DYING FOR THE STORY
Shot at by rebels. Threatened by drug lords. Why do journalists risk their lives?
BY JOEL SIMON
After a decade working at a human rights organization called the Committee to Protect Journalists, I am haunted by the number of journalists I know who have been killed, even as I understand why they risked their lives. When I was a journalist covering Mexico and Central America, I often found myself drawn to dangerous stories, particularly those involving violence and death. I wrote about massacres of Mayan peasants by the Guatemalan military and Mexican drug cartel assassinations. Such stories are inherently dramatic and, because they have a built-in narrative, are easy to tell. Once you’ve written about these kinds of life-and-death issues, everything else seems trivial.
Like most journalists I knew then, I’d been threatened a few times and had found myself in a few scary situations. Once I was hauled into a Guatemalan army base in a remote, rebel-controlled area because I had tried to sneak a picture of the base. Another time, in a remote part of Mexico, a colleague and I were chased by men with assault rifles who were guarding acres of opium poppies. We escaped, running as fast as we could with forty-pound packs on our backs. I’ve been threatened at gunpoint a few times, shaken down by overzealous Zapatistas, and forced to take cover in a couple of firefights. I was always afraid for my safety, but I never once imagined I might die. I can remember times when my heart pounded in my ears and everything around me sharpened into slow-motion clarity. The analytical part of my brain would shut down and some more primitive realm of my consciousness would take over. The crazy thing is I loved every minute of it.
That said, I am not a particularly brave person, and I would have been on the next plane home if I had ever thought things were about to get really ugly. But I realize in hindsight how easy it is to adjust to just about anything, from shoot-outs in the streets or bombings in the market or even threats on your life. After a certain amount of time, these things can start to seem “normal.” I think that might explain what happened to my friend Francisco Ortiz Franco.
Francisco was a quiet and unassuming editor at a respected local weekly called Zeta based in the border city of Tijuana. I had first met Francisco when I was a correspondent in Mexico City and visited Tijuana periodically to write about drug trafficking or immigration. It’s not that Francisco and I became close friends. We never went out for beers; I’d never met his family. He was extremely reserved, modest, and professional — while most journalists wore jeans, he donned a jacket and tie. But he was always a helpful source, generous with his contacts and analysis, and when I visited the Zeta offices, we talked for hours about Mexican politics.
Zeta is unique in Mexico because it aggressively covers corruption and the local drug trade, but over the years it has paid a terrible price for its dauntlessness. Before Francisco was killed, the newspaper’s legendary founder, Jesús Blancornelas, barely survived an assassination attempt that left him gravely wounded and his bodyguard dead. Before that, one of the founding editors was murdered.
Francisco was not a crime reporter — he usually wrote political pieces — but in the months before his death he had cultivated a law enforcement source and had broken a major story linking the murder of a state prosecutor to the Arellano Félix drug cartel, which controlled much of the cocaine trafficked to the U.S. at the time. A few weeks later, he published a second story with photographs of local police, who were working for the cartel.
After this story was published, Francisco’s life was in danger. A bodyguard was assigned by military security to protect him, but when he took a week off from work he decided to give his security detail a little time off as well. The assassins caught up with him on June 22, 2004, while he was returning home from a doctor’s appointment. He had buckled his two children, eleven-year-old Héctor and nine-year-old Andrea, into the back seat and was starting the car when a gunman jumped from a black SUV and shot him three times, killing him instantly.
As horrifying as Francisco’s murder was, in many ways it was typical. Over the last fifteen years, 500 journalists have been murdered worldwide — an average of almost three people a month — and nearly a third of those were threatened before they were killed. It makes you wonder: why don’t journalists who are threatened stop reporting? Why didn’t Francisco take the threat against him more seriously?
After speaking with dozens of threatened journalists, I’ve come to a rather pedestrian understanding of their motivations. I’ve never met one who spoke of his or her work in religious terms or expressed a belief that God would reward him or her, although it’s possible some have been motivated by such a sentiment. Some have expressed a desire to serve their society, uphold democracy, or be faithful to the values of their profession, but in the end I think they continue to risk their lives because they love their work and can’t contemplate doing anything else. Many started their careers in journalism when it wasn’t a particularly dangerous job and then saw society around them disintegrate; they keep reporting because it’s what they know and love. A good story can be all-consuming — the threats become background noise.
When I flew to Tijuana to investigate Francisco’s killing in September 2004, the most painful part of the investigation was meeting with his widow. Devastated by her husband’s death and the fact that her children had witnessed it, she made an effort to share evidence and information to help us piece the case together. After speaking with law enforcement sources on both sides of the border, we came to believe that Francisco had been killed on the orders of a lieutenant in the Arellano Félix crime family. We also came to believe that the local police were complicit in the murder and had taken sides in an emerging battle between two rival drug cartels. We published a detailed report laying out our findings.
The futility of the investigation was appalling, however. It seemed as if the Mexican government didn’t care, and predictably, the Mexican federal police did nothing. We were able to confirm later that the actual assassin was killed by fellow cartel members not long after our visit to Tijuana. Then last year, U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agents intercepted a fishing boat off the coast of Baja California and apprehended one of the Arellano Félix brothers who led the cartel, along with Arturo Villareal, who is believed to have planned Francisco’s assassination. He is still in an American jail facing drug charges, but I hope someday he’ll also be charged in the killing. Justice has not been doled out in a neat and tidy way, but I do feel that the people who carried out the murder didn’t get away with it entirely, and I think the CPJ report played a hand in that by announcing to the world that we knew who they were.
I still think of myself as a journalist, but the stories I cover now are much more personal, because often I know the victim. Francisco’s death haunted and outraged me particularly, not because Francisco and I were especially close, but because in my years stopping by his office to chat he’d become a very real person to me. And someone had gunned him down.
I don’t know if true justice will ever really be achieved, but I do feel that Francisco gave his life for something. For me, his killing is a reminder that at a time in this country when reporting is often replaced by punditry, journalism — real journalism — remains vitally important for uncovering the truth in all parts of the world. So important, in fact, that at certain times, and in certain circumstances, it may even be worth dying for. &