High-risk journalism at the border

Mexico’s cartel violence and government corruption silence the press

From the Winter 2011 issue of The News Media & The Law

By Stephen Miller

The reporters covering the problems surrounding the U.S.-Mexico border, which is right in the back yards of many southwestern towns and thus more like a local story than an international conflict, face difficulties not just because of the violence and lawlessness, but also because of the lack of cooperation by officials on both sides.

Don Bartletti was determined to appear as harmless as possible. The veteran Los Angeles Times photojournalist hobbled through the streets of Reynosa, Mexico, favoring an old ski injury and carrying only one camera. He hoped this might make him appear like a perilously out-of-place American tourist, as opposed to someone looking to document the city’s dirty secrets. His guide, a local online reporter, insisted on following 20 paces behind and refused to respond to even the rumor of a shootout for fear of the drug cartels’ spies.

In Reynosa there is usually someone watching. Taxi cabs void of license plates roam the city. Their drivers, as well as countless taco vendors, shoe shiners and pirated CD salesmen, keep tabs on visitors’ and the government’s movements.

Bartletti was concerned about carrying his camera. “I might as well be carrying a gun because the camera is the free press’ proof of corruption, violence and all the things that the cartel was trying to hide,” he said.

“They’ve essentially shut down the press in Reynosa,” he said, referring to the Gulf and Zetas cartels, which are engaged in a bloody struggle for control of the city’s strategic placement opposite McAllen, Texas, on the drug smuggling corridor. “Nobody uses bylines. No photographer will show up at a shootout anymore because the cartels have promised to seek and eliminate anybody who makes them look bad.”

And the cartels have held true to their word.

Seven journalists were killed in Mexico last year, according to Reporters Without Borders. Mexico tied with Honduras for the most journalist deaths in the Western Hemisphere in 2010 and ranked at number three across the globe behind Pakistan and Iraq, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

“In the last year and a half, it’s gotten very sinister to where I don’t even trust my own instincts,” Bartletti said.

This is a result of Mexico’s current drug war, which has claimed more than 28,000 lives since President Felipe Calderon went to battle with the country’s traffickers in 2006.

Reports of uncovered tunnels and narcotics stash finds from north of the border and the escalating carnage to the south — more than six times the number of U.S. casualties in the Iraq war — tell the story of a situation that has gotten out of hand.

The result is a corrupt and destabilized country where federal troops, unable to protect the country’s leaders, provide security detail to investigators who collect the dumped remains of government officials; and where reporters, repeatedly targeted for their attempts to shed some light, have largely taken to censoring themselves.

“Mexico has lost its beautiful, incredible innocence lately,” Bartletti said.

Problems north of the Rio Grande

The U.S. side of the border isn’t squeaky clean either.

Border Patrol Agent Martha Garnica was arrested in an elaborate sting operation near El Paso, Texas, in November 2009. In exchange for financial reward, she had been aiding the cartels in safely bringing drugs and undocumented immigrants across the border for years. She pleaded guilty in May 2010.

In December 2010, the violence spilled into Arizona when a Border Patrol agent was shot and killed during a shootout near a well-known smuggling area close to the Arizona-Mexico border. Brian Terry is the first U.S. Border Patrol agent killed in the area since 1998.

Although the fear is less in the U.S. than in Mexico, there are still obstacles to effective newsgathering that must be overcome. One of the most common complaints is the difficulty in getting detailed information from the U.S. Border Patrol.

Reporters used to be able to call the officer in charge of a specific region where an incident occurred and receive accurate information from the source. That changed when the border went under the command of Customs and Border Protection in the Department of Homeland Security in 2003, said Michael Marizco, a reporter in Tucson, Ariz., who has covered the border for eight years.

“You can no longer call the resident agent in charge of the Ajo [Arizona] station and ask them the most innocuous question ever. He cannot answer you; it’s not his job anymore,” he said.

The idea was to centralize the source of information and create a standardized message, but Marizco felt that it has resulted in a “government manufactured news agency” where journalists working under tight deadlines regurgitated formulated press releases provided by the agency’s public relations officers.

“The PR guys are all pretty highly trained. They’re usually kind of slick and I’ve noticed that they’re all pretty good-looking,” said Margaret Regan, a former border reporter for the Tucson Weekly and the author of “The Death of Josseline,” which chronicled the plight of a young Mexican migrant.

