Covering the border, these stories in Ciudad Juárez at the time, was really inspiring. But also at that time—we’re talking about the early 1980s—Mexico was beginning the whole fight for democracy, the democratic movement in Chihuahua. You were thrown in to a situation where people were fighting to make change. You had the turmoil in Mexico, you had the childhood thing where you wanted to kind of go back to your roots, language, and culture—it was a myriad of factors for me. Ironically, when I told my parents that I wanted to be a journalist, and I wanted to go cover Mexico, their only rule for me was, “As long as you don’t cover drug trafficking, we’re fine.”
When you’re reporting on drug cartels, how do you get and protect sources?
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.