Good evening. Thank you for being here.
Thank you to the Nieman Foundation at Harvard University and all of you, the fellows who are the soul of this foundation, for the award you give me tonight, which represents the work of all Mexican reporters covering the violence. Thank you for the love you have shown me this week, being among you. And for your attention and concern for the hard situation that reporters face just on the other side of the border.
Tonight, to be faithful to my roots, I wanted to talk in Spanish. But now I will do my best effort to speak in English, to connect with all of you. So, I apologize for my English.
Also I want to explain that if I cry when I am talking, don’t worry, it’s normal. I still can’t talk in public normally about this.
I still remember the initial shock when Mary Beth called me to announce that I had been selected to receive the Louis M. Lyons prize – and that I had to keep it secret. With this weight on my back, I passed sleepless nights thinking Why me?
– wondering if I really deserved this prize. I, who live in Mexico City and didn’t risk my life like many of my brave colleagues who live and work in the most dangerous areas of Mexico had. Also scared about the commitment that this award carries with it and happy at the same time to know that there is somebody who recognized the invisible work that several journalists have taken on over the past few years to take care of ourselves.
On those nights, reviewing the past to explain to myself how it is that I come here tonight … Me? A normal reporter who used to cover poverty and human rights. A reporter who had promised never to cover drug-trafficking news.
But the country changed and left us no options. Suddenly many of us, journalists, became war correspondents in our own land. We were covering massacres, reporting on the findings of mass graves, attending the funeral of a colleague or writing stories about the pain and injustice common in every war.
The change came quickly. It started in December 2006, when Felipe Calderón began his presidency with the surprising declaration of a war on drugs, and sent the army and federal police to fight the narcos in the streets. And they obeyed. The narcos too. Every army showed their powerful guns. They converted any street of any city into a battlefield and left thousands of victims behind. His presidency ended in tragedy. It has been called the “sexenio de los muertos,” the six years of the dead.
We had to send news like war dispatches counting the thousands of displaced people, wounded, orphans, widows. In this period, between 60 to 100,000 people were murdered and more than 25,000 disappeared.
Calderón has been your neighbor since last week when he started a scholarship right here at Harvard, where the protesters have followed him because of his mortal strategy to combat the drugs. His strategy killed many more people than the drugs really do. Now, with many broken families, and noticing that some American states are legalizing the use of drugs, the question in Mexico is: Why did we suffer all this pain?
Many people are no longer with us. While I can come here and talk to you, many reporters covering similar stories have not survived or cannot talk about it. In this black period, 80 colleagues are dead or disappeared. Many more left the profession, their house, the country.
Among of the dead is Regina Martínez, who was a brave correspondent for Proceso magazine, the magazine that I work for. She worked in Veracruz, one of the states that was soon silenced by drug traffickers in complicity with the politicians. Forced silence is generally a consequence of this formula: army or cartels that control the information, corrupt or weak governments that surrender to them, and a judicial system that doesn't work.
We soon realized that something was rotten in the country when the reporters who were supposed to file the news became themselves the news; when saying that (after Iraq), Mexico was the most dangerous place for journalists in the world became commonplace, and nobody cared.
Those deaths were registered in small news stories, like these, that I collected from the newspapers:
The journalist was kidnapped in the morning by five unknown men just in front of the municipal police department … His eight year-old daughter watched the execution. He was killed when he was taking her to school ….Three months before his murder, his house had been shot and his car burned … He was taken by eight masked men dressed in black, from his home, in front of his wife and daughters…By the corpse a message was found: “This happened to me for writing what I shouldn’t. Be careful with your text when you write the news.”
They were thrown into the mass graves where all the dead are thrown, without identity, their murders without investigation. Most of the murdered became guilty of their own deaths by the official speech that says that if you were murdered, it is because you did something wrong. That is how the impunity mechanism works.
Violence touched every article. I remember a friend who, after making a TV program on indigenous folklore, came back to Mexico City and told me that on the trip, some men with automatic rifles were watching what he was recording. He says he will never forget the fear he felt that day.
At the beginning we were surprised though. Truth be told, 10 years ago the media in states such as Tamaulipas, on the border with Texas, had already been silenced. And the journalists allowed that to happen.
But during the Calderón presidency, the silence zones expanded, at the same time the battlefields did. Journalists became hostages. We were now in the middle of the war in which each part –the army, a specific gang or its rival — felt permission to kill and pressed for their message to be published.
I knew a photographer who took photos of 19 corpses in different events in only one day. Twice he went to take pictures of “executions” only to discover that the “executed” were his coworkers and friends.
A reporter in indigenous zones in the south (who was director, reporter, photographer and seller of his small newspaper) told me that his secret to staying alive was that he learned to obey the orders of people who called him demanding he photograph the head that was thrown on a highway or not publish anything about the confiscated drugs.
