By Alejandro Martínez
Why did acclaimed Mexican journalist Marcela Turati tell the story of death and threats against her colleagues during a ceremony recognizing the very best of investigative journalism in the U.S.?
Because the problem of corruption and drug trafficking in Mexico does not stop at the border, she said, and U.S. journalists must own the story as well.
During her June 22 keynote speech at Investigative Reporters and Editors’ 34th conference in San Antonio, Texas, Turati, an investigative reporter at Mexican news magazine Proceso and co-founder of journalism organization Periodistas de a Pie, described the situation of the press south of the border, where dozens of journalists have been killed in the last 10 years.
There, criminals have infiltrated newsrooms. Journalists who inconvenience drug traffickers are kidnapped and tortured. Turati said a Mexican journalist once asked colleagues for a gun, not for protection, but to kill himself in case they came for him.
Many journalists in Mexico still risk their lives to tell these stories but silence is spreading, she said, and many places in Mexico have been sucked into an information vacuum.
Turati said U.S. reporters often ask her how they can help. More than anything, she said, American journalists should investigate corrupt government officials, local drug dealers and money launderers here.
“You can do many things. But I believe that we must do journalism, because that is what we are, journalists,” she said. “Again, this isn't just about helping us, it's about helping yourselves as well.”
“What can you do?” she asked. “A friend in Sinaloa, in the investigative magazine ‘Riodoce,’ perhaps said it the best way: ‘don't abandon us.’ I say the same to you.”
At the end of her speech, the hundreds of journalists attending the conference gave Turati a standing ovation.
Read below Turati’s full keynote speech at IRE’s conference.
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Marcela Turati’s speech at The Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE) Annual Conference in San Antonio, Texas.
To Lise Olsen, who has devoutly dedicated herself to train (and care for) investigative Mexican journalists
Good afternoon everyone.
I am honored to address IRE on a topic of importance to us all, especially considering that this is an organization that has long stood up for investigative reporting on the border – most memorably after Don Bolles, an IRE co-founder, was killed by organized crime figures in Arizona.
As you know, in 2006 president Felipe Calderón launched the 'war on drugs' in part with funding from the United States. Our country became a battlefield. He put soldiers and federal police on the streets, supposedly to fight drug cartels, giving rise to an irregular war, which has caused at least seventy thousand victims of homicide and more than twenty thousand disappeared people. These are unresolved crimes, of which we still have not fully grasped their nature.
Journalists in many regions of the country have become trapped in the middle of the conflict. And, due to the lack of investigation into the murders by the authorities, it is still difficult to understand who is truly behind the crimes.
We Mexican journalists have become war reporters in our own country. In my case, for example, I began as a reporter who covered poverty, who from one day to the next was suddenly covering massacres of young people, documenting ghost towns abandoned after a series of murders, or social programs for children orphaned by the violence. One day I had in front of me a row of 30 women with photos of their missing children, who wanted to tell me their stories. I have dedicated much of my own work as an investigative reporter at Proceso to ferreting out the truth behind some of these episodes and documenting the victims of war.
We journalists were not prepared for the violence. Suddenly, there we were, being pushed around in the chaos, in the middle of a war which was not about drug trafficking, as they told us, but for control of territory. A war to see who would hold onto the land where narcotics are grown, the trafficking routes, and the points of sale of drugs in the country. To see who would control the business, who would tax the sellers, who would appoint the mayor, the next chief of police and the director of prisons.
And in a situation like this, it is clearly central to have control of the press, so that no one asks questions. To guarantee control of the population.
Other reporters and I founded an organization called Periodistas de a Pie (Journalists on Foot), to train journalists who cover poverty issues. However, we had to change focus quickly to respond to the crisis. We held workshops on how to survive an assignment, how to understand the drug trafficker, how to interview a child who had survived a massacre, how to continue reporting without losing the joy of living.
Before we realized it, we were a crisis center. At any hour of the day, including during tense deadlines, we were receiving calls from colleagues in remote zones, desperately seeking help because they knew hit men were coming for them and they needed refuge. Or requests for psychological support for reporters who didn't want to go back out to work after a traumatic event, like a fire or attack on their office.
