they’re accustomed to violence, as Blanca so often insisted. Death came over them all of a sudden, like a dark cloud. In 2007, there was less than a murder a day. And in only three years the daily average rose to more than eight a day. In Medellín, homicide rates jumped dramatically between 1985 and 1991. Savagery wasn’t as strange for them—they had more time to prepare. Here the homicides multiplied in a wink, and the number is still growing.
Also, they’re not dealing with the invisible deaths they used to have 15 years ago. Today’s deaths are a spectacle of corpses with pig masks. Or pitiless deaths, with kids riddled by bullets in nightclubs and parks. In the first two months of this year there were already 29 of those.
A while ago, the Juárez Cartel, which once monopolized the local business of smuggling drugs into the U.S., would dispose of its enemies in ditches. The hatred was silent. But then came the mysterious murders of the women of Juárez, after which the whole world started to associate the city with violence. But the really loud war broke out after that in 2007, when the Sinaloa Cartel went all out in trying to capture Vicente Carrillo Fuentes’s turf. The social mayhem that transformed the hopeless children of the expanding slums into fearful gangs like the Aztecas and the Artistas Asesinos (artists in homicide) is fuelling the machine of terror.
Neither editors nor reporters are trained or protected against the horror that took over their trade without a warning. They are like unarmed police officers in constant ambush; they are like firemen pushed into the fire without any protection; they are like impotent doctors unable to help anyone. Their only weapons are words, and even those they have had to distort in order to adapt them to the situation. The risk of writing at such a pace is obvious, but they can’t afford to stop.
Just when Blanca started slowing down we heard the sirens. A bulky SUV with two federal policemen in bullet-proof armor started chasing the men in the Buick. It passed us by in seconds.The Buick made a U-turn, and the “federales” did the same behind them. “The picture, the picture!” yelled Julio.
So we went after them, the wheels of our car screeching on the narrow curve. When we reached the entrance of the alleyway the Buick and federales had entered, the police were already searching the driver. Julio jumped out of the car with his camera all set and started shooting away without asking. A policeman saw him and got upset.
“Let’s see some ID,” he yelled.
“I’ll take the pictures first,” Julio yelled back.
The policeman, a young man panting and shivering under his bullet-proof vest, approached him menacingly. There was violence in the air. “Cut it out,” said the policeman. “I’m asking you nicely. Can’t you see I’m right in the middle of the action? Didn’t you see them bumping into every car? I’m pumping adrenaline man, come on.”
Julio showed him his journalist’s pass, argued a bit more and went back to the car. Blanca, who had taken the opportunity to film the search with her cell phone, also got back in. Trying her best to contain herself, she said to Julio: “When they kill you I don’t want to be around.”
Julio had told me he became a photographer out of passion. He managed to find a newspaper job as a temp and after a year and a half and a local award he was hired full-time. During his debut as a night-shift crime reporter, the war got worse. On January 21, 2008 the director of the municipal police was murdered, and that same night there was an attempt on the director of the Juárez state police. Homicides went through the roof.
Alarmed by the situation, President Felipe Calderón sent a contingent of 2,000 military troops to put an end to the havoc. But the killings continued and eventually more troops were dispatched to the border.
The night of the confrontation with the policeman must have been a meaningless dispute for Julio. He’d had worse days. On his last birthday, when Julio arrived at the newspaper at 4 p.m. he learned that Luis Carlos Santiago was killed. Santiago was a young, rookie photographer whom Julio had worked with a couple of times. He became furious and later that day Julio updated his Facebook status to: “No balloons or chocolate cake for me today, today they killed Luis Carlos.”
Every journalist is banned from the downtown area of Juárez nowadays. That is where the picaderos, the drug-selling houses, are, the last standing remains of the once powerful cartel. Anyone is a potential enemy.
Julio’s pictures of Juárez’s tragedy have gone to Milan, where they were exhibited alongside Letizia Battaglia’s impressive pictures of the violence of Sicily. But he has paid the price. In the morning Julio leaves home in human shape, looking at the sky and enjoying life. “As I take more and more pictures of bodies I feel I start becoming deformed, turning into a monster,” he says while he raises his arms like Frankenstein.
Protection For Journalists?
Who protects Mexico’s journalists? The National Human Rights Commission can dictate measures for the protection of a threatened journalist, says Darío Ramirez, director of Article 19, the Mexican chapter of the British organization for the freedom of expression. The problem is that it is the local authorities who grant the protective measures do so at their discretion.
