It’s indeed an honor and a privilege to be with you on this wonderful, certainly very memorable evening to accept the Elijah Parish Lovejoy award. It’s great to be in Maine in my favorite season of the year, which is the fall, and particularly here in this gorgeous campus of Colby College.
And it’s quite an honor to receive the award a year after Paul Salopek, a journalist I’ve admired since we both started our careers in El Paso, Texas.
You don’t win an award like this without the support of institutions like the Dallas Morning News. Two years ago I was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard. Shortly after returning to Mexico, I received an offer to write a book with the working title “Midnight in Mexico.” That means more time away from work. Somewhat concerned, I sat with my editors, Bob Mong, George Rodrigue, and Tim Connolly, and I said, “Look, if you want to let me go, I understand.”
“Absolutely not,” they said. It’s an important book and an important story. Write it, and we’ll be there to support you and back you up — soothing words that in these tough times in our industry you don’t expect to hear for anyone anymore. So again, thank you Dallas Morning News.
Thank you Colby College. I accept the award on behalf of the love I feel for my profession and for the enormous respect and admiration I have for those reporting in the line of fire, especially my colleagues in my troubled homeland of Mexico — colleagues who have chosen to defend freedom of expression over submitting to the power of total silence.
Thank you judges. In recognizing me you’re also acknowledging a story that’s one of the most important and misunderstood of our times.
I accept the award in the memory of the more than 60 Mexican journalists who have been murdered and dozens more who have disappeared since the year 2000, more than 30 in the past four years. The dead include this year alone, nine, including one just over a week ago in Ciudad Juarez, the murder capital of Mexico.
The killing of Luis Carlos Santiago, a 21-year-old photographer for El Diario de Juarez, has galvanized international support. Just this week president Felipe Calderon agreed to push legal reforms that will make the killing of a journalist a federal crime. We all applaud the move, but we also have to remind ourselves that Mexico has some of the most progressive, first-rate laws on the books — laws that are rarely enforced. So, on behalf of journalists all over the world, Mr. President, let’s put action into those words.
The Elijah Parish Lovejoy award recognizes a person’s commitment to journalism, measured by how brave and courageous we are in answering the call of duty amid the dangerous situation around us. This evening I stand before you and confess I am no braver or more courageous than some of my colleagues in Mexico — those who wake up in the morning and ask the following questions:
How far should I go today? What questions should I ask or not ask? Where should I report, or what place should I avoid? And what photos should I take or ignore? Should I wear a wig, pretend to be a taco or an ice-cream vendor at the crime scene so that I can disguise myself as I try to do my job, which likely means reporting on the latest decapitated body on the streets or a hanging from a bridge in downtown Juarez, Cuernavaca, Nuevo Laredo, or Monterrey?
Should I even answer my cell phone from someone with the caller ID with the words, “May God bless you”? Because I know that if I do the person calling me is surely a man who calls himself Boots, Rooster, Chicken or Rabbit, a spokesman for the drug traffickers. And once I answer that phone, I have no leverage to negotiate. It’s either follow an order or face death or the killing of a relative, a son or a daughter, because that’s the reality that Mexican journalists face today in Mexico. The intense questioning, the doubts, the anxiety and stress have many of my Mexican colleagues and us on edge.
I come to you this evening as a witness to the bloodiest period in Mexico since the 1910 Mexican revolution and the biggest threat to Mexico’s national security, its young, fragile democracy and freedom of the press.
Mexico today is among the most dangerous places to do journalism in the world, right up there with Iraq, Russia, and Somalia. This is especially true for those who cover the U.S.-Mexico border, once a frontier for Mexicans seeking new opportunities and new beginnings. These days more than 200,000 people have fled the chaos, many to the United States. It’s also a region that today is increasingly silent.
I dedicate this award to the Mexican journalists — and there are many of them — like Francisco Gomez, Sandra Rodriguez, Javier Garza, and a few that I’d like to single out like Ramon Cantu Deandar, the editor of El Manana newspaper in Nuevo Laredo. His news editor was killed, stabbed more than 30 times. His newsroom was attacked with a grenade leaving a reporter paralyzed for life. Ramon’s younger brother was kidnapped and only released after Ramon agreed not to cover the business or the crimes committed by drug traffickers. In other words, he agreed to self-censor his publication. It’s the price one pays in Mexico if you want to write a story and live to tell about it. Though the coverage is limited, he chose self-censorship over total silence.
