Breaking the Silence
Five Rio Grande Valley–based reporters talk about covering the drug war in Mexico over the past decade.
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“Tamaulipas has always been a silent state,” Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera, a government professor at UT-Brownsville specializing in the Mexican drug war, told me last December. For decades, the state—which borders much of South Texas—was tightly controlled by both the Gulf Cartel and the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), Mexico’s dominant political organization—and neither entity had much interest in fostering a culture of transparency. When Tamaulipas exploded into violence in 2010, the culture of silence only got worse, with local newspapers afraid to print even news of traffic accidents for fear that a crash might involve someone affiliated with a cartel.
This left a near-total information void, but it was quickly filled. One of the most prominent new outlets was a community of Mexican citizens who turned themselves into de-facto correspondents, tweeting news of shootouts, blockades, and “situations of risk” under the hashtag #ReynosaFollow. But there was also a small cadre of Rio Grande Valley–based journalists who have played an important role in reporting on the drug war, writing about events and issues that their Mexican colleagues often simply cannot for fear of retribution.
Over three days last month, I spoke with a number of them about how they approached their dangerous, difficult, and often life-or-death beat.
Drug-related violence has long been a fixture of Tamaulipas, but the situation worsened in the mid-aughts and erupted in a terrible wave of shootouts, assassinations, and kidnappings in early 2010 as the Gulf Cartel went to war with its former enforcement wing, Los Zetas.
Ildefonso Ortiz, 34, a reporter for Breitbart Texas. A soft-spoken six-foot-four former professional Muay Thai fighter, Ortiz retired from his combat career and began reporting on border violence after he “got married and wanted to do something safer:” In 2008, when I started working at the Brownsville Herald my beat was crime. I didn’t do the whole border stuff. The Herald is in the downtown part of Brownsville, and when I’d be in the office, sometimes I’d start to hear machinegun fire and grenades from across the river. I’d say, “That’s not normal.” But when I’d call over to Matamoros City Hall, they’d say, ‘Everything’s fine here. Come visit!” I’d call the police station and hear the same thing. Back then, you’d just grab a photographer or grab a camera and go over.
Enrique Lerma, 41, a correspondent for Univision, in Brownsville. Born in Matamoros, Lerma has spent nearly his entire life in the lower Valley and has worked the border beat since 2002: We used to go across at least once a week. If there was a shooting, we were there with our units and our equipment and everything. But everything started going different with the arrest of Osiel Cárdenas [the former leader of the Gulf Cartel, who was extradited to the U.S. in 2007], and especially since the fight between the Zetas and the Gulf Cartel. Different leaders were moving around trying to take over certain positions, and everything got risky for us. For the last five years, we’ve had to rely on sources in Mexico that we trust who can share with us photos or videos or information. But we can count with our fingers how many people we trust, especially in our business—reporters that are still doing their job.
Ortiz: Nobody in Mexico was reporting on the firefights. There were all these shootouts going on and everybody was flat-out lying. You’d pick up the paper in Mexico and it would be: “The mayor announces that we’re moving ahead in tourism and we’re paving new streets.”
Jared Taylor, 30, the Metro editor for the McAllen Monitor. An Iowan, Taylor has worked as a journalist in the Valley since 2007: In my experience that didn’t really become the case until 2009, 2010 when stuff got really bad. Until then, you’d see the Mexican reporters covering stuff and when we would go over, you’d feel safe because we had strength in numbers with all the Mexican reporters who were at a crime scene. But when the Gulf Cartel and the Zetas split and things got really nasty, I’d go to a crime scene, and I’d be the only reporter there. That’s not a safe place to be.
Ortiz: The media in Mexico is badly underpaid, so they’ll take money from other places. And in Tamaulipas—at least in Matamoros and Reynosa—you have what’s called a “link.” He’s basically the link between the crime reporters and the Gulf Cartel. So everybody that covers the crime beat in Matamoros and Reynosa they all talk to each other about what they can and cannot cover. The link will tell them what angle to take on things and what not to cover. There was a shootout in 2010 where a reporter was killed. I was able to confirm that that reporter was the link. Of course, he was highly praised for dying as a reporter, when in reality he was working with the cartel. I know their current link by name, but I’d rather stay away from that person. I don’t want face time with them. I don’t want to get any offers.
Reyna Luna, 50ish (“a woman never tells”), a correspondent for Estrella TV. A native of Monterrey, she reported from Mexico for various outlets until she moved to the Valley in 1989. When we met, she was on her way to report in Matamoros while wearing purple pumps: A lot of my colleagues in Mexico have gotten into trouble by selling information. If you have business with that guy, and that guy is my enemy, then you’re my enemy too. But for every journalist here at the border, it’s difficult to be doing this. It doesn’t matter if you’re here in the United States or in Mexico. They can threaten you here or threaten you there.
