From the Ashes of Violence (English version)

A mother remembers her son. Photo by Marcela Turati

Building Justice through Journalism

By Marcela Turati

Ever since that afternoon when schoolteacher Gloria Lozano stared at her only son riddled with bullets on an empty lot next to the bodies of twelve other young people, all victims of a hit squad —among them, a first-time dad embracing his infant—ever since then, neither she nor any of the other families of the “Creel martyrs” would ever be the same. In their struggle for justice, the families have blocked highways, staged marches, taken their message to radio stations, dragged cardboard coffins through the streets, interrupted government events, blanketed businesses with official posters offering rewards for gunmen’s arrest, corraled the governor, the mayor and whatever official they could get their hands on and, in a tactic that surprised even themselves, stopped a train carrying tourists to Barrancas del Cobre. For a long time now, they have been investigators. They now know who murdered their children. Now they want justice.

“We are not afraid; they have killed us already, along with our children,” shouts an angry Lozano, each time that she thinks of the possible consequences of her odyssey.

Reporting on the Creel massacre in the Mexican state of Chihuahua was a watershed for me in my weekly systematic coverage of the social effects of the violence in Mexico. Along with many of us Mexican journalists, I became a war correspondent in my own country, after the drug cartels and the Army turned it into a battlefield, a surge of violence many officially date back to 2007.

In the highlands community in the state of Chihuahua where the 13 youth were murdered in August 2008, I discovered a new class of individuals—fearless and brave, with a burning desire to obtain justice. Their pain had forced them to break away from the pattern of victimhood that I had witnessed on other assignments: people paralyzed by fear, ashamed and stigmatized, frustrated by impotence.

Since that time of the Creel massacre, I have given myself the assignment of trying to discover in the midst of the horrors and tragedies those people who have the strength to organize themselves, to share their pain to heal others, who take to the streets to reclaim them for the citizens. Their hearts may be broken, their lives ruined, the coffins still reposing in the living room, but they find the strength to act, and I in turn must find the strength to honor these stories of courage in the midst of their grief.

It has not been easy. I have managed this kind of reporting only a few times. One must be able to observe closely and have a lot of patience. And, above all, one first must move through the difficult paths of one’s own paralysis, fear, impotence, fatalism, to touch much pain in order to denounce its causes, to improvise and even to make mistakes.

The cyclone of violence surprised us Mexicans, and journalists were not prepared. We were overwhelmed by the new codes of blood in which extermination is the goal, where fury is the message and is expressed through decapitated, carbonized, disappeared bodies, dissolved in acid, executed, tortured, massacred.

We tried to keep our focus on the social implications, rather than statistics, on protagonists, rather than victims. This type of journalistic coverage did not take place in a vaccum. Since 2006, before the explosion of drug violence, a group of Mexican reporters became concerned with responsible journalism with human rights as its focus. Even before we had the slightest suspicion that Mexico would turn into a battlefield, we began to join together in what we later called the Network of Social Journalists, roughly equivalent to “Grassroots Journalists.”

We wanted to organize to develop our tools of investigation, good writing, information planning and new knowledge for the purpose of covering effectively for our media social-oriented themes such as health, education, human rights, ecology and migration—vital information that allows citizens to understand what is happening, but information that is often perceived by editors as a way of filling space. Political, judicial and economic stories, as well as entertainment and publicity, all take precedence over issues of social relevance.

In order to strengthen our work, we began to contact experts in social development and well-known journalists from other countries who were passing through Mexico. Without a budget of our own, we invited these experts to dinners or breakfasts in exchange for giving talks. The inevitable question we posed was how to focus on coverage on human rights issues.

Then drug violence began to escalate. In 2007, several of our group were sent to the battlefront. I was assigned by the magazine Proceso to cover Ciudad Juárez, the epicenter of Mexican violence, which since that time has become the city with the highest murder rate in the country. I confess that I—and several of my colleagues—did not even know the names of the various drug cartels who were fighting over turf. But the one tool that we did have was training to identify the factors that were provoking violence in the society.

