Three Writers to Watch in Reporting Mexico’s Drug War

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Mexican troops at a checkpoint

The suitcases piled up at the Matamoros bus station – nearly 400 of them unclaimed. For weeks, maybe months, the passengers never arrived at their destination and still no one said anything. Or maybe they did but no one listened.

Then came the bodies and the mass graves in April in Tamaulipas. At least 177 in various shallow pits around San Fernando just 90 miles south of Brownsville. Last August, the Mexican military stumbled upon 72 bodies near the same sleepy agricultural city. A survivor pointed to the brutal Zeta cartel as the killers. After it became an international scandal, Mexican President Felipe Calderon promised to flood the area with military and drive the Zetas out of the region.

How could this have happened not once but twice?

With much of the drug war news coverage coming out these days, you’ll never know the answer to that chilling question. But there are a few writers who are doing the extremely dangerous job of trying to explain to us the brutal phenomenon of the cartel wars and the very real and tragic price many Mexicans are paying in the drug war.  

As someone who follows the daily news in Mexico and is trying to make sense of the insanity, I really value work that includes context and analysis – something more than just a body count, which is why I wanted to give a special thanks to three reporters doing amazing work. Coincidentally, all three of these writers I admire are women – two are Mexican and one is from the United States. I know there are more writers out there – so please forward their names on and I would greatly appreciate it. I only wish I had the time and the Spanish grammar skills to translate the work of some of these brave Mexican reporters on a weekly basis so that people in the United States could better understand the tragedy that has struck the people of Mexico, and the unfortunate role our country plays in that tragedy.

Sanjuana Martinez, La Jornada

Within days of the first bodies being uncovered in San Fernando, Tamaulipas, Monterrey-based reporter Sanjuana Martinez was on her way with a camera and a notepad. Martinez writes for the Mexico City political journal La Jornada. In the following story, with disturbing detail she describes how the ongoing battle between the Gulf and Zeta cartels in the state of Tamaulipas has wiped out generations of families and how the cartels and government often work in tandem. (Thank you to radio reporter Shannon Young for this English translation.)

On the Death Route

(Originally published on p. 6 in the Sunday, April 17, 2011 edition of La Jornada)

San Fernando, Tamaulipas. There is no way to console the pain of having a loved one dissappeared. And María Mercedes has known this for nine months, since the Zetas kidnapped her husband, 93 year-old José Ana Loza López, in their “Tres Ases” ranch in the Santa Teresa farming village located in this county: “We want to find him, even if he’s dead. We need to bury him, bring him flowers, offer him our prayers”.

She’s 72 years old, dressed in black and caressing the photo of who had been her husband for 50 years. “We were going to celebrate our golden anniversary. We had everything ready for the party.” She smiles without being able to hold back tears. For months she tried to file a formal police compliant, but threats and fear kept her from doing so. This time she’s determined. She knows that more than 400 people have come to search for their relatives. She’s accompanied by her son, José Francisco. He will take the DNA tests to see if one of the 145 cadavers found in the mass graves of the city – nerve center of the so-called “Death Route” belongs to his father. Both set out on a path of discovery that’s been a long time coming.

Male extermination

To get to the office of Forensic Medical Services in Matamoros, one must take the highway through a green Gulf Coast plain planted with sorghum, corn, beans, cotton, sunflower, soya and wheat. Between Ciudad Victora and Matamoros there are hundreds of breeches, ranches and collective farms…scenes – for the past 2 years – of a turf battle between the Gulf Cartel and the Zeta.

¿How many narco-graves are along this stretch of road? An overview of recent years offers a sobering panorama from which to begin to estimate. “Those from the last letter of the alphabet”, as they are known here, began taking over entire tracts of collective farmland. First they took over the ranches, houses, stores and businesses. They now control the area’s economic activity; agriculture, cattle ranching, and shrimping in the Laguna Madre, the world’s largest hyper-saline lagoon, which is also used for shipping in drugs.

Then they began kidnapping left and right – and killing with impunity. “There are farming villages where they’ve wiped out the men. There are no longer any young men older than 14″ says Carmen without looking up, embarrassed by her tears. She’s accompanying her 83 year-old mother Matilde Escalante. Both speak softly, scared. They’re from the Francisco Villa ejido [collectively owned farming village]. They lost four members of their family last December. First they came for 50 year-old Pánfilo Vázquez, owner of a repair shop. The next day, they took away his oldest son…and then came back for the other two sons: “My son and three grandsons. San Fernando is going to end up deserted with so many people disappeared”.

They never filed a report for fear that more relatives would be taken. They gave up when it was proven the authorities were in collusion. But when the narco-graves were discovered and they saw so many people motivated to search for their loved ones, they decided to go through the DNA tests. “Our heart asks that they not appear, but if they give us their bodies, we can finally rest,” affirms Matilde, wiping the tears from her grey eyes damaged by cataracts.

