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Home > Publications > Quill > Trouble On Our Doorstep



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Friday, December 20, 2013
Trouble On Our Doorstep

Female journalists cover death and life in Mexico's drug war

By Tracy Everbach

War reporting doesn’t always mean traveling overseas. Sometimes the war is in a reporter’s backyard.

From 2008 to 2011, Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, directly across the border from El Paso, Texas, claimed the title “murder capital of the world.” More than 10,000 people in the city died when conflict between two drug cartels exploded. Innocent bystanders were among many of the victims. Most of the crimes haven’t been solved, much less prosecuted.

Gabriela Téllez, a television reporter in Juárez, recalled the breakdown in law and order. Cartel members, eager to instill fear, would leave bodies of slain victims in the streets, sometimes as many as 30 in one day. Often journalists would arrive at the crime scenes before the authorities.

“You would go to the crime and these groups of families would show up because they just wanted to know if these bodies were their family members,” Téllez said.

The murders in Juárez, a city of 1.5 million people, received only a sliver of international media attention. A dedicated group of American and Mexican journalists — all veteran reporters who knew the city well — stepped up to tell the story of what was happening to their neighbors.

Interestingly, many of them were women.

“I felt a responsibility to tell these stories,” said Angela Korcherga, an El Paso-based broadcast reporter for Belo Corp. television stations. “I felt we were getting more news out of Iraq and Afghanistan than from the war next door.”

In a series of interviews in El Paso and Juárez, several female journalists who covered the violence said they wanted to give voice to the city’s people.

“You couldn’t ignore it,” said Mónica Ortiz Uribe, a field correspondent with Fronteras, a collaboration of public radio stations. “People did choose to ignore it, and I could not.”

Ortiz Uribe covered the killings as a freelance reporter based in El Paso. She would drive across the border on her own to document the crimes and their aftermath. Her relatives and friends, fearful of the violence, told her not to go. But she felt a duty.

“It’s my responsibility. As a reporter, you’re supposed to bear witness,” Ortiz Uribe said from her home on a hill in El Paso, where a picture window frames the lights of nearby Juárez.

However, covering a war zone carries emotional baggage. Each time Ortiz Uribe drove across the international bridge back into El Paso, “I would just feel relief when I passed the sign, ‘Welcome to the United States.’”

Juárez’s innocent victims, many of them children, did not receive justice, mainly because of overwhelmed and corrupt law enforcement and court systems. Also, El Paso’s and Juárez’s out-of-the-way geographic location, away from both U.S. coasts and from Mexico City, failed to attract national and international correspondents. Sometimes reporters parachuted in from the big networks and newspapers. But for the female journalists, this was a war story in their own backyard.

“This is no L.A. or Chicago,” Ortiz Uribe said, explaining why the story wasn’t front-page news in most cities. Most reporters for big news organizations who covered Mexico were based “in Mexico City with the posh foreign correspondent jobs,” not in a border city, she said.

The journalists didn’t even realize until the peak of the violence that most reporters covering the story were female. They said they brought perspectives that male reporters might not have. Several of the women pointed to a tendency for some male colleagues to view the violence in statistics or as a battle.

“Like any war, people’s eyes glaze over after they hear the body count, so you have to reach farther,” Korcherga said.

She and the other women wrote stories on the after-effects of the drug violence on families and the sociological impact on the young people of Juárez.

“I think the fact that women were doing this work will provide a different kind of record,” Korcherga said. “It will be a more human story, not just about the body count or the fight for control. It will be about the families.”

REPORTING ACROSS LA FRONTERA

El Paso, with a population near 700,000, remained relatively safe during the violence that was happening less than a mile away. Government officials on the American side boasted of the city’s low crime rate.

But across the Rio Grande — dubbed the Rio Bravo by Mexican residents — the situation was dire. The reporters in Juárez could look across the river and see the tall glass buildings of El Paso, the red-roofed buildings on the University of Texas at El Paso campus, and the lighted star on one of El Paso’s mountains. But they could not flee to the safety of El Paso after working their shifts.