To Victor Hugo Michel, a young reporter who two weeks ago said no to an assignment in Ciudad Juarez. His reason: his pay doesn’t include health benefits or liability insurance. Others in his newsroom now question their bosses repeatedly, especially after three other colleagues were kidnapped.
I dedicate this to Marcela Turati, a reporter in Mexico City who in anger created an organization called Periodistas de a Pie, Journalists on Foot. The effort is aimed at teaching journalists in rural Mexico the principles of journalistic ethics. She also sets up meetings to discuss and debate how do you stay alive while doing your job. Along the way she helped create a home that serves as a temporary shelter in Mexico City to hide journalists whose lives have been threatened.
And I dedicate this to Rosental Alves at the University of Texas at Austin, who this year brought us together, 13 Mexican and 13 American journalists. For the first time we were able to sit down and discuss the troubles we face and find ways to help each other.
And lastly, especially, I dedicate this to Angela Kocherga, my esteemed colleague from Belo television and longtime girlfriend. She’s one of the very few American journalists who reports in Juarez on a daily basis. Angela, your courage, your passion and strength remains my source of inspiration — a glimmer of light in a region marked by darkness and silence, our beloved border now paralyzed by fear and chaos and stained by bloodshed.
But let me be clear: whatever danger that Angela, or I, or any other American correspondent faces, it pales in comparison to the dangers that our Mexican colleagues are facing today. There is simply no comparison. I can call my editor, Tim Connolly, this very second and say, Tim, I don’t feel safe anymore, even here at Colby, and he’ll say, “Get on the next flight and get out.” That’s not the case for our Mexican colleagues.
Let me explain it to you this way: the difference between my Mexican colleagues and me comes down to this: citizenship. I’m thankful and grateful to have parents who many years ago dreamed big and were determined to give my five brothers, two sisters, and me the chance to dream and achieve. We migrated from a small community in Mexico to follow the crops in this country. Along the way, along the long, long journey from Durango to Juarez, California to Texas, and back to Mexico, I was able to obtain a little blue passport that says I am a citizen of the United States of America.
As imperfect as our judicial institutions are, I have perhaps a naïve but unwavering belief that if something is to happen to me, someone puts a bullet to my head, or, God forbid, to Angela, or any one of my American colleagues, there would be consequences to pay. That our newspapers, our media companies, our colleagues would stand up and demand answers and justice. That our death won’t become just another number.
Three years ago as I prepared to celebrate an award from Columbia University — the Maria Moors Cabot Prize — I got a call from a trusted U.S. source who said, “I have raw intelligence that says the cartels will kill an American journalist in 24 hours. I think it’s you. Get out of Mexico now.”
I called my American and Mexican colleagues who were preparing a celebration dinner for me that evening and said, “You know, there’s a death threat, and I think we should cancel dinner.” Dudley Althaus from the Houston Chronicle (who we in Mexico fondly refer to as “the dean” because he’s been there so long, something like 22 years now) said not just “no,” but “hell no!” If they’re going to kill you, he said, they have to kill all of us too. So come on down to the cantina and have some tequila with us.
The solidarity included a protest letter from the U.S. ambassador and editorials from some U.S. newspapers, especially in the Southwest.
My Mexican colleagues cannot say the same thing. They don’t have that kind of solidarity among themselves; they don’t share that trust with their own editors, less so from their own government. Today the vast majority of the killings in Mexico, whether you’re a woman in Ciudad Juarez or a cop or your average citizen, end up as crimes unsolved and unpunished: crimenes no resueltos.
Oftentimes in Mexico victims are assassinated twice, once by the criminal and then again — character assassination — by authorities, who even before investigating the crime will speculate why he or she was killed. Maybe he was a part of a gang, or maybe the reporter was messing with the neighbor’s husband or girlfriend or wife.
Were they doing courageous work or simply flacks on the payroll for drug criminal organizations? We simply don’t know and, given Mexico’s impunity rate, we’ll probably never know. More than 95 percent of all crimes in Mexico go unsolved and unpunished
I dreamed of being a foreign correspondent not because I wanted to live in some exotic land, but simply because I wanted to return to my homeland. I ached for roots, language, and culture. So on this evening I speak to you not just as a journalist, but also an American journalist of Mexican descent, a fact that in these deadly times in Mexico I, or we, cannot ignore.