In the 10 years she covered the border, Regan said the biggest obstacle to her ability to report came when the U.S. Department of Homeland Security took control. Since then, she has noticed that the Border Patrol has become increasingly inaccessible, requiring that requests for information be made to the public relations office in Washington, D.C., where they are often met with glossy, scripted answers of little substance, she said.

“The agency doesn’t make solid information on specific events accessible,” Marizco agreed. He said he has found himself relying heavily on Freedom of Information Act requests for access to basic information regarding events. The most recent example: a November 2010 shooting of a suspected illegal immigrant by a Border Patrol agent.

According to reports obtained from the Santa Cruz Sheriff’s Office by The Arizona Daily Star before the Federal Bureau of Investigation took over the case, a Border Patrol horse patrol came upon a group of unarmed illegal immigrants in the desert northwest of Nogales, Ariz. As the group tried to flee, one man fell to the ground and was shot in the stomach by an agent. He survived and was taken to a Tucson hospital.

Neither the Border Patrol nor the FBI would identify the agent who shot the man, citing Department of Homeland Security and FBI investigation policies. They also wouldn’t initially confirm why the man had fallen, or whether the agent had intended to shoot the man or had accidently pulled the trigger while trying to rein in his horse.

Marizco expressed frustration at calling Customs and Border Protection public relations officers in Washington and being told that he could only be given a little information on background.

“It’s very different from cops in a local police agency that kind of understand its responsibility to its community and will give an update,” he said.

More importantly, unlike a police department, the FBI will not say much about what transpired in its investigation after it has been completed, and Customs and Border Protection will give even less information.

Adding yet another obstacle, U.S. federal courts are split on the question of whether journalists should be allowed to attend immigration and naturalization proceedings.

Those proceedings have traditionally been open to the public unless national security or privacy concerns warranted closure in specific cases.

But in September 2001, then-Chief Immigration Judge Michael Creppy issued a memorandum citing then-U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft’s additional security procedures for cases in immigration court and directed judges to close immigration hearings and avoid “disclosing any information about the case to anyone outside the Immigration Court,” according to Homefront Confidential, a Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press publication. The Office of the Chief Immigration Judge oversees the immigration courts for the Department of Justice.

The resulting lawsuits from media and other organizations resulted in two conflicting decisions.

In Detroit Free Press v. Ashcroft, the U.S. Court of Appeals in Cincinnati (6th Cir.) found in 2002 that across-the-board closure of immigration proceedings was unconstitutional under the First Amendment’s presumption of openness.

About one month later, the U.S. Court of Appeals in Philadelphia (3rd Cir.) ruled in North Jersey Media Group, Inc. v. Ashcroft that a blanket closure of immigration courts was justified by the potential threat to national security. “Congress has never explicitly guaranteed public access” to immigration proceedings, the court said.

The U.S. Supreme Court denied media parties’ petitions to review the Third Circuit’s decision in 2003, and the split still stands.

Mexican journalists seek asylum in U.S.

There are few places in the world today where reporting the news is more dangerous than in Mexico, and there is no city in that country with more bloodshed than Ciudad Juárez. Commonly referred to as one of the most dangerous cities in the world, Juárez shares a border with El Paso, Texas.

It houses the battered and terrified El Diario de Juárez newspaper and was the backdrop for the killings of El Diarioreporters Luis Carlos Santiago and Armando Rodríguez.

The situation in Juárez and other cities along the border has spurred the U.S. State Department to require the use of armored cars for consular employees and has caused Mexican officials and citizens to head north in fear for their lives.

Bartletti recently traveled to El Paso, ironically named the safest city in the U.S. by CQ Press in November 2010, to photograph a group of Mexican journalists who had come to the U.S. seeking political asylum. He found that they were hesitant to speak with officials, but were eager to tell their stories and allowed him to photograph them.

Asylum was granted to a Mexican journalist for the first time in September, and the men Bartletti traveled to see hoped to be next.

But it is not yet clear whether the case of Jorge Luis Aguirre will set a new standard providing a safe haven for those wishing to escape the violent suppression of speech.

“It may set a precedent politically, but not legally,” said Carlos Spector, an El Paso attorney currently representing several asylum-seeking reporters. This case was unique because Aguirre applied for acceptance through the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s asylum office in Houston, instead of through federal immigration courts, he said.

It is a tactic Spector is encouraging more journalists to employ, because applying through the courts is “a controversial, adversarial process,” he said, where the cards are stacked significantly against the applicant.

“You just feel the weight of U.S. policy . . . to discourage these claims in general. But I think with these journalists, that it’s so notorious, that they’ve decided to grant some so they can say that there isn’t such an open antagonism,” he said.