Lerma: Reyna, she goes across and rides along with the military. She likes that. I tell her, you’re too old for that, and she says, “Oh, no, I’m wearing this vest.”
Luna: I have been covering Tamaulipas for the last 25 years, and the criminals have tried to kill me I don’t know how many times. I’ve been kidnapped. I’ve had protection from the military outside my apartment. I’ve learned to use a weapon. You have to be very careful. At the end of the day, I value my life more than any story. Before I didn’t think that. I was a tonta—stupid! When you’re young, you have your ideals and you think you’re going to save the world. Now, I have fear, but I think someone needs to do this. And I do it with care. If the information is not confirmed, don’t write it. Don’t use one source of information or two sources of information, use three or more. I’m not releasing names. This has been my way to do things, and up to this moment here I am.
Knowledgeable sources are important to all good journalists, but this holds especially true in Reynosa and Matamoros, where official statistics and reports are often incomplete or nonexistent. The lack of transparency has led the reporters to rely on their longtime personal connections—Ortiz, Lerma, and Luna were all born in Mexico—to find sources they can trust.
Ortiz: Looking at it from a historical point of view, smuggling has been a part of life in this area for eighty years—and maybe more. At one point or another, a lot of the older families in this area have been involved in liquor, tobacco, grain, weapons—it’s just part of this area.
So pretty much anyone who is local is bound to know somebody. Oh, my neighbor is a used car salesman, and he knows this guy who used to launder money through another used car lot, and that guy might know this other guy who is in homebuilding. That’s pretty much how my sources have developed. And growing up here, like I did, some of your friends from school will end up being the good guys, some will end up being the bad guys.
Lerma: I was born in Matamoros, but raised in Brownsville. So I’m from both sides. My parents have good friends who used to be in public positions in Mexico, and I know them. So I have a little structure of sources, close sources. It’s not just people that are on the streets.
Ortiz: Before 2008, I was living in Ciudad Victoria, [the capital of Tamaulipas], and I was fighting Muay Thai professionally and I was teaching Brazilian jiu-jitsu and MMA. Doing that, I got to meet a lot of law enforcement guys—cops and cops who switched sides eventually. So I was able to kind of develop a little network there just because I was teaching them combatives. I didn’t plan on being a reporter. It just happened. My degree is in business.
Lerma: I have people in the Emergency Department, EMS, PGR [the Mexican Attorney General’s Office], and the morgue. I remember there was an incident at a jail, and the official line at the beginning was that there was a fight but it was already under control and nothing had happened. At around two in the morning, I heard that bodies were starting to arrive at the morgue. “Where are they coming from?” “Oh, the fight that they had during the day at the jail.” “What jail?” And then we started matching everything up, and we were able to go against that official report.
Luna: In Tamaulipas, I know a lot of people—a lot of people. I have friends on the official side. I have journalist friends who are covering it in a good way, but maybe they cannot say everything but they have information. But it’s bien difícil. I have sources that I’ve known for a thousand years, and that’s why I trust them. And sometimes they talk to me in code. Sometimes I don’t even know what they’re saying. Sometimes, this is like paranoia, you know?
Lerma: I used to have lots of exclusive stories through my sources. But my station, they don’t like too much the exclusive stories any more. They’re worried about being the one targeted. So this is something that I have done: I share information with our colleagues on this side, Ildefonso or The Monitor, so it can be a group of people posting the story at the same time. If I just run it as an exclusive story, my station says, “Why are you the only one having it. Do you trust your sources?” When I share it, they’re like, “Oh, you’re talking about the story the newspaper is running?” “Yeah, the same one.” It’s a different way to work. They want to see it in a different media outlet so they can be on the safe side.
Ortiz: There’s no real way to know how bad things really are. If you look at murder statistics from Matamoros, they’ll say, “Oh, there’s eighty dead for the year.” And I’ll say, Really? We did a story and the AP did a story about the cartels picking up their bodies after the shootouts. There’s not going to be a registro or any sort of paperwork for that.
Taylor: Beyond that, Tamaulipas has always had a culture of no transparency. When Ciudad Juárez was getting all the headlines [for having the highest murder rate in the world], part of what helped feed into that was the local and the state police there actually did keep pretty good statistics on body counts. That just doesn’t exist in Tamaulipas. Absent those statistics or any semblance of statistics, when you send a reporter in, you just have a bunch of color, but you can’t quantify it. That’s where you see a lot of roadblocks and a lot less coming out of Tamaulipas as far as stories.
CROSSING THE BORDER
As the violence spiked in Tamaulipas in 2010, many news outlets in the Valley forbid their reporters from crossing into Mexico. In order to continue reporting, some journalists snuck across, went on their days off, or relied more heavily on their Mexico-based sources to be their eyes and ears.