Furthermore, for the past year the federal government has been developing a nation-wide administrative mechanism able to grant immediate protection to journalists who have been threatened or are in high-risk situations. Last November, the government signed an agreement with the National Commission for Human Rights, the office of the attorney general and other organizations to put it in motion.
But the mechanism is in a bureaucratic tangle, and if someone is threatened the response is slow at best. This was the case with reporter Jazmín Rodríguez. She and two other journalists where covering an attempt against José Alberto Velázquez’s life, a fellow journalist who was attacked in Tulum, Quintana Roo. On his way to the hospital, Velázquez took off his oxygen mask and declared he had recognized his assailant’s faces, who worked for the mayor of Tulum. Shortly after, he died. Jazmín said she would testify, but she was threatened. Michael O’Connor, an investigator for the Committee for the Protection of Journalists based in Mexico, asked the Governor’s Office to offer her protection, but it took the local police two weeks just to show up.
Outside the front door of El Diario of Juárez the guards are nowhere to be seen. For me, being Colombian, this is quite strange. Even today, with violence on the wane, there isn’t a single media building without security guards, metal detectors, and even sniffer dogs.
Alejandro, the kind editor of a popular tabloid in Juárez, tells me there have been many murders just a few blocks from his office. “This is the latest one”, he says, and he takes his cell phone out to show me the picture of a man shot to death in a car. He tells me that when he heard the gunfire he went out to take the picture himself, in case the photographers couldn’t make it in time.
Every morning at four, he comes to work to see what happened during the night. He tries to give each dead person a full page with the picture and the specifics. But sometimes there aren’t enough pages to collect so much blood, and he has to fit three or four victims on a single page.
The pieces in his tabloid are a good portrait of Juárez today. “They see us as the drain in the gutter”, he says with sorrow. “But we do keep people from forgetting that there are also loads of victims alive, that the authorities don’t get involved, that the murderers are teenagers, that there are no schools, no jobs, that they kill for a few pesos.” Some 65,000 readers buy the newspaper every day to check whether a relative has died, to find out about what is going on in the streets, or out of pure morbid fascination.
Alejandro says he’s dealing with a pathological society. On Sunday, he drives to El Paso, Texas, on the other side of the border, just to be able to roll down the windows without fearing he will get caught by a burst of machine-gun fire.
Threats are an everyday thing. Alejandro once was told that he would share his murdered colleagues’ fate for publishing a picture of the wrong part of town. His editor had to negotiate so that the threat would not be carried out. In order to show his neutrality, Alejandro had to send a photographer to take a picture of an answering billboard belonging to the cartel that made the threat “Underneath it there were four bodies and a head,” he says.
Alejandro doesn’t leave because this is his city and this is what he knows how to do. He bought a bullet-proof vest but he rarely uses it because it is uncomfortable, and because he knows that “cop-killing” bullets can pierce through anything. Alejandro changes his hair style, lets his beard grow, changes his glasses so that it’s harder to recognize him. Every day Alejandro says goodbye to his wife as if for the last time, with resignation. He foresees one day he will be photographed for his own newspaper, pitilessly, his body flung carelessly on the ground.
The Emotional Damage
When covering deaths is no longer shocking, when there is no longer time to recover from the fear of a threat because a new one is already there, the psychological damage can be permanent, says the manual of emotional support for journalists published by the Foundation for Press Freedom in Colombia. Bursts of anger come unexpectedly. Focusing becomes hard. Strong feelings become rarer, you feel anesthetized. Danger must be constantly pursued in order keep the adrenaline flowing. Your mind becomes like a broken record, always with the same negative thoughts, the same recurrent nightmares. You stop trusting, you start picking fights with anyone. You drink more …
As I read out bits of this manual at an unplanned meeting with the journalists of the newspaper, I saw a few smiles. They identified with it. They teased each other about the drinking. The mocking and the nervous laughter were not without a note of fatalism. Most of them think that a violent end is inevitable. That’s what happened to Bladimir Antuna, a skilled crime reporter from Durango who was murdered by hit men in November 2009. One month prior to that, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists report on freedom of press in Mexico in 2010, some of his friends say they saw him “despondent and terrified … resigned to his own murder”—so much that he was saving money so as not to leave his wife and kids in the street.
“Do you want to see the nicer side of Juárez?” she asks me. Always anxious, Sandra has a dazzling energy, one of those people who can brighten the saddest souls. We take off in her little car crammed with papers through a highway that goes around this ash-colored city like a belt. We can see El Paso right next to us, the green side of Juárez.
