It’s indeed an honor and a privilege to be with you on this wonderful, certainly very memorable evening to accept the Elijah Lovejoy Award. It’s great to be in Maine in my favorite season of the year, fall, and particularly here in this gorgeous campus of Colby College.
I’m happy to be among so many friends, new and old. Thank you Stephen, Barbara, Mike, Monique Pride, Rebecca, Rosental Alves, Nick and Jesus – who claims to be the only Mexican at Colby College - and June, an esteemed colleague from the David Rockfeller Center at Harvard and longtime foreign correspondent who covered Colombia and Central America. Thank you June for making the drive.
And it’s quite an honor to receive the award a year after Paul Salopek, a journalist I’ve admired since we both started our careers in El Paso, Texas.
You don’t win an award like this without the support of institutions like the Dallas Morning News. Two years ago, I was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard - shortly after returning to Mexico, I received an offer to write a book, with the working title, Midnight in Mexico, which would mean more time away from work.
Somewhat concerned I sat with my editors, Bob Mong, George Rodriguez and Tim Connolly and I said, “Look if you don’t want to let me go, I understand.”
Absolutely not, they said, it’s an important book and an important story. Write it and we’ll be there to back you up – soothing words that in these tough times in our industry you don’t expect to hear anymore, so again, thank you the Dallas Morning News.
Thank you Colby College, I accept the award on behalf of the love I feel for my profession and the enormous respect and admiration I have for those reporting in the line of fire, especially my colleagues in my troubled homeland, Mexico - colleagues who have chosen to defend freedom of expression over submitting to the power of silence.
Thank you judges. In recognizing me you’re also acknowledging a story that’s one of the most important and misunderstood of our times.
I accept the award in the memory of the more than 60 Mexican journalists who have been murdered and dozens more who have disappeared since 2000, more than 30 in the past four years. The dead include 9 this year alone – including one in Ciudad Juarez – the murder capital of Mexico - just over a week ago.
The killing of Luis Carlos Santiago, a 21-year-old photographer for El Diario de Juarez, has galvanized international support. Just this week president Felipe Calderon agreed to push legal reforms that will make the killing of a journalist a federal crime. We all applaud the move but we also have to remind ourselves that Mexico has some of the most progressive, first-rate laws on the book, laws that are rarely enforced. So, on behalf of journalists all over the world, Mr. President, let’s put action into those words.
The Elijah Lovejoy award recognizes a person’s commitment to journalism, measured by how brave and courageous we are in answering the call of duty amid the dangerous situation around us.
This evening, I stand before you and confess that I am no braver, or more courageous than some of my colleagues in Mexico – those who wake up in the morning and ask the following questions:
How far should I go today, what questions should I ask, or not ask, where should I report, or what place should I avoid? And what photos should I take, or ignore. Should I wear a wig, pretend to be a taco, or an ice cream vendor at the crime scene so that I can disguise myself as I try to do my job, which likely means reporting on the latest decapitated body on the streets, or a hanging from a bridge in downtown Juarez, Cuernavaca, Nuevo Laredo or Monterrey.
Should I even answer my cell phone? Because I know that if I do the person calling me is surely a man who calls himself Boots, Rooster, Chicken or Rabbit, a spokesman for the drug traffickers. And once I answer that phone I have no leverage to negotiate. It’s either follow an order or face death, or the killing of a relative, a son, or daughter because that’s the reality in Mexico for a journalist today. The intense questioning, the doubts, the anxiety and stress has many of my Mexican colleagues and us on edge.
I come to you this evening as a witness to the bloodiest period in Mexico since the 1910 Mexican revolution and the biggest threat to Mexico’s national security, its young, fragile democracy and freedom of the press.
Mexico today is among the most dangerous places to do journalism in the world, right up there with Iraq, Russia and Somalia. This is especially true for those who cover the us-Mexico border, once a frontier for Mexicans seeking new opportunities and new beginnings.
These days, more than 200,000 people have fled the chaos, many to the USA. Today, it’s a region that’s increasingly silent.
I dedicate this award to admired Mexican journalists like Jorge Carrasco, Francisco Gomez, Sandra Rodriguez, Javier Garza and in particular to friends like Ramon Cantu Deandar, the editor of El Mañana newspaper in Nuevo Laredo. His news editor was killed, stabbed multiple times… his newsroom attacked with a grenade. Leaving a reporter paralyzed for life….Ramon’s younger brother was kidnapped and only released after Ramon agreed not to cover the business, or the crimes committed by drug traffickers anymore, in other words, he agreed to self-censor his publication. …….It’s the price one pays these days in Mexico if you want to write a story and live to tell about it, though the coverage is limited. He choose self-censorship over total silence.