A decision from the asylum office is, after all, a decision from political Washington, he noted.

The first time an asylum case for a Mexican journalist came before the court was in January, but it has been postponed twice and is not expected to be resolved until sometime next year. Emilio Gutierrez Soto will have to prove a well-founded fear of persecution based on race, religion, national minority, social group or political opinion. Spector said most of his clients rely on persecution by the state based on political opinion because the Mexican government has repeatedly failed to protect their ability to report the news.

It seems that proving a well-founded fear wouldn’t be too difficult considering what these journalists are running from.

“I would say that based on the three wars I’ve been in — Iraq, Afghanistan and Vietnam — undoubtedly, I’ve seen more dead bodies and more violence in Mexico,” Bartletti said.

On one day in particular, when he was embedded with a forensic investigator in Juárez, there were 12 murders. “There were so many bodies that they stacked them like cordwood in the van,” he said.

That’s what reporters in Mexico are dealing with. “They have a message that they want to get out, that they can’t seem to get out in their own country. So, they are relying on the free press of this nation to tell their story,” he said.

Violence against Mexican journalists

“The level of violence against [Mexican] journalists has increased dramatically in the last few years,” said Ken Ellingwood, a Los Angeles Times correspondent in the paper’s Mexico City bureau. “It has had the effect of squelching coverage by Mexican news outlets in many locations.”

There is no doubt that the threat to Mexican reporters is far greater than to Americans reporting in Mexico.

Of the journalists murdered there, only one was a U.S. citizen, and authorities believe that the reporter, Brad Will, was not targeted as a journalist when he was struck by a stray bullet while filming a clash between protesters and police in Oaxaca in 2006.

But Mexican journalists are often targeted for their words, Marizco said.

“For the most part it’s not machine-gunning in the middle of a gunfight, it’s running up to the guy while he’s driving his kid to school, putting a 9-millimeter to the windshield and putting 10 rounds in his head,” he said, referring to Rodríguez, who was murdered in the driveway of his home in Ciudad Juárez in 2008 while his daughter watched from the back seat.

The Committee to Protect Journalists reported that the federal investigator assigned to find Rodríguez’s killer was subsequently gunned down, as was his replacement.

Rodríguez, a crime reporter for El Diario, had recently written an article linking a local prosecutor’s nephew to drug traffickers, according to the committee.

“If you look at the cases of most of the Mexican journalists who have been intimidated, beaten and killed, they live in the communities where they work. They’re not difficult to find,” Ellingwood said.

“Therein lies the difference,” Marizco said. “They live with these people. I could drop into Mexico, do what I need to do and then leave it.”

Bartletti noted that many Mexican reporters aren’t going to some of the places he’s gone and aren’t covering some of the stories that he’s covered because of fear. “They feel that their lives are trackable,” he said.

The subsequent lack of coverage “contributes to a sense of insecurity [among Mexican residents], to a sense that there’s nobody really in control,” Ellingwood added.

That feeling of insecurity and helplessness lead El Diario to publish on its front page an editorial titled “What do you want from us?” in September 2010.

Earlier that month, the paper lost another reporter when 21-year-old Santiago was gunned down in a mall parking lot on Mexican Independence Day.

In response, El Diario ran a message to the cartels, which it referred to as the “de facto authorities in this city.”

“As information workers, we ask that you explain what it is you want from us, what you’d intend for us to publish or to not publish, so that we know what is expected of us,” the paper pleaded.

The paper’s editorial, which was seen by many as a willingness to compromise news coverage in order to save lives, was widely covered in the media.

“We’re very angry, very sad. We don’t know who to go to. We’re just frustrated,” El Diario editor Gerardo Rodriguez said in an interview with National Public Radio.

The paper’s plea also explained how it had repeatedly gone to the police for help, but to no avail. This is a problem felt throughout Mexico, where drug corruption has seeped deep into the federal government.

“Criminal gangs are often indistinguishable from the police because the police are often in league with them or working for them,” Ellingwood said. He also cited instances where the military had “roughed up” Mexican reporters.

Bartletti has noticed that the federal police are attempting to perform their jobs, albeit somewhat reluctantly. “Many of the younger federal policemen are scared to death. I can tell,” he said.

In August 2010, the Los Angeles Times reported that about 3,200 federal police officers — nearly one-tenth of the force — had been fired as part of President Calderon’s attempts to weed out crooked cops.

