Tuesday, July 27, 2010
Dead Reporter Walking by Charles Bowden
We are sitting in the sun somewhere in the United States of America. Emilio is hiding now with the family of a man who has connections in northern Chihuahua. But if this fact were known, the man's relatives in Chihuahua would be kidnapped and possibly killed, his businesses seized.
As we soak up the sun at this fine moment, Ascension is in a state of siege. Four women have vanished and are probably murdered. The head of the bank there and his wife have been kidnapped. In Palomas, a border town in the same county as Ascension, two dead women have just been found in the dump – one of them pregnant. The Mexican army is everywhere and can be ill-tempered. Six months ago I was there with a friend who took a photograph of them downtown, a block from the port of entry, and they came racing at us with machine guns. In the streets, children beg, their skin a gray cast that suggests malnutrition. Work has fled – the people-smuggling business has moved because of U.S. pressure in the sector, and so the town is studded with half-built or abandoned cheap lodgings for migrants heading north. Also there is an array of narco-mansions whose occupants have moved to duck the current violence. Last year, the U.S. Port of entry as accidentally strafed during a shoot-out. There is more dust than life in the air of the town.
Back in Juarez it goes like this at the new death house. On the first day, they announce one body. On the second day, three bodies. On the third day, one more body. Now it is a week in, the digging continues, and the tally seems to be nine bodies. But since the heads are severed from the bodies, the exact count might take a while. Besides, there is one more patio to dig up. No one really knows what is going on.
The editor of one local daily estimated that his publication reports maybe 15% of the action. For example, fake cops have been setting up checkpoints in the city and seizing guns. In a forty-eight-hour period, a top cop is mowed down, four other residents are murdered, three banks are robbed, and, by a fluke, $1.8 million is seized by U.S. Customs because a driver from Kansas got turned back by Mexican customs and reentered the United States. Also, the Mexican army bagged 4.5 tons of marijuana. All this is the 15% that gets reported.
As I sit in the sun with Emilio he tells me of the current violence in the towns he once covered, and none of these incidents have been reported in the U.S. Press or the Mexican press. Nor will the be. He knows what is happening because he has retained his sources. And he knows that it will not be reported because to publish is to invite death.
There is a curious disconnect between the Mexican press and the U.S. Press, one where the U.S. Press pretends that reporting in Mexico is pretty much the way it is in the North, where the Mexican press considers American reporters to be fools. Sometimes Emilio deals with American reporters who are fluent in Spanish, but that is not enough because “they imagine things they don't know", and so the U.S. reporters are marginalized by the Mexican reporters because they figure they are hopeless.
Emilio Gutierrez is one of eight children raised in Nuevo Casas Grandes, a small Chihuahua town against Sierra Madre. His father was a master bricklayer, his mother was a housewife. His childhood was poverty. The army has a post in his town. One day, a very pretty classmate named Rosa Saenz shows up, her hair and skin coated with mud. Her breasts have been sliced with blades and she has been stabbed fifty times. She has been raped. Her body is found in an abandoned chicken farm on the edge of town. In the end, no one is charged with the crime. Everyone in town knows the girl was raped and murdered by the army but no one says anything about it. Emilio was thirteen years old.
He always wanted to be a writer and worked on the high school paper, a weekly printed on a mimeograph machine. Emilio emerges in high school with a first-rate mind where intelligence can be a fatal trait. He learns photography, and when he graduates, a new daily is starting in Ciudad Juarez, El Diario, and he gets hired to take pictures. Soon he is a reporter.
He learns corruption almost instantly. He is paid very little, and payday is every Friday. He explains the system in simple terms. Every Monday, a man comes who represents the police, the government, the political parties, and the drug leaders. He gives each reporter a sum that is three or four times his wage. This is called the sobre, the envelope.
”Ever since I as a little kid,” he continues, “ I listened to my parents criticize bad government. We knew it was corrupt.” Now he is part of a corrupt system.
