I thought I wanted to study law but then, while doing an internship for an online newspaper and radio station in my hometown of Chihuahua, Mexico, I fell in love with journalism.
As with most places, when you’re an intern your job is to make copies, get coffee and do whatever people ask you to get done. I used to stay late and try to learn as much as I could, but there weren’t many things I could do. I wasn’t reporting, just proofreading notes, until one day my luck changed.
It was a regular day five years ago. There were no reporters in the newsroom. Everyone was out on the streets chasing stories.
Suddenly, a photographer came to the office screaming that there was a shooting in the suburbs of the city and that we needed to go cover it. My Editor-in-Chief looked around the room and said, “No one is here, what can we do?” I just raised my hand and said: “I can go.”
I was only 18 years old and to this day I don’t know what I was thinking. I will never forget that mix of adrenaline and anxiety as we drove towards the scene, my laptop clutched between my legs to keep it from flying away as the speed swept me from one side of the car to the other.
But what had the most impact was when we arrived at the scene. It was a wasteland. Everything was sealed off, making it hard to get close and take photos.
As I was walking towards the crime scene, my heart was beating faster with each step. The closer I got, the louder the chaos of the sirens, reporters shouting, the chk-chk of the cameras and the chatter of the police radios became.
Suddenly I had to stop, as I had reached the yellow and black police tape. Then I realized what I was looking at. On the ground in front of me were the dead bodies with bullet casing scattered around them.
I wanted to throw up and cry, but then I realized I needed to report on what had happened. That’s why I was there. My job was to get the facts and interview people. The public needed to know what was going on in their community.
I did my job and went back to the newsroom with my first article in hand. That day I experienced real news action and my conversations with the observers who needed me to tell their stories showed me how important journalism really is. Is made me think deeper about what I wanted to do for a living.
I told my mom about what happened, and that I wanted to be a journalist. She looked at me and said, “Journalism? Oh no, tu estas loca. You are not taking that path. You don’t see how risky it is to be a journalist here in Mexico.”
Of course I didn’t listen to my mom. I kept going to my internship, though now I was reporting as well as fetching coffee. I started covering all kinds of stories, though I began to focus more on crime news.
Chihuahua’s reputation as an unsafe state for journalism has only grown since 2013. Of course it’s fine for sports and entertainment writers, but not for hard news and especially investigative reporters. This is not only because of the constant wars going on between the drug cartels, but also because of governmental corruption.
Nevertheless, I was convinced that investigative journalism was the right choice for me. But then I began hearing a couple of stories from my colleagues about death threats. Did I really want to work as a journalist in Chihuahua?
Between 2000 and 2017, 22 journalists have been killed in Chihuahua and more than 100 in Mexico overall. Ten were murdered in 2017 alone. Last April The New York Times reported on the problem in depth. They said: “On the list of the world’s deadliest places to be a reporter, Mexico falls between the war-torn nation of Afghanistan and the failed state of Somalia.”
Things have not improved.
One of my former colleagues, Valentin Hierro, a crime correspondent for several print and online newspapers in Mexico who has worked in the field for more than twenty years, told me, “The death threats mostly come from the government. Of course, they don’t come directly from a public figure but from the police or other people in charge. They tell you you can’t cover this news because there is nothing to cover even though in front of you there is a body with multiple bullet wounds.”
But Hierro acknowledges the government is less of a problem than the cartels. He says, “When the drug dealers want to send a message they do it. They don’t just play around with you as the government does. They don’t just threaten you.”
While the First Amendment to the US Constitution has a corollary in the 7th Article of the Mexican Constitution, the US has historically seen freedom of speech and press as core national values. They are less respected in Mexico where journalists have frequently faced governmental censorship.
When I reached out to David Varela, a reporter who has worked for 9 years at El Heraldo de Chihuahua, the region’s oldest paper, he told me, “I feel like the censorship that comes from the government is the worst, since from the narco cartels you expected them to do these kind of things, but from the government it’s an offense to our Constitution and to our rights but more important to the freedom of speech.”
When I came to the US to study and practice journalism I felt safe, free to write about what I wanted and about what interested me, to do investigative journalism, to inform the people the truth and to not be afraid of digging until I find answers.
Sometimes people ask me, “Are you going back to Mexico to be a journalist there?”
When they say that, I think about the very famous journalist from Chihuahua who was killed on March 23, last year, Miroslava Breach Velducea. She was known for being a tough journalist who was always digging to find the clear answers. Her last investigation led her to her mysterious murder that was linked with investigations into abuse of power, human trafficking and money laundering.
My friend Varela said to me, “Knowing that a very strong and important women like Breach was killed because of her investigations, sent us a message to all the journalists in Chihuahua and the country that one, the reality of how fragile journalism is and how much it matters…”
I feel a combination of anxiety, sadness, frustration and fear. I would love to work in my country, to report in my language, to my people, to help my economy, to contribute in a meaningful way to my home community. But then the fear hits and I think twice.