Sergio Chapa, 39, a reporter for KGBT, the CBS affiliate in Harlingen. Chapa grew up in Austin but reported from the Valley for seven years before recently taking a job at the San Antonio Business Journal. He remains an active member of the #ReynosaFollow community: At our station, we can’t cross the border. We’re not insured—neither our equipment nor us as individuals. We can only go on our off time.
Taylor: We haven’t actively covered the scene over there for years. At our paper, there’s not an outright ban on going to Mexico, but if you’re going to send a reporter over for any reason, it has to be sent all the way up to the CEO of the company.
Ortiz: Yeah, when I was with The Monitor, I used to sneak out every once in a while on my own time to visit friends, family—and talk to people.
Lerma: I go to Mexico on my personal time. I’m not afraid of anything. But our station says you can’t go and cover any stories because of the insurance, the policy—whatever. They don’t want to be responsible if anything happens. If you want to go across on your personal time it’s up to you, but you’re not representing the station.
Ortiz: It used to be that if you ran into some trouble over there, you could be like, “Hey, I’m a reporter from the U.S., I’m going to make my way back home. Bye.” But now these guys last a few months or less in their positions. You have guys in their twenties taking orders from a guy in his thirties, and who knows what they’re going to do? Older, more experienced cartel guys don’t want that attention. The younger guys—they might not be there by the end of the month, so they won’t care.
Lerma: I was telling Ildefonso, we don’t have to cross anymore. All these cartel members have been in U.S. court. All their family members are there. All their guards are here.
Ortiz: In 2010, the Feds caught “El Apache” [cartel leader Oscar Castillo Flores] over here in Brownsville and charged him with illegal reentry. At his trial, I was the guy with the notepad in the courtroom, and he was there giving me the stink eyes. It was kind of unnerving to have a guy known for beheadings staring you down. He only got two years, and after those two years, I ran into him at a kids’ restaurant at the salad bar. I looked up, and I was like, ‘Shit!’ and he just smiled at me. A couple weeks later they killed him in Mexico.
Luna: Someone sent me preachers to give me una bendición—to pray for me and give me a blessing. The preachers came here to Edinburgh to say, “I know that you’re going to do something very dangerous, and you’re going to die maybe, so we have to give you our bendición.” The strange thing is that I was in a place where I was not going as journalist. [The cartels] know who you are. They know where you live.
Many in Tamaulipas say that the worst of the drug war is over. But in an area where official statistics are widely distrusted, many reporters remain skeptical of claims about a decrease in violence as they continue to see its grisly reality up-close.
Chapa: There was a time when that kind of stuff was really prominent and in really high demand online. People just wanted to know about it. I remember in 2010, 2011, we’re talking about throwing grenades at police stations, rocket launchers—all kinds of crazy stuff. And you’re like, ‘Damn, this is happening right south of us, and here we are eating at Chili’s and going to Whataburger.’ But there’s not the volume of gun battles that there was back in say 2012 or 2011 or 2010. And now, with these stories, the writing’s been on the wall so long it’s kind of faded, you know? They don’t get the same interest. You can tell the drug war is kind of winding down. [Ildefonso] might tell you different.
Ortiz: Look, the difference is that now people over there have gotten used to the violence. So they’re starting to move on with their normal lives. But from the investigative part, if you start poking around over there, you’re going to find ugly things. And that’s where [Chapa] and my views differ. Yeah, it’s great to go have tacos over there. But if you’re going to be over there asking questions and snapping photos, it’s not going to be pretty, and it’s not going to be safe.
Lerma: My station is changing a lot. Sometimes they say, “Change topics, Enrique. I don’t want to hear about the cartels until maybe next week.” And I’ll say, “But this is a good story.” And it’s “no, no, no, you already ran a couple stories.” But every day there is a shooting. Every day somebody is being found shot execution-style. Every day. So nothing is changing. What’s changing on my side is that I don’t do a daily story about it anymore.
Ortiz: I just happened to be out in Reynosa visiting some friends at a barbecue on a Sunday night in 2013 when all hell broke loose. It was the mother of all firefights. You had two factions of the Gulf Cartel fighting it out. It was a massacre. I saw bodies everywhere. If you were by Boulevard Hidalgo, you could see forty trucks going down one side and another thirty trucks coming down the other side and clashing in the middle—four or five gunmen in each truck spraying the hell out of the streets. Grenades here, grenades there. Something that you know you see it and you still can’t believe it. As I was writing that story, I was tearing up. It was the altruism of the people that got to me. In the Walmart, they were holding people back, and saying don’t go out. In the mall and the movie theater, just a random guy was blocking the doors—Get down, don’t go outside now. That’s what the police should be doing, but it was just normal citizens. Sometimes you lose your faith in humanity covering this, but that restored a bit of it.