“Every journalist's life is in danger”
Cartels and government authorities tried to silence the media in Ciudad Juárez with violence and threats. But journalists in the Mexican border town refused to give up and created a network to protect their colleagues.
In Ciudad Juárez cartels and governmental authorities alike use direct violence and threats to silence the media. Journalists in this Mexican border city, however, have refused to give up their rights to free speech and have formed a network in order to protect themselves and their colleagues.
-We have been compared to war correspondents but I believe that our situation is rather special; a war correspondent travels into a danger zone and then out again, but we stay on here with our families, says Rocío Gallegos, journalist and chief news editor on the El Diario, one of the largest newspapers in Ciudad Juárez.
In the spring of 2011, Rocío Gallegos, along with Araly Castanón Leos, Gabriela Minjares, Sandra Rodrigues, and Luz del Carmen Sosa, created the Network for Journalists in Juárez (Red de Periodistas de Juárez) in answer to the ever more hopeless situation for the city’s targeted journalists.
Ciudad Juárez has long been a nexus for alcohol and drug smuggling to the US and in 2008 the violence suddenly reached horrendous proportions. The Sinaloa Cartel implemented a bloody attack against the Juárez Cartel over the control of the smuggle corridors and in 2009 the city with it 1.3 million inhabitants had the highest murder rate per capita in the world. According to the local paper Observatorio de Juárez, in 2010 almost three thousand people were murdered.
-Our work conditions changed as the violence increased and we were faced with risky situations that we did not know how to handle. We had not been trained to work as journalists in a war zone, says Rocío Gallegos. All at once it was a question of covering anything between ten to twenty murders even before three o’clock in the afternoon while the streets were patrolled by thousands of heavily armed soldiers. On top of this we were forced to confront with and deal with hundreds of people who had just lost a close relative.
Crime reporter at the El Dario, Armando Rodrigues, was shot in front of his home one day in November 2008. Luis Carlos Santiago, photographer, was killed in September 2010. However, not only the crime reporters were caught in the fire:
-All journalists, not only those who write about the killings and the violence, are caught in a high-risk situation, even those who cover education and/or medical care.
Ambulance drivers who take care of the wounded and journalists who report about the wounded while the smell of blood still lies like a heavy blanket over the scene of the crime (and some perpetrators even feel the need to make sure that the bullets have done their job) become easy targets. Also, poorly protected hospitals have been described as high-risk zones since the armed cartel members on several occasions have besieged the hospitals in search of wounded rivals and have even resorted to kidnapping doctors in order to demand ransom money.
Not even the schools are exempt. Two years ago teachers in the city received a collective threat that both they and their students would be shot if they refused to hand over their Christmas bonuses to the syndicates. Notably, the silencing of the journalists and the threats directed towards them do not only emanate from organised crime but equally often from the local authorities and from the police. It can concern anything from a simple refusal to issue official documents to making random arrests or giving verbal threats or directing violence towards journalists who are covering sensitive topics or are out on controversial assignments.
To give in to this pressure or to give in to this violence has never been an option for Rocío Gallegos or the other members of the Network—quite the opposite. They are instead operating intensely in their own line of work in order that free speech will not be silenced in this place where it is needed the most.
-Our goal is to educate people. We are working to raise awareness about the vulnerability of our profession and about our hope to find a collaborative way of addressing our problems, she says.
Journalists, according to Gallegos, need to become more professional and there is a need of more investigating reporters and not fewer. To reach these goals they have an array of tools: workshops on war reportage and on how to talk to victims of crime; seminars on official information and on investigating journalism; discussions about security measures and about the spreading of continuously updated information about how threats and other crimes against journalists can be followed up. In these endeavours they receive help from other networks faced with similar challenges such as for example the Red de Periodistas de a Pie in Mexico City.