I still have in my soul a story that a reporter told me. One night someone called to tell him that a commando squad had taken his colleague. He stood up from the bed, got dressed, said goodbye to his wife, kissed his children, and sat down in the living room to wait to be taken. It was the longest night of his life.
“Why didn’t you run?” I asked surprised.
“Where do I run?” he said. “My only wish was to prevent them from entering my house and taking me in front of my family. I didn’t want my family to remember me with that image.”
He survived, but his friend appeared the next day, thrown on the street, as if he were refuse. In the city where they live, the policemen are the narcos.
Whenever I recall this story I think of how many journalists would be feeling that same solitude on such a night. Not knowing who to call, who to ask for help, resigned to the fact that death is a job risk.
Soon all of us who covered the violence were having nightmares. In mine, I saw killers, trucks loaded with dead bodies, walls covered in blood. This was a time when our struggle was to preserve the joy of living despite our coverage. And when many had moved away from their families afraid that they would pay for the work they were doing. Some were forced to flee after receiving threats, reporters who had to start their lives over – selling hot dogs or cleaning houses in other countries like this. Many others prepared letters to be read posthumously.
Not every place is extreme. Not everyone is silenced. Mexico City, for example, is a bubble that seems far from the violence, even though it is getting closer. But in all the country there is a tendency toward silence, a forced self-censorship.
This censorship and hunting of journalists forced us to organize to protect ourselves. We knew that we wouldn’t have protection from the state, so we did what we could. In some places rival news organizations got together to write security protocols, forcing themselves to go out to report together, forgetting about scoops and exclusives.
A group of reporters created the volunteer job of monitor, a reporter who would follow by telephone reporters traveling to a dangerous area. This person would make sure all the colleagues arrived at the place and returned home safely. If something went wrong, she would take emergency measures established in an agreed-upon protocol.
We, the reporters and some editors, knew that we had to do it alone because, with a few exceptions, media owners are not interested in the safety of their reporters. They have not taken this issue seriously. Death is considered a job risk. They pay little, send reporters to risky areas without equipment or mobile phone credit. Sometimes they fire threatened reporters, suspicious that they “were up to something.” They do not demand the government investigate crimes so as not to lose government-paid advertising. In the newsrooms, those who show they are frightened can lose merit. So everyone deals with it in their own way.
Society at large also maintains its distance. People did not protest the killings of journalists. And they are right. They feel that the large majority of media outlets are complicit with the powerful and the enemies of the common people.
Some make heroic efforts to inform, to keep investigating.
I know of a news daily on the border where the owners, to avoid the censorship enforced by criminals, launched a website in the United States under a newly invented name. They sent the news that they could not publish in Mexico to the website. Until they were discovered.
Newspaper editors in different regions organized to all cover a story prohibited in the local, silenced daily. Some reporters are gathering information and writing books in secrecy, waiting for the day they can publish them.
In other cases, foreign correspondents have been our allies, provided with information that local editors cannot publish.
There have been extraordinary efforts by citizens using Twitter, YouTube or blogs to inform on matters that journalists could no longer cover.
Some reporters, like me, are organized in a network we call Periodistas de a Pie, “Journalists on Foot,” an organization created by, and made up, of women journalists, where we request training courses and seminars from experts to stay alive and bullet-proof our information. With no resources, in our free time, we set about organizing workshops around questions such as: How to safely enter and exit a danger zone? How to report and file stories from the war front? How to stay mentally healthy and take care of our souls amongst so much tragedy?
From the outset, we decided to make visible the social effects of the violence, to show the human faces of the victims. We put human soul into the statistics to go against the grain of the official line of not worrying about the dead, assuming they were criminals, and reducing victims to numbers and “collateral damage.”
Soon we participated in collective projects with writers, photographers and artists that tried to restore the dignity of the immigrants, journalists or common citizens, killed and disappeared.
Since 2008, every week, this is what I have tried to do in Proceso magazine, a place where I have had full support and a great team to work with. The work is hard. How can you make the 100th or 10,000th or 100,000th death still matter? How can you keep people from getting used to it when in cities like Ciudad Juárez the morgue becomes too saturated with bodies to function? How can you maintain the outrage in every story and also the hope that things can change? How can you clean your soul from so much horror?
I remember a night I travelled to Chihuahua to write about a workshop for victims. When a psychologist announced “if somebody wants to tell their story, there is a journalist here,”40 women—with photographs of their disappeared children in hand—lined up before me. For some, it was the first time they spoke out. That night I felt alone, enormously powerless.
The same happened in Tamaulipas, where the police recovered almost 200 bodies buried in a mass grave, and hundreds of families were waiting for a genetic test to find out if some of them were their relatives. One woman, angry, asked me. “Why did you journalists never come before since the killings have been systematic?”
