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