The Network does not want to dictate how the city’s journalists should manage their jobs, Gallegos points out, but merely to make it possible for their colleagues to foresee high-risk situations and to handle these in the best way possible. Due to the circumstances most journalists have seen themselves forced to change their modes of operation. Specific, more exclusive kinds of news have often been neglected in favour of the security of working together in a group. The prestige of a by-line to end a well-worked reportage about the violence, or a gripping picture, may have to be sacrificed when faced with the risk of harassments implemented either by organised crime or by the Mexican state. And, continuous contact between the heads of the news agencies and the journalists is vital.
Gallegos’ and her four colleagues’ work with the network has not gone unnoticed. In October 2012 Gallegos and Sandra Rodriguez were awarded the Zenger prize, which is dealt out by the Faculty of Journalism at the University of Arizona. Today the situation in Ciudad Juárez has calmed down—at least on the surface. The murder rate decreased to about half of the rate of the summer 2011 to 2012. Even the number of kidnappings, robberies, and incidents of blackmail fell. According to Mexico’s Security Department these figures can be accredited measures taken by the government. However, according to the American agency the DEA it can instead be interpreted as a victory for the Sinaloa Cartel over their competitors and that they now, as a result, operate more freely in the city.
For the journalists the change is marginal. In all of Mexico threats, harassment, and violence directed towards the media continue and very few crimes of this nature are ever investigated. Human Rights organisations claim that only 19% of the reported cases over the past few years have been taken to court, and that only 7% have been indicted. In the state of Monterrey the newspaper’s editorial office was subjected to gunfire, and journalists from Veracruz, following the killings of five colleagues in one year, were forced to flee the state. The journalist networks in Mexico still have an enormous task ahead. Their work can come to play a decisive role for Mexico’s future.
-Our freedom of speech is at present undergoing its most dire crisis in the history of Mexico. Journalism is not granted any respect here and nor is any respect shown the freedom of speech or even our democracy. If there is no respect for this corner stone of civil rights then democracy rests on very unstable ground indeed, concludes Rocío Gallegos.
Background: Ciudad Juárez
Ciudad Juarez is a city of just over 1.4 million inhabitants situated in the state of Chihuahua close to the border of the USA. In Texas, on the other side of a high wall, lies the twin city of El Paso known as one of the most secure cities in the US. Ciudad Juárez, however, in both Mexico and the world at large has become synonymous with violence, crime, and corruption.
During the 1990s the city was infamous for a wave of unusually brutal murders of women. The city is dominated by the Juárez Cartel led by the Carillo Fuentes family assisted by a group of torpeds called La Linea.
At the start of year 2000 the Sinaloa Cartel under the leadership of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán initiated an attack to usurp the control of the city on the border, which led to a speedy deterioration of the security situation for the city’s citizens.
In 2008 the newly installed President Felipe Calderon sent hundreds of soldiers to Ciudad Juárez as part of a new and harder line of measures taken against the cartels. However, the violence only escalated and in 2009 Calderon sent yet another 7000 soldiers and 3000 federal police to the city. In that same year approximately 189 murders were committed per 100 000 citizens, which is 23 times more than WHO, the UN’s World Health Organisation, defines as an epidemic.
Figures concerning the number of murders committed in Ciudad Juárez vary depending on the sources. The Municipal Security Commission in Juárez claim that 9000 murders took place in the city between 2008-2011. Several media institutions who have kept their own records of covered murder cases instead claim many more thousands of murders. Among those killed are many activists who have protested against the violence and against the lack of punishment of the guilty parties—and of course the two murdered journalists.
Thousands of rapes and cases of blackmail and several hundred kidnappings can also be added to these figures. Very few of the reported crimes have ever led to any legal processes.
Observatorio de Seguridad y Convivencia Ciudadanas del Municipio de Juárez (http://observatoriodejuarez.org/dnn/Estadisticas/Homicidios.aspx), El Universal (http://www.eluniversal.com.mx/nacion/186115.html), Reuters.