“Corruption at the paper,” he explains,” was subtle. The politicians would win over my boss with dinners and bags of money. The reporter on the beat would get pressure sometimes from the boss not to report certain things like the bad habits of politicians, the houses they own, the girlfriends. The narcos also gave out money but I was always afraid of them. They owned businesses, buy ads, have parties and celebrities and horses and you cover that, they would pay you to cover that, but you never mentioned their real business.”
He sees Mexico as genetically corrupt. A corrupt Aztec ruling class fused with the trash of Spain - the conquistadors – and produced through this marriage a completely corrupt Mexico. This thesis helps him face the reality around him.
“In Mexico,” he says “we operate in disguise. There is one face and under that is another mask. Nothing is upfront. The publisher wishes to perpetuate the system. But if it is clear that you are taking bribes, you will be fired. You must take it under the table because if you talked about it openly, that would affect the image.”
He is entering a bar one night, when he sees the mayor of Juarez leaving with some narco-traficantes. The mayor pauses by the street, drops his pants and pisses into the gutter. Emilio writes up a little note and puts it in the paper. He is nineteen and doesn't understand.
The next day he is called to the mayor's office.
The man is at a big desk with a check register.
He says, “How much?”
He wants Emilio to publish a story saying his earlier story was a lie.
Gutierrez does not take the money. He realizes later that this is a serious error because he learns the mayor and the publisher are very close.
“I quit and take a job in radio before something bad can happen.”
Later, when things calm down, he returns to Diario a wiser man.
Here is what a wise man knows: that certain people – drug leaders, the corrupt police, the corrupt military – these things cannot be written about. That other people should be mentioned favorably unless they get caught in circumstances so extreme that the news cannot be suppressed. Then, they appear in the paper, but the blow is softened as much as possible. Nor are investigations favored. If someone is murdered, you call the proper authorities and you print exactly what they tell you. But you don't poke around in such matters.
Emilio loves politics and develops one-page stories dutifully interviewing politicians and the nakedly publishing their inane answers. Sometimes, when a leading drug figure is arrested, usually as a show to placate the U.S. Agencies, he interviews this person , also. He is hard-driving, at least until his son is born. After that, he becomes cautious because he must think of his son, and not give in to the dangers of ambition.
For a while, he works for a small radio station and he makes one report on how a mayor in a neighboring town has fired the local drug counselor for the schools. He wonders on the air if the officials themselves are clean.
He soon finds out because a mayor of another town is listening. This mayor has just gotten out of a treatment center in El Paso for cocaine addiction. He storms down to the radio station and offers the owner ten thousand pesos to fire Emilio, The owner obliges him.
He moves from paper to paper and eventually winds up in Ascension, the region of Chihuahua where is was raised. He has mastered, he thinks, the rules of the game. He writes down answers and publishes them. He avoids drug dealers. He is careful about offending politicians. He does not look into the lives of the rich, nor does he explore how they make their money. He is clean, he avoids taking bribes. He is not looking for trouble
This is the reality of Mexican reporting, where a person is inside but outside, where a person knows more than the public but can only say what is known in code and this code had better not be too clear. A world where submission is essential and independence is eventually fatal.
He is stressed because, even though he plays by the rules, he cannot know all the rules and he cannot be certain when the rules change. He can understand certain things. When a general comes to Chihauhua in April 2008 with an army and says if there any rapes and robberies, they are to be assigned to Mexican migrants, well, that is the way it will be reported.
He will obey his instructions for a very simple reason.
For three years, he has been afraid he will be murdered by the Mexican army. He has, to his horror, committed and error. And nothing he has done in the past three years has made up for this mistake. He has ceased reporting on the army completely. He has focused on safe things such as fighting the creation of a toxic waste facility in the town. He has apologized to various military officers and endured their tongue lashings. Still, this cloud hangs over him.
He can remember the day he blundered into this dangerous country.
Murder City; Ciudad Juarez and the Global Economy's New Killing Fields by Charles Bowden; Nation Books, N.Y., 2010