To Victor Hugo Michel, a young reporter, who two weeks ago said no to an assignment in Ciudad Juarez. His reason: his pay doesn’t include health benefits, or liability insurance. Others in his newsroom now also question their bosses especially after three other colleagues were kidnapped.
I dedicate this to Marcela Turati, a reporter in Mexico City who in anger created an organization called Periodistas de a Pie, or Journalists on Foot. The effort is aimed at teaching journalists in rural Mexico the principles of journalistic ethics and set up meetings to discuss and debate how to do your job without getting killed. Along the way, she helped promote a home that serves as a temporary shelter in Mexico City to hide journalists whose lives have been threatened.
To Rosental Alves from the University of Texas at Austin for his vision. Early this year he gathered 13 journalists from Mexico and 13 from the USA to build bridges. For two days we talked about ways to do our jobs and to stay safe. It was a way to build bridges of trust between us. Thank you, Rosental. What you started is a truly revolutionary thing here and we’re grateful. Thank you from both sides of the border.
And I especially dedicate this to Angela Kocherga, my esteemed colleague from Belo television and longtime girlfriend, and one of the very few American journalists who reports in Juarez on a daily basis. Angela, your courage, your passion and strength serves as an inspiration to me and represents a glimmer of light in a region marked by darkness and silence - our beloved border now paralyzed by fear and chaos and stained by bloodshed. More than 6400 people have been killed since Jan. 2008.
But let me clear: whatever danger Angela, I or any other American correspondents face - pales in comparison to the dangers that our Mexican colleagues face. There is simply no comparison. I can call my editor, Tim Connolly, this very second and say, Tim, I don’t feel safe anymore and he’ll say, get on the next flight out. That’s not the case for Mexican journalists.
Let me explain it to you this way: the difference between my Mexican colleagues and I comes down to this: citizenship. I’m thankful and grateful to have parents who many years ago dreamed big and were determined to give my five brothers – Juan, Mario, Francisco, David, Mundo and two sisters – Monica and Linda - and I the chance to dream and achieve. We migrated from a poor community in Mexico to follow the crops in this country when I was just six old. Along the journey, from Durango, to Juarez, California to Texas and back to Mexico, I was able to obtain a little blue passport that says I am a citizen of the United States of America.
As imperfect as our judicial institutions are, I have perhaps a naïve, but unwavering belief that if something is to happen to me, someone puts a bullet to my head, or God forbid, to Angela, or any one of my American colleagues, there would be consequences to pay. That our newspapers, our media companies, our colleagues would stand up and demand answers and justice, that our deaths wouldn’t become just another number. Someone would seek justice.
Three years ago as I prepared to celebrate an award from Columbia University – the Maria Moors Cabot prize - I got a call from a trusted us source who said "I have raw intelligence that says the cartels will kill an American journalist in 24 hours. I think it’s you. Get out of Mexico now.”
I called my American and Mexican colleagues who were preparing a celebration dinner for me that evening and said, there’s a death threat and I think we should cancel dinner. Dudley Althaus from the Houston Chronicle, whom we all fondly refer to as the dean because he’s been in Mexico so long, more than 20 years, said not just no, but hell no. If they’re going to kill you, he said, they will have to kill us, too. So come on over and have some tequila.
….The solidarity included a protest letter from the U.S. ambassador and editorials from some U.S. newspapers.
My Mexican colleagues can’t say the same thing. They don’t have that kind of solidarity among themselves; they don’t share that trust with their own editors, less so from their own government.
Today, the vast majority of the killings in Mexico, whether you’re a woman in Ciudad Juarez, or a cop, or your average citizen, end up as crimes unsolved, unpunished – “crimenes no resueltos.”
Often times in Mexico victims are assassinated twice, one by the criminal and then again – character assassination - by authorities who even before investigating the crime will speculate why he or she was killed. Maybe he was part of a gang, or maybe the reporter was messing with the neighbor’s husband, or wife.
Were they doing courageous work, or simply flacks on the payroll for criminal organizations? We simply don’t know and given Mexico’s impunity rate, we’ll probably never know. More than 95 percent of all crimes in Mexico go unresolved.
I dreamed of being a foreign correspondent not because I wanted to live in some exotic land, but simply because I wanted to return to my homeland. I ached for my roots, language and culture. So on this evening I speak to you not just as a journalist, but also an American journalist of Mexican descent, a fact that in these troubled times in Mexico I cannot ignore.