In this war for territory, the journalists have become victims. Because, unlike in traditional wars, in Mexico journalists don't die in the crossfire, from a stray bullet, from walking in a minefield. In Mexico, the killers hunt down journalists, dragging them out of their offices and their houses, intercepting them in the street.
In Mexico the reporters who are supposed the file the news, became themselves the news.
In the last 10 years, at least 17 journalists have disappeared and 72 been killed. None of them have been solved.
One of them is Regina Martínez, the valiant reporter who exposed political corruption and organized crime in the state of Veracruz. She worked for Proceso magazine, as do I. A year ago she was strangled in her house. The local government, which may be implicated in the murder, decided without credible evidence that her murder was the result of a robbery, and they locked up a young man. He claims he was tortured into admitting the crime.
As in the other murders of journalists, the judicial authorities did not consider her journalistic work as a possible cause of the murder. As in other murders, they blamed the journalist for her own death, and tried to call her integrity into question. Days after her murder, two more journalists were killed with another who had recently left the profession out of fear.
These killings had the desired effect. They silenced the rest.
At least 17 journalists fled the state, some of them paid by the state government to leave and come back after the elections. Some left the profession in an attempt to save their lives. Others of them are cutting grass or selling tacos in the U.S., or relay on their friends’ solidarity to sustain themselves, whilst they wait for their asylum case to be heard. Others work as street vendors or as whatever they can, in Mexico City, trying to rebuild their lives. Terrified, penniless, broken.
The situation is different in various regions of Mexico.
In some areas, drug traffickers leave videos or messages, and they call up the journalists to report on them. In other zones, the warnings always come accompanied by violence, and journalists who publish information that annoys a certain group are abducted and tortured, and their skin marked, to show that they won't get a second chance. In some areas, journalists are forced to attend press conferences with the local cartel chief, who dictates the editorial line: telling them what information to cover and what to ignore. Generally, they give them instructions to follow, they watch them, and they pay them a salary. The newsrooms are infiltrated too. Whoever refuses has to change jobs or start a new life somewhere else.
In places like Mexico City, they are visited by the so called 'narco-lawyers,' who tell them which information irritated their clients.
In this turf war, the media is a target: they receive intimidating phone calls, bombs are hurled, they are fired upon with heavy arms. There have been cases in which employees (not always journalists) have been taken as hostages to force the publication of something favoring a certain group. Some newsrooms have been burnt down as reporters are inside, writing.
Some states have become zones of silence. And the silence have extended. We are losing contact with regions that are now forbidden territory for everyone, in which we no longer know something as basic as how many people are killed every day. Only from time to time, when a massacre occurs (which is so spectacular that it can't be covered up - such as that of 72 migrants -) or an entire village flees their homes: only then can we get a sense of what is happening, only then can we get an idea of what they is being hidden.
One of the most dangerous states for journalists is only two hundred and sixty five kilometers from here, less than three hours on the highway, on the other side of the border, where silence has been imposed.
In states like the Tamaulipas many blood-chilling episodes take place, which could have been written about by any war reporter. For months passengers in public buses have been made to get off and in that very place recruited by force, taken as slaves or killed and buried. Only suitcases arrive at bus terminals. Nobody said anything until graves were found containing almost two hundred bodies.
In places like this, and in various parts of the borderland, people 'disappear,' along with their car or truck. Some were Mexicans on their way to McAllen or Laredo, to go shopping or to visit. Some were Americans visiting relatives in Mexico.
I remember when I went to Matamoros, across the border from Brownsville, to cover the discovery of this mass grave. It was said that there were thousands of bodies, but they didn't finish excavating it. Hundreds of anguished families arrived there from all over the country, all looking for a child who had disappeared.
A woman who was waiting to see if one of the bodies was that of her son, found out I was a journalist. She began to hold forth furiously.
“Why are you, reporters, coming here now?” she said, “for months we have been saying that people were disappearing on this highway, but nobody paid any attention. It felt like we were talking from the bottom of the sea.”