The emergency forced us to improvise coverage in the best way we could. However, we found it to be a complicated exercise fashioned day after day in the heat of each new emergency. We required constant training, education of our faculties of observation, learning to read accounts of trials, constructing a different discourse, overcoming fear and making sure that indignation and hope do not simply burn out. For a long time, we merely kept a body count that in the newsroom we dubbed the “execution meter,” the daily statistics of deaths that police reporters kept as evidence of the torment of blood.

Suddenly, the violence was so great that some of us reporters who had promised ourselves that we would never cover drug trafficking found ourselves at the scene of bloody crimes, interviewing witnesses or survivors, attending funeral wakes, searching for facts about the victims with which to construct a skeletal obituary or reconstructing a massacre to “document the horror.”

But it got to the point that the pile of dead people seemed infinite, in which each massacre seemed just like the last one, in which six terrible pieces of news competed with each other for front page space. Coverage had to be conceived in a manner that would not just be reacting to events—just as we had conceived our socially-oriented coverage on health and education issues. It was the moment to seize the agenda, take it away from the violent ones who had set it, to give back a sense of life and dignity to the victims and power to the citizens. That is: to shed light on what is happening through the lens of human rights. That is what I call journalism that denounces what is happening and announces what can be changed.

Thus, we began to describe the misfortunes of poor towns forced into the cultivation of poppies, the raw material for heroin. We covered the tragedy of “juvenicide” (young people murdering other young people), the drama of towns with populations exiled by violence, the stories of prisoners tortured into confessing their guilt as hitmen, the surge in human rights violations. As we began to report on these situations, relatives of victims began to show up in the newsroom with photos in their hands, looking for family members who had been forcibly disappeared by the Army, the police, drug traffickers or for absolutely unknown reasons. Soon, these isolated visits became a flood of family members hoping to find information about their loved ones.

The emergency forced us to beef up our training sessions. Through the journalists’ association, we organized courses on the risks of militarization; on drug trafficking networks from cultivation to consumption; social themes that intersected with security issues; the experience of the Colombian conflict; how to interview children affected by the violence; how to protect ourselves and defend freedom of expression.

The government line considers the assassination of more than 34,000 Mexicans in this war a victory, alleging that nine out of every ten deserved that fate because they were drug traffickers. We refused to accept that explanation and kept on investigating; we are not toeing the government line of blaming the victims. We also refuse to be involuntary spokespersons for drug traffickers in waging a campaign of fear which they staged a macabre performance with the bodies of their rivals to instill terror and to deprive their victims of any remaining humanity.

At this point, several journalists decided to give the gruesome statistics a face, to rescue the histories of the dead, to learn their ages and what impact their absence had caused in their families, in their neighborhoods, and each of us had to grieve (or at least to worry).

Certainly, there is a moment when the individual anecdote becomes so draining that readers are no longer willing to read about personal tragedies. This fact obliges us to shape our stories in a different fashion and piece together the individual tragedies so that they become a reflection of a social phenomenon.

“Who has done their task?” asks the psychologist at the beginning of the group session. The students remained silent in their seats. She reminds them that their task is to give away the clothes of the dead person to advance the grieving process. Or at least to try to do so.

A woman in the audience comments that it freaks her out to give the expensive suits belonging to her son, a policeman known for his elegance and neatness, until he was gunned down. The woman’s remark sparks a question from an elderly man who asks if it is bad to converse every day with the photo of his son who was murdered in the street. A worker confesses that she could not get herself to get rid of her husband’s belongings because he was still missing, though she did accept giving away her murdered son’s possessions so that others could put them to good use.

Grief therapy in Ciudad Juárez was the subject of my story of a religious collective’s recently organized workshops to heal the families who had lost one or more family members. This served as a mirror, a painful one, which reflected the profound social damage caused by the murders.

During a year and a half, I had asked each one of the social organizations if they had created some sort of a support system for the families of the thousands of people murdered in the city, but they only replied that they had been overwhelmed by the violence. I discovered the grief workshops only when I saw a sign on the street inviting families to grief workshops in the church.

