Over the last twenty years, Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua, has become one of the most violent cities in the world. As a border town between Mexico and the United States it is an ideal place for migrants seeking to cross over to into the US, for the maquiladora industry in search of cheap labour, and for illegal drug smuggling.
Its wide avenues, deserted and silent, are perfect places to abduct women, kill them and then dump their bodies somewhere in the desert. Here, all the negative aspects of a society gradually became manifest as a result—among other things—of a dispute between criminal groups over territory that would ensure them power and Money, and which was originally controlled by the La Linea cartel, based in the same state.
Before the violence intruded on everyday life in ‘Juaritos’, as it is known by its residents, people strolled in the streets and parks, went out at night to enjoy themselves, and generally led a normal life. With the coming of the terror, the routines of daily life were altered irrevocably. Words like shoot-out, abduction, kidnapping, carjacking, hawk and curfew became a part of our everyday existence.
Fathers of families began to die. In the schools—of all socioeconomic levels—teachers were faced with a new situation: how to deal with the orphans of the drug trade.
Activists who previously went out to protest the deaths of their daughters or to denounce inconclusive legal proceedings stopped doing so owing to threats they received. Bullet-ridden bodies appeared in the streets of the city centre, and violent encounters between members of criminal groups were played out in the commercial centres, in which innocent passers-by were killed or wounded by stray bullets.
On 1 March, 2009, two thousand troops from the Mexican army arrived at what was then being described as the most dangerous city in Mexico, with orders to stop the assassinations; 250 people had been killed in the previous month alone. For the people of ‘Juaritos’ the arrival of military forces—who were protecting the area along with Federal Police agents—this marked a transition, although the killings did not stop.
At that point, the streets were protected by the military but empty of citizens.
Juarez, one of the key centres of criminal business operations in Mexico, also provided the setting for a radical change in the way in which journalism was practiced in the country.
Diario de Juárez
One of the duties of a journalist—a reporter—is to faithfully portray his or her reality, his or her immediate experiences, and to answer two fundamental questions: Why? and For what? Thus, true to its faithful, historical and noble professional code, El Diario de Juárez continued its task of representing reality. Focusing now on the atrocities they were living with day by day, they were obliged to examine the causes of these events.
Apparently—but only apparently—things were proceeding calmly enough, until in November 2008, Armando Rodríguez, a reporter on El Diario de Juárez was assassinated. Only days before, he had published a piece revealing that the nephew of the local district attorney had links to groups of drug traffickers. He had received threats; and on the 18th of that month, a man entered his garage and shot him down in front of his daughter. A year later, the federal investigator working on the Rodríguez case was killed in a hail of bullets. In the following month, his replacement was also murdered.
On 16 February, 2010, the photographer Luis Carlos Santiago was attacked by a group of armed men who shot him to death.
The slaying of two journalists in less than two years came as more than a warning to the media.
What do you want from us?
These murders—the fear and desperation they awakened, the courage they inspired, added to the knowledge of the impunity enjoyed by the perpetrators—were what prompted the staff of El Diario to publish an editorial expressly addressed to the drug traffickers. The article, entitled “What do you want from us?” was unprecedented in the Mexican press.
“To the gentlemen who belong to the various organisations that seek to settle your disputes with one another in the main square of Ciudad Juarez,” the text begins. “The death of two reporters of this publishing house in under two years has been an irreparable loss, not only to us who work here, but also to their families. […] We are communicators, not fortune tellers […] We want you to explain to us what you want from us”.
It continues: “You are currently the de facto authorities of this city. The legally constituted powers have been helpless to prevent our colleagues from being gunned down… […] This is not a surrender […] it is a truce offering to those who have imposed their law on this city, offered on condition that they respect the lives of those of us who are dedicated to informing the public […] In Ciudad Juarez, we have reached a point where it has become imperative—and a matter of urgency—to take other measures to compel the legally established authorities to provide more convincing answers, as the tolerance of many suffering and grieving citizens has run out.” The editorial concludes: “El Diario’s position is to call upon the warring groups to declare what they want from us as communicators.”
Rocío Gallegos, head of information at the newspaper, relates that during those days: “In the midst of our grief and suffering, we had a gathering with the reporters and desk editors. We had no idea what the future held, what was going to happen to our families and our work. We held a meeting—from which a document [the editorial] emerged—because they not only wanted to cut off the lives of our journalists but also deprive us of our right of expression and information. We resolved not to retreat, among other things because this was a way of acknowledging and remembering our colleagues. I remember that Luis Carlos Santiago’s death utterly demoralised us and undermined our professional spirit. We went from rage to tears, and back again. But we’ve come through it. We’re continuing our work, which grows more onerous with every passing day.”
Gallegos recalls how all these events compelled us to radically change the ways in which we work; we took precautions so that we could go on practising journalism and protect our families. “We no longer attribute certain types of information which are better left anonymous,” she says.
Today, Ciudad Juarez faces a new challenge. And it is not alone. Mexico has a new government with a peculiar history in terns of its position on freedom of expression. According to Gallegos, the political situation is changing. “In that sense, I envisage a scenario replete with red and yellow [traffic] lights. In my experience of successive government administrations, and given that the PRI is the governing party in the state of Chihuahua, there are situations they will not tolerate when it comes to journalistic work and investigative reporting. They don’t like criticism. There are signs that freedom of expression may be affected. We must go out and defend our freedoms. And if we are to act, we must be attentive to everything going on around us.”
Mexican name for manufacturing operations in a free trade zone (FTZ) where factories import material and equipment on a duty-free and tariff-free basis for assembly, processing or manufacturing, and then export the assembled, processed and/or manufactured products, sometimes back to the raw materials’ country of origin.