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