I often ask myself questions I thought I had finally resolved, such as, “Am I what I believe I am?” Do I belong to the United States, this powerful country built on principles of rule of law, yet still faced with deep contradictions — the insatiable appetite for guns, cash and drugs? Or do I belong to Mexico, the country of my roots, where my umbilical chord is buried, where we use nationalism and patriotism to more often than not mask our corruption, our poverty, and our inequality?
The hyphenated complexities of being Mexican American create a confusing feeling of being in between. For me personally, they also instill a sense of higher responsibility to share these stories, especially now, when so many reporters in my native Mexico have been forced to censor themselves.
As such I strive to understand that when you cover Mexico, particularly the U.S.-Mexico border, nothing is black or white. There are only shades of gray. That to understand these stories you must go deeper and be able to see and distinguish between those gray areas, understand that not everything is as bad or as good as it seems. And that there are always, always, always many sides to the story.
Take for instance the story of the young men who no longer dream of going to the United States to toil in the fields, but who see opportunity in becoming hit men in Mexico, earning as little as 250 to 1500 pesos, which is the equivalent of 22 dollars a hit to 130 dollars a week. As the old iconic Mexican song says, by Jose Alfredo Jimenez, “La vida no vale nada” — life in Mexico is worth nothing these days.
We’re talking about a whole new generation of children affected, numbed, by the violence around them. And teens from both sides of the border who, facing little opportunity, now embrace a new lifestyle and a new saying: “Prefiero vivir cinco años como rey, que cinquento años como buey.” I prefer to live five years as a king than 50 as an ox.
Or consider the young Chicano gang member who now uses the same immigration routes his grandfathers used decades ago to embrace a new life, a chance at an opportunity. Today that same person, hand in hand with powerful Mexican cartels, use the same route to distribute drugs in more than 250 U.S. communities where Mexican cartels today have an influence. Their role model is a thug from Laredo, Texas, with the name Edgar Valdez Villarreal, better known as La Barbie, a Texas high school football player who rose through the ranks as a hit man to become the most notorious American in a Mexican cartel. The heroes of my time had names like Cesar Chavez, Robert F. Kennedy, or Martin Luther King.
How did things get so bad in Mexico? The answers are complex. Demand for drugs in the U.S., the lure of easy cash, the widespread availability of guns, especially high-powered weapons smuggled from the United States. And on the Mexican side it had to do with ignoring a reality: corruption, complicity, and greed. For too long the two countries blamed each other, and as they did Mexico slowly descended into darkness. Corruption grew like a cancer within the government.
Today Mexico’s conflict is really a war within. It’s about a country trying to redefine itself, become a nation of rule of laws, but without a clear path or a mandate. Few can question whether President Calderon had any other choice but to take on organized crime, which had reached the upper echelons of power. But whether or not he had the right strategy, and the right people, is a question that will haunt him, Mexico, and us for decades.
The spillover into the United States isn’t so much about violence but about an exodus of Mexico’s most talented people. And you’re seeing that in enrollment in universities across the country. People migrating today aren’t just nannies or people picking your blueberries in Maine or caring for your chicken farms in Turner. We’re talking about well-educated professionals, people who used to create jobs, people who now fear being kidnapped or extorted by criminal gangs.
My biggest concern here is that Mexico has yet to reach bottom, and nobody yet knows where that bottom is or what it may look like someday.
I stumbled onto the story seven years ago when, after a brief period at our Washington, D.C., bureau, I was assigned a story to investigate who was killing so many women in Juarez. There I discovered the role of organized crime with the help of police in kidnapping and killing hundreds of women with no consequences. After Ciudad Juarez I discovered Nuevo Laredo, where Americans were also being kidnapped and a new paramilitary group, the Zetas, partly trained by the U.S. government, was terrorizing society.
Suddenly I was immersed in stories about U.S. agencies mishandling informants or how U.S.-trained Mexican soldiers had gone rogue or the deep corruption inside the Mexican government.
One time a Mexican source, a lawyer, had to drive me as I hid in the trunk of a vehicle to the international bridge so I could run across the border into the United States. That source was later gunned down. He took several bullets to the head and torso.
Another time the threat actually came on U.S. soil, in Laredo, Texas. A man approached me and warned me to stop writing stories about the Zetas and in gruesome detail described how they would cut me into little pieces and dissolve my remains in acid inside a barrel, which is a common technique in Mexico.
After one of those shocking incidents a law enforcement source sat me down and set me straight. I asked, “These guys really don’t want to harm an American journalist, do they? I mean if they do, it really threatens their criminal enterprise.” And the source replied, “I have good and bad news. The good news? You’re right. They wouldn’t want to mess with an American journalist because the attention would threaten their billion-dollar industry. The bad news? You don’t look American.” His advice was simple: wear your congressional press I.D., or anything that identifies you as an American journalist, around your neck.