Residents on the Juárez side still gossip that American reporters are afraid to cross to the Mexican side.

Two male journalists who worked at El Diario de Juárez, the city’s largest newspaper, became war casualties. Crime reporter Armando “El Choco” Rodriguez and a photographer, Luis Carlos Santiago, were gunned down. Rodriguez’s and Santiago’s likenesses hang on large, white banners on the outside of the modest newspaper building along Avenida Paseo Triunfo de la República in the city.

No one has been charged in either killing. Neither man was slain while on assignment, but the local media got the message.

In 2010, amid the worst wave of murders and kidnappings, El Diario’s owners decided to scale back on crime reporting and remove bylines from reporters’ stories about the violence. In addition to the two killings, staff members had received death threats.

Veteran crime reporter Luz del Carmen Sosa took over the primary crime reporting after Rodriguez was shot to death in front of his house while taking his daughter to school. She said that even after the slayings of her colleagues, she felt compelled to keep reporting.

“We needed to tell the story of Juárez, for the history of Juárez,” Sosa said in Spanish through an interpreter.

“The women played a big role” in providing recourse for the city’s victims. Sosa’s own brother-in-law was a victim himself, and one of her driving motivations was empathy she felt for the victims and families.

Her colleague, Rocío Gallegos, said the fact that female journalists took charge of the story marked an important milestone.

“These women had families and children,” she said in Spanish. “They are the ones who stepped forward and did the reporting. They were the ones crying in the street and helping the people.”

Gallegos said she became a periodista because she wanted to be a voice for the innocent. The violence provided that opportunity, in a tragic way.

“It’s hard, because as a journalist, mothers talk to you and they want their stories to be heard,” Gallegos said. “They want you to help with justice. But you are not justice. It’s your job to seek out the truth. It is a unique struggle.”

Gallegos and Sosa both were featured in a Vice Media documentary, “The Female Journalists of Juárez,” which followed them and other female colleagues covering crime. Gallegos and her former co-worker, Sandra Rodríguez, were honored with the 2011 Knight International Journalism Award for their reporting.

“While others are silenced by threats and attacks, these women have stood up to the most feared and ruthless cartels imaginable,” José Zamora of the Knight Foundation said when announcing the award.

In October 2013, Gallegos was promoted to editorial director of El Diario, putting her in charge of the newspaper’s news and editorial sections.

“A RIVER OF BLOOD”

One of the worst moments of the violence was a massacre in October 2010 in which masked gunmen barricaded a house where a teenager’s birthday party was taking place. They opened fire, killing 15 people — 12 of them teenage students and athletes. The house turned out to be a mistaken location.

“It was a river of blood,” said Alonso Encina, whose three children were in the house at the time. Only two of them survived. His son, José Adrian Encina, was killed.

The peaceful and “very united” neighborhood of small, colorful houses will never be the same, Encina said. The federal government built a park nearby with baseball, football and soccer fields, basketball courts and other facilities, but that will never replace the dead children and adults.

The neighbors planted several rose bushes outside the house, which is now a community center, to remember the dead.

Sosa said that at the moment of the massacre, she had to take a step back from reporting.

“I can’t do this. I can’t report on children murdered,” she recalled saying to herself. She worked from the office as an investigator rather than in the streets amid the bodies.

SUPPORT NETWORK

Covering intense violence can cause many side effects, including trauma, fear, strong emotions and detachment, to name a few. To help each other cope, the female journalists in Juárez, along with a few men, formed a network. They set up a website, La Red de Periodistas de Juárez, to share information and training opportunities and to support each other.

That’s when Téllez, a Juárez reporter for Canal 44, found others who shared the distress and apprehension she was enduring. At her TV station, she had received a death threat. She reported it to her supervisors, who did not take her seriously. Even after strangers showed up at her house and someone fired shots at the TV station’s building, the company did nothing to help. Feeling isolated, she sought out other female reporters in Juárez.