Her phrase, talking from the bottom of the sea, sums up perfectly the situation that this lost zone is living there, where the Dallas Morning News reported that 8 journalists had disappeared, something that we Mexicans didn`t know. And where training camps for the 'sicarios' -- the hit men -- have been discovered, some of them teenagers from Laredo, Texas, who dropped out of high school to become assassins on the Mexican side of the border.
In this area full of hidden graves, sown with corpses, citizens are murdered every day. Even the border crossing is controlled by drug traffickers, who abduct those who don't pay and decide who goes through and who dies. Many journalists tried to speak out about it until they were silenced. As far as they can, they are still trying. Some live with a pistol to their head. Others leave running, with only their keys in their pocket, to start again. Until the night covers them. How much they can do depends on where they live.
In desperation, citizens have tried to assume the role of the journalists. I remember that video filmed by a normal citizen who went out into the street to record on her cell phone the destruction of the battle of the night before, of the shoot-outs that the authorities claim don't happen. They use social networks or set up blogs, such as ‘Valor por Tamaulipas,’ where they post citizens' reports of armed encounters which the media are prohibited from covering. These websites don't last long. The drug cartels put a price on the heads of their administrators.
The government is also interested in shutting down these sources of information, because it contradicts the official government position that everything is well.
I know a journalist who went to Tamaulipas to report on the situation. In the main square, in front of the government building, he was surrounded by a convoy of vans that bore the logo of the local cartel on their number plates. The reporter and the cameraman were abducted and tortured, and warned to stop asking questions. In this area, the earth swallowed Zane Plemmons, a young freelance visitor from San Antonio who left his hotel to take photographs and never came back.
And a Mexican reporter who anonymously ran a blog for citizens, telling them where there were shoot-outs and publishing their complaints, was decapitated, and her body found with a note threatening anyone who uses social networks. How can we say that journalism is possible in a place like this?
The violence has even reached Mexico City. An example is the magazine where I work which was founded four decades ago and is still considered a leader in investigative journalism today. Proceso is one of the media which has suffered the most aggressions. Not only did they murder Regina Martínez. Four journalists have been forced to move, some outside the country, others from one city to another. In this year, four have been threatened, and some of them have asked for assistance through a recently created governmental mechanism for journalists’ protection. Let’s see if it works.
Proceso is not the worst case, others exists.
At the beginning of the last decade, the organization for training journalists that emerged thanks to the support of IRE, was forced to attend to the crises of that period. In these recent years, involuntarily perhaps, our organization has focused too on attending these crises.
From being active journalists, without quite knowing how, we became defenders of human rights. We have organized marches to demand an end to impunity and justice for our colleagues, as well as auctions and collections to support journalists who have had to flee their homes. We support other local journalists, helping them become stronger, organize themselves and develop their own techniques to deal with emergencies.
We do not agree that the only way for the government and some international organizations to deal with these crises is by removing journalists from their home territory. Because in this way the silencers win the game. The battle we have at hand is not only for freedom of expression. It is for peoples' right to be informed.
In a panorama like this, investigative reporting has faltered. Journalists are no longer the watchdogs of democracy, as we used to define ourselves. In many areas, the watchdog is chained, muzzled, it does not have permission to bark. It is an abused animal who has learned not to bark when an enemy approaches. It is a dog domesticated by governors who bought its silence. It is a dog forced to turn a blind eye to violations of the law.
However, even in some of the worst places there are a few fierce and isolated watchdogs still fighting to defend the owners of the house they protect, still resisting the leash. There are individual efforts, true heroes, who risk their lives with every article they write.
Not every part of Mexico has come to this extreme point but the silence is spreading. Not only through violence but through more sophisticated methods, such as the threats of imprisonment. Or using enormous government advertising budget lines to fill media with propaganda or pay for publicity or they remove it, as reward or punishment. Or buying off media owners and managers.