From the urgency to tell what I had seen, and to explain that behind each news story about the dead there are families broken, many hearts with pain, I wrote my book “Crossfire.” It’s a book about the victims of the violence who at that time were denied by the government and a society that did not want to see.
During readings, people asked me if I needed a psychologist to see the beautiful things in life – why else my negativity and need to tell the “ugly side.” I share some of the loneliness that the victims face. But I can say that I am fortunate, for accompanying these people has humanized me.
And I was not alone, I have a team. In Periodistas de a Pie, beyond taking on the challenge of removing the microphones from the war-makers and turning them instead to those who suffer, soon we had become free speech defenders working constantly to come up with strategies to draw attention to the issue.
We organized workshops, marches, forums, webinars or Internet-based seminars for reporters far from Mexico City … Christmas donations in solidarity with displaced colleagues … or reports with the testimonies of colleagues describing the situation in silenced areas.
Each workshop involves a lot of invisible work that is paid back when the most isolated journalist in the most forgotten community in Guerrero shares with us all his techniques for staying alive; when reporters in Veracruz thank us because they no longer feel so alone; when a Mexico City colleague tells us that this is the first journalism workshop he has ever attended; or when people call us to tell us how they have applied what they learned or share the article that sprung from the workshop.
The network is considered to be a safe place for those from outside of Mexico City who ask for our help in reporting the case of a disappeared colleague or for contacting psychologists. Some sent out SOS messages requesting emergency training or help in creating their own networks. People seek us out because they know we are partners.
One day in 2010 we were marching through the streets calling on the government to investigate the crimes committed against our colleagues. We carried flowers and signs with photographs of the dead and disappeared. We placed red-stained notebooks and cameras on the street. We demanded the government do its job and punish those responsible for the crimes – that it send the message that killing journalists would not be tolerated. Because impunity is a pistol without a safety that will be fired again. But the killings got worse.
During that march we interviewed each other. Later, we did not know who should sign the articles of which we were the authors, but in which we were also the protagonists.
The tragedy’s magnitude disrupted our identities.
Many of us cried in ways we had never cried. And we continue to do so. It hurts to hear stories like the woman who in the same day lost all the men from her family – eight: her husband, sons and grandsons. They have been missing since the police took them. Another mother looks for her 9-year-old and her husband.
In some of the workshops this question always arises: “But if I cry can I still be a journalist?”
Families of people murdered have contacted us asking to publish a denunciation of the killers. When we tell them that they can be killed, they answer: “It’s not a problem, we are already dead in life.” I have spent hours trying to help these families visualize the future, asking that they seek help to do so in a safe way, and stay alive, before we publish. I don't know if that is a journalist's place, but it was the place I was in.
The situation also made us question the exclusive, which loses value when keeping others from getting killed becomes the important thing – that and keeping ourselves alive. That the information gets out there in the safest way, even if it isn't signed by you.
Our latest move in “Periodistas de a Pie” was to write a collective book about the resilience of victims who organize to seek justice and build peace, as a manner of antidote for people who had stopped reading the news because it seemed too hopeless.
The new government stepped into action three months ago during which time we have seen how the violence has begun to vanish from the agenda. Magically, instead of war, the government began to speak of peace and reconciliation, as if the killers had laid down their weapons, as if justice had already been done for so many murders, as if with the simple change of language the situation had changed.
A friend in Sinaloa told me: “They are isolating those of us who continue to cover drug trafficking. Don't abandon us.”
That is the urgency. As the Polish master, Ryszard Kapuscinski, said: In the struggle against silence, human life is at stake.
We know that this is not over. That there will be no hope until we have built a memorial to those journalists no longer with us.
Until we know who they were, what they were writing about and the status of the investigations into their murders.
Until the owners of the media companies worry more about their people and less about their money and demand accountability.
Until we have built an observatory from which to ensure that the cases be investigated and the guilty be put in jail.
Until the government does its job and the killing of journalists in Mexico has a cost.
Until the money set aside for protection, safety, and guarding Mexican journalists is used to fund threatened journalists so that they, instead of hiding, can keep investigating. That the perpetrators know they are being watched. That they don’t even think of silencing one more reporter.
These past years have helped us, journalists with the same disquiet in our hearts, to find each other all across the country: helped us learn how to do better journalism and protect it from the killers’ fury. This is where we are along this stretch of road, working on how to extend this network, interwoven with other solidarity networks, into the regions where colleagues are having a hard time. Until we can create an enormous blanket of solidarity, protection, warmth, under which we may all fit. Or, at least, that is our dream.
For this reason I express my gratitude for this prize for conscience and integrity because it helps us call attention to what the Mexicans face every day in our fight against the silence.