The paper’s reporting found that another 465 federal officers had been charged with a crime, including four commanders in Juárez who were publicly accused of corruption.

Decline of investigative journalism

In 1998, the staff of The New York Times won a Pulitzer Prize for international reporting for its coverage of drug corruption in Mexico. The series discovered numerous ties between Mexican officials, including governors and the head of the country’s anti-drug agency, and powerful cartels that were building their empires by pumping drugs into the U.S.

Twelve years later, the cartels’ control has grown, while there is a sense that the press’ willingness to plunge itself into the bowels of the problem, as the Times once did, has dwindled.

“There’s less digging, there’s less journalistic investigation in Mexico,” Marizco said. “Are there no more governors who have ties to the mob?” he asked sarcastically, noting the recent lack in coverage of government corruption. “There are journalists who simply will not go into Mexico who used to. They don’t feel that it’s safe.”

Marizco is a fluent Spanish speaker who worked as a staff writer for The Arizona Daily Star, freelanced for the website Border Reporter and is currently reporting for a fledging border coverage project out of National Public Radio’s Phoenix affiliate. He knows that the most important questions are often the most dangerous.

“I want to know who set up that general in Tijuana, and why,” he said, referring to Gen. Sergio Aponte Polito, who was ousted in 2008 after publicly railing against police corruption. “I want to know where that money’s going. It’s not all being spent on liquor and whores . . . the way a local drug dealer in Phoenix would handle it. That money is a serious industry.”

The money also plays a significant role north of the border where American news outlets are tightening up and shedding costly investigative reporters.

“When I was covering the border eight years ago, there were 11 reporters in Arizona alone dedicated to covering the border. Now there’s three,” Marizco said.

Reporting on the border can be an expensive undertaking. The added costs of Mexican car insurance, mileage, overnight stays, visas and food can compile quickly for newspapers with limited budgets.

And then, as with any investigative reporting, there must be a willingness to allow a writer to devote weeks and months to digging deep into an issue that may not even come to fruition.

The Star allowed Marizco to spend months on a story following the journey of multiple young Mexican immigrants into the U.S. The paper even bought a plane ticket so Marizco could be in the airport when the children reunited with their parents. The piece was published, but Marizco wondered if the Star ever recouped its expenses.

Many American journalists covering the border try to limit the time they spend in any one area, although it’s not always the money that is the restraining factor.

“This is not the same Mexico that it was even five years ago,” Ellingwood said. “My predecessors here used to travel to any dinky town around the country and hang out talking to people, going wherever they wanted without any real concern about their safety. That’s not the case anymore.”

Now, Ellingwood said the risk of being intimidated, beaten, kidnapped or killed has caused reporters to try to create a smaller target. “We move with great purpose when we’re in those dicey places. We’re getting in and getting out.”

He said they know what they need to do ahead of time and they do it quickly without making a scene.

“It’s not a whole lot different, at least in the methods that we use, to reporting in a place like Baghdad,” he said, speaking from his experience covering Iraq.

In terms of reporting the news, “that has had the effect of reducing the size of the country for us,” Ellingwood said. Still, the Times and other news organizations remain entrenched in Mexico.

Bartletti and Ellingwood are part of a small team of journalists covering the border for the Los Angeles Times’ project, “Mexico Under Siege.” A sleek and inventive pairing of interactive maps, graphics and videos, the site keeps a running count of the drug war’s death toll and allows readers to visualize where and when the cartels have done the most damage.

The project also reports on stories as they break from well beyond the safety of American soil. To cope with the inherent danger, Bartletti relies on a set of self-governing guidelines. He avoids traveling alone, speaks some Spanish and, when possible, enlists the help of a local when reporting from especially hazardous areas in order to better grasp colloquialism and local interpretations of the language.

When responding to a gunfight, he follows an eerily strict method of operation. When a trusted source sends him the coordinates or intersection where a shootout has occurred, “You don’t go to that place sooner than 20 minutes after you receive this message. They’ve told me there are cartel operatives who are trying to witness if the shootout was successful — if the hitman did his job,” he said.

The operatives will be lurking in the shadows a half block or maybe two blocks away, he said.

“To show up too soon, and God forbid if you witness a shooting, cartel operatives will shoot anyone,” Bartletti said. This makes reporters’ and investigators’ jobs next to impossible because anyone unlucky enough to be a witness will undoubtedly “zip their lips.”

