Ever wonder what life is like for a reporter in Mexico who reports primarily on drug cartels and traffickers? I interviewed Ioan Grillo, author of El Narco and a correspondent in Mexico City, to learn more about what it’s like to be a reporter in a time–and place–where reporters are constantly under threat by drug cartels (see Timeline of journalists’ deaths and how this has shaped public policy in Mexico).
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Me: So this interview is more to do with you as a reporter, and so my first question for you is: what kinds of issues do you face that are unique to reporting on drug trafficking in Mexico?
Grillo: Um, I would say the issues that are unique to reporting on drug trafficking are–[we’re] worried about repercussions from drug traffickers, drug cartels, or their members [for writing] a story that they don’t like…Sometimes, for example, drug cartels can give out physical documents where they dictate [how you can report] certain coverage–so you have to wonder how seriously you take those warnings [form cartels]…Recently, for example, I did a story about the cartel Knights Templar, or Caballeros Templarios, and they had given out a piece of paper where they said ‘don’t call their founder a narcotraficante’, they said ‘don’t call their founder a drug trafficker’. So [there’s concern in] how seriously you take those kind of warnings.
Sometimes I have run stories with cause for concern of what their response could be. Sometimes I’ve had videos I haven’t run because of concern of what their response would be.
Me: Would you say that they’re more concerned with how people perceive them? Like on a personal basis rather than the facts that you’re reporting?
Grillo: I think that when there’s been drug cartel reaction to–or drug cartel attacks on journalists, it’s been for a couple of main reasons. One is that the journalist has uncovered a story that has directly affected their business interests. So for example, there’s a reporter called Oscar Martinez who’s a journalist from El Salvador, who broke the story in 2009 that the Zetas were using mass kidnappings of migrants to make a lot of money for themselves, you know, kidnapping migrants by the thousands. And he was threatened about the story because…once he did the story, then [the cartel] got more reaction from international groups like Amnesty International, more tightening up on that by the federal government so that story affected [the drug cartel’s] income directly. So…he was threatened and he left Mexico after that story. Other side, there’s been things that have been more about their image. Like the case in 1997, I believe, of Jesus Blancornelas when he published a letter in his magazine in Tijuana, called ‘Zeta’. [He published] letters from a woman who called the Arrellano Felix Family [an old cartel] cowards, on a personal level—it was an insult to them. So they attacked, or they sent hit men to shoot him–he got hit by four bullets and survived because the gunmen went up to shoot him again, and they fired, and it ricocheted, and it shot the gunman in the head, and it hit him in the face. But that was very lucky.
Me: So going back to the documents you talked about, how do they get those documents to you?
Grillo: Like normally it’s to local reporters in the smaller towns and cities around Mexico rather than here in Mexico City. In that case, for example, they usually assign people to give them to local reporters…When I was working with a local photographer based in Michoacan, [a document] was given to him, and so it’s more through [local reporters] rather than directly to correspondents based in Mexico City or to nationalist Mexican journalists based in Mexico City.
Although sometimes I’ve been given videos and things by people—that have not been working in these places. And I’ve been given videos and documents by people who are connected to the cartels, or by military people and police people.
Me: How does that affect your reports about this–are there–are you like sitting on a ton of information that you can’t tell people or is it not affecting the way you write news to that degree?
Grillo: I think…Most people who cover drug cartels in depth, some of them practice self-censorship. It’s…hard to evaluate exactly how much it really affects our reporting overall but you could definitely say there’s been a big effect on the local Mexican newspapers, and local Mexican TV and radio–based in towns and villages with a higher level of cartel violence. And a lot of the time, the national Mexican media and international media are depending on them for information or depending on people working from these places. So, for example, there was a car bomb in Nuevo Laredo in June, just before the [Mexican presidential] election, and there was very poor–very little information about that, and I wrote a story on it. It was very hard to get information about it and there was no photographs and no video. And there’s no video because–you know–the [news] agencies didn’t trust the people who were local–they were too compromised by the Zetas, they–the photographers were too afraid to take photographs. Media organizations don’t allow–because of certain protocols–don’t allow you to go in certain areas so you can’t get viral video or reporting from these things happening. So yeah, I think it is affecting–it has kind of brought a big effect on the ability–on our ability to cover the story effectively. I guess…you could look at this as being individual reporters being collectively affected: reporters follow each others’ stories and leads a lot so when you have, you know, these limitations and many reporters are restricted from going in to parts of Mexico, that restricts the whole picture created by journalists collectively of Mexico and of the situation.
Me: So, do you think as a correspondent who’s writing for mostly U.S. newspapers and–um–do you write for any Mexican newspapers?
Grillo: I’ve done some stuff for Mexican media: I’ve written for Mexican magazines and I’ve been on Mexican TV and radio. But I mainly write for international media, yeah.
Me: Do you think there’s a different sort of pressure on you from cartels because you have ties internationally?
Grillo: Yeah, I think so. A lot of the cartel operatives are seeing the local media first and foremost so if you’re in a city like Ciudad Jarez, the first thing they’re going to see is the Juarez Daily, the local daily newspaper, it’s on the news stands all around them. So a lot of the cartels, they’re all preying on these [local reporters], they hate them, they are going to kill them for printing monetary information…And [the drug cartels can see] the newspaper offices–they know exactly where [the reporters] are, they can see the [reporters] going in [their offices]–so there’s an extraordinary amount of pressure on them.
It’s different if you fly in there–if I fly in from Mexico City to see Ciudad Juarez and then–you know–I can drive around, and then I can put out my report on…Ciudad Juarez and a bunch of [other] media [besides myself also] did a bunch of reports for PBS News hour from Ciudad Juarez. But [it’s different because] PBS news hour is not quite as close to the bone for them [as local media is], however they do watch the international media and you can see some concrete examples of this. Some colleagues recently did an interview with the son of one cartel member, from Sinaloa, for a european TV channel and it was–the video was done without the [son’s] face being shown, it was also put on the internet. And it only had a couple of thousand hits but the cartel family saw and threatened the person [because] they were able to work out from the photos in the background who that person was, so then they threatened that person they interviewed. So the reporter put [the son’s] life in danger. Kind of a really bad situation for them. So–you know–you realize that [cartel members] do see [international media on them]. Another example, was the Olympics in Sydney, Australia in 2000, there was a very good shot during the soccer tournament in the olympics [of some drug traffickers in the audience]. You were shown some Mexicans wearing sombreros, sitting with the team, and they’re actually drug traffickers. And a D.E.A. agent watching the TV, saw them and recognized the faces of one of the guys, phoned up Interpol, and Interpol went and arrested them outside the game.
[Cartel members] are aware of these things. So when you’re in places with a TV camera and just walking around with a TV camera, people can certainly get really aggressive straight away, by seeing a guy with a camera. So people who are aggressive, you’re not exactly sure what you’re dealing with when they start to threaten you.