A few weeks ago I was in Ciudad Juarez, one of the most dangerous cities in the world, and couldn't wait till the taxi driver reached the international bridge that connects Juarez to El Paso, Texas.
The ride was long and road construction only made the minutes seem like hours. It didn't help that convoys of hooded federal agents patrolledthe streets with AK-47 weapons. While I sat in the back of the taxi, a question lingered in my mind: Is the perception of fear greater than reality, as many Mexican government officials insist.
Juarez is a city I know well. I spent time here as a kid. My relatives still call this home. Yet Juarez, with a population of roughly 1.2 million, has recorded more than 7,240 murders in two years, including two journalists. Most of those killings remain unsolved.
While just across the border, El Paso, a city of more than 750,000, boasts of being one of the safest cities in the United States. The city recorded less than 30 murders in the past two years, and most, if not all, resulted in convictions.
For journalists, particularly a Mexican journalist, or anyone else, those numbers are numbing. You can't blame my colleagues for taking the difficult decision of self-censoring themselves. My native Mexico has become one of the deadliest countries in the world for journalists. In the past 10 years, more than 65 journalists have been killed, many more have disappeared and even more have been threatened, or beaten up. And nothing happens to the culprits. Consequences are few.
That's why today there are regions of silence in Mexico. Regions where few know what's going on in their own communities because fear reigns. Mexico is not a failed state, but it is home to regions of fear, a deafening silence.
After my recent trip to Ciudad Juarez, I'm back in the bubble of Cambridge where I'm conducting research for my first book. I walk aimlessly in Harvard Square without looking over my shoulder. Little things like that make me appreciate how lucky I am. Lucky that as an American journalist I can parachute in and out of dangerous Mexican cities and towns. Still, I feel mad and revolted that Mexico, celebrating its 200th Bicentennial Anniversary as a nation, remains a country ruled by power and not by laws, a place where judicial institutions mirror museums, with laws on books that seem so progressive, but rarely enforced.
Until Mexico is able to demonstrate political will by solving hundreds − or at the very least − dozens of murders, that deep seeded perception of fear will remain intact. Regions of silence will grow in Ciudad Juarez, Durango, Nuevo Leon, Michoacan, Tamaulipas, and Coahuila. If Mexico is serious about changing perception, it cannot simply parade accused suspects in front of television cameras. The people behind the cameras, the ones taking notes, must feel a sense of security that their images and words will truly break the silence now engulfing Mexico.
Alfredo Corchado is the Mexico Bureau Chief for the Dallas Morning News. Corchado was honored with the 2010 Lovejoy Award for his courage in covering the drug-related violence and corruption that plagues Mexico and its borders. Corchado is currently working on his first book and is also an incoming Fellow at the DavidRockefellerCenter at Harvard.