When gunshots were reported to the emergency number of the city of Torreón, in northern Mexico, on the morning of January 10, 2020, Pedro López, the spokesman for the state’s attorney general frantically called investigators for details. The call had come from a school, but it was not clear if the shots were fired inside or out.
Years before, the city of Torreón and the metropolitan area known as La Laguna, had been one of the most violent regions in Mexico, racking up more than 1,100 homicides in 2012 in a city of under one million people. A turf war between drug cartels had multiplied the murder rate by more than 10 times in just a few years.
So, when reports of shots fired rang in López’s office, instinct led him to think first about a criminal group shooting or killing someone in the street. That was the violence the city had grown used to, and even if homicides had dropped sharply in the years before, an event like that occasionally showed up.
López reached an investigator at the scene who quickly dispelled any theories about the traditional cartel-related violence with a precise quote: “It was gringo style.”
I included this passage in my book “Nine Shots” about this shooting because it was an event with few precedents in Mexico. The phrase “gringo style,” in this case a kid firing in his schoolyard, seemed to encapsulate the difference between this type of violence and the one we are used to in Mexico, where dozens of homicides and shootings are reported daily and attributed to organized crime, but where lone shooters opening fire for no apparent reason at a school, a church, or a supermarket are almost unheard of.
The massacre in Uvalde, Texas this May, where 21 people died, shot by an 18-year-old with two assault rifles, was not a surprise after scores of shootings in the United States that apparently have no motive. The media in Latin America covers these events intensely, mystified by the lack of explanation as to why they happen mostly in the United States. The gun lobby, the Second Amendment, and the widespread gun ownership rate, which translates into political pressure from constituents, are phenomena hard to understand south of the border. In Mexico, gun control is an issue that has to do with fighting organized crime.
The school shooting in Torreón was carried out by a student inside the campus. In this case, an 11-year-old boy in sixth grade. He took two pistols in his backpack and 10 minutes after the first bell asked permission to go to the bathroom. When he came out, he fired at the courtyard where kids from third grade were doing physical exercises. The boy wounded five students and their instructor, before bumping into his English teacher who tried to calm him down. He fatally shot her in the eye and then killed himself.
Local reporters covered this shooting unlike how we cover the cartel-related massacres that killed 10, 15, or 20 people a decade ago. Because that violence was related to organized crime, which had threatened journalists to tone down coverage, we were more circumspect. It is hard to admit it, but the depth and intensity in which we cover violence has to do with our level of risk as well.
After the school shooting in Torreón, Mexican journalists had to adjust the way we cover this type of violence. It was not a criminal rivalry or a cartel war, but a troubled kid, so we were able to go into more detail and depth than the usual statement made by authorities. It also meant we did not have to take the safety measures we usually follow at a crime scene, like going there in groups to avoid a kidnapping or being aware of potential surveillance by criminals. Also, there was no risk of a follow-up attack, like when criminals shoot at authorities in a crime scene.
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Coverage was different because of the novelty as well. This kind of violence doesn’t happen in Mexico. The only precedent had been three years earlier in Monterrey in 2017, when a high school student took a gun to his school and shot his classmates. Those two events were the only recent reference to this form of violence in Mexico. One must go back to 2001 to find a similar incident, in which a student threatened to fire a gun in his school, although that did not happen.
They are “gringo style” shootings, events that happen in the United States, but sometimes news outlets in Latin America will find an ethnic or geographic connection. Mexican media gave Uvalde widespread coverage, because the town is just an hour drive from the border, and the shooter and most of the victims were Hispanic. The same happened with the shooting at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, where several victims were Mexican residents from Juárez, crossing the border to do some shopping. When the Parkland high school shooting happened in 2018, it got widespread coverage in Central America and the Caribbean, because of the makeup of Florida’s Latino population.
One newspaper in the Caribbean weighed in with a commentary, noting “the ease with which a possible attacker can acquire a military-style firearm is another aspect that increases the number of victims in this type of attack.”
This seems like it’s straight out of The New York Times, but it was published in Granma, the official mouthpiece of the Cuban government.
News organizations in Latin America are used to covering armed violence, whether it’s guerrilla groups battling governments or drug cartels fighting each other in large cities or small towns. Coverage of gun violence usually points out to the lack or rule of law or public safety institutions that can prevent it.
There is also a toll in covering violence. For a journalist in the United States, covering random shootings often leaves an emotional mark, the cost of witnessing trauma. For Mexican journalists the impact is the same, but there is another risk: covering violence by organized crime can result in journalists getting killed, kidnapped, or threatened if criminals don’t like the coverage.
When news of a massacre comes from the United States, covering it means taking a rest from dealing with homegrown violence. Because most news outlets get their foreign news from the wires, coverage sticks to the facts, but commentary flows freely because, let’s admit it, news like this give us a chance to take a stance of moral superiority, telling ourselves that kind of violence does not happen in our countries, even while bullets are flying outside our newsrooms.
Javier Garza Ramos is a journalist based in Torreón, México. His book “Nine Shots” chronicles a school shooting in his hometown in 2020.