Nation & World

On the crime beat in Mexico, danger lies in knowing too much

It is a sultry morning in this crime-ridden resort, and little movement occurs at the main police headquarters. Francisco Robles, a freelance news photographer, glances down at an incoming text message on his phone.

“Four dead. Let’s go,” he says, heading for the door as the words trail from his mouth.

Chasing after is Carlos Alberto Carbajal, a photographer for El Sur, one of this city’s daily newspapers. They jog four blocks to a main artery and hail a rickety VW Beetle painted as a cab. Destination: A sun-parched dry riverbed on Acapulco’s far outskirts where several men have been executed in broad daylight.

An ambulance’s lights still flash as the two photographers arrive. Dozens of federal police mill about. Crime scene investigators already have placed yellow tape around the thatched-roof, open-air hut where the bodies lie. Shells from a 9mm and a .38 Super are scattered about. A fifth body lies not far away.

The two begin snapping photos.

The sun is directly overhead, but the work is dangerous. Journalists covering the crime beat intersect with corrupt cops, arrive at crime scenes where mobsters linger, and are often targets of recruitment by criminal organizations eager to have informants in the newsroom. Even if they begin the beat as straight arrows, they get twisted and pulled in multiple directions. And they can be murdered because they know too much.

Mexico is easily the most dangerous place in the Western Hemisphere for reporters to ply their trade. Dozens of journalists have been killed or disappeared. Nearly every month, a newspaper or a radio or TV station is firebombed, attacked with explosives or raked with gunfire, targeted by the country’s rising criminal gangs who use violence to discourage reporting the gangsters don’t like.

That’s particularly true for reporters and photographers on the crime beat, who are killed with greater frequency in Mexico than any other kind of journalist. In a perilous profession, it is the most hazardous job.

That’s why back in the El Sur newsroom, Aurora Harrison offers some unsolicited advice for anyone covering crime for a Mexican media organization.

“There are some facts that you should leave out of stories,” said Harrison, a reporter who survived multiple threats while covering the beat for two years.

Here’s some other advice: Don’t ask too many questions. Don’t linger at crime scenes. Don’t give out your cellphone number. Travel in groups. Never climb in a vehicle with police in it because gangsters may spray it with gunfire. Get off the beat quickly.

In parts of Mexico where organized crime has penetrated deeply, a crime beat reporter or photographer can find himself working closely with the gangsters, many of whom want journalists to write stories and take photos when the group executes its rivals.

So they tip off reporters as massacres occur or as corpses swing from highway overpasses. The tips come fast, and for journalists earning money by the story or the photo, it’s hard not to collaborate. But the gangsters want more – far more – than publicity. They also want to make sure some news doesn’t make the papers and newscasts.

When gangsters approach a journalist, refusal is not really an option.

“If you say no, ‘Here’s a picture of your wife and your children. You know what to expect.’ What do you do?” said Rodrigo Bonilla Hastings of the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers, a Paris-based organization that represents 18,000 publications worldwide.

Journalists in crime-ridden areas of Mexico say it’s common when a new gang moves into an area for henchmen to order journalists to attend a meeting. They then issue marching orders.

“They establish one of them as the contact. And they say, now this person is going to tell you what you can and what you can’t publish. This person has to fulfill the orders,” said Marcela Turati, who covers organized crime and its social consequences for a national newsweekly, Proceso.

With monthly salaries as low as $400, crime beat reporters can become easy targets for mobsters. Many pass on messages from organized crime to senior editors.

“The police reporters were the ones who began to tell us what we couldn’t publish,” said a former editor of a major newspaper in Tamaulipas state, bordering Texas, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear that gangs might gun him down.

In many parts of the developed world, the crime beat is one of the lowest rungs for young journalists. But the challenges of the police beat in Mexico are so unique, and corruption so rampant, that even veteran journalists encounter trouble dealing with the conditions.

