Journalism in Mexico: Seeing my own death

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Journalism in Mexico: ‘Seeing my own death’

Award-winning reporter Sandra Rodríguez Nieto on the dangers of writing from the drug-war frontline.

The last time I had a picture of my body, shot and left lying on the ground, was in early May. I was in Islas Carolinas Street, one of the poorest areas of Juárez, in the western part of the city. As we walked between the dust and the stones, I spoke to a relative of a woman who had disappeared. She was telling me about the power the Aztecas gang had in the area. This gang, composed of prisoners and ex-convicts, is the active arm of the Juárez group.

Without stopping to think, I said: ‘Still? I thought the Aztecas were more or less finished.’

‘!’ she responded. ‘Don’t you know that they come from prisons on the other side? The “buddies” come over from El Paso [in Texas].’

Why did I suddenly have a picture of my body, shot and lying on the ground? Perhaps it was the pride that I heard in her voice when she mentioned the ‘buddies’. Or perhaps it was the details of our interview - I had learned that just before she disappeared the missing woman had visited the gang’s quarter in Juárez prison. Or perhaps it was the woman’s description of the way in which the gang, four years after the US and Mexican government forces beat them, had kept control in this part of Juárez.


Very few are punished: of 10,000 killings since 2008 in Ciudad Juárez, only 3% investigated. Stringer/Reuters

‘They watch all unknown cars,’ she told me, at the moment she got into my car. That was when the picture came to my mind warning me of the possibility of danger. The picture of my body not moving, bleeding, with dark circular marks left by bullets – like other bodies I saw in the city.

The picture soon went and our conversation about the Aztecas and the drug-sellers continued. The last thing I wanted to do was to make my guide feel uncomfortable. I am not the only reporter in these parts who has these thoughts. Since 2008, more than 10,000 people have been killed in this city, mostly with guns, and most of the killers were not arrested.

Two of my colleagues on El Diario – the reporter Armando Rodríguez, in 2008, and the photographer Luís Carlos Santiago, in 2010 – were murdered by the killers Armando wrote about.

One colleague told me shortly after Armando’s death: ‘I don’t get into the van with my wife. I tell her to go ahead with the children. I’ve told her, if she sees someone shoot at me, just carry on so that she and the kids are safe.’ Another colleague said at the funeral of Luís Carlos in September 2010, that at his own funeral ‘I don’t want anyone to open my coffin’. I replied that my main wish at my funeral is that no politicians can be there and that someone plays Radiohead’s song, Lucky.

No one is punished and no one does anything

Different governments have thought the violence is a result of the disagreements between different criminal groups. These groups compete for the control of drug trafficking into the US.

As has been shown very often – especially in US courts – members of the Mexican police, at all levels, regularly take part in drug trafficking. Because of corruption in the police and because no one does anything, the state government has officially said that it will not investigate thousands of murders in this city (especially where AK47s or 9mm firearms are involved). This is because they seem to be the work of organized crime. And that type of crime should be investigated by the federal government.

The federal government says its forces cannot investigate because the deaths are from organized crime, and murder is not a crime contained within the federal law on organized crime.

Because criminals are not punished, violence has increased since 2005. When I asked an adolescent who killed his parents if he was afraid of being caught, he said no, because he thought that his crime would be seen as just another drug crime. And so no one would investigate it. ‘We’re in Mexico,’ he commented. ‘It’s a corrupt country. The police are just for show. There are so many deaths.’

In 2008, murders on the frontier grew to thousands and became the main cause of deaths. I made a comparison, for El Diario, between the number of crimes registered in 2008-10 and the number of crimes brought to court. Only 3 out of every 100 went to court. In 97 per cent of cases, state investigators reported there was no evidence.

In this situation, murderers can act freely. Citizens, meanwhile, are left weak and do not know how to defend themselves and from whom.

Journalists are very open to attack. Attacks against them have increased. The organization Article 19 estimates that 66 reporters have been murdered in Mexico, nine of them in the past 18 months in Veracruz, a state just south of the border. It is terrible that the authorities are not interested in investigating these crimes.

The state says that it is fighting ‘a war on drugs’ but it almost never helps people addicted to illegal drugs. In the case of Juárez, only 30 per cent of those who look for help get it.There were 54 deaths by overdose of illegal drugs between 2008 and 2010. The ‘war of drugs’ in the same period resulted in 7,000 deaths and made Juárez the most violent city in Mexico.


I believe these figures prove that the result of the so-called ‘war on drugs’ is at least 100 times worse than drug taking itself. Also forbidding the drug trade leads to corruption in state institutions. The effect on society in places like Juárez leads to serious crime and murders.

Going around Juárez is one way of hearing the stories that show the human cost of decisions on drug prohibition taken by individuals far away from the people. Many thousands of people here have no opportunity to earn money - like the woman I was interviewing in Islas Carolinas. They earn almost nothing working in factories and live at the centre of the danger. For these reasons I have never questioned the importance of living and being a journalist on this border.

In Juárez, the murder files are full of expert details from the scenes of crimes. I am amazed how the files include precise descriptions of the number of gun shots, the kind of guns used, and the position of the bodies of the victims on the ground. Perhaps for this reason, when I feel danger, I never see in my mind a picture of a killer – only the picture of a body left lying on the ground.

Sandra Rodríguez Nieto is an award-winning investigative journalist who is not afraid to write about local corruption and the mistakes of the courts and the police. Her book, La Fábrica del Crimen (The Crime Factory) was published by Temas de Hoy earlier this year.

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