As a photographer, Bartletti has also noticed a growing reluctance on the part of Mexican citizens to be caught in a photograph. In the three decades he has captured Mexico’s stories through the lens of a camera, he used to find that his subjects would “let me see their struggles, show me their dreams,” he said.

Their brazen openness was apparent in the portrayal of undocumented immigrants’ voyages into the U.S. that won him a Pulitzer Prize for feature photography in 2003.

“Now, people see the camera and they just take off,” he said. He gives them the privilege even in a public place, often setting down his camera and explaining that he is not a spy. When possible, he said he tries to “shoot it and get out. A dead journalist does nobody any good.”

Marizco agreed and has found himself adhering to the same rule.

Academic responses to border safety issues

Due to the dangers of reporting on the border, journalism students at the University of Arizona are discouraged from covering issues or events that might be related to drug smuggling or the drug war.

“There are so many other social, political, cultural, and economic issues that need to be covered along the U.S.-Mexico border, and those are the stories that we encourage our students to cover,” explained Assistant Professor Celeste González de Bustamante.

The School of Journalism gives students the opportunity to write for the online publication Border Beat. The student-run newspaper focuses on issues related to the U.S.-Mexico border, including topics such as education, sports, health, business, food and entertainment.

Faculty advisor Jay M. Rochlin, assistant professor of practice at the University of Arizona School of Journalism, described how “there is a whole lot of stories that our students cover that are important stories here and tell sort of a more textured story of the border that big media doesn’t cover because all big media seems to be covering are drugs and murders and there is just a whole lot more to the border than that.”

Professor González de Bustamante explained that the situation on the U.S. side is much safer than the Mexican side and the U.S. side is where most of the students are doing their reporting.

Although the school does not encourage students to cover drug and murder cases, the subject matter is not banned. If a student is interested in reporting on these subjects, faculty members are committed to making sure they have a solid understanding of the issues and ways to protect themselves, explained Maggy Zanger, professor of practice at the journalism school.

To achieve these goals, several professors have joined together to form the Border Safety Committee, which focuses on what faculty members should do to make sure students stay safe while covering the border.

The committee has led two workshops for students that focused on safety and emotional trauma issues. Students in the program learn background information on the border region, who to call if in need of help, first aid and basic emergency response training. Zanger and González de Bustamante expressed the importance of preparing students though these workshops. Both also noted that the greatest danger for students covering the border is being involved in a traffic accident.

After faculty members realized they were not the only educators in the country dealing with issues of border safety, the journalism school teamed up with the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma at Columbia University to host a two-day workshop for approximately 20 university educators in border states. Participants discussed resources and techniques on how to better prepare students for safe border reporting.

The Dart Center provides journalists and educators with articles, expert interviews, journalist-to-journalist advice and tip sheets; hosts seminars focused on specific events and issues; and provides training programs and other resources on effective reporting of a traumatic event.

Covering cartel-held territory

Saric is a small town that sits directly on a drug trafficking route just south of the Arizona border. It’s a good piece of turf — isolated in the mountains with a view of the federal army’s advance — and serves as a launching pad to send drug mules into the U.S., Marizco said.

It was taken over by a rival of the Sinaloa cartel in the summer of 2010 and was the setting for one of the bloodiest events in the war thus far.

In July, Sinaloa members attempted to sneak up on their rivals and force them out of town.

Unfortunately for them, the rival gang had set an ambush, trapping the Sinaloa convoy by blockading both ends of the road. According to the Los Angeles Times, Mexican police estimated that more than 100 attackers opened fire on the stalled group, killing 21.

After that, the Sinaloas changed tactics and put Saric under siege, attempting to starve out the competition. Supply lines to the town were cut off; one man trying to bring gasoline and another looking to deliver food to the isolated residents were shot and killed, Marizco said.

After a time, when things appeared to have cooled off, he decided to visit Saric to see what was happening on the inside. There are two roads into town from the north and he chose to take the eastern route, driving down through Sasabe, Ariz.

He wound his way along the desert road deeper into cartel-held territory until he came to a group of men who had blocked the way with their trucks.

One man approached his car. “We suggest you don’t try to drive up there,” he said, referring to Saric. “It’s really dangerous now.”

“Is the danger up there, or is the danger right here in front of me?” Marizco replied. He pushed a little and found that the men were surprisingly cordial, but they were under no means going to allow him to pass.

“I turned around and drove right back home,” he said. Marizco was never able to write about what was happening inside Saric.

But turning around, heading home and leaving the danger behind is not a luxury shared by all journalists in Mexico.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s