In every armed conflict, there is an abundance of victims and we need to find a way to explain how their suffering is a matter of concern for the entire society. From the beginning, thanks to the training we had received from our Colombian colleagues and because of our dedication to covering social themes, the reporters in our network made the decision to make the victims visible because those who commit the violence inevitably have headlines guaranteed in the media, as reporters are always keeping track of these violent crimes and the perpetrators are always the protagonists.

Facing the grief of others is always a delicate task, and it requires preparation, patience and time. On many occasions, those who have been victims of violence are too afraid to talk to journalists or they see reporters as vultures who prey on others’ grief.
In such situations, we also seek to avoid portraying victims as defenseless people, lacking in options and rights. Instead, we must try to make these victims visible as protagonists, as able to take charge of their fate and, against all odds, as people who demand that their rights be restored or organize themselves to help others.

It required systematic reporting over a long period of time to ferret out the citizens who are organizing themselves, who have lost their fear and resist their situation with dignity. In violence-torn Mexico, collectives of mothers in search of their disappeared children have sprung up; families have united in the investigation of the murders of their family members; students connect with others through Twitter to oppose the violence and artists take to the streets with the mission of recovering them as public space for citizens.

In reporting their activities (but at the same time making sure not to put these courageous people at risk), we have opened a window of hope in moments in which it seems there is no possibility of hope. With these types of stories, we hope to enable the population to recover its self-esteem, to seek out others to work together collectively and we provide a face to victims as individuals, who in spite of the tragedies, have not been defeated.

The cost in lives lost to the violence has been so high that the sons and daughters of murdered people participate in almost every mundane venue from day care centers, to classrooms,to catechism classes to sports events. The so-called “orphans of the executed” are found everywhere, a collective that is all too easy to join.

Many have participated in group therapy. For them, organizations such as Casa Amiga have created a therapeutic atmosphere with a psychologist who, in the midst of guided relaxation, instructs them, for example, in these words: “Now, lying down like this, with your eyes still shut, with your body now relaxed, bring to your mind, the death of your dad, at what moment did you learn that he had been killed? Feel your heart beating? What did you feel then? What was the expression on your face when you got the news?....” When she leads them into a state of profound sleepiness, the therapist asks them to draw what they visualize and in their drawings, they depict hearts that have been cut into pieces, others wrapped in tears, and others wounded with deep scars. Then she suggests healing and they start to add bandaids, adhesive tape, tissues and little flowers into their drawings. They even manage to fix some of the scars that wound their souls.

The story we wrote on therapy for children orphaned by the violence motivated sixty psychologists from Chihuahua to create a network of therapists devoted to alleviating the social pain caused by overexposure to violence, and two months later, these psychologists allied themselves with the recently created organization of families of the disappeared.

The creation of the two networks was a beacon of hope in the context of the desolation experienced in many regions of the country. The network of the families of the disappeared, together with human rights activists, exchanged legal and psychological tips, and strategies for political struggles. They discussed how to take cases to the international courts to continue on with their search and to obligate the Mexican state to investigate the disappearances.

In the same way that the international cartels had become internationalized, citizens found that through my coverage of their organizations in the news, they could exchange strategies for action and survival both domestically and internationally.

We journalists are key to this process of citizen empowerment. We make visible the actors who are protagonists for change and describe the strategies that have produced results. We can collaborate in helping people to overcome the paralysis of fear and we can provide tools for the construction of a different future.

Marcela Turati is a staff reporter for Proceso magazine, where she covers human rights, social development, and the social effects of the narcoviolence. She is co-author of the book La guerra por Juárez (The War for Juárez) and author of the book Fuego Cruzado: las víctimas atrapadas en la guerra del narco (Crossfire: Victims Trapped in the Drug War), (Grijalvo), which dicusses the social damage caused by drug violence during the Felipe Calderón presidency. She is co-founder and co-administrator of the Network of Social Journalists (Grass-Roots Journalists).