The Violence Beat

In Mexico, a journalist learns to cope with the drug war’s horror and heartbreak

Photo by Toya Sarno Jordan.

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Marcela Turati drove to Villa Ahumada, in Mexico’s north, within hours of the slaughter. Upon her arrival, in the early morning, she found half a dozen corpses resting in vans, pavement stained with blood, tables flipped, and neighbors cowering in fear. The night before, a group of 40 sicarios, hooded in black, had stormed into town, abducting and killing at will. Turati found herself trying to make sense of the tragedy. “The question I wanted to answer was, What happens to a community after a massacre?” she recalls. “After one is left with a cooler containing severed heads, or one’s neighbors are carried off—what gets broken?” 

It was May 2008, and Mexico was almost two years into its drug war. President Felipe Calderón was implementing a controversial security strategy, deploying military officers across the country to confront cartels with force. It was too soon to know that this approach would prove largely ineffective, or that the jailing of drug lords would inadvertently lead to the spread of smaller, more destructive gangs. Nor did anyone foresee that the number of homicides would double during Calderón’s term in office, or that civilians would bear the brunt of the violence. Mexicans were adapting to a changing security landscape, and journalists were learning to chronicle a fast-growing conflict. 

Turati filed her first reports on the war from Ciudad Juárez, a place of stupefying violence. Writing for Proceso, a weekly magazine, she detailed grim encounters: dogs feasting on human remains, bodies hanging from bridges, neighbors putting up signs that read “The disposal of corpses or trash is prohibited.” Killing was becoming normalized. Turati was intent on covering the human stories behind the mayhem—those that tend to get obliterated by the numbers. 

Newsrooms across the country were beginning to receive visits from relatives of victims searching for reporters to write about their experiences. In 2010, Turati was invited to attend a meeting with families from Nuevo León, Coahuila, and Chihuahua whose loved ones had been killed. When she arrived, a group of 30 mothers lined up, holding photographs of their children and hoping that Turati could record their testimony. She recalls feeling frustrated, helpless, and painfully constrained by time. “I learned to interpret what was happening as a social phenomenon,” she tells me, “one of massive and systematic proportions.” 

Turati, now 45, with deep brown eyes and loose curls, has since brought to the fore the pain and resilience of countless victims. She has joined them during protests, funerals, and exhumations, reporting on their tireless efforts to demand justice, to navigate tangled bureaucracies, and to denounce the incidence of extrajudicial killings, disappearances, and forced displacement in Mexico. 

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She has also been instrumental in helping fellow journalists cope with the ebb and flow of grief. More than a decade ago, Turati founded Periodistas de a Pie (Journalists on Foot) with a group of female reporters covering stories of public interest. After work, or on Sunday mornings, they would meet to discuss their beats and hear from journalism elders. “It was our Dead Poets Society, Mexican-style,” Daniela Pastrana, a founding member of Periodistas de a Pie, recalls. “Marcela has always been a guide for others. Every time she says, ‘Let’s go to the moon,’ we all head to the moon.”

In 2008, after Armando Rodríguez, on staff at El Diario, was fatally shot, the group took on a more activist role. “We felt journalists working in Juárez were too alone, too isolated,” Turati tells me. “It was our turn to step in from Mexico City and put our bodies on the line.” Two years later, in an unprecedented action, Mexican journalists led mass protests across the country to denounce the threats they were facing. The defense of press freedom became central to the work of Periodistas de a Pie. “By organizing,” María Teresa Juárez, the group’s secretary, tells me, “we’ve found each other.” 

 

Born in Mexico City and raised in Chihuahua, Turati once hoped to become a Catholic missionary. As a teenager, she volunteered among the Rarámuri Indians, in the Sierra Madre range. The Rarámuri are one of Mexico’s poorest communities, and the stories of famine and misery Turati heard from them left a mark on her. In college, she wrote an article for the school newspaper about a campaign to reduce malnutrition among the Rarámuri. After its publication, she received an outpouring of support for the cause from readers. She was moved: she had found a swift way to effect change—more direct, she realized, than the patient work of a missionary. 

In the late nineties, Turati joined a generation of reporters who worked at the dawn of Mexico’s transition to democracy, no longer subject to systematic censorship. Attached to their freedom was a responsibility to inform readers who, for seven decades, had been fed news crafted by a single ruling party. She started by covering poverty, but soon could not avoid making violence her subject. She approached both beats in much the same way: focusing less on planning ahead than on finding stories at the right time. She relied on locals to reach sources and find places to stay. Over the years, while out on trips, she has gotten dangerously close to those who orchestrate violence—enough to see their tents, their clothing, their smoldering fires. The crossing of an invisible line can have fatal consequences. 