The streets of San Fernando appear deserted. There are dozens of visibly abandoned businesses. The police and state prosecutor’s buildings are padlocked shut. They haven’t been staffed in months. The only 16 police officers left have been put under arrest. The city is covered with look-outs who, cell phone in hand, communicate the arrival of any stranger, the movements of the army and the police.

The connections between organized crime, municipal authorities and police was always and open secret. The PRI-affiliated mayor Tomás Gloria Requena preferred to keep quiet about the massacres. Despite the insecurity, he doesn’t have a bodyguard, nor does his private secretary, Esther Rodríguez Campos, who prefers to not make statements to the press, saying she’s “low profile and very busy”.

The central plaza is deserted by 3pm. The town priest requested a transfer seven months ago. “I pray for the good and for them, because if they have no heart, I do”, says 41 year-old Marisela in the company of her small child. She continues: “Since they arrived, they’ve been destroying the town. They wiped out the businesses and of course this affects everyone economically. And the other thing. There’s no one who hasn’t had a relative or someone they know abducted. It must be full of narco-graves here. Not just with those from here they take away and those they kidnap as they pass through San Fernando, but for the buses. They’ve been doing it for years, but nobody wants to say anything”.

Road of no return

The highway between Matamoros and Ciudad Victoria is almost empty. The Zetas have been able able to clear it of vehicles through robberies and kidnapping of the most bandit variety. The La Joya sign, located between the Vergeles farm village and Francisco Villa, show the way to the most recent narco-graves.

The launch an assault here is the easiest thing in the world. The convoys of Zeta trucks come out at travelers from the breeches day and night. There is neither police nor Army, much less Marines. It’s been like this for more than two years. The bus companies Ómnibus de México, ADO, Estrella Blanca, Noreste, Grupo Senda and others kept quiet so as not to pay insurance on each traveler, which can be as high as 120 thousand pesos [around USD$10,000]. In the end, the ominous silence did not affect their interests. They continued selling tickets and transporting passengers who never made it to their destination. There are 400 unclaimed suitcases in the Matamoros Central bus station and the same goes for those in Reynosa, Valle Hermoso, Miguel Alemán, Nuevo Progreso, and Nuevo Laredo.

“They never made it to their destination – 47 of them. They were going to Houston to work. They disappeared along with the driver. They were coming from Ciudad Valles. They took the Pirasol bus and it was found abandoned on the San Fernando highway”. The person speaking is Martina Ortega Huerta, sister of José Martín, one of those who dissappeared March 17th of last year. She is accompanied by her father and relatives who live in the area, who they are trying to bring for DNA testing. “My Mom died from pure sadness. It hit her very hard. She left us without seeing him again.”

The towns along this stretch of highway are like San Fernando. There’s no municipal or state authority or police. The only law is that which is dictated by the Zetas, who kidnap, rape, kill, and demand locals to leave their homes and the area. In Jiménez, those who remain, particularly older men unwilling to leave their long-time property, have shut themselves in. A year ago a banner appeared after months of terror: “People, come out of your homes. Don’t be afraid. We’ll see each other after Holy Week”.

María Teresa was born here 41 years ago and still can’t believe what has become of the town: “There’s got to be more graves here than in San Fernando. There were shoot outs for months between them (the Zetas and the Gulf Cartel). Hours later, they’d pick up the dead from the streets. We’d only see the pick-ups with the cabs full of cadavers. Where are they and the hundreds of people who have been abducted? Over the course of 3 months, I counted 75 disappeared; acquaintances and neighbors. They took my cousin just because. They used them as human shields in their confrontations”.

It’s said that in Ejido 13 and Misión they have authentic training camps. The mountains in the palm tree covered area are used as dens: “When they first came here two years ago, they put up a banner that said ‘Leave your homes. You have a week. Whoever stays is with the Gulf Cartel’. They turned the town into a bunker. Both groups are bad because they both kill people. We’re desperate”.

Ground zero

María Mercedes finally enters the Justice Department’s Investigative Services office in Matamoros to rile a police report regarding the disappearance of her husband, José Ana Loza López. She walks with difficulty, leaning on her son, José Francisco. The line is massive. There are neither signs nor staffers explaining to the relatives of the disappeared what the process is. A mobile unit from the National Human Rights Commission sits outside with three employees sitting inside the vehicle. In four days 400 police reports have been filed in complete chaos, without sufficient personnel or required attention. The anguish, pain, and uncertainty meet discontent. They come from the states of Oaxaca, Zacatecas, and Guerrero. The smell of death seeping from the Forensic Medical Services morgue, still holding half of the 145 cadavers, is unbearable.

