Corruption, Violence and Impunity in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico

November 13, 2015

By Molly Fleming

On Thursday 12 November, award-winning reporter Sandra Rodríguez Nieto spoke with author and journalist for the Observer and the Guardian Ed Vulliamy about life and death in Juarez, the Mexican murder capital of the world.sandra rodriguez

The evening at the Frontline Club began with a touching dedication to a close friend and colleague of Rodríguez‘s, Arnando Rodriguez, “who was brutally and horribly murdered