The number one challenge we face is finding sources. It really comes down to, “Who do you trust? Or, can you trust anyone?” I think it’s kind of the same challenge that the U.S. government faces, or that an honest cop in Mexico faces. And when you find someone that you feel you can maybe believe, you ask, how do you protect that person? We’ve had a lot of conversations at The Dallas Morning News about anonymous sources. I think it took a while for them to warm to the idea, to understand the danger of the situation in Mexico. I think it’s a credit to my editor that he trusts and believes me when I say, “Look, this guy’s legit.” I mean, I will vet that person as much as I can, with other colleagues in Mexico, or sources in the U.S. I think we’re always looking for the next Eliot Ness; we’re always looking for that honest cop who’s going to make the difference.
You can’t believe the number of times I miss covering stuff like immigration, or U.S. policy for Cuba or Mexico. When you think of drug trafficking, right away your stomach kind of goes grrrrr—it’s a whole different situation.
There must be very different risks for Mexican journalists than there are for American journalists working temporarily in Mexico.
There’s no comparison. Really, there’s no comparison. I may be Mexican-American, I may have been born in Mexico, look like a Mexican, and sound like a Mexican. But I have U.S. citizenship, and I can call my editor at any point and say, “You know what, this situation feels a little iffy, I don’t feel comfortable.” It’s happened a few times. He’ll say, “Get out of the country now. Get to the airport.” And if the cartels know that you’re an American, they will most likely let you go; they don’t want to bring that much attention to themselves.
For a Mexican colleague, it’s very, very different. Basically, you have to measure every step you take, every word you say, every photo you take; it’s a life or death decision. I don’t know how many times a day I’ve been around colleagues, the kind of wrangling they go through, the personal debates: they tell their wives or their husbands, they examine the situation, blah blah blah. It’s just a completely different situation.
What are the kinds of strategies that Mexican journalists use to get their work done?
Oftentimes they try to work in pairs, or in groups. They feel that there’s safety in numbers. And then there are some extreme measures that we’re seeing more and more of. If you’re at the crime scene, you try and wear a wig, or pretend you’re a taco vendor, to try to blend in and not look like you’re a photographer or a reporter. Often the killer will hang around to make sure the job was done, and if they see someone taking pictures or taking notes, that person may or may not pose a risk by providing leads into the case. Although there’s so much corruption that they may just get away with it—the impunity rate is about ninety-five percent. That’s a 95 percent chance that you’ll never get caught.
Nonetheless, if you think it’s difficult for me to trust someone, it’s much more difficult for them. Once you start talking to someone, whether it’s someone with a uniform, or in a military outfit, or just a regular Joe, that person may be representing a drug cartel. And once you begin associating with that person, you’re basically putting your life on the line because that person may feel he or she owns you.
Another strategy that I’ve seen, especially with my Mexican colleagues, is that they will reach out to the foreign press. They’ll say, “Here’s a story that I have verified, but we can’t run it. You may want to check it out.” It can work both ways: they’ll have to vet it with colleagues, because they may be working for a cartel, and trying to sell you a storyline. So you have to be really careful.
It seems like a journalist working down in Mexico is in a position where they wouldn’t actually want to make a name for themselves, they wouldn’t want to be known as a good investigative journalist, because they wouldn’t want to draw attention to themselves.