Reporting in Mexico requires all the skills of a war correspondent, says LA Times' Tracy Wilkinson

The escalation of violence and drug cartel influence in Mexico means that for foreign correspondents, reporting in Mexico is no different than covering a war, said Tracy Wilkinson, Mexico City bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times. No one can be trusted, and "Baghdad rules" apply, she said. Get in, report, and get out.

When covering this type of "war," Wilkinson said, the foreign press struggles with three main challenges: getting sources (whether government authorities or the cartels) to talk, avoiding getting used by one side or the other, and whether and how to use the "grisly images" and "horrific details."

Still, Wilkinson said, the difficulties foreign correspondents face is nothing in comparison with what Mexican journalists have to contend, as their salaries can be cut off of their families kidnapped. As such, security underlies every decision a reporter in Mexico makes.

"It’s always about assessing the threat," she said.

Wilkinson's comments about the difficulties of trying to cover a different kind of war came during a recent panel presentation at the University of Texas at Austin. The panel, “The War Next Door: Reporting Mexico, Drugs and the Border,” included John Burnett of NPR; Javier Garza, editor of El Siglo de TorreonCecilia Balli, a UT anthropologist; and Wilkinson.

Mexico has become one of the most dangerous countries in the world to work as a journalist. For more information, see this Knight Center map of violence against journalists in Mexico.

See a video of the panel presentation here.

The text of Wilkinson's presentation follows:

...Even for those of us in the international press, particularly the U.S. newspapers who have a long established presence in Mexico, the nature of reporting in Mexico has changed radically in just the last couple of years because of the escalation of violence, the expanding spheres of influence of the cartels, and the abandonment of any and all rules.

We face NOTHING like what the Mexican reporters face. I want to make that very clear. But we also have to approach almost every story with a new set of calculations, starting -- and ending -- with security. How can we report this story safely? Quite apart from the journalistic merits of the story, we spend a lot of time weighing safety issues and logistics.

I started and spent most of my career in Latin America. But from 1995 onward, I lived and worked in other parts of the world as my Los Angeles Times editors sent me to various wars: the Balkans, Kosovo, the Intifada, the first and second Gulf Wars, Iraq. Two and a half years ago, the LATimes editors looked at Mexico and concluded the country was at war. And so they sent me back.

But if this is a war, it is of course, a very different war.

The violence has exploded and the reach of the traffickers has expanded. Narco-violence has been registered in fully half of Mexico’s 2,000-plus municipalities, according to Mexican intelligence figures. According to a study by the Trans Border Institute in San Diego, violence, or in the absence of violence, cartel occupation, can be found in all but one of Mexico’s 32 states.

But this is not a civil war or an insurrection. This is not an ideological-based campaign to overthrow a government or a nationalistic movement to eliminate an ethnic group. The cartels use many tactics of guerrilla warfare, even terrorism -- tactics aimed at intimidating authorities, cowing though not necessarily replacing local governments, so that the narcos can continue to do their business undeterred.

As they consolidate this control, they corrupt, terrorize or subvert local authorities and institutions -- including, critically, the press.

That this is a different kind of conflict means we have to cover it differently. The differences make it especially dangerous and unpredictable.

Covering Mexico has always required gumption and ingenuity. But just two-and-a-half, three years ago, a U.S reporter could travel fairly readily into just about any part of the country in pursuit of a story. No more. Gone, or all but gone, are the days when we could roll into a town or village, spend hours or days hanging in the plaza, soaking up the local flavor, chatting up the residents, exploring the place, its history, its circumstances, in depth.

Old rules do not apply. You do not know who the enemy is. You walk into Reynosa or Tiquicheo, Michoacan, as a reporter and who do you trust? Basically, no one. The taxi drivers are halcones, lookouts. The local empresario (business owner) is very possibly in cahoots with the cartel, as are the local cops and the mayor. So, possibly, are some of the local journalists.

Not only are there no established and permanent front lines in this war, there is nowhere that you as a visiting reporter can trust anyone unless you have spent a great deal of time establishing contacts and relationships.

And so in many parts of Mexico, covering the real story requires all the skills of the war correspondent, and all the skills of -- in a certain respect -- a spy. It requires slipping into towns, developing a network of contacts who can be trusted, and getting out alive. With the idea, of course, of returning.

We have to work harder now to come up with that same texture and level of detail in portraying the conflict and its participants and victims. The violence has drastically altered our map of Mexico -- of where we can go, how we go, how long we stay -- and slowed us down enormously.

