It’s strange how severely shaken my way of life and that of many Mexican journalists has been since the declaration of the poorly named “war on drugs” in our country and the onslaught of murders, disappearances, and threats against colleagues. Now Mexico always appears on any list of the three most dangerous countries in which to be a journalist. Once reporters fully devoted to our profession, over the past 10 years we’ve had to take on another, parallel job— that of responding to this emergency. Our new roles have included organizing marches to demand justice for murdered colleagues, fundraising events to pay funeral costs, workshops on how to cover the violence, and collective investigations of these violent crimes. We’ve had to advise colleagues at risk, find psychologists to help others in crisis after being threatened or attacked, and participate in assemblies to publicize and protest this situation. In one way or another many of us, besides being journalists, have become defenders of freedom of expression.
Generally, in our assemblies we provide figures on the numbers of murdered and disappeared colleagues. What we still don’t know are the numbers of those whom the violence has displaced. This is an additional reality we’ve been discovering only little by little, because the cases are rendered invisible.
One day in 2010, a reporter friend who lives in a Texas city told me about interviewing a displaced Mexican journalist whom she’d recently met. She was so disheartened when, at the end of the interview, this colleague asked whether she’d let him cut her lawn to earn a little money.
In the United States, the process of requesting asylum is a long one. In the meantime, the petitioners are denied permission to work.
It was Christmastime. I told this story to the Periodistas de a Pie (“Journalists on Foot”), of which I’m one of the founders. We decided to take up a holiday collection in solidarity with four reporters whom we knew to be exiled in that particular Texas city. We felt that they were us, that they were part of us, that their fate could have been any of ours.
Weeks later, I crossed the international bridge linking Ciudad Juárez to El Paso, Texas, to bring them the money we had gathered. It wasn’t much. The Mexican government had launched a campaign to criminalize all the victims of violence, saying that if anything happened to them it was because they were “mixed up in something.” The same stigma adhered to reporters who “fled” Mexico, that they too were “mixed up in something.”
During our encounter, for the few hours it lasted, we got a glimpse of the world of these four colleagues—their experiences, dreams, frustrations, and nightmares. I listened to them say what victims of forced displacement have always told me when I’ve interviewed them over these past years: “All I want is a chance to work, because that’s what I know how to do.”
In the meantime, they took what jobs they could get. They cleaned schools, sold hot dogs, cut grass. They weren’t in newsrooms doing the investigating and reporting that is what they know.
Our exchange was brief. We ended with embraces of solidarity from Mexican colleagues who had donated part of their salaries to support those who were displaced. Hearing what they would spend the money on that Christmas made me feel better. One said he’d be able to give a toy to his kids.
That was my brush with a reality that felt new to me, even though in 2008 one friend had gone to live in Spain because of threats we now think came from the government itself.
Since then, the stories of this new category of journalist have become more common all the time, whether the domestically displaced who have moved to big cities such as the country’s capital or the international exiles forced out of Mexico. In either case it is because they have been threatened or because a close colleague has been killed or disappeared. They wanted to save their lives and find an opportunity to work.
In Mexico City, these reporters have arrived in wave after wave. In 2012, for instance, after the assassination of Regina Martínez, correspondent for the magazine Progreso in the state of Veracruz—a brave reporter investigating narcopoliticians and corruption—16 journalists fled that state. Veracruz was becoming the most deadly state for the press. Some journalists left forever.
From then on, at the national dailies I began to run into colleagues who had served as local correspondents in small cities. I knew them because they had helped me cover local stories. Now they were in the capital because their editors had decided to “rescue” them from the dangerous context in which they were working, by sending them to the national office. But in those offices I often found them lost, wandering like souls in torment, not knowing what story to cover, with their hometowns always on their minds. They wanted to go back to see the father who was ill, to make sure the house was not robbed, to check on the business left unattended and now verging on bankruptcy. They didn’t know whether to stop paying the rent or to keep it up to date, because they didn’t know what to expect. It was as if they were trapped on a road leading nowhere. Trapped in uncertainty, in short.
“That’s it,” a Veracruzan reporter told me in the bar he frequented, where he’d get drunk to avoid thinking. “The uncertainty is what kills.”
That particular colleague renounced his work. His depression made him rebel at random, refuse to follow instructions from his editors, take a leap into the void. (“Let them fire me,” he told me one day. “It doesn’t matter anymore, because I’ve already lost everything.”)
Overall, the reporters brought to the capital by their bosses say the same thing: “Nobody asked me how they could help. The editors had no plan for me. No plan for me to stay in Mexico City, no plan for me to return to home.”
The majority of them can’t abide the self-exile. In spite of the risks, they go back to their hometowns, to the places they were born. They flee the limbo of eternal waiting for things to improve.
Later, I saw the same situation afflicting journalists who are sent abroad on an emergency basis by international organizations that defend free expression: Although their lives are saved, there is no plan for them. They, too, have no way to continue practicing their profession. When they are in exile, their regions are silenced. An investigative journalist is lost; he or she must concentrate on the daily struggle for survival, and on overcoming his or her own frustration.
In the spring of 2013, in the café of a bookstore in Mexico City, several colleagues and I met with a group of journalists who had recently come from Veracruz and Tamaulipas, dangerous states for the press. We wanted to learn about their situations as members of the displaced.
On a napkin, I wrote down some of the phrases I heard, the descriptions of what they suffer along the bureaucratic road where they seek help through the protective mechanisms of the government. It’s a road paved with false promises. Here’s what I have in those notes:
“More than a psychologist, what we need is work … We got temporary jobs that ran out … Those government mechanisms just tricked me, I was their guinea pig, that was all …We know by now what to expect from the thugs, but we’re not prepared to have the government employees, those who attend to the victims, treat us that same way …. When I get a call from back there, where I come from, I start reliving it all, I haven’t gotten past it … I don’t talk to my family so I won’t put them at risk…”
After this unburdening, we reviewed work possibilities. But every route we explored led to an obstacle. Everything is harder for the displaced—because they’re outsiders, because they lack support networks and basic necessities. They had to abandon their homes with nothing but the house key in their pocket, a key that opens no doors in the unknown future where they land.
When we asked these colleagues whether they’d been able to rent an apartment, the answer was, “We can’t rent because we don’t have anyone to sign as a reference.”
Public insurance to pay medical bills?
“We didn’t bring our identity papers, we left all of that back home.”
Chances of finding work?
“Nobody knows us, nobody gives us work references either.”
Can you freelance?
“We would if we had internet. But we can’t get a phone line because we can’t reveal our names because they might come and kill us. We’re renting rooms in other people’s houses, we don’t have money for anything more.”
Displacement also puts one’s personal identity to the test. Since no one would hire these colleagues as journalists, they had to seek other jobs—as assembly line workers, taco sellers, or, in one case, as a clown performing at parties or street corners.
Their deepest desire, mentioned over and over, was “to put an end to the uncertainty.” To have a floating board to grab onto, to save oneself from the shipwreck, to set foot on dry land. To plant something in the soil, to have a fixed abode, to put down roots. To get to work, to practice journalism again.
In these years in which the violence in my country is never-ending and the statistics on assassinations of the journalists continue to rise, I keep on meeting colleagues who had to flee from their hometowns, who tell me their stories of survival, the eternal limbo in which they find themselves, the search for a steady job and the high price they have had to pay for devoting themselves to journalism.