“In Mexico, they kill you twice”: Interview with filmmaker Bernardo Ruiz
The so-called drug war in Mexico impacts, and often directly harms, individuals from every sphere of Mexican society. One of the groups most affected by the escalation of violence is the press. Since outgoing president Felipe Calderòn declared war on the drug cartels in 2006, journalists have increasingly been the targets of threats, kidnappings, and killings. In that timeframe nearly 50 journalists have been killed and many more remain missing.
American documentarian Bernardo Ruiz examines the hazardous world of Mexican journalism in his 2012 documentary Reportero. The film follows veteran reporter Sergio Haro and details the ethos and history of the weekly investigative news magazine Zeta. According to Reportero, Zeta remains fiercely independent and committed to incisive stories about crime and corruption despite numerous threats received and the murders of two of its reporters.
Reportero debuted earlier this year in Mexico as part of Ambulante’s touring film festival and is currently screening around the United States at select locations. It will be televized in the fall of 2012 as part of PBS’s POV series. Sampsonia Way spoke to Bernardo Ruiz over the telephone in June. Ruiz provided insight on the threats facing journalists in Mexico, the ways they try to adapt and protect themselves, and the message he wants his film to convey.
Given the violence against journalists in Mexico, was it difficult to convince any of your subjects to appear in the movie?
The agreement that I had with the journalists was that I would maintain editorial autonomy, but I would not include any information that would put them or their colleagues directly at risk. As journalists who’ve been covering organized crime and political corruption for so long, they were very aware of the risks of disseminating sensitive information. However, they saw the film as an opportunity to get more attention internationally. We had to have conversations in the beginning to develop a rapport and to be comfortable with the process, but once we got started I had quite a bit of access into their lives.
So speaking about their lives, how do the journalists work to protect themselves both in their work but also in their day-to-day lives?
Since about 2004 Zeta has been publishing a collective byline “Investigaciones Zeta” for the very sensitive articles, the articles profiling cartel activities or the links between organized crime and politicians. But really it’s kind of a thin veneer protection, especially for a journalist like Sergio Haro, who is the main journalist that we profile in the film. He lives in and writes of Mexicali, the state capital of Baja California and a relatively small city of about a million people. Everybody in town knows that if a crime piece appears in Zeta about Mexicali, it’s from Sergio or one of his colleagues.
In other periods in the paper’s history the editors have had armed guards, they’ve had military protection. Sergio Haro had round the clock state police protection for months. But as Adela Navarro says in the film, you can’t interview somebody if you’ve got armed bodyguards behind you. You can’t run around in a bulletproof vest. So they rely on a series of common sense measures, like being in constant contact with colleagues and being very careful to make sure the information they publish is accurate.
Recently an amendment was passed requiring that federal prosecutors investigate crimes against journalists. That’s something the international nonprofits were pushing for. Did it have much support from the local journalist community, and do they have faith in that legislation?
The nonprofits view the federalization of crimes against journalists as a step in the right direction, and I think journalists are in agreement. However, there’s a healthy degree of skepticism. At the end of the day it comes down to enforcement, so on paper the law may be a good one, but the questions the journalists have are: “How vigorously will these laws be enforced?” and “How far will the government go in prosecuting these crimes?” The Mexican government does not have a good history of prosecuting crimes against journalists, or even regular Mexican citizens. Depending on which statistic you cite there’s between 50,000 and 88,000 Mexican citizens that have been killed since December of 2006, when Calderòn took power and declared a frontal war on the cartels. So few of those crimes have been adequately investigated or prosecuted that the thoughts on everybody’s mind are “well that’s great that this law is going to be there, but what actually is going to happen?” It remains to be seen, understandably, how journalists feel about that.
It becomes apparent that sometimes a murdered reporter was not even a crime reporter, or if this person was he or she might’ve been a police beat reporter who didn’t investigate very far in depth. What seems to be the real motive behind the violence, and what journalist is at risk in Mexico?
