Translated by Bill Swainson with Ángel Gurría-Quintana.
2006 was an extraordinary year for Mexico and for reporters like me. The country mobilised from the mountains in the south to the border in the north, with demands for justice and democratisation breaking out everywhere. My year began in Chiapas on 1 January, when Subcomandante Marcos, riding a motorbike, started a tour called ‘The Other Campaign’ which sought to unite the revolutionary left. In February, an explosion in a coal mine in the north mobilised hundreds of families who demanded the rescue of 65 trapped miners. On 3 May, farm-workers from San Salvador Atenco won a pitched battle with the police, who returned the next day to quash them with a brutality that cost the life of a child and an adolescent and involved sexual assaults against 26 women, all attributed to the police.
On 14 June, a rebellion broke out in the city of Oaxaca, which would soon expel its governor and set up a short-lived but memorable popular government similar to the Paris Commune. On 2 July, the ruling party candidate Felipe Calderón won the presidential election. His adversary Andrés Manuel López Obrador, refusing to recognise the result, organised three marches involving hundreds of thousands of people and a sit-in on the Paseo de la Reforma, one of Mexico City’s main avenues. Reluctant to accept defeat, López Obrador declared himself ‘legitimate president’; he would compete again in 2012 and lose again, this time to Enrique Peña Nieto.
I covered 2006 by land and air. The newspaper Reforma, where I was then working, assigned me to report on almost all the big stories of that year. I followed Marcos into the mountains, López Obrador by road, and presidents Vicente Fox and Calderón in planes and helicopters. I reported on the negotiations in the Ministry of the Interior between the federal government and the popular authorities of Oaxaca, and sent despatches from internet cafés in villages across the country. Great events were taking place In Mexico. Covering them and reporting on them was relatively safe.
That all came to an end shortly afterwards.
In December 2006, Felipe Calderón declared the ‘war on drugs’ and sent the military out into the streets. Mexico’s mobilised and rebellious countenance vanished and a trail of death covered the country’s face instead. In six years there were 100,000 fatalities. Many roads became death traps: if you were captured by some drug baron’s hit squad they could make you ‘disappear’ – that is, kidnap you, kill you and bury you in an unmarked grave.
In 2014 I found myself on the front line. With 15 other journalists I joined the ‘Observation Mission’ which went to the state of Veracruz to investigate the circumstances in which Gregorio Jiménez de la Cruz had died. Gregorio (Goyo, as he was affectionately known) was the tenth reporter murdered in Veracruz during Governor Javier Duarte’s administration. We thought we had seen the worst of it. He was kidnapped on 5 February, and six days later his mutilated body was found, bearing marks of torture. He had been decapitated.
In Coatzacoalcos, where Goyo was reporting, the same phenomenon had occurred as in much of the rest of the country: organised crime and the authorities had merged to become indistinguishable (we called it ‘narco-politics’). Kidnappings had become epidemic. Children, Central American migrants, oil engineers, doctors – almost everyone was a tempting prey. Goyo followed the trail of one of these bands of kidnappers. And he published his story. Going public cost him his life.
A closer look showed us that the injustices began a long time before Goyo’s death. He earned 20 pesos (less than £1) for each published article. His salary as a reporter was 3,500 pesos per month (not even £200). He supplemented his income as a photographer for weddings and baptisms. He lived in Coatzacoalcos, one of Mexico’s industrial zones, but he had previously lived in a wooden house in a swamp, which had sunk when the river flooded.
There are thousands of reporters in Mexico like Gregorio: threatened, on starvation wages and exposed to corruption (authorities and criminals offer them money or bullets in exchange for their pen or their silence).
On 1 July 2012 Enrique Peña Nieto won the presidency. The situation did not improve for journalism; it got worse. The journalist Carmen Aristegui published her report ‘Peña Nieto’s White House’, in which she rigorously documented the existence of a $7,000,000 residence, owned by the First Lady, which had been constructed by and bought from contractors widely favoured by Peña Nieto’s government. The president was not submitted to an investigation; instead, Aristegui and her colleagues were sacked from her popular radio programme.
Journalism in Mexico confronts three demons: narco-politics, censorship and corruption. And corruption is not a minor matter: long before Aristegui’s dismissal, local and national newspapers have tended to follow the government line. The front pages are full of the vacuous declarations of government officials while opposition movements like CNTE, the teachers’ union, which resists change to teachers’ employment conditions, are slandered. Journalists faithful to the government open internet portals and make thousands of pesos from official publicity. Those colleagues are far removed from the dangers that faced Goyo. They attend the parties of mayors, governors or ministers and eulogise them in their articles.
The Sorrows of Mexico is committed to a different journalism. Orthodox in its democratic principles. Literary in its aesthetic aspirations. Firm in its repudiation of the abuse of power. Lydia Cacho, Anabel Hernández, Sergio González Rodríguez, Marcela Turati and Diego Osorno are some of the bravest – and most at risk – journalists in the country. Juan Villoro is one of the most brilliant writers in the Spanish language. The authors write about the crucial issues of the country – such as the disappearance of the 43 Ayotzinapa teacher training students – and about issues that are otherwise invisible in the media: street children, women forced into prostitution, scapegoats invented by the state to cover up the real criminals.
On July 20, only days before this article was written, Pedro Tamayo died. He was the 19th journalist to be murdered in Veracruz in less than six years. Harassment of the press, censorship and the collusion of press and power all continue. Nevertheless, as The Sorrows of Mexico shows, there is a Mexico that resists. That sheds light and speaks up. A horizon beyond the labyrinth.
Emiliano Ruiz Parra, Diego Enrique Osorno and Sergio González Rodríguez discuss The Sorrows of Mexico at Edinburgh International Book Festival on Saturday 27 August. Find out more about PEN-supported writers at Edinburgh.
The authors will also discuss the book at an event at Waterstones Piccadilly on Wednesday 31 August. The event is free, but requires an RSVP – find out more here.