JUAREZ, Mexico — Fear has range. In a place like Juarez, it can become like white noise—hovering in the background, almost imperceptible. “Rage or violence can erupt anywhere,” the press liaison in the mayor’s office told me. “But people here in Juarez, well, they just have to go on with their normal day-to-day life. You can’t stop living.”
Fear can also be a kind of uncomfortable realization. At the risk of seeming to indulge in the bravado of my craft I will say — I was afraid walking over the bridge into Juarez. It’s true that any day could be your last, wherever you are. But to knowingly put yourself in a situation where you are ramping up the odds is a strange feeling, like some invisible thing squeezing uncomfortably around your neck. Since Mexico’s President Felipe Caldaron declared war on drug cartels in 2006, more than 22,000 people nationwide have died in drug-related violence. Still, mine was a calculated risk—no foreign reporters have died covering Juarez. Get in get out and most likely you’ll be fine.
My fear does not even merit discussion compared to the terror that Mexican journalists are living with every day. Imagine for example what Valentin Valdes Espinosa must have felt in the last moments of his life. A Mexican reporter for the local, Zocolo de Saltillo, Valdes was part of a team covering a massive Mexican army raid at the Hotel Marbella in Saltillo, Mexico. The paper boldly reported the arrest of a high level drug cartel member and identified him as running drug operations in four northern states. Valdes’s body was found in front of the same hotel with five bullet wounds and signs of torture. A note attached read, “This is going to happen to those that don’t understand. The message is for everyone.”
What we are to understand is that reporting on the drug cartels means risking your life. Mexico is now one of the most dangerous places in the world for journalists, particularly for local reporters covering crime and corruption. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists eight reporters were murdered in 2009—all of them Mexican. Things have not improved in 2010. So far five journalists have been confirmed dead, two badly beaten and five have gone missing.
In order to survive, self censorship has become constant and pervasive. Journalists often omit details or are simply forced into silence. Drug cartel members have been known to announce over the police radio network that journalists who arrive to a crime scene while gang members are still present will be killed. As important as the work is to Mexican democracy, the craft of journalism can no longer be freely practiced. “Journalists in Mexico have stopped doing their jobs,” said Emilio Gutierrez Soto, a journalist seeking asylum in the US. “We’ve ended our duty to society because our lives are being threatened. Why? Because we have families and our families depend on us.”
So really, when we talk about fear, I’m going to say — Mexican journalists are the ones with the real cojones. To those who have fallen, a moment of silence please; to those that continue to report under the constant fear of death — a salute.