Unfortunately it doesn’t always seem to conform to a clear logic. I heard some people liken it to a form of terrorism, where the desired result is to keep the media in check. In the history of Semanario Zeta you see that anything that threatens the profits of organized crime groups seems to provoke their ire. Francisco Ortiz Franco, who was murdered on June 22nd of 2004, ran an article publishing photographs of low-level cartel operatives. Their response was pretty immediate and severe: he was gunned down in front of his two children in a waiting car. So it’s different from case to case, but it tends to be for publishing the names and faces of people who are used to operating in the shadows in order to conduct business and bring in drug profits. Sometimes it can be a way to send a message, a way to kill the messenger, a way to just provoke fear, sometimes it can just be the wrong place at the wrong time.
There are some who say that there are journalists who are ‘crooked.‘ I was talking to a veteran US reporter from the Dallas Morning News named Alfredo Corchado, and he said to me that in Mexico they kill you twice: first they kill you and then they kill your name. And that really rang true to me, because in many of the cases that we profile in the film the journalists were gunned down and immediately afterwards their names were smeared. Rumors were spread that a reporter had been having an affair, or that the reporter was a homosexual, as if that was a reason to be murdered. Or that the reporter was crooked. So it’s very difficult after journalists have been murdered to get to the very reason they were murdered, but the desire always seems to be intimidation and silence. And frequently, there’s an attempt to smear the journalist’s name and reputation after the murder.
In a few cases that I’ve seen, after the murder of a journalist it becomes difficult to find things written by the reporter. It seems sometimes publications respond to violence by distancing themselves from the murdered journalist. Is this a trend?
There may be cases of people not continuing to publish stories about their own murdered colleagues. In the case of Zeta, they’ve actually gone the other route. In every edition they publish the “black page,” which is a picture of their murdered co-founder Hector Felix “El Gato”. He was killed in 1988, and they run a picture of him pointing out to the readers in every issue, listing the names of current and former government officials asking them why they have not thoroughly investigated his murder.
There’s been a few famous cases of newspapers declaring that they will no longer cover issues for fear of future violence. In Nuevo Laredo the daily El Mañana recently published an open letter saying they’re no longer going to cover the activities of organized crime groups. Before that, in September 2010, El Diario de Juarez also published a letter to what they called the “de facto authorities of the city” saying “you tell us what we should be publishing about, we can no longer afford the death of our journalists.” In those two cases you have newspapers essentially asking organized crime what the rules are.
You say the “de facto authorities” in Juarez are the cartels. What about the relationship between cartels and the Mexican authorities?
The film begins in the pre-Calderón era. We begin in the era when the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI [which won the elections on July 1st] was in power. Then, the journalists were more concerned about censorship and violence from the state and from local political figures, but since the early 1990s the threat really seems to be coming from the growing power of organized crime groups operating in the border region.
We see that now in other regions, like Veracruz which has just been wracked by really horrific violence, bodies of photojournalists have been found hacked up into pieces in garbage bags and another famous crime reporter from the well-regarded weekly Proceso was found strangled in her apartment. When the territory, or “the plaza” as it’s called in Mexico, is in dispute between warring cartels, there tends to be the highest degree of violence, and there are whole regions that are now out of the control of the state governments. The source of the threats, if you asked the journalists on the ground, is probably an unholy mix of corrupt local officials and organized crime figures. Those reporters who are looking at the nexus of those two groups are likely the most vulnerable.
According to some sources, many Mexicans have become desensitized due to all the violence. Does it seem that way to you?
I don’t think Mexican society as a whole is desensitized. There’s been a very strong reaction from civil society. The Movement for Peace and Justice headed by Javier Sicilia, the poet, is a very good example of that. He’s actually started something called ”La Caravana del Norte” or the “Caravan of the North” and he’s now beginning a peace caravan in the United States, hoping to push American organizations into looking at their responsibility in Mexico’s violence, looking at the links between the two countries, basically highlighting the shared responsibility of the two countries in the drug war.
