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


  1. Dead Reporter Walking

    I an sitting in the Hotel San Francisco in Palomas almost four years to the day since the moment Emilio Gutierrez destroyed his life. In the lobby is a large statue of San Francisco, and in his hands and at his feet illegal immigrants have left handwritten messages and offerings-

    “Father, help us all who pass as wetbacks. Help us Our Father. Bless us all who think of you, who trust in You. In Your hands we place our good luck to pass ALIVE. Adios Our Father.”

    Just five blocks away, the poor plunged through the line and headed into El Norte – none of the notes are very recent. The river of misery has changed course for a moment. Music floats through the air, Bob Dylan singing “Knocking on Heaven's Door.”

    On January 29, 2005, six soldiers came to the hotel across the street, took food off people's plates, and robbed the customers of their money and jewelry. Emilio got a call in Ascension, and so he phoned the local police chief and the manager of the hotel. He called the army also, but as is its custom, the army refused to answer any questions from the press. Then he filed a brief article about the incident, one of three he wrote in that period noting similar actions by the army in the area.

    That is how he destroyed his life.

  2. Late at night on February 8 of that same year, Colonel Idelfonso Martinez Piedra calls Gutierrez at home, explains that he is “the boss”, and orders him to come immediately to the Hotel Miami in downtown Ascension. Emilio explains that he is getting ready for bed, and some other time would be better.

    The colonel says, “If you don't come, we'll come looking for you at home or wherever you are.”

    So he puts his then twelve-year-old son in his truck and goes there. He notices fifty soldiers in the four-block area around the hotel, and two vans full of bodyguards for the officers. He leaves his son in the truck and walks up to an officer. It is a very cold night.

    Soldiers swiftly surround him. The colonel says to another officer:

    “Look, General, the son of a whore who has written all kinds of stupidities has arrived.”

    Then the general, Garcia Vega, says, “So you are the son of a whore who is lowering our prestige. You son of a fucking whore, you are denigrating us, and my boss, the minister in Mexico, is extremely by your fucking lies, idiot.”

    Emilio feels very small, and he cannot think of a way to escape his fate. The general is in charge of all Chihuahua. He is short, and his uniform is brilliant with gold trim. To have a general speak to you is not something to be desired. They can hand out death like a party favor.

  3. The general suggests he should write about drug people.

    Emilio says he does not know any, and besides they frighten him.

    “So, you don't know them and you fear them,” the general bristles. “You should fear us, for we fuck the fucking drug traffickers, you son of a whore. I feel like putting you in the van and taking you to the mountains so you can see how we fuck over the drug traffickers, asshole.”

    Emilio grovels, apologizes profusely to the general.

    “You've written idiocies three times, and there shall be no fourth. You'd better not mention this meeting, or you'll be sent to hell, asshole.

    The colonel tells him he is under surveillance “and should not fuck up.” Then, he is dismissed.. He drives aimlessly and finally calls his boss, who tells him, “This is serious. This is a problem.”

    Emilio decides his only chance at safety is making the threats known. Because if he remains silent, he senses they will return and kill him. On February 10, he publishes a third person account of the incident and files a complaint with the assistant public security minister in Nuevo Casa Grande and meets with the boss of the ministry, a woman, who warns him, “You'd better think it over carefully because it is very dangerous getting involved with the militaries.” But he is building a paper record to try and save himself. He files a complaint against the soldiers with the National Commission of Human Rights. Three months later, the state police begin an investigation that goes nowhere. The representative of the Commission of Human Rights proposes a conciliatory at between them and the military. Emilio agrees, but he knows this means nothing because he will “continue to be in the eyes of the hurricane as the weakest one.”

  4. He does not write anything unseemly about the army again. He becomes almost a ghost and hears no evil and sees no evil. He hopes they will no leave him alone. On February 12, 2008, he merely notes in the newspaper that a convoy of seven hundred soldiers and one hundred vehicles sweeps the area from Paloma to Casas Grande. In Ascension, the ransack the house of a friend, a guy who runs a pizza parlor. The friend is given the ley fuga, the traditional game where they let you run and, if you can dodge the bullets, you live. His friend is mowed down in the street in front of his home. That night, twenty people vanish from town and only one ever returns, A Chilean engineer who is saved by his embassy. The others simply cease to exist. The reporting of these events illustrates how the press functions: In his first story, Emilio mentions an army convoy sweeping the area. But in the later stories about the killings and vanishing, there is no army, simply armed commandos. That is how an honest reporter tries to avoid becoming a dead reporter.

    He thinks, “This is behind me”, and he will put it out of his mind. But when the president of Mexico floods his zone with soldiers in April, 2008, he learns the army has a long memory.

  5. After midnight, on May 5, he hers a loud knocking on the door of his home. Fifty soldiers raid his house: “Hands up asshole. On the Ground!” . They are looking for guns and drugs. When the leave, the commander advises him “Behave well, and follow our suggestions.”

    Soldiers begin cruising slowly by his house. They park and watch. He goes to work and then to the police station to talk to a drunk the police have arrested, the usual small moments of a small-town newspaper. Outside the pick-up truck is back and watching him. He goes to a friend's welding shop, a white vehicle he saw before is trailing him...

    He's entering a place he will only recognize later: denial. He is trying to pretend none of this means anything and none of this has anything to do with him. But later a woman calls and says “Emilio, I have to see you right now.” She comes over and tells him she is dating a soldier and the military people talk about how they are going to kill him. She is crying. She says, “Emilio, you have to leave now. They are going to kill you.”

    Dead Reporter Driving

    All day Sunday he thinks of a way to save his life. He comes up with only one answer: flight. No matter where he goes in Mexico, he will ave to find a job and use his identity card and the army will track him down. He now knows they will never forget his story from 2005, that he cannot be redeemed. Monday morning, he drives north very fast. He takes all his legal papers so he can prove who he is. He expects asylum from the government of the United States.

    He is immediately jailed, as is his son. They are separated. He is denied bond, asd no hearing is scheduled to handle his case. He is taken to El Paso and placed in a private prison. He entered legally by declaring his identity and legal; status at a port of entry and applied for asylum but the department of Homeland Security declares that Emilio has failed to prove that “he does not represent a threat to the community.”

  6. No Mexican reporter has ever been given political asylum, because if the U.S. Government honestly faced the facts, it would have to admit that Mexico is not a society that respects human rights. Jut as the United States would be hard pressed, if it faced the facts, to explain to its own citizens how it can justify giving the Mexican army $1.4 billion under Plan Merida, a piece of black humor that is supposed to fight the a war on drugs. But then, the American press is the chorus in this comedy since it continues to report that the Mexican army is in a war to death with the drug cartels. There are two errors in these accounts. One is simple: the war in Mexico is for drugs and the enormous money to be made by supplying American habits, a torrent of cash that the army, the police, the government and the cartels all lust for. Second, the Mexican army is a government -financed criminal organization, a fact most Mexicans learn as children...

  7. http://en.rsf.org/reporters-without-borders-18-06-2009,33456

    video statement of Emilio Gutierrez