I often ask myself questions I thought I had finally resolved. Am I what I believe I am? Do I belong to the United States, this powerful country built on principles of rule of law, yet still faced with contradictions – the insatiable appetite for guns, cash and drugs, or do I belong to Mexico, the country of my roots, where my umbilical chord is buried, where we use nationalism and patriotism to more often than not masked our corruption, our poverty and inequality?
The hyphenated complexities of being Mexican-American create a confusing feeling of being in-between. For me personally, this also instills a sense of a higher responsibility to share these stories, especially now when so many reporters have been forced to decide to censor themselves.
As such I strive to understand that when you cover Mexico, particularly the U.S.-Mexico border, nothing is black or white. There are only shades of gray; that to understand these stories you must go deeper, and be able to see and distinguish between shades of gray, understand that not everything is as bad, or good, as it seems.
And that there are always, always, always many sides to this story;
Take for instance, the story of young men who no longer dream of going to the united states to toil in the fields, but who see opportunity in becoming hit men in Mexico, earning as little as 250 to 1500, the equivalent of $22 a hit to $130 a week. As the old iconic Mexican song from Jose Alfredo Jimenez, “la vida no vale nada” - life in Mexico is worth nothing.
We’re talking about a whole new generation of children affected – numbed by the daily violence around them and teens from both sides of the border who embrace a new lifestyle and a new saying:
“Prefiero vivir cinco anos como rey, que 50 anos como buey.” I prefer to live five years as a king than 50 as an ox.
Or consider the young Chicano gang member who now uses the same immigration routes his grandparents used decades ago to embrace a new life, a chance at an opportunity. ….Today, this gang members, hand in hand with powerful Mexican cartels, use the same route to distribute drugs in more than 250 U.S. communities where Mexican cartels have an influence. Their role model is a thug from Laredo, Texas, with the name Edgar Valdez Villarreal, better known as La Barbie, a Texas high school football player who rose through the ranks as a hit man to become the most notorious American in a Mexican cartel. The heroes of my time had names like Cesar Chavez, or JFK, or Martin Luther King.
How did things get so bad in Mexico? The answers are complex. Demand for drugs in the us, the lure of easy cash, the widespread availability for guns, especially high-powered weapons, smuggled from the United States.
And on the Mexican side it had to do with ignoring a reality: corruption, complicity and greed. For too long, the two countries blamed each other and as they did Mexico slowly descended into darkness. Corruption grew like a cancer within the government.
Today, Mexico‘s conflict is really a war within. It’s about a country trying to redefine itself, become a nation of rule of law, but without a clear path, or mandate. Few can question whether President Calderon had any other choice but to take on organized crime, which had reached the upper echelons of power. But whether or not he had the right strategy, and the right people is a question that will haunt him, Mexico and us for decades.
The spillover into the USA isn’t so much about violence, but about an exodus of Mexico’s most talented people. And you’re seeing that in enrollment in universities across the country. People migrating today aren’t just nannies, or people picking your blueberries in Maine, or caring for your chicken farms in turner. No, we’re talking about well-educated professionals, people who used to create jobs - people who now fear being kidnapped, or extorted by criminal gang.
My biggest concern is that Mexico has yet to reach bottom and nobody yet knows where that bottom is, or what it may look like.
I stumbled onto the story seven years ago when after a brief period at our Washington, D.C. bureau, I was assigned a story to investigate who was killing so many women in Juarez. There I discovered the role of organized crime with the help of police in kidnapping and killing some of these women, with no consequences.
After Juarez I discovered Nuevo Laredo, where Americans were also being kidnapped, and a new paramilitary group, the zetas, partly trained by the U.S. government, was terrorizing society.
Suddenly, I was immersed in stories about us agencies mishandling informants, or how us trained Mexican soldiers had gone rogue, or the deep corruption inside the Mexican government.
One time, a Mexican source, a lawyer, had to drive me as I hid in a trunk and drove me to the international bridge so I could run across the border to the U.S. That source was later gunned down. He took several bullets to the head and torso.
Another time, the threat came on us soil, in Laredo, when a man approached me and warned to stop writing stories about the zetas and in gruesome detail described how they would cut me into pieces and dissolve my remains in acid inside a barrel, a common technique in Mexico.
After one of those shocking incidents a law enforcement source sat me down and set me straight. I asked, “These guys don’t really want to hurt an American journalist, right? I mean that could disrupt their criminal enterprise.”
