Women reporters from northern Mexico share experiences on how to do investigative journalism amidst violence and job insecurity

Melva Frutos was one of the first journalists to cover one of the bloodiest episodes recorded in northern Mexico, specifically in the border state of Coahuila.

The massacre in the town of Allende, 60 kilometers [38 miles] from the Texas border, which took place between March 18 and 20, 2011, went almost unnoticed by the national media and by most of the media in Coahuila. It was not until Frutos and Proceso magazine reporter Juan Alberto Cedillo traveled to the area to investigate and saw with their own eyes the horror of the tragedy, that the massacre became international news.

More than 300 people were killed or disappeared by members of a criminal group. Entire homes were destroyed and businesses were looted. Little was known about all this until Cedillo and Frutos published feature stories about it.

Mexican journalists Shalma Castillo, Ana Victoria Félix, Melva Frutos and Priscila Cárdenas speak during a panel in Tampico, Mexico.

Shalma Castillo, Ana Victoria Félix, Melva Frutos and Priscila Cárdenas were part of the panel "How to investigate corruption in northern Mexico" at the "Contra el Olvido" festival. (Photo: Screenshot from Facebook Live)



For Frutos, who is co-founder of the Network of Journalists of Northeastern Mexico — which brings together journalists from six states to provide them support and training — the coverage of the Allende massacre shows what it means to do investigative journalism in northern Mexico, a region that has historically suffered from the presence of drug cartels and high levels of violence and corruption.

"When we formed the Network, in 2014, we were coming from a very arduous job of covering lack of public safety since 2008, which was going through an incredible situation: Journalists murdered, threatened, disappeared in the three states where we started the Network," Frutos said during her participation in the panel "How to investigate corruption in northern Mexico," held on April 1 in the city of Tampico, Tamaulipas. "They could not publish [...] because they were threatened. They had to publish what those people [the criminals] told them or not publish anything."

The panel was part of the festival of journalism, art and collective memory "Contra el Olvido" [Against forgetting], organized by the independent digital news outlet Elefante Blanco [White elephant]. In addition to Frutos, originally from the state of Nuevo León, in the panel participated investigative journalists Ana Victoria Félix (also from Nuevo León), Priscila Cárdenas (from Sonora), and Shalma Castillo (from Tamaulipas). The panel was moderated by Carlos Manuel Juárez, editorial director of Elefante Blanco.

The panelists agreed that the risk of practicing investigative journalism in their states is high, although the need to do so in order to demand accountability from the authorities is equally high.

In addition to the violence prompted by the presence of criminal groups, the border states have been the backdrop of huge corruption scandals involving officials of recent state administrations, such as that of Governor Miguel Riquelme of Coahuila, former Governor Francisco Javier Cabeza de Vaca of Tamaulipas, former Governor Claudia Pavlovich of Sonora; Jaime Rodríguez, of Nuevo León; and former Governor César Duarte of Chihuahua (now imprisoned in the United States).

In view of this panorama, the journalists agreed that greater citizen involvement is needed for investigative journalism to have the necessary effect and for the risks of doing it to be worthwhile.

"I think our courage should have an impact on citizens. In other words, it should have an impact on the issues we are investigating: Corruption, human rights violations, migration... Issues that should have an impact, because that's mainly why we do it," said Castillo, an independent journalist who runs her own news site, Shalma News.

In August 2022, Castillo published the investigative piece "COVID-19 en Tamaulipas: La mina de oro que encontraron algunas empresas" [Covid in Tamaulipas: The gold mine some companies found], in which she revealed that health authorities in that state diverted part of the budget authorized to fight the pandemic through illicit front companies. The feature story showed that hospitals suffered a shortage of supplies during the health emergency, despite alleged government investment.

The journalist shared that it was exhausting to obtain access to official documents, as well as information from the alleged suppliers of medical equipment. Even one of them, she said, responded in a threatening manner to her questioning about their contracts with the state government.

"To say, 'I’m holding documents that state that millions of pesos are being invested and at the same time so many people are dying,' that was my indignation. And, of course, being close to it motivated me to investigate it further," she said.

Castillo added that investigative reports like his are actually tools that society could use to denounce and demand accountability from the authorities on how they use public money.

Mexican journalists Melva Frutos and Priscila Cárdenas speak during a panel in Tampico, Mexico.

Melva Frutos (left) shared some of the measures she takes when she has to travel to field coverages in dangerous zones in the northern states of Mexico. (Photo: Screenshot from Facebook Live)

"We complain that governments steal, but when you as readers have in your possession a report like the one we made, like the ones made by [...] all the journalists who expose this type of corruption cases, they are elements [of proof] for you as citizens," she said. “As a journalist, we’re saying: 'I am giving you a tool so that with this you can make a complaint, to be able to demand accountability from the government. Because at the end of the day, it’s your money.'”

For her part, Cárdenas, journalist of the digital news outlet Proyecto Puente, said that investigative journalism is a building block to change realities, to do justice and to expose the excesses in which some rulers fall into. However, making officials who commit acts of corruption uncomfortable also puts journalists at-risk.

Cárdenas said that when she published a feature story in which she revealed that the administration of Governor Pavlovich had spent 30 million pesos [US $1.6M] in an altruistic concert to raise funds for the construction of a shelter for Indigenous children that was never built, she and Proyecto Puente were targets of acts of intimidation.