Mexico’s newly-elected president has insisted to “speak well” of Mexico. At the moment, politicians and organized crime share the same objective: 'que no se caliente la plaza', to keep from heating up the areas they control.
The killings and disappearances of journalists are not random. The targets are often the leading investigative reporters - or top watchdog reporters who appear to have been carefully selected to send a powerful message and silence a region rather than an individual.
Ramón Angeles Zalpa is an example: he exposed the extraction of natural resources, of mines and forests, by organized crime in Michoacán. He was never seen again. María Esther Aguilar Casimbe published about the capture of a trafficker mayor, a police torturer and the seizing of a shipment. Any one of these three stories could be the cause of her disappearance. Alfredo Jiménez Mota started the list. A brave, experienced young journalist who was investigating a local capo, Mota went out to take an interview and wasn't seen again.
Although we have new laws which allow us to access public information, investigative journalism is becoming more and more difficult. Even daily journalism is under threat.
There are questions that now nobody asks. In 1976 the IRE made a great effort to shed light on the murder of its co-founder Don Bolles by traffickers. You were not able to live with this murder, you made great investigative efforts because he was one of your own. On the other side of the border they are killing journalists like flies. Some of them are young people who dreamed of being investigative journalists. Others were skilled reporters who died investigating stories.
Armando Rodriguez, “El Choco” was a member of the IRE Mexico project and had spoken at its conferences. He was the reporter who counted the daily killings in El Diario de Juárez. He was killed when he was taking his daughter to school.
These are your colleagues, our colleagues, members of our family of investigative reporters. I want to ask you that you do not ignore us. This problem, and these techniques I mentioned, do not stop at the border.
I recognize that great efforts have been made by some American journalists. Many top U.S. newspapers covered the violence in Juárez, in fact almost all the newspapers of the world eventually sent someone there. There are subjects that came to light thanks to the work of U.S. investigative reporters or correspondents, such as operation Fast and Furious, which makes us so indignant. Or the publication of the databases with up to 25 thousand names of people who disappeared under the last government.
But as time passes, all this death, all these massacres, all these mass graves, all these bodies, all these missing people, stop being so newsworthy. As Lise Olsen wrote in a book: on the U.S. side, “reporters who are informed and experienced in Mexico and the border have been dropped in all border states, largely for economic reasons, but the violence has had an impact too.”
Every major newspaper in the region has eliminated bureaus and cut coverage. In California, the largest border region newspaper, the San Diego Union, had a five-person border team in the late 1990’s. Only one person remained to cover Tijuana in 2012. The Los Angeles Times has a single border reporter, though he works with a team of two in Mexico City. The Arizona Republic has lost border staff too. In Texas, The Dallas Morning News formerly deployed five people to Mexico City–one remains. The Houston Chronicle and The Express-News (…) located only 150 to 300 miles from Mexico by car, once had three border reporters and two in Mexico City. Only one of those jobs remained in 2013.
Many large and small U.S. newspapers no longer allow reporters to cross the border to cover any story. Both national U.S. and Mexico City-based media companies have reduced binational coverage. Many times, reporters like you, ask us: how can we help you? We could say: raising funds, offering asylum, raising awareness. But what we ask from IRE members is that you do your work here. That you investigate trafficking networks in your own country. That you share this problem, which is mutual.
It isn't only gun trafficking that adds to the death toll in our country. It’s corrupt U.S. government officials, U.S. drug dealers and gangs, and U.S. dirty businessmen and money launderers. Because some cartel leaders and hit men are U.S. citizens. Many others live and own property here.
We do not ask for anything that is not in your best interest. But as your friends, we need you to see that you need to face this problem as your own. Asking yourself, who is my neighbor. Who controls neighboring states. Because we share three thousand kilometers of border. Because, as you have reported, Mexican cartels are present in more than 200 cities, and keep growing.
Also push for your newspapers to cover stories about how Mexican policy cost lives or forced journalists or others into exile. Many of those who were forced to flee are here – right here in Texas - and are included in the growing list of those who have asked for asylum.
