Docs in Sight: Blood and Silence on La Frontera
Bernardo Ruiz with Williams Cole
The epic violence that has plagued Mexico in the last decade or so can seem incomprehensible in its brutality and scope—especially as it manifests in cities near the U.S.-Mexico border. And given our many ties with Mexico, it’s nothing less than an outrage that its issues are not more prominent on our national radar. The violence has also had a profound effect on free speech and newspaper coverage of narco-related issues in Mexico, which is the subject of Bernardo Ruiz’s film Reportero. The film follows a veteran reporter and his colleagues at one of the few unabashedly investigative papers left in Mexico, Zeta, which has to print its issues on the U.S. side of the border for reasons of safety. Reportero will screen at the always-important Human Rights Watch International Film Festival in late June and broadcast on POV later this year.
Williams Cole (Rail): How bad are things in Mexico right now? I just heard about a drop of 40 mutilated bodies on a highway near a big city. Can you outline the scope of this kind of brutal violence?
Bernardo Ruiz: There are many different types of violence in Mexico. There is the long-standing violence of official neglect, there is the seemingly invisible violence of corruption, and then there is the violence that grabs headlines here in the U.S.—the violence of the drug war. At the start of this year, the administration of Mexican President Felipe Calderón Hinojosa updated its death count, reporting that 47,515 people had been killed in drug-related violence since the end of 2006. The well-regarded newsweekly Proceso recently published an estimated number of homicides from the Index of Visible and Invisible Victims (IVVI), putting the homicide number at 88,361. Mapping Mexico’s dead through a statistical count is one way to tell a story—obviously those numbers can be manipulated or obfuscated for political purposes. But those of us with family or loved ones in Mexico hear fragments of a bigger, un-mappable story be it through late night anecdotes or hurried Facebook messages. For example, a close relative of mine is irate because she had to hold her daughter on the floor of their apartment while a gun battle exploded at a major thoroughfare in one of Mexico’s biggest cities; a cousin tells me about the safety training elementary students go through in case of gunfire at school. Then there’s the girl who comes up to me after a screening near Mexicali and breathlessly tells me the story of how her uncle was murdered by local organized crime figures.
Rail: How has the depth and breadth of this violence affected coverage of narco-related issues in Mexico?
Ruiz: Last month El Mañana, a newspaper in Nuevo Laredo, published an editorial saying it will no longer report on conflicts between organized crime groups. “The newspaper will abstain for as long as necessary from publishing any information about the violent disputes that our city and other regions of the country are suffering,” a translation of the editorial reads. “[We] have reached this regrettable decision, which was caused by the circumstances we all know about, due to the lack of conditions for the free exercise of journalism.” Two days before the publication of the editorial, gunmen had set off an explosive device at the paper and shot at the building. Before that, one of their reporters had been shot five times. In 2010, El Diario,a Juárez daily which had been under siege, published an open letter to the de facto authorities of their city—the crime bosses—asking, “What do you want from us? It is impossible to do our jobs in these conditions.”
Last March, the majority of Mexico’s media organizations, including Mexico’s dominant media entities, Televisa and TV Azteca, which together control 95 percent of the broadcast market in Mexico, signed a pact on media coverage of the narco war. Media organizations agreed to a plan that would not “glorify” drug traffickers or their activities. Some viewed it as a welcome effort to curb sensationalism. Of course, many others viewed it as an attempt to soften the coverage of the violence, and by extension protect the Calderón administration. A number of important outlets did not sign the pact, notably the weekly Proceso, the daily La Jornada, and one of the most widely read Mexican newspapers, Reforma. They cited concerns around press freedom.
Rail: How many reporters have been murdered in recent times?
Ruiz: A conservative estimate from the Committee to Protect Journalists tells us that 45 journalists or media workers have been killed since December 2006, when Calderón came to power and launched a government offensive against Mexico’s powerful drug cartels and organized crime groups. At Zeta in Tijuana, which became the focus of my film, three staffers were murdered, and the founder, Jesús Blancornelas, was viciously attacked, ambushed by 10 gunmen just blocks from the editorial offices of his newspaper. Thanks in part to his bodyguard, Luis Valero, who was murdered, as well as an act of serendipity, Blancornelas survived the attack. Blancornelas lived to write for another nine years, though as his son Rene says in the film, his life became “work-home, home-work. Nothing else.”
Rail: How does Zeta, then, survive in this atmosphere?
Ruiz: Every week, since 1988, Zeta, on page 2B, has been publishing a “black page” with an image of the paper’s first slain editor, Hector Felix Miranda, known as “El Gato.” El Gato was gunned down on a Tijuana street by men who later turned out to be in the employ of a local gambling magnate, Jorge Hank Rhon. In the picture, “El Gato” is pointing out at the reader. The memorial page asks Rhon, who also served as Mayor of Tijuana, “Why did your bodyguard kill me?” The page accuses local officials and their predecessors of doing nothing to pursue those who ordered Félix Miranda’s murder.
The page is emblematic of Zeta’s identity and its editorial line. It is a stubborn paper, steeped in its own institutional memory. Rather than be silenced, it is deliberately provocative. It is by no means alone in this type of coverage, but it is a unique brand of reporting given that in Mexico there is a culture of silence or self-censorship. It is especially rare given how the reputations of Mexico’s murdered journalists are frequently tarnished after their deaths. “In Mexico, reporters are killed twice,” Alfredo Corchado of the Dallas Morning News recently reminded me. They kill you once, then they kill and smear your name. If you were murdered, the logic goes, then you must have been doing something wrong.
Rail: I’m often blown away by how violence in Mexico—so close and intertwined with the U.S.—seems to have spun out of control. In your opinion what is the role of the U.S. government?
Ruiz: The journalists I spent time with during the filming of Reportero point to Mexico’s culture of impunity as the country’s biggest problem. As Zeta editor Adela Navarro Bello explains in the film, corruption in the courts and in the government is the biggest problem. Crimes against citizens and journalists are not adequately investigated or prosecuted. But the journalists did have an even bigger complaint: Where is the U.S. coverage of the criminal distribution networks of illegal narcotics in the U.S.? Do Suburbans packed with cocaine or methamphetamines magically vanish once they cross the border into the U.S.? And who is following the money? Who is doing the reporting on where narco profits are being banked? Last year, actually, there was a fascinating piece in the British paper the Guardian by Ed Vulliamy, about drug profits in the global financial system. But pieces like that are, unfortunately, few and far between.
The Human Rights Watch International Film Festival runs from June 14 – 28. Please check http://ff.hrw.org/film/reportero for details.