“This group of women is some of the strongest women I’ve ever known,” she said.

Not only did they give her emotional support, but they also helped her get into a training program for reporters in conflict zones. Through Article 19, a United Kingdom-based non-profit free speech organization, she learned hands-on what to do in case of kidnapping, survival skills, and evacuation and escape routes.

Other Juárez-based reporters have fled to other countries because of the death threats. But the threats weren’t confined to the Mexican side.

Diana Washington Valdez, a border affairs reporter for The El Paso Times who has worked in El Paso journalism for 30 years, has been threatened so many times that she doesn’t cross into Mexico anymore. That still doesn’t mean she’s safe.

She has been investigating violence in Juárez since the early 1990s, when young women began vanishing from the city in crimes local people call the “femicides.” She has received warnings since she began covering the hundreds of women’s disappearances, about which she wrote a 2006 book, “The Killing Fields: Harvest of Women.”

Valdez recalled getting phone calls that played recordings of gunshots and others of a child screaming, “Mommy, no!” She received warnings not to cross the border because the Mexican police would arrest her. At one point in El Paso, FBI agents told her members of a drug cartel showed up at one of her book signings.

“I realized I’m not safe in El Paso, either,” she said. “Fear is like any other emotion. It’s how you react that matters.” The threats have made her a “less social person.”

She said she finds solace through her work. “I realized I was not going to solve” these cases, she said. “My contribution was to report on the matters and document them.”

BOTH SIDES OF THE BORDER

Lorena Figueroa is the personification of border culture. The daughter of a Juárez journalist, she has reported for both Mexican and U.S. newspapers. Currently she covers Juárez for The El Paso Times. But she worked at El Diario de Juárez when Rodriguez was killed.

“When Choco got executed, we all freaked out,” she recalled. “I stopped doing more. You auto-censor yourself for safety. You know that the government, the police and the newspaper are not going to protect you. And if you are a woman, you don’t know what else (the cartels) will do.”

Later, Figueroa transferred to the El Paso bureau of the Juárez paper and then to the U.S. newspaper.

Now that she reports and lives on the Texas side, she observes that most of her colleagues won’t travel to Mexico.

“They think they will get targeted and killed,” she said.

What they don’t know is, “you could be targeted and killed anywhere.” She has seen cartel members in El Paso in bars and restaurants.

“They cross here, they live here,” she said. “Just because there is an international line, a bridge, a wall, it doesn’t mean anything. Crime does not have any borders.”

THE AFTERMATH

On the night before Diez y Seis de Septiembre, Mexican Independence Day, a TV reporter in El Paso, Texas, stood alone, steps from the border fence, and reported on festivities a few hundred yards across the Rio Grande.

On the Mexican side, his colleagues to the south joined more than 160,000 people who celebrated, waving Mexican flags and cheering beneath the gigantic, lighted red X sculpture that Ciudad Juárez erected earlier this year.

“Clearly, many U.S. reporters would not go in during the violence,” Korcherga said. Some still do not.

By fall 2013, the violence had slowed. Homicides through September numbered 348. Traffic across the border picked up, and visitors from the American side seemed more willing to visit Juarez as tourists, perhaps to visit restaurants or the new children’s museum.

That is, until Sept. 22. In Loma Blanca, a town in the valley outside Juárez, gunmen burst into a home and shot and killed 10 people at a party. The violence eerily echoed the 2010 massacre.

Figueroa, who covered the story, said the killers had targeted one person but shot other bystanders.

The dead included a 6-year-old girl and two teenage boys.

Tracy Everbach is an associate professor in the Mayborn School of Journalism at the University of North Texas. She worked as a newspaper reporter for 14 years, 12 of them on the metro desk of The Dallas Morning News. Contract her at everbach@unt.edu. On Twitter: @TracyEverbach

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