I had left Mexico for Washington in 2000, convinced by U.S. authorities that the election of an opposition government, the end of 71 years of one-party rule, would signal the automatic birth of democratic institutions. But far from it. Organized crime took advantage of a power vacuum. With greater ease they bought off entire police forces and politicians, beginning with mayors and local government officials. And then they also bought off journalists. The cartels became de facto governments. It was no longer the threat of plata or plomo, silver or lead. It was our way or six feet under.
These cartels are very sophisticated about mastering the message. Because the goal in any conflict is to control the message. Today media representatives serve as spokespeople. A cartel spokesperson will call reporters or editors and dictate what should or shouldn’t be covered in that evening’s newscast or in tomorrow’s newspaper. Imagine working in a newsroom where you don’t know if your colleague is the brave, courageous journalist or a spy for the cartels.
So, yes, in many ways Mexican journalists also shoulder some blame. Increased freedom of the press has also meant more control by organized crime, more corruption within media companies. Last week El Diario de Juarez asked in a front-page editorial, “What do you want from us?” The message was aimed, the editor said, at the drug traffickers. It was a way of expressing their frustration and sense of impotence of living in the shadow of organized crime.
I want to believe that the message was also meant as a wake-up call for civil society. Because until civil society demands more from wealthy media moguls, journalists will be poorly trained and poorly paid, something that will make them vulnerable to the threats of organized crime.
Earlier this year my dear friend who we all call at the Nieman Center “Daddy Giles,” Bob Giles, who’s the curator at the center, wrote a piece of advice that ran in the New York Times editorial page. He wrote, “The brave journalists reporting on the Mexican drug cartels under the most fearful circumstances should remember a cardinal rule of journalism: no story is worth dying for.” Another friend, and one of the best former Latin American correspondents, Doug Farah, constantly reminds me, “Corchado, no color is worth dying for.”
I couldn’t agree more because, far from preaching that we should be journalistic cowboys, I would argue that we must find a way to balance fear versus silence. We must find a way to tell the story and not allow fear to become the ultimate editor who decides whether or not we pursue a story. Because otherwise the killing of more than 30,000 people in just four years will be just that, a number. Or worse we will be engulfed in silence, as some regions in Mexico already find themselves.
Earlier this year, just to give you an example, Angela, her cameraman, Hugo Perez, and I went to the city of Reynosa, Mexico, which is right across from McAllen, Texas, to confirm rumors of running gun battles on the streets in broad daylight. We had heard that parents were keeping the kids home from school, the parents themselves were staying home, and others were fleeing in droves to Texas. But because of a media blackout, some were resorting to Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook to share news about when it was safe to go outside or whether to drive down specific streets.
You might be wondering what was the big story that day. The big story on the front pages of newspapers in the area: The price of onions going up.
I’m not saying fear is wrong. I actually think fear is a powerful force. Fear is a survival skill. If you’re not scared you become reckless. Fear forces us to stake stock of our lives and reminds us how much life means to us. So what we cover and how we cover this story is a very personal decision.
I became a 2009 Nieman Fellow, truth be told, because I was scared. Because I questioned whether what I was doing was the right thing. When I returned to Mexico I felt numb, separated from the story because I realized I didn’t want to put my life on the line anymore.
That sentiment changed on February 1 of this year when 13 teens were gunned down. I remember when Angela gave me the news that morning, it was a Sunday morning, and I felt like many other Mexicans would: I thought that they’re probably gang members. So we went to check it out and soon discovered that these were 13 students, all athletes, sons and daughters of parents who, like my parents, also had dreams for them. Parents who told them, “Don’t stray too far from home this evening. Celebrate your friend’s birthday across the street so you can be close to home.”
The hit men, who were wrongly tipped off that the party was for a group of rival gang members, showed up at the doorstep. They stormed in and lined up and killed 13 of the 36 people at the party that night. You had friends, brothers and sisters, who hid in closets — others were able to hide underneath the bodies of their siblings.
I will never forget the day of the funeral, the sight of a dozen hearses on that street, the sight of coffins, the wailing from parents, friends, brothers, and sisters. I’m just grateful that it was a rainy day, because I felt so angry and I was able to mask my tears with raindrops.
And on that sad morning, I broke my silence and found my voice again.
Thank you again.