Obviously the largest consumer market for narcotics exists in the United States, and there has been a lot of criticism of the sale of automatic weapons in the United States and their importation, legally or illegally, into Mexico. There are many efforts to create a different type of conversation around Mexico’s violence and the so-called drug war. One of the things that the journalists said to me throughout the film was “We’re doing our piece to keep our audiences sensitized, we’re doing what we can to inform our readership of what’s happening, but what’s US journalism doing on the criminal distribution networks within the United States, who’s doing the detective journalism that’s following the money?” Certainly these narco dollars are being banked in US and international institutions, so who is doing the reporting on those stories?
There has been some very good international reporting on those subjects, but those pieces are unfortunately few and far between. They’re a step in the right direction in terms of reframing the conversation about the drug war, not viewing it as a “Mexican problem,” but viewing it in an international, globally-linked way just the same way we talk about goods coming from China. We need to begin thinking about how the consumer demand in this country is coupled with corruption and impunity in Mexico, and how that’s led to this really unacceptable level of violence.
How does the violence shape the business of selling newspapers in Mexico? Is there a debate about excessive sensationalizing?
There’s a moment in the film where Rene Blanco, who is the son of the newspaper’s founder, is talking about how papers sell, and he says if it were up to the newspaper vendors, the covers of their issues would be dripping in blood. There’s no question that the Sopranos-style crime stories tend to sell very briskly, and the human-interest stories and the hard-hitting social issues stories don’t do as well. There is always a conversation in the newsroom at Zeta and among journalists across Mexico, around this question of “Are we glorifying the drug war, are we sensationalizing aspects of it?” It has certainly been a national conversation.
Some people have likened what’s happening in Mexico to Prohibition in our own country, and in that period certainly there was lionization of outsize characters and gangsters, like Capone. There has been an effort to curb some of that.
Very recently a lot of the major media groups got together and signed a pact setting guidelines for the coverage of organized crime and this growing wave of violence in Mexico. And one of the points of this pact was to not glorify individual traffickers and to not give them any more prominence.
Notably, a few important news publications like Proceso, La Jornada, and Reforma did not sign this media pact. They did not sign it because their concern was about freedom of press, and while there have concerns about sensationalism, they can’t ignore stories simply because they’re violent or because they are going to make the current administration look bad: they need to report on what they need to report on.
How much is glorifying, or promoting, or profiting from, or worse, exploiting violence, and how much is delivery of critical information to the citizenry? I don’t think any news organization has an easy answer, and if you talk to 12 different Mexican citizens you’ll get 12 different answers. From a personal perspective, having spent time in cities like Mexico City and Tijuana, sometimes the covers of magazines do really seem to be hocking the violence in a way that feels exploitative.
You’ve mentioned in previous interviews that a lot of the coverage that comes out of Mexico and comes to us in the US is almost oversimplified, is based around body counts and specific crimes. What would you like people outside of Mexico to better understand about the situation there?
There is unfortunately a lot of so-called “body-count” journalism or “rubbernecking,” short pieces that describe a massacre or the discovery of bodies without any context or any analysis. You see that on cable news.
Reporters and journalists are on deadlines: they have short time frames in which to conduct their work and it has to be factually accurate. The benefit I have as filmmaker is that I have spent two and a half to three years with a group of people. Not to elevate this, but my job is to get at some deeper truth, the story behind the story, and also to get to the texture of lives of human beings, who these people are. I think one of the things that comes across in the film is the quiet dignity of these media workers who labor invisibly under very difficult circumstances, who aren’t asking for any special treatment, just the basic protections that any media worker has the right to.
For me it’s about getting beyond the headlines, beyond the cable news crawl, and showing the lives of individual media workers and journalists. Hopefully through telling the more personal side, we’re allowing people to see that there’s a piece to this story that hasn’t been told. That’s the dignity, not just of the journalists but of the day-to-day people in Mexico, who are living their lives despite this horrific wave of violence. Mexico has had violence before but nothing to this degree. The last six years have been an aberration, and you have a lot of people who desperately want things to return to normal. I hope that the film can convey some degree of the humanity and day-to-day life that gets ignored in the bigger, sensationalized story.