What do you tell a young reporter with not much to lose (besides their life) who wants to run off and cover the Drug War in Mexico?
This is not a hypothetical question. This is just one stumping question from this past week.
If you tell them not to go, isn’t that a form of self-censorship?
Perhaps more facts are in order. The eager young freelancer speaks Spanish, but doesn’t work for a news organization. In today’s climate, such young reporters are being pushed, pulled, and prodded by the idea that if they can file online, and use Twitter, maybe, eventually, a news organization willing to pay might show up to offset their expenses, or offer them a job.
Yes. Maybe that happens. And yes, maybe some day you win the lottery too.
Oh, and the reporter has never been to Mexico but has some experience in Latin America.
The advice: pick another story to get that first taste of reporting in Mexico.
Yes, this sounds like advice from someone who may have lost their zest for the adrenaline rush of riding with the Mexican Army. But having done that in the last century, when the cartels had just started their armed assault on the streets of northern Mexico, this is advice from someone with experience. (For more, please see: “Stepping Up for Journalists in Mexico’s Drug War.”) And reporters going into some Mexican states today either work hard to stay under the radar as Tracy Wilkinson of the Los Angeles Times did in her series of reports in 2010 or they hitch a ride with the army.
And riding with the army means a reporter is safer but are they compromised? Do they look the other way when the military crosses the line? Does their presence alone keep the military from certain abuses? (For more on these questions, please see: “The Media & the Military: A Question of Access.”)
These are questions to ask especially in Mexico because of the human rights record. Human Rights Watch analyzed the record of evidence from five of Mexico’s most violent states since 2006. Their analysis found that Mexico’s security forces (including the military, along with federal, regional, and local police) were responsible for 170 cases of torture, 39 disappearances, and 24 extrajudicial killings.
But the bigger question is safety. The cardinal rule is no story is worth your life. You can’t report a story if you are dead. And these are real concerns in Mexico.
At the end of last week, the U.S. State Department issued an extension of its travel warning on Mexico, effectively putting almost half the country in the danger zone. Mexican experts debate whether the military has lost control of 40 or 50 percent of the country to the drug gangs. The same day as the State Department’s warning, Mexico’s Defense Minister General Guillermo Galvan Galvan admitted parts of the country were “overrun” by the cartels, that key government institutions had been infiltrated by the gangs, and that Mexico’s “national security is severely threatened.” Analysts for the U.S. Department of Defense have not only compared Mexico to countries like Pakistan where large areas are not ruled by the government but they question if Mexico is merely a weak state or slipping into the category of “failed state.”
On top of all this, the gangs seem to be moving not only the usual commodities northward (cocaine, marijuana, and also human cargo) but they seem to be going heavily into the methamphetamine business too, supplementing the huge domestic U.S. production for this drug. Mexican authorities seized a record amount of meth last week in Jalisco (more than 15 tons) which points in this direction.
Finally, the Committee to Protect Journalists lists three reporters killed for doing their jobs reporting on the Drug War last year, making Mexico the fourth most dangerous country in the world for journalists. (For more on this please see: “Mexico: Journalists & the Drug War.”)
Given all this, certainly there are great stories to tell in the Drug War. But it’s no place for someone sharpening their craft. Even the long-time professionals are challenged in such an environment. This is not to say that reporters should surrender their ethos in exchange for safety. But it does mean that all due care must be taken. This battle between criminal organizations and Mexico’s authorities isn’t equated with a war for nothing.
(The photo of General Guillermo Galvan Galvan is from Mexico’s Ministry of Defense and is in the public domain.)