I would have liked to have come here to talk to you about a different panorama. To tell you how fruitful were the courses and conferences that IRE’s Mexico project organized in Mexico City in the nineties, and in the two binational meetings in Tijuana and Ciudad Juárez. Or how long lasting have been the relationships that were made between many journalists back then.
But what's left after they shoot up your office three times, as happened to El Siglo de Torreón, even though it had federal protection? Or if, as El Mañana, they kill two editors and throw a grenade which wounds many people? Or El Diario de Juárez that after two of its reporters were murdered wrote an editorial asking drug lords who control the city what their ground rules were, thereby revealing to the world that the Mexican national government had no control over the largest city on the U.S. border?
The battle to control information is underway at this very moment.
But everything is not lost. Valiant efforts are being made. ‘El Diario de Juárez’, for example, using databases and processing information, was able to map the violence and informed how the government aligned itself with a cartel group. And the magazine ‘Zeta de Tijuana’ every month tells us the correct figures for the killings, because otherwise no one would have access to that state’s data.
There have been efforts of collaboration among editors who agree to publish the same article when they put pressure on someone from the group. Or collaborations between reporters and foreign correspondents, so that news prohibited in Mexico can be divulged elsewhere.
Other journalists have created news blogs to inform the people of what is happening, and they maintain them for the time they are able to keep their identity secret. In one case, a Mexican media opened a blog in Texas, in order to avoid detection. Until they were discovered. We journalists have also created our own networks, such as our organization. I know various journalists who are secretly writing a book, hoping that conditions change and they can publish it. These are efforts which go against the current.
These isolated and, for their own safety anonymous heroes, are among various enemies: companies which don't protect their own people, the corrupted government and organized crime. I have a story embedded in my mind. I repeat it a lot - perhaps you have already heard it. But I can't avoid retelling it here.
A reporter told me how one night someone called to tell him that a commando squad had taken his colleague. He got up from the bed, got dressed, said goodbye to his wife, kissed his children, and sat down in the living room; waiting to be taken away. It was the longest night of his life.
“Why didn’t you run?” I asked, surprised.
“Where could I run?” he said. “My only wish was to stop them from entering my house and taking me in front of my family. I didn’t want my family to remember me with that image.”
He survived, but his friend was found the next day, his body discarded in the street, as if he were trash. In the city where they live, the policemen are the narcos.
There’s another one I can’t forget. A colleague went to see what help she could give to some reporters in Veracruz. She asked one of them how we could help. He said: bring me a pistol. She was stupefied. A pistol? Yes, he said, it isn't to kill them, it's to kill myself if they come for me. Because now they don't just kill you - they torture you as well.
Whenever I recall these stories I think of how many journalists would be feeling that same solitude. Not knowing whom to ask for help. Too many are resigned to the fact that death is their destiny.
So the question of what we can do acquires a different resonance.
You can do many things. But I believe that we must do journalism, because that is what we are, journalists. We must expose the business, the drugs and arms trafficking networks, the corrupt authorities, we must follow up on judgments to piece together the puzzle of who are their partners and where the disappeared people end up. We must follow the narco-money on both sides of the border.
Again, this isn't just about helping us, it's about helping yourselves as well.
In an IRE workshop, I learned that reporters from Laredo or McAllen, Texas, have also been threatened not to cross the border. Or correspondent Alfredo Corchado was threatened in a bar in Texas.
What can you do? A friend in Sinaloa, in the investigative magazine ‘Riodoce,’ perhaps said it the best way: “don't abandon us.” I say the same to you.
As the great polish writer Ryszard Kapuscinski once said: in the struggle against silence, human life is at stake.
*** Thanks to Alma Delia Fuentes, Daniela Pastrana, Elia Baltazar, John Gibler, Mike O’Connor, Tracy Wilkinson, Alfredo Corchado, Lise Olsen, Javier Garza, Margarita Torres, Sandra Rodríguez, Gerardo Albarrán, Alejandra Xanic and Jorge Luis Sierra for your feedback. These colleagues and friends gave me articles, advices, ideas or shared with me their experiences to help me write these words.***
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.