On one occasion, after hearing that Mexico’s army had murdered a pregnant woman in her home state, Turati traveled to the city of Almada, to the house where the woman had lived. There, she was greeted with suspicion: the woman’s relatives questioned her motives, fearing that she could be an informant. They called Proceso, threatening to levantar—literally “lift,” but also “disappear”—her if she wasn’t who she said she was. Eventually, Turati persuaded them that she really was a journalist. But she decided to step away from the story. The woman’s family, she realized, might have been under watch, and her presence could have endangered them all.

 

As Turati continued reporting, Calderón’s antidrug strategy evolved into a ferocious turf war. Local allegiances shifted, and it became increasingly difficult for journalists to identify whom to trust. Turati has learned to develop security protocols and to navigate territories held hostage by criminal groups. Certain places are simply out of reach, and access to others requires unorthodox approaches. “I’ve often found myself reporting undercover and in silence, without asking any questions,” Turati says. “One time, I traveled to a ghost town, where a majority of the population had been displaced, and I had to convince a driver to let me ride his delivery truck with him. I couldn’t take pictures or notes. All I could do was remember what I saw and later transcribe it at the newsroom.” 

In 2014, following the disappearance of 43 students in Iguala, Turati reported on dozens of families determined to find their children. They ventured into lands controlled by cartels, searching for hidden graves and human remains. Initially, these families concealed their identities by wearing sunglasses, hats, and bandannas. Of her first experience in the field with them, Turati wrote: 

Unrestrained, they threw themselves into the hill, just like that, with exposed hearts, without food or water, but with nails, hands, picks, shovels, pry bars, rods, machetes, and mallets—whatever they had at hand to dig until finding their missing relatives.

Eventually, they replaced their sunglasses, hats, and bandannas with T-shirts that read “Son, i will keep searching for you, until i can bury you.” Although the bodies of the 43 students remain missing, their seekers unearthed dozens of mass graves in the area and more than a hundred corpses. In a country where 99 percent of crimes are committed with impunity, and investigations are regularly dismissed or terminated without cause, relatives of victims have assumed a set of responsibilities that the government has relinquished.

By taking justice into their own hands, families have become exposed to the threat of retribution. “Whenever people asked me if my work put me at risk, I would always respond, ‘Well, I’m just accompanying victims and taking their testimonies,’ ” Turati says. “But when they started leading their own investigations, mobilizing, and identifying perpetrators, their risks became mine.” 

 

Since 2006, nearly 100 journalists have been killed in Mexico. Members of the press have been forced to weigh whether their words are worth the price of their lives. Self-censorship has become widespread, and swaths of territory, deemed too dangerous for reporting, have gone off the grid. Article 19, a press freedom monitoring group, has registered 3,594 aggressions against journalists since 2006, including 19 disappearances. Whenever a journalist is assassinated, Ana Cristina Ruelas, the director of Article 19’s Office for Mexico and Central America, counts it as a “double murder.” “The truth he or she was investigating gets killed,” she says, “but so does the truth around the circumstances of their deaths.” 

Fewer than 1 percent of criminals are convicted and, to make matters worse, public officials are believed to be responsible for the most offenses. On a local level, the narco-política, as it’s called, has only multiplied the threats to which journalists are exposed. Newsrooms have been targeted with firebombs, raids, and infiltrations; several have been compelled to redraw their editorial lines. Independent outlets have chosen to conceal the names of reporters behind investigations or sign articles with the editorial board’s name. In 2010, after El Diario lost its second employee in less than two years to a drug cartel, the newspaper addressed a front-page letter to the criminals under the headline: “What Do You Want from Us?”

The same question could be asked of government officials. The Institutional Revolutionary Party, which ruled the country for most of the 20th century, enforced strict control over information in Mexico and managed to make the survival of the press contingent on public funding. Although conditions for journalists have improved since, remnants of that system prevail. During the Enrique Peña Nieto administration, it came to light that authorities had used a spyware program to surveil journalists, human rights activists, and opposition leaders. Peña Nieto, who left office last year, also spent more than $3 billion on media advertising—a record figure in Mexican history—as a way of subjecting content to the whims of public officials. 

“As I began to cover more tragedies and stories of victims, something inside me flickered; it was as if I had held on to a high-voltage line.”

