Yes, and it’s especially true in the provinces, outside of Mexico City, and on the border. It’s all based on geography. There are some areas of Mexico where journalists have more freedom than they do in others. For instance, in Juárez, because it’s so huge and so vast, reporters surprisingly have more freedom to report than in a smaller community, where everybody knows who you are, and where you stick out like a sore thumb. In Mexico City, I still think you have some very good investigative journalists. But you’re right: once you make a name for yourself you almost live in paranoia. I’ve been around journalists in Mexico City when, we’ll be having lunch, and they’re just looking around, they’re so nervous the whole time. Other people live like hermits; they barely get out. Then there are others who have made such a name for themselves that, though they’re not invincible, it helps their security situation. In the end, if you get that close, if you threaten their pocketbooks so much, there are journalists who have been pulled out, or who have on their own have left. Some have gotten political asylum [in the U.S.]; others have gone to Canada or to Spain. It just depends on how deep you’re getting.

What are your personal limits? When will you say, “I started work on this story, but now I realize it’s not worth it, it’s too dangerous”?

It depends on what day of the week you ask me. There are days when I wake up in the morning, and I just feel so scared, that I know that’s the end, I’m not going to cover that story anymore. And then there are days when you’re talking to a victim, and you feel their sense of resiliency, their courage, their sense of hope, and you think, you have to find a way to put a human face on this issue, otherwise they all become numbers. So you’re constantly balancing the two: the fear versus the total silence. I mean, there are some regions of Mexico that have fallen into silence: you don’t hear much, you don’t see much, you don’t know much. I don’t know whether it’s the fact that I was born in Mexico, but I feel, personally, a deep sense of responsibility to try to get the story out, one way or another.

I do find myself limiting what I can do. But more and more I think it’s gone from the country of my ancestor’s roots, to covering a country at war. You have to think of it that way: in the end this is a war. What’s even worse about that is that it’s not a war of ideology. It’s really a war based on greed. And so it’s really a lot easier for people to kill you, because no information is good information for them. So I try not to let fear be the ultimate editor, but I do listen to fear a lot. I think that factor, the factor of fear, can help you stay alive.

Why do you think cartel violence has gotten so bad lately? Is there any way to analyze the scope of it, the trajectory of it? Can you predict where it will go; is it just going to keep getting worse all the time?

There are generally three factors that tell you why it got worse. One is, in the late eighties and early nineties, when the United States basically ended up blocking the drug trade from Colombia to the United States via the Caribbean and South Florida, the U.S. successfully pushed the flow into Central America and into Mexico. That was a huge policy shift. And then, number two, you had the democratic opening in Mexico in the late nineties and early 2000s, with the election of Vicente Fox, the first opposition government in seventy-one years. That left a political vacuum in Mexico. In the old days, cartels and the government kind of operated side by side: [the cartels] were there, but the government was able to kind of control them, kind of limit what they could and couldn’t do. After 2000, the cartels saw a vacuum, and they basically took over. They took over city governments, they took over police departments, even NGOs and, eventually, the press. And then the last factor, I think, has been the economic recession in the United States. It’s affected Mexico; you almost have a narco-economy. You have all these people who used to have regular jobs, who are now working as watchmen [for the cartels], from the drug carrier to the assassin. It’s like this whole economy has developed.

Lauren Kirchner is a freelance writer covering digital security for CJR. Find her on Twitter at @lkirchner