“They only had nine homicides last year. It’s more than they ever had, but here we had 3,100,” says Sandra. “Here, they kill because they can.”
Sandra has taken some time off the newspaper to write a book in about what she has learned through her investigations since she arrived from Mexico City a little less than a decade ago. Sandra has already published a few articles about the fortunes politicians made speculating in urban land, and how the city changed shape as a result of that, forcing people to live miserably. Now she wants to tell the story of gangs, which she has mapped neighborhood by neighborhood; the story of the recent war between security institutions, as arbitrary as the illegal ones: set-ups on innocent people, coercive raids and prisoners shamelessly tortured.
Her time off is also a way for her to get some distance, I imagine. Last September, things started to get really bad. Luis Carlos was murdered on a Thursday. The next Saturday another homemade bulletin board appeared, displaying a cryptic message: “If we don’t get the cup back, you’ll end up like the journalists.” They did not understand what cup they were talking about, but that same afternoon they found a body with the head cut off and next to it a few pages from the Chihuahua newspaper, El Diario’s twin daily in the capital.
The following Sunday, El Diario published that heartbreaking editorial directed at all the drug dealers in the city: “We would like to let you know that we are journalists, not fortunetellers. Consequently, being people who deal with information, we would like you to clarify what it is you want from us, what you expect us to publish or not to publish, so we know what to expect. You are, at this point, the de facto authority in this city because the legal authorities haven’t been able to stop our colleagues from falling, despite the fact that we have unceasingly demanded them to do so.”
Some saw in that desperate scream for help a surrender to criminal organizations, an abdication. It wasn’t. Very few newspapers in the regions seized by drug trafficking in the north have shown as much courage in investigating, tying up loose ends and especially disclosing what really goes on.
In 2007, the news came out in Juárez that La Línea, a para-police armed group that protects the Juárez Cartel, was splitting up. Tired of a boss that was too violent, many of them joined Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzmán’s faction, which had come to take over their turf. They called them the “Gente Nueva,” the new people. Armando Rodríguez, who everyone called Choco, an experienced crime reporter for the newspaper, had found out as soon as the stampede started. He sensed a strange climate emanating from the police of the State Attorney’s office, infiltrated (as it was) by criminals.
At the beginning of 2008, when the war was at its peak, a general threat to all the reporters covering the State Attorney’s office came out. Some of them were transferred. Choco feared for his life, and given that back pain had become unbearable, he took the opportunity to take a break and undergo treatment. He came back a new man, even more willing to denounce what was wrong, and maintained his beat.
On October 28, two men were murdered in a pickup truck. The next day, Choco did a piece on it, in which he revealed that one of the men was a nephew by marriage of the Attorney General of Chihuahua, Patricia González, and that he had a record for drug trafficking, according to the file he found in El Paso. The piece was signed. On the morning of November 13, while he waited in his car with his eight-year-old daughter for his youngest child to come out of the house, a man shot him.
Since that day nobody has used Choco’s desk. His colleagues taped a piece of paper with his picture onto his computer screen, and they keep it surrounded by flowers, like an improvised shrine. And on the anniversary of Choco’s death they publish the piece that they suspect had him killed. But they are not sure about this, because the case remains unsolved.
Crime Without Punishment
In February 2006, in response to the increasing number of murdered journalists, the Mexican government created a special prosecutor’s committee to investigate felonies against the freedom of speech. But it only takes cases that fall into the federal jurisdiction—those associated with terrorism, drug trafficking or the use of weapons exclusive to the armed forces.
Choco’s murder, like so many others, wasn’t considered a federal crime. The attorney general’s office investigated but declined to prosecute.
The case wasn’t even reopened when the prosecutor’s brother was kidnapped, just a few days after she left office in 2010. Not even when he appeared as a hostage on a video on the JL blog, surrounded by armed and men in masks and after being tortured, confessed his sister had had Choco killed. Then the man was murdered on tape and the video posted on YouTube.
Even though it has recently started to investigate more thoroughly, the special prosecutor hasn’t cleared a single one of the 32 cases of missing journalists or of the three press-affiliated employees that have gone missing since Calderón came to office according to the CPJ.
“Systemic impunity allows insecurity to take root,” says the Committee to Protect Journalist’s report on Mexico. If criminals know they won’t be punished for killing journalists, they won’t hesitate to kill whoever inconveniences them next. And they are strategic murders, because they silence the people by silencing the spokesperson.
In Colombia, justice has a poor record as well. Out of the 138 cases of murdered journalists between 1977 and 2010, only five killers have been sentenced, according to FLIP. And this was thanks to a negotiation between the paramilitary and the government by which they confessed their crimes in exchange for light sentences. Some of them confessed in detail how they killed journalists, often in complicity with local politicians.