“You can’t fraternize with the police. You need to have cool, distant but professional relations with them. They can be infiltrated, and if you get close to one officer, an enemy (crime) group will see you as their enemy,” said Juan Angulo Osorio, editor-in-chief of El Sur.

Fear can be a constant in newsrooms. Angulo recalled how prosecutors arrested a local official. A photojournalist was deployed. Later the photographer overheard Angulo and a reporter discussing how the official appeared to be a major organized crime figure.

“The photographer didn’t want to turn over the photos,” Angulo said, explaining that the photographer feared for his safety. “I didn’t feel right demanding that he give me the photos.”

Editors are always on guard for signs that one of their reporters has links to organized crime – a new car, a new house or perhaps conversations with editors saying what not to publish. The signs may be subtle.

“You might see if they are trying to put in a bias toward one group,” said Javier Garza, editor of the El Siglo de Torreon, a newspaper in Mexico’s northern Coahuila state.

Journalists who fall into organized crime, even willingly, can find themselves ensnared more deeply than they ever imagined. They are asked to lend their names for fake businesses to launder cash, or worse.

“They can call you and tell you, ‘We need your house. We just need your house. Don’t ask any questions. We need your house.’ And then, what do you do?” said Bonilla of the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers. “The power of these guys is such and the impunity is such and the lack of state presence is such that they are the owners. They can do whatever they want, and they will do it because they need to control information . . . which is vital to control the territory.”

Editors incur their own risks when they attempt to get rid of journalists who have been compromised. One editor in Coahuila state told of how he asked a reporter with links to a crime group to take an extended reporting trip to Chiapas in southern Mexico to get him away from the newspaper.

The reporter declined the assignment, knowing that the crime group wanted him in the newsroom in Coahuila. He was forced to quit.

Fortunately for journalists in Acapulco, no single crime group dominates the metropolitan area, leaving none able to impose its will, even as violence makes the city one of the most dangerous in Mexico. The Beltran Leyva cartel once held sway here, but it disintegrated in 2009 and 2010.

Today, crime groups with names like the Independent Cartel of Acapulco, the Devil’s Command, Los Rojos, Warriors United and La Barredora compete with one another in the labyrinthine hillside communities along the gorgeous Pacific coast.

For photographers like Carbajal and Robles, danger still lurks. Arriving at a crime scene too quickly presents risks. “I want to make sure the police have secured the crime scene first,” Carbajal said.

Once, Carbajal recalled, he got to a gas station where a killing had occurred, only to find unidentified armed men hauling the body away. They were fellow gangsters.

“I always have the GPS activated in my cellphone so I can be traced down,” Robles said. “When we leave for an event, I exchanges messages every 10 minutes about where I am and what I’m doing.”

He identifies himself to police officers and does not move quickly.

“If a person sees me running with my backpack at a crime scene, they might misinterpret,” mistaking him for a criminal, he added.

Aurora Harrison, the former crime reporter who now covers education for El Sur, said it chilled her when she was on the crime beat to recognize police officers she knew who subsequently were arrested as organized crime suspects.

After one story, in which she gave details of the influence of one drug gang, a man she recognized approached her. “He told me I wasn’t going to win any Pulitzers writing this kind of story. He said I could get kidnapped for this,” she recalled. “He told me, ‘Listen, you can get by this time. But not next time.’”

A fellow crime reporter from another newspaper approached her one day.

“He said to me, ‘Someone wants to talk to you.’ I said, ‘No, if there’s a message there, I heard it loud and clear,’” Harrison said.

“My editor said I was too young to receive these kinds of warnings,” she said, and let her off the crime beat.

Angulo, El Sur’s editor-in-chief, once accompanied a crime reporter to a multiple homicide in Acapulco. He observed that no reporters were interviewing bystanders clumped to one side, so he approached them.

His own reporter quietly drew near and told him to move away.

“She said, ‘Don’t talk to them. The killers are here among them.’”

Danger in Mexico for journalists

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