Gruesome Tijuana, Mexico find underscores need to humanize stories, border reporter says

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  • December 12, 2012

By Nathan Frandino

WASHINGTON D.C. – Decapitated bodies. Mass graves. Public executions.

After six years, Mexico’s drug war has left little to the imagination. With these haunting acts of violence, covering the saga has challenged reporters to go beyond gruesome discoveries.

That’s what’s driven Fronteras Desk reporter Erin Siegal in her coverage of the border region and its ongoing violence.

Siegal recently covered a story in Tijuana, Mexico, where officials discovered a series of underground cells holding corpses dissolved in acid. The four sites contained the remains of at least 100 people.

In covering a story like this one, Siegal said contextualizing the story and humanizing her sources, which included an activist whose son went missing in 2007, are the most important factors in keeping a story fresh and making her characters relatable.

Siegal recently spoke with the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas to discuss how she reported the assignment.

Knight Center: There was a lot detail that went into your story. How did you find it and how long did you spend on it?

Erin Siegal: Well I live in Tijuana and I’ve followed the work of Fernando Ocegueda, who is one of the men I profiled in the piece, for quite a while. Ocegueda’s son has been kidnapped and disappeared for five years. Since 2007 he has been agitating, doing his own detective work, organizing other families with disappeared loved ones. I’ve kept my eye on him specifically. He is quite an agitator and is in the Mexican press frequently in Tijuana. When this happened, I began reading about it in the Mexican press and I decided to go and do my own reporting last week.

KC: You cite in the story that 25,000 people are missing in Mexico due to organized crime. When you’re reporting, what do families tell you about their experiences? What is it like for these families when a discovery like this is made?

ES: You know some sources who I speak to who have kidnapped or missing relatives have a really hard time relating their story still. It’s kind of a slow process when you speak to someone that is surviving with such incredible trauma. Others have sort of accepted the fact and are really able to speak bluntly and in a forthcoming way, like Ocegueda, for example. Everybody is different. Some of these families have been dealing with this situation for years and years now so it’s just an ongoing fact of their lives.

KC: For you as a reporter covering this region, which has absolutely been tarnished with violence and murders that have ranged from 50,000 to even upwards to 100,000, were there any particular challenges to covering this story?

ES: You know I think it’s really important for journalists to kind of keep fresh eyes on something, keep a feeling of wonder, and to keep a curiosity about certain stories. I don’t cover murders regularly. I try to choose stories to tell in context so when a story like this happens, it’s not about this one particular crime scene. I’m able to get there and tell it in a broader context and I think that’s really important.

KC: U.S. media has been criticized for a lack of coverage on this region. Are outlets just afraid of sending their reporters there or do many outlets simply just not care?

ES: I don’t think it’s that they don’t care. And I don’t think it’s a decision based in fear when these stories don’t get covered. I think it’s more about resources. It’s more about the state of journalism today. Which outlets can afford to send reporters abroad? There are not a whole lot of them. And it’s also a question of finding someone who is able to do that kind of story. And making sure that a story that is either this horrific or this difficult for readers to engage with is important enough to feed them. American audiences—of course, some people care about what happens in Mexico, some people don’t.

KC: Is there anything else reporters should keep in mind when following these matters and following those advocates like Fernando who are there in Mexico everyday searching for answers?

ES: Well what I think it's important in reporting on stuff like this to make characters come alive and to make sure that they’re relatable and not just victims. But kind of everyone involved. Investigators face their own hurdles doing this kind of work. It is very dangerous. So everyone from officials to soldiers to family members of disappeared. I think it’s important to make these people come off the page so that they are relatable because the statistics are just so overwhelming. When you hear something like 25,000 people disappeared, how do you understand that in a human way? I think the only way to do that is by zeroing in on one situation or certain people and bringing them to life.

Listen to Siegal's story at Fronteras Desk's website.

*Nathan Frandino is a freelance journalist based in Washington D.C. Follow him on Twitter @NathanFrandino.

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.