A new narrative in Guerrero, Mexico

December 23, 2019
An Amapola Periodismo meeting. Image by Ann Deslandes.

This story is also available in Spanish

Recently, in a donated office space in downtown Chilpancingo, the capital of Mexico’s Guerrero State, members of the local journalists’ association settled in for a meeting. They’d come to discuss the upcoming lineup of Amapola Periodismo, a news site they’d founded five months before, to “dismantle the official narrative” of their home state. “We are sick of it,” Vania Pigeonutt, a reporter who helped establish the project, says—sick of Guerrero’s troubles being signified simply by “the presence of an illicit crop.”

Amapola means “poppy”—the opium poppy that’s been farmed in Guerrero for generations to supply the United States’ heroin market, bringing with it organized crime. The outlet’s name recasts what has become a trope of national and international reporting on Guerrero, with the slogan “Periodismo transgresor” (“transgressive journalism”). Margena de la O, another reporter on the project, says that Amapola is daring to tell stories about Guerrero that are upbeat. Daily reports are organized into unconventional sections—“Peace,” “Otherness,” “Nature,” and “The Mole”—referring to articles that expose dishonesty in government. A series called #SinLimites (“No Limits”) features stories about guerrerenses succeeding in education, sports, and the arts—such as seventeen-year-old Ximena Ortega, who will represent Mexico in the World Chess Championship in Romania for the second year in a row. “If we have a text that shows the latest violence in Guerrero, we also have immediately, the next day, a #SinLimites text showing a positive story,” de la O explains. In this way, “adversity is reconstructed.”

Amapola was developed in part as a response to the influx of foreign press when, on the night of September 26, 2014, forty-three students from the Ayotzinapa Rural Teachers’ College in Iguala, just east of Chilpancingo, disappeared. The incident was shocking and the case mysterious—the bodies of the lost students remain missing—and the story quickly made Guerrero ground zero for reporting on human rights abuses, criminal activity, and impunity in Mexico. Starting that October, “suddenly the whole world was coming to Guerrero,” Pigeonutt recalls. “BBC, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Deutsche Welle…they were all interested in covering what had happened.”

Since then, Pigeonutt, de la O, and their Amapola colleagues have frequently found themselves on the road to Iguala alongside correspondents from foreign news outlets, with whom they work as fixers while reporting their own articles. In many ways, the international attention has been a good thing, Pigeonutt says, in that it kept the case open, and English-language media have broadcast findings that were not publicized in Mexico. Yet some visiting journalists have also demonstrated what is known among local reporters and activists as extractivismo (“extractivism”)—where “there is no reciprocity” from foreign reporters, she says. The offenders come only for a short while, have “no time to reflect on regional, national, and local dynamics,” and rely (without sufficient recognition) on the knowledge of a journalist working as a fixer. At its worst, says Pigeonutt, extractivismo is a kind of “vandalism”—a defacement and erasure of local stories. A number of pieces on Guerrero have offered only the most stereotypical representations of the state—and Mexico at large—as perpetually war-torn, beyond hope.

To launch Amapola, Pigeonutt and de la O joined with fellow members of the Asociación de Periodistas del Estado de Guerrero, the local journalists’ association, to “lead people to look at the real causes of the poverty, the femicides, the infanticides” that permeate life in Guerrero, de la O explains. Ten local media outlets signed on to collaborate, including the Alianza de Medios, an offshoot of Periodistas de a Pie, a civil society organization founded by the prominent Mexican journalist Marcela Turati. The Alianza is united by a belief, de la O says, that “there is no one better to explain what happens in a region of Mexico than journalists in the region.”

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At their staff meeting, they ran through a planned lineup: a piece on street dogs and public health, forced displacement related to conflict between gangs on Guerrero’s state border with Michoacán, and a visit by President Andrés Manuel López Obrador to the indigenous region of La Montaña. They discussed a desire to depict Guerrero in its particularity, even when it comes to bloodshed. “The violence in Guerrero is not the same, for example, as the violence in Juárez,” de la O says.

In telling a more nuanced truth about Guerrero, Amapola will tell readers, “We are not afraid,” she adds. “This is important in Guerrero and with everything that is going on in the country, because it can also be a window to start thinking about solutions.”

Ann Deslandes is a freelance journalist based in Mexico City. Recent work has appeared in Foreign Policy, BBC Global Trade, and Women Under Siege.