The scene hits María Mercedes in the heart. She dries tears. “There are many of us”, she says in a broken voice. The photos of the disappeared cover the glass windows of the offices. The silence is agonizing. People murmur. They’re scared. They don’t want to tell their story to the police investigators, but it’s part of the formal process prior to giving blood for the DNA test.

“We were so happy”, comments María Mercedes, who tries to put on a discreet smile. In her speech, there’s no sign of outrage or spite against those who took away her husband: “In a second, my life changed. They came to the ranch in five trucks. Nine men with shaved heads got out and came into the house. They threw me on the ground. They ripped a necklace with a medallion of the virgin off my little granddaughter. It left a red mark on her neck. They wanted to take everything. My husband was sitting outside on the steps. On their way out, they grabbed him and took him away. He was 93 years old but in good health and liked to dance polka, redoba and even huapango. He was very light-hearted. They wrote a ballad for him. We still danced. He was always a good father. We had five sons – all named José, after him, then a middle name. We have 15 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. I want him back. I’m on the point of losing hope. God knows what he’s doing”.

The day after the kidnapping, they asked for a ransom. They wanted millions of pesos [hundreds of thousands of dollars]. They struggled to come up with it, but they finally handed it over: “We went and left the money but they didn’t give him back”, says José Francisco, his eyes wet. “We filed a complaint in Ciudad Victoria and the very same detective told us: ‘You better stop fucking around with this. You keep this up and they will fuck you up’. We left threatened.”

He maintains that after going to the police, two “supposed bounty hunters” went to his house to offers their services in exchange for a lot of money. “First came one and two days later, another. How did they know where we live? The police and kidnappers are one in the same. We ranch was left alone. We’re about to leave, but I can’t come to terms with it. Ever since I was a kid, I’ve been on a tractor, tending the land and planting sorghum. Now what?”

Part of the process of searching for a disappeared person requires looking at photo album of cadavers. María Mercedes holds on to the memory and caresses the photo which, since she left, accompanies her. In the portrait, José Ana Loza López is 93 years old. He wears a cowboy hat and is standing, smiling amid the sorghum he cultivated for decades in San Fernando. It’s the image she wants to keep of her life companion. The rest is the horror of reality.

Marcela Turati, Proceso magazine

 Marcela is a young Mexico City journalist who has done much brave reporting, often traveling into small towns that have been ravaged by the drug war and where no other media outlet has gone. She recently released her new book Fuego Cruzado: las víctimas atrapadas en la guerra del narco (Crossfire: Victims Trapped in the Drug War). To date, the book is only available in Spanish.

Following is a recent excerpt from Harvard University’s Revista magazine written by Turati on her transformation “into a war reporter in my own country”…

Ever since that afternoon when schoolteacher Gloria Lozano stared at her only son riddled with bullets on an empty lot next to the bodies of twelve other young people, all victims of a hit squad —among them, a first-time dad embracing his infant—ever since then, neither she nor any of the other families of the “Creel martyrs” would ever be the same. In their struggle for justice, the families have blocked highways, staged marches, taken their message to radio stations, dragged cardboard coffins through the streets, interrupted government events, blanketed businesses with official posters offering rewards for gunmen’s arrest, corraled the governor, the mayor and whatever official they could get their hands on and, in a tactic that surprised even themselves, stopped a train carrying tourists to Barrancas del Cobre. For a long time now, they have been investigators. They now know who murdered their children. Now they want justice.

“We are not afraid; they have killed us already, along with our children,” shouts an angry Lozano, each time that she thinks of the possible consequences of her odyssey.

Reporting on the Creel massacre in the Mexican state of Chihuahua was a watershed for me in my weekly systematic coverage of the social effects of the violence in Mexico. Along with many of us Mexican journalists, I became a war correspondent in my own country, after the drug cartels and the Army turned it into a battlefield, a surge of violence many officially date back to 2007. The rest of the article here

 

Tracy Wilkinson, Los Angeles Times

Tracy never fails to transmit the human impact of the drug war. Not only does she report the story, she also provides historical context and analysis for her readers. These violent acts don’t just happen in a vacuum as they do in many other quick hit pieces on the drug war. Her recent article on the mass graves in Tamaulipas offers not only heart wrenching interviews with victims but also provides context as to how various actions by the government and cartels led to the tragedy. She’s also the first from a mainstream newspaper – to my knowledge – to write about the massive number of disappearances that are happening across Mexico since Mexican President Felipe Calderon started fighting the drug cartels in 2006.  Besides Tamaulipas, there are mass graves being uncovered in numerous states across Mexico, including Durango and Michoacan.

Melissa del Bosque joined The Texas Observer staff in 2008. She specializes in reporting on immigration and the U.S.-Mexico border. Her work has been published in national and international publications including TIME magazine and the Mexico City-based Nexos magazine. Melissa is a 2014-15 Lannan Fellow at The Investigative Fund.