Lucy, the reserved woman who replaced Choco as a crime reporter for the newspaper, is obsessed with keeping a record of everything. She has one of those office calendars, but she doesn’t use it to make notes about appointments and chores. For a long time now she writes on each day’s box the number of women murdered. On March 8, International Women’s Day, five were killed.
She became a journalist in the streets, covering the police beat in the nineties, when dead women started to appear everywhere in Juárez, workers in the ubiquitous border factories, for whom there appeared to be no justice whatsoever, but whose relatives Lucy learned to comfort. Women are still being killed, but now there are many more hit women, tough girls deep into the drug business. And Lucy feels she has to get personally involved. She provides first aid to the wounded, she comforts widows in shock, she tells them where to go for help. “I put a lot of time into this,” she says. She wants to unmask impunity and indolence. She wants the police and the military educated so that they stop breaking laws like the criminals.
Sometimes she feels hopeless and she contemplates the idea of changing the subject. But then she is informed about another homicide and she has to take off. With Lucy’s work of crosschecking sources and keeping count, along with the daily reports from the attorney’s office, Martín, her boss, keeps his own calendar of dead people year by year since 2008, and month by month: February 2011: 230 homicides, 36 women, nine kids.
What would happen if Martín didn’t keep his sorrowful calendar up to date? Or if Lucy didn’t insist on making complaints in order to gain access to the true dimension of kidnappings, or if Sandra didn’t go to El Paso to study American police reports in order to continue mapping the gangs? And what if Julio and Alicia didn’t take pictures of every crime scene, or if Alejandro wouldn’t publish them, or if Blanca wouldn’t interview the neighbors after every crime?
And what if Ismael Bojórquez and Javier Valdez and his colleagues at the Río Doce website and newspaper, in Mexico’s violence-ridden city of Culiacán, wouldn’t tell us about the changing structures in the Sinaloa Cartel or about how their violence and state corruption hurt the people?
Thugs would kill incessantly and no alarm would be able to stop them. They would kidnap at will and the authorities would commit every abuse possible and, one day, perhaps the whole thing would collapse like the Berlin wall, rotten from the inside. The Communist experiment proved that silence doesn’t increase legitimacy; it disguises its shortcomings instead. And the Mexicans that suffer today under the terror of drug traffic would suffer twice as much if they had no hope of being heard.
It’s not mere speculation. It is already under way. In Tamaulipas, the brutality of the war between the narco-military Zetas gang the Gulf Cartel has cowed most journalists into complete silence. Some of the media, still not completely free from the patriarchal censorship of the Institutional Revolutionary Party when already under the more violent censorship of narco-traffic, have chosen not to disclose anything about the situation. The low wages of reporters aren’t helping either. No one is willing to risk their lives knowing they could leave their families indigent.
But that is just one side. On the other, there is the fear that the press will become the megaphone of terror; that the constant violence will immunize society against horror and that the media, the mirrors of reality, will only show its darkest side.
The fear of becoming a mere tool for organized crime is not without reason, especially in the last year when criminals made a real effort to impose their versions of the facts. In Ciudad Victoria it is common for the Zetas to send out articles ready for publishing, including pictures of their parties.
Early in the morning a colleague took me to the airport. As we were driving along those long avenues that connect neighborhoods like random dots on a city that doesn’t resemble one, my colleague tells me with anguish that she can’t see a way out of the situation; perhaps a change in policy, the legalization of drugs. Prohibition is what makes the business so fruitful and allows it to take over everything else. Or maybe a transfer of government funds from troops to notebooks and desks: There are massive neighborhoods in Juárez with just one school. And, what if corruption would end …
Suddenly she slows down. In the middle of the street there are two black and bulky garbage bags. As we pass by them we see that the plastic is partly torn out, but no waste comes out. Within the black bags, white sheets are wrapped around whatever is in them.
“Human bodies?” I ask, terrified.
“Probably”, she answers unconcerned. “This is the time when they usually dispose of them.”
As the plane took off, I felt a fondness for Ciudad Juárez. Never had I met braver journalists.
Maria Teresa Ronderos, a veteran member of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists; an adviser to Semana magazine in Bogotá, Colombia; a member of the board of directors of the Committee to Protect Journalists; and a former Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford University wrote this article, which is reprinted from iWatch News, a project of the Center for Public Integrity. The original Spanish version first appeared in Gatopardo magazine.