And the source replied, “I have good and bad news.”
The good news? They wouldn’t want to mess with an American journalist because the attention could threaten their billion dollar earnings.
The bad news? You just don’t look American.
His advice: wear your congressional press I.D., or anything that identifies you as an American journalist, around your neck.
I had left Mexico for Washington in 2000, convinced by U.S. officials that the election of an opposition government, the end of 71 years of one party rule, signaled the automatic birth of democratic institutions. Far from it, organized crime took advantage of a power vacuum. With greater ease they bought off entire police forces, politicians, beginning with mayors and local governments. And then they also bought off journalists. The cartels became de-facto governments. It was no longer the threat of plata or plomo, silver or lead. It was our way, or six feet under.
These cartels are very sophisticated about mastering the message. Because the goal in any conflict is to control the message. Today, media members serve as spokesmen. A cartel spokespeople will call reporters or editors and dictate what should or shouldn’t be covered in that evening’s newscast, or in tomorrow’s newspaper. Imagine working in a newsroom where you don’t know if your colleague is the brave journalist, or a spy for a cartel…
So yes, in many ways, Mexican journalists also shoulder some blame. Increased freedom of the press has also meant more control by organized crime, more corruption within media companies. Last week, El Diario de Juarez asked: what do you want from us? The message was aimed, the editor said, at the drug traffickers. It was a way of expressing their frustration, and sense of impotence of living in the shadow of organized crime.
I’d want to believe that the message was also meant as a wake up call for civil society, because until civil society demands more from wealthy media moguls, journalists will be poorly trained and paid, something that will make them vulnerable to the threats of organized crime.
Earlier this year, Bob Giles, or Daddy Giles as many of us former Niemans fondly refer to the curator, wrote a piece of advice that ran in the New York Times editorial page:
To the editor: the brave journalists reporting on the Mexican drug cartels under the most fearful circumstances should remember a cardinal rule of journalism: no story is worth dying for.
Another friend, and one of the best former Latin American correspondents, Doug Farah, constantly reminds me, ”no color is worth dying for.”
I couldn’t agree more with Bob and Doug. But far from preaching that we all be journalistic cowboys, I would argue that we must find a way to find a balance: fear-versus-silence. We must find a way to tell the story, and not let fear be the deciding factor, don’t allow fear to become the ultimate editor who decides whether or not we pursue a story. Because otherwise the killing of more than 30,000 people in just four years will be just that, a number. Or worse that we will be engulfed in silence, as some regions in Mexico already find themselves.
Earlier this year, Angela, her cameraman Hugo Perez, and I went to the city of Reynosa, Mexico, to confirm rumors of running gun battles on the streets in broad daylight. We heard parents were keeping their kids home from schools, staying home from work, others were fleeing in droves to Texas.
But because of a media blackout, some were resorting to Twitter, YouYube and Facebook to share news about when it was safe to go outside, or whether to drive down specific streets.
The big story on the front pages of newspapers in the area that day? The price of onions going up.
I’m not saying fear is wrong. I actually think feeling fear is a powerful force. Fear is a survival skill. If you’re not scared you become reckless. Fear forces us to stake stock of our lives and reminds us how much life means to us.
So what we cover and how we cover this story is a very personal decision.
I became a 2009 Nieman fellow because I was scared, because I questioned whether what I was doing was the right thing. When I returned to Mexico I felt numb, separated from the story because I realized I didn’t want to put my life on the line anymore.
That sentiment changed on Feb. 1 of this year when 13 teens were gunned down. I remember when Angela gave me the news on that Sunday morning and I felt, like many people, well, they’re probably gang members. So we went to check it out and soon discovered that these were 13 students, athletes, sons and daughters of parents who had dreams for them; parents who told them don’t stray too far from home. Celebrate your friend’s birthday across the street, so you can be close to home.
The hit men were wrongly tipped off that the party was for a group of rival gang members. So they stormed in and lined up and killed 13 of the 36, while friends, or brothers and sisters hid in closets, others hid underneath the bodies of their friends and siblings.
I will never forget the day of the funeral, the sight of a dozen hearses on that street, the sight of coffins, the wailing from parents, friends, brothers and sisters. I’m grateful that it was a rainy day because I felt so angry that I was able to mask my tears with raindrops. And on that sad, gray, rainy morning I broke my silence and found my voice again.
Note from the editor: This story was originally published by the Knight Center’s blog Journalism in the Americas, the predecessor of LatAm Journalism Review.