I remember the first time I went to Culiacan, capital of Sinaloa, the traditional heartland of drug trafficking, I applied what we call "Baghdad rules." Go in, do the reporting quickly and efficiently, get out. Very few people knew of my travel plans. I wouldn’t spend more than one night there. Of course, today, I feel much more comfortable in Culiacan. I know it better, I have that network of contacts, I stay for weeks at a time. But more recently as I started going to Gomez Palacio or Reynosa, once again it was that same discreet, surgical reporting. That to me is the key: discretion. Keeping a low profile. Always maintaining that extra antenna out and attuned. Remaining flexible. What seems safe to do one day might not be the next.

We often work with Mexican reporters, who always will know the lay of the land better than we ever can. Sometimes they give us material -- stuff that we can publish in our newspaper but that they can’t in theirs. So at least the news gets out.

An awareness of the potentially changing panorama is essential. We in the foreign press community are talking constantly about security, and of course conferring regularly with our Mexican counterparts. It’s always about assessing the threat. And on this in Mexico we are still evolving.

Traditionally, many foreign correspondents worked with a belief that being a foreign correspondent afforded a certain protection, a certain immunity. A shield. This was more or less true during the wars of Central America in the 1980s, the first Gulf War, even, to an extent, the Balkans and the Intifada conflict between Palestinians and Israel. But that changed once and for all in Iraq, when being a journalist didn’t protect you and probably harmed you.

So far, the narcos have not really attacked a foreign reporter. We in the international press are NOT subject to the same pressures that our Mexican colleagues endure, where a local governor can cut off our salaries, a narco can kidnap our families.

Maybe the cartels make a calculation whereby the cost to doing business that the killing of an American reporter would entail is just not worth it. I don’t know. One theory is that the narcos -- so far -- simply aren’t too concerned about what foreign reporters write. They are much more interested that the Sol de Durango or the Voz de Morelia or El Siglo de Torreon don’t write things that will disturb their interests -- nothing to heat the plaza, nothing to attract the attention of the federal government and the army. It doesn’t seem that they care so much about what appears in the Los Angeles Times or the Wall Street Journal.

This is true….until it’s not. This could change.

I’ve spent a long time talking about this idea of access to the country because reporting in the field is essential to painting a comprehensive picture of Mexico’s conflict. We have to get beyond a government spin that is telling us that they are winning the war….we have to talk to local prosecutors, teachers, priests and ordinary people -- families, mothers, teens. The somewhat sanitized view that you get in Mexico City is at odds with the view in the Mexican states, where, often, the local press is not covering violence or the spread of narco control. So we must go.

The alternative is a wholly uninformed, misinformed public, without the knowledge to make important decisions or educated demands of its authorities.

Other issues we in the American press struggle with:

--The flow of information. Neither the government nor the cartels seem particularly interested in talking to us. Federal authorities and the courts act with very little transparency. The cartels don’t have exactly an international press office -- though we do hear the Zetas in Tamaulipas send out press releases.

--How not to get used by one side or the other. Sometimes what is portrayed as a human rights violation is narco propaganda; sometimes what authorities portray as a gun battle between cartels is in fact the murder of civilians.

--Whether and how to use the grisly images, obscene videos and other horrific details that emerge in the conflict.

At the Los Angeles Times, we are in our third year of intensive coverage of this war. In that period, my colleague Ken Ellingwood and I have probably written about 200 stories about it.

In 2008, the first year, we focused on the violence, illustrating the ferocity of the attacks of gangsters on their rivals, the growing and controversial action of the army, the piling up of headless bodies, murders of mayors and cops, intrusion of violence into schools. We spent days on end with the overwhelmed coroners of Ciudad Juarez and listened for hours to the families of some of the first civilian victims.

In 2009, last year, we focused on how both the drug war and narcotics trafficking are undermining Mexico’s core institutions and subverting its basic democracy. We looked at how intimidation by drug traffickers changed immigration patterns and interrupted remittances; the potential rise of vigilantism; the ambivalent role of the Catholic Church and relative absence of civil society; the arms race, in which the cartels are the victors, nourished by a steady flow of weapons from the U.S. and Central America.

And, finally, this year, we have tried to focus on how and why (President Felipe) Calderon’s drug-war strategy appears to be failing. Our stories have examined how the cartels thrive despite the military crackdown; how corruption and impunity continue to undermine attempts to reform the judiciary and police; how narco money penetrates political campaigns and narco-candidates run for governor; the inability of the president to rally political support for his strategies.

I think, hope, with this thematic evolution of reporting we have been able to go deeper, beyond the gun play and body-count (while not ignoring the body count) into why all of this matters, explaining to readers, especially in the United States, the fundamental causes and broader consequences.

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.