Dead On Deadline
As more and more border journalists are finding out, telling the truth often brings nasty consequences.
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Robert Halpern, the publisher and editor of the Big Bend Sentinel, was in his Marfa office not long ago when John MacCormack, an investigative reporter for the San Antonio Express-News, dropped in. He and a photographer were on their way to the Mexican town of Ojinaga, just across the Rio Grande from Presidio. They were tracking the story of José Luis Ortega, a reporter for the weekly Semanario Ojinaga who had been shot in the back of the head on a city street, the engine of his van still running, the door wide-open. MacCormack wanted background from Halpern because the publisher had known Ortega. Halpern had purchased freelance articles and photographs from Ortega both for the Big Bend Sentinel and for his other weekly newspaper, International/El Internacionale in Presidio.Halpern told MacCormack what he knew: Ortega had written extensively about drug trafficking on the border. His last story, written for Semanario Ojinaga, mentioned the small town of Aldama, one hundred miles southwest of Ojinaga, as the point of origin of a major shipment of marijuana that had been seized in Marfa. Maybe that had made someone from Aldama mad, Halpern speculated. Or maybe it was the photograph Ortega had sold to the International showing a storage yard in Ojinaga with more than four hundred pickup trucks and other vehicles that had been seized and hoarded by the authorities. Or maybe it was a crime of passion: MacCormack said that the Ojinaga chief of police, a former journalist himself, was leaning toward that theory.
Whatever it was, in addition to giving MacCormack names and numbers of reliable sources, Halpern also gave him a warning that journalists in this country rarely hear. “Remember,” he said, “there are lives at stake.” Not that MacCormack needed reminding. It wasn’t the first violent incident against a journalist in Ojinaga, a city of about 40,000. Last year another reporter who writes stories for Halpern’s papers was shot at while in his home. Halpern believes it was a very public warning to be careful about what he was writing. Asking questions about government corruption or criminal activities always carries a certain risk. On the Texas-Mexico border, it can be deadly. José Luis Ortega was likely killed for doing his job, getting the story and telling the truth.
According to Armando Durazo, the editor of the Monitor in McAllen, reporters who cross the border find themselves dealing with a different world. His Rio Grande Valley newspaper has a history of dustups with Mexican authorities. In one case, a reporter was beaten, jailed, and tortured while covering a labor dispute. “I look at it as—what do they say in management school?—a challenge and an opportunity,” Durazo said. “I don’t like to change our rules. These are the rules of the trade, no matter where you are. I don’t bend those rules. I have argued the First Amendment in front of Mexican authorities. They know my responsibilities as a journalist.”
Still, Durazo was quick to admit that it’s hard to stick to the American rules of the game. For one thing, in Mexico constitutional protections for the press aren’t enforced the way they are in the U.S. In Mexico, he acknowledged, news gathering is a different process. “It’s very difficult to get factual statistical information and determine what is real and what is imagined,” he said. “Fortunately, I have a good rapport with officials in Tamaulipas. They understand we need to ask questions. It’s on the street level where it gets dangerous.”
A couple of recent cases in the border city of Matamoros underscore that point. Last year a reporter and photographer for La Opinion named Pablo Piñeda was murdered, his body dumped in Los Indios, northwest of Brownsville, on the Texas side of the Rio Grande. On March 24 Saul Antonio Martinez Gutierrez, the 38-year-old deputy editor of El Imparcial, was found dead in his Ford Explorer with four 9mm-bullet wounds in his head. He had reported on drug trafficking despite repeated threats on his life; his newspaper’s offices had been shot at three times in recent months.
The consensus among several Texas border newspaper editors I talked to was that Mexican newspapers serve a different function than U.S. papers do. Each city generally has several newspapers, most written with pronounced points of view, because party affiliation counts as much as fact. (Of course, there is no shortage of people in the Mexican prensa who feel that the coverage is just as slanted north of the border.)
The historically meager wages Mexican papers pay reporters has fostered a tradition of reporters subsidizing their incomes with bribes and payoffs, known as chayotes. Worse, municipal governments in Mexico, including Nuevo Laredo, budget funds to pay newspapers for space, which has often translated into favorable coverage, or no coverage at all of controversial news. That was the gist of a series of stories that ran in the Laredo Morning Times last year, which was largely ignored by other Texas and American media. “With what we make, we can’t pay the rent, make payments on furniture, pay utility bills and telephone, or buy gasoline for the car,” one reporter in Mexico was quoted as saying. “That’s the way things are. We don’t have any choice but to take it.”
