This week, I had the opportunity to answer questions from students from CSU Los Angeles. I was in Sacramento; they were in LA, but we were connected through Skype. This group has a special characteristic: all the students were Latinos from México, Central America and Argentina who were currently living in the LA área. They were taking a class called Journalism in Spanish.
All the questions were really interesting to me but there was one that I couldn’t answer: what can reporters in Mexico do to write about drug trafficking without running the risk of being killed?
In Mexico, reporting about drug trafficking is practically equivalent to a death sentence. In the 90’s, when I was a reporter for El Imparcial, the most important newspaper in Sonora, a border state, I received a visit from a minion of Hector Luis “El Guero” Palma, a powerful drug trafficker, now in jail. At the time, I was writing about how El Guero and his friends were taking control of Ciudad Obregon, a city on South Sonora.
His emissary asked me very politely to let El Guero do his job. At the same time, I received calls from friends asking me to do the same thing. One of my friends said to me: Is the newspaper going to support your children if they killed you? Are they going to pay for their college? I decided to stop. El Guero Palma never sent me another messenger.
A few years later, another drug dealer whose name I’d rather omit, sent me a messenger with a special offer —a new car. I told him that I would think about it. I wanted to find the best way to say no. This drug trafficker was buying cars for reporters as a way to compromise bribe them into silence.
Some of them accepted. I did not have time to say no.
Weeks later, this drug trafficker had a horrible death. A coworker, who was a photographer, showed me pictures of the dealer’s naked body in the morgue. It had dozens of bullet holes. The drug trafficker had been a strong and very handsome man. Many people loved him because he was very generous. Who wouldn’t be with so much money from drugs? Looking at the pictures, I wondered how different his life could have been if he had not been involved in drugs. When did he lose his path? In the past, he had been a regional chief of police.
Since 2005, 26 journalists have been killed in Mexico while covering crime, according to the New York based Committee to Protect Journalists. One of them was a former co-worker of mine. In 2005, Alfredo Jimenez Mota, a reporter from El Imparcial, where I worked for nine years, disappeared. His father said that all he wrote about was drug trafficking.
So based on all that, I sadly answered the students that my only hope is that one day things will change and that reporters in Mexico will be able to write openly about every issue.
Thanks to my friend, Pablo Baler, the teacher of the group, for the invitation. Those students made me to wonder if I did the right thing.