"They sent us a funeral wreath[to the newsroom]. We never knew where it came from, but it was some kind of intimidation so that we would stop publishing about it," she said. "[...] Only we journalists are going to stop these excesses by investigating and readers by becoming outraged and demanding accountability."

Investigative journalism should serve to prompt readers to social indignation, which could lead them to take action and make decisions, said Félix, a journalist of the Nuevo León newspaper El Norte. However, in many cases, journalists are met with indifference on the part of society.

"When you talk about these issues, it can generally be received as 'Oh, how does that immediately affect me?' But the truth is that it does affect all of us. The fact that these corruption issues exist, that there is this type of embezzlement practically under our noses is something that should outrage us and that should move us to action as well," she said.

Violence and job insecurity, two constants in the northern states

In entities with such hostile environments as those on the border between Mexico and the United States, taking security measures when it comes to investigative journalism becomes essential.

Sometimes, however, even the most careful security measures are insufficient to prevent self-censorship. The panelists shared that some colleagues and they themselves have had to abandon investigations due to threats from criminals or officials.

In Tamaulipas alone, the levels of censorship and self-censorship led that state to be considered in 2017 a "silenced zone" for exercising journalism and freedom of expression by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR).

As a result, investigative journalists in those states have to implement stricter security protocols than those put in place in other parts of the country. Frutos shared some measures she takes when she must travel to do field coverage, which include constantly sharing her location, trying to go as unnoticed as possible and not using very bulky photographic or video equipment.

Cover pages of newspapers from the North of Mexico.

Media outlets in Mexico's northern states have reported the presence of drug cartels and the high levels of violence and corruption that have historically plagued the region.

She also said that in coverage such as that of the Allende massacre in 2011, where there could be surveillance by organized crime, measures such as traveling with a partner of the opposite sex and pretending to be a tourist couple help reduce risks.

"If two or four men go together to certain areas of Tamaulipas and Coahuila [that makes them] an easy target," she said. "Whenever we do these types of investigations, we always do keep a very low profile, we go as tourists or visitors to the place, and more so in such a 'hot' area," she said.

Women journalists face additional risks that go beyond lack of security, such as those related to job discrimination and gender-based attacks on credibility.

"There are aspects of being a woman that limit certain coverage. The crime beat, for example. [They tell you] 'Instead of you going, it's better for your male colleague to go, because it's nighttime,'" Félix said. "There is definitely a gap in salary as in all jobs. You also have to fight for your credibility with the official because you are a woman and a young woman. You have to convince others that you know the subject, that you have the tools to be where you are, when this would probably not be questioned if you were a man of that age.

Job insecurity, which includes long working hours and meager salaries, is another factor that limits the practice of investigative journalism in northern Mexico and makes it difficult for journalists to enter this field, Felix said.

Frutos added that journalists face the refusal of editors of advertising-supported media to do long-form reporting versus daily feature articles that generate more views.

"Sometimes you want to do investigative work and you don't have the resources because it's real. Right now there are journalists who earn 6,000 pesos a month [about US $300]. [...] We have them in Tamaulipas, in Coahuila, in Nuevo León, all over Mexico," she said. "There is a very important precariousness. That's why when you want to do in-depth work, which requires time and money, you need support."

However, there are ways in which journalists can gradually move from daily reporting to investigative journalism, despite adverse circumstances. One of them, Castillo recommended, is to start contrasting the information in daily stories with databases and official documents. This will allow, little by little, to make a more complete journalism, until you can reach the point of making data journalism stories and long-form journalism.

"It’s fine to report what happens day-to-day, but then I would say 'why does the Secretary of Public Security say that nothing is happening and that security has improved in Tamaulipas,'" Castillo said. "So, I'm going to see what the data says. And it is no longer what I say as a reporter, but what the official data says, and it is also valid to enrich your story of the day by adding this data."

Support and tools to promote investigative journalism

The members of the panel have in common that they are part of the Northern Border Investigative Journalism Hub, colloquially known as the Border Hub. This is an initiative of the Border Center for Journalists and Bloggers (BCJB) of Edinburg, Texas, in partnership with the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ) that aims to promote investigative and data journalism in the U.S.-Mexico border states.

The Border Hub is made up of a network of journalists and news outlets that provide support for investigative projects on issues related to corruption, lack of security and accountability.

Screenshot of the Northern Border Investigative Journalism Hub website.

The Border Hub is an initiative that aims to promote investigative and data journalism in the U.S.-Mexico border states. (Photo: Screenshot of borderhub.org)

"The initiative of this project is a 360-degree approach to journalism [...], which is to give journalists all those tools that in their society they have been denied, or perhaps do not have access to, such as funding to cover the expenses that may arise from their investigation," explained Félix, who is the editorial coordinator of Border Hub.

The project also has mentors who are experts in transparency, data journalism and auditing, as well as legal and security issues.

"The legal issue is about how to help you as a journalist to have support when you are facing a monster such as the apparatus of the system, the political and power groups," Félix said. "It also [involves] providing you with tools, so that you as a journalist can develop security protocols and know how to do your reporting in a way that will not endanger your safety.”

The Border Hub opened its call for grants for independent news outlets or citizen organizations on Mexico's northern border seeking to increase their investigative journalism capabilities. The grants include US $15,000 for one year, mentoring and professional support.

The initiative also offers scholarships to journalists to do investigative reporting on corruption, transparency and accountability. The fellowships, which include a stipend, support for research expenses, mentoring, and professional support, are open to journalists who are members of the Border Hub. To join the network, you have to take one of the courses offered as part of the initiative.