Today, 80 percent of news outlets rely on government advertising. Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the incumbent president, has promised a new era of openness—he has held daily press briefings, something none of his predecessors bothered to do—but his relationship with the media has been fraught. He has taken to deriding a critical sector of the press, which he accuses of dishonesty and calls the “fifís,” or “elitists.” Since taking office, in 2018, López Obrador’s rhetoric has hardened, and many fear that his briefings are solely a means of co-opting the news. In the first few months of his administration, at least six journalists have been killed; if the trend continues, 2019 will be the deadliest year ever for Mexican journalists. Carlos Bravo Regidor, of the Center for Economic Research and Teaching, observes, “Either Andrés Manuel doesn’t care or he doesn’t get it, but in a way he is validating the hostility against the press by adding himself to it.”

There is a network of Mexican institutions designed, on paper, to defend freedom of expression. Over the years, the federal government has established a Special Prosecutor’s Office on Crimes Committed Against Freedom of Expression, known as FEADLE, and a Mechanism to Protect Human Rights Defenders and Journalists, among other entities. Since its creation, in 2010, FEADLE has launched 1,160 inquiries, of which only 10 have ended in conviction. “The numbers we see in Mexico are very much akin to war zone statistics,” says Jan-Albert Hootsen, the Mexico representative for the Committee to Protect Journalists. “The difference is that war zones like Iraq and Syria don’t have a federal mechanism or a special prosecutor’s office, which makes the situation in Mexico even worse.”

These institutions have invariably fallen short of upholding the rights of reporters. When pressed for an explanation, government representatives say that they’ve made progress and are quick to cite limited budgets and insufficient staff. But to the journalists who risk their lives daily and who for years have mourned the deaths of their colleagues, no excuse is valid. Among many, there is a growing sense of resignation that only they are responsible for their safety. 

 

A few years ago, after Gregorio Jiménez, a photojournalist from Veracruz, was murdered, Turati traveled to his hometown to look into his killing. Back in Mexico City, she received a phone call threatening her life, allegedly from Veracruz state officials. Turati left the country, finding refuge for a few weeks in Washington, DC, where she took a self-defense course and attended a healing session with a shaman. When she returned home, she quit her job at Proceso. She needed a break, she thought. Not long after, Rubén Espinosa, another colleague, was killed. 

Espinosa’s death had a profound impact on several of the founders of Periodistas de a Pie—both because he had approached them asking for help and because his murder took place in the capital, traditionally considered a safe haven. The tragedy made Turati wonder if Periodistas de a Pie, with its limited resources, could really do that much to help matters. “We found psychological help for him,” she says, “but when he was killed, it felt like a personal failure.”

Turati stepped down from her position with the group and in 2016 headed off to a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard University. Life in Massachusetts was hard at first. “I think I was coping with severe post-traumatic stress disorder,” she recalls. “It was difficult to leave Mexico; I felt I was abandoning my colleagues, I was abandoning my war. But I knew I couldn’t keep covering it.” During the early months, she struggled to communicate, even though she spoke English. “I felt alone, isolated, and very sad—I just wanted to go back to Mexico,” she says. She had anxiety attacks. Eventually, however, she found a therapist, and started to feel enriched by her surroundings. “My strength was renewed,” she says. “The courses I took helped me realize that I was perhaps starting a new stage in my career, that I could help a lot of people.”

When she came home, in 2017, Turati launched the Quinto Elemento Lab, an organization to support and oversee investigative projects. One of its latest investigations, which she coauthored, is “El país de las 2 mil fosas” (“2,000 Clandestine Graves: How a Decade of the Drug War Turned Mexico into a Burial Ground”). It documents the existence of a vast number of mass graves, previously unheard of, and tells their stories through testimony, photographs, and an interactive map. “The state and federal governments’ vague, incomplete, contradictory, or fragmented records force families to live in uncertainty about the whereabouts of their loved ones,” the piece explains. “Negligence and omission means that missing people go missing a second time.” The project aims to achieve a goal that has always been at the heart of Turati’s reporting on violence: find new ways of conveying information that has been repeated endlessly to little avail. 

Since Turati began chronicling the conflict, it has claimed almost 250,000 lives. More than 40,000 people are missing. She regularly conducts safety trainings for journalists, hoping that these sessions might enable her to listen to the difficult experiences of others and share her own. It is in these conversations that Turati has found a way to heal and be healed. She has also spent a portion of the money she’s received for investigations on individual and group therapy for journalists. “As I began to cover more tragedies and stories of victims, something inside me flickered; it was as if I had held on to a high-voltage line,” Turati says. “But the networks we’ve created have helped us realize how wounded we all are. It’s how we’ve been able to find normality under abnormal circumstances.”

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Stephania Taladrid is a member of the editorial staff at The New Yorker. Before that, she served as a speechwriter for the Obama administration. She holds a Masters in Latin American Studies from the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University.