The border journalists with the most dangerous jobs are those who live in Mexico and write about Mexican events for a newspaper on the Texas side, as José Ortega did on occasion, and as Leonardo Andrade still does. Andrade is a native of Reynosa, Tamaulipas, who has worked for several newspapers and radio and television stations in Mexico. For the past seven years, he has sold stories to the Monitor in McAllen.
Last year a series of articles he was involved with drew the ire of Mexican officials. In July he arranged interviews of American prisoners in Reynosa’s federal prison for Katie Burford, a Monitor staff reporter. Burford wanted to profile two Texas residents charged with drug possession who were incarcerated in the Center for Social Rehabilitation, as Reynosa’s federal prison is officially known. In the process of her reporting, Burford discovered that inmates had easy access to drugs—her two interview subjects were still strung out on heroin—and she wrote about that as well. That placed Andrade squarely in the crosshairs of displeased prison authorities.
Andrade also wrote a story about Carlos Ibarra Perez, a Reynosa activist who was quoted as offering $10,000 to anyone who killed a Border Patrol agent. The story generated extensive media coverage, Ibarra’s withdrawal of the bounty, and more focus on Andrade. When a Mexican judge sought to depose him about Ibarra, the Monitor refused to allow the deposition and the judge gave in.
In September Andrade was arrested and locked up in the Reynosa municipal jail for three days, charged with fraud for failing to deliver on services promised. A brother of a prisoner in the federal jail claimed he had paid Andrade $2,000 to get his brother out of jail, but that his brother had not been freed. The complaint against Andrade was reportedly filed in May, but he wasn’t arrested until September, after Burford’s Mexican prison stories ran in the Monitor.
While Monitor lawyers worked through the Mexican courts for Andrade’s release, his wife tried a more direct tactic. She repaid the money that her husband allegedly had received, and he was released from jail. But Andrade’s real crime seems to have been the simple fact that he was writing for the Monitor, for which he is paid between $10 and $50 per article. Had he been working for a Mexican paper, he would have likely played by the Mexican rules, which tolerate little probing by reporters. At a press conference in Reynosa last year on the murder of the reform-minded new police chief, for example, the mayor made the brief, tantalizing statement that the chief may have been killed for refusing bribes, but then refused to elaborate. Such behavior by a public official would be unthinkable in a U.S. city.
Durazo said he found Andrade’s arrest disturbing: “It’s had a chilling effect on us. We never knew if his arrest was due to the Ibarra story [about the $10,000 bounty] or not. He was put in jail, and we helped get him out.” Not fast enough for Katie Burford, who now works for the Albuquerque Journal. “Were they [the Mexican police] to pull the same thing on me, it would have been an international incident,” she said. “Embassies would have been involved. But Leonardo is a Mexican citizen, he is contract labor, he has no benefits, and it seemed to me that management wasn’t moving fast enough.”
Indeed, Andrade’s status at the bottom of the journalistic pay scale makes it all the more remarkable that he takes such risks. Even though the charges were dropped, he never got his $5,000 back, nor did the newspaper reimburse the expense. And this is but one incident in his working life. “I’ve been shot at,” he said. “My family has been threatened.” On the latter occasion, after he had filed a story for the Monitor, four men ransacked his house in the middle of the night and told him that if the paper ran the story, his family would be dead. But Andrade, who buys clothes for himself, his wife, and their four children at la pulga, “the flea market,” insists that it’s all in a day’s work. “It’s my passion,” he told me.
He sells stories to the Monitor because he doesn’t agree with Mexican journalistic practices along the border, which include, he says, payoffs to reporters every two weeks by government officials. In Andrade’s opinion, that reduces them to “puppets who are part of the corruption. I remember being asked, ‘Don’t you want a mordida?’ I said no, I want the truth.”
But at what cost? When asked why he doesn’t pursue another career with more money and less risk, he shrugged. “I like helping people who need help,” he said. “I accept the risks. When the day comes that I don’t write articles, I don’t exist. For me, there is no other way.” It is a remarkable and simple statement of purpose—one that you are not likely to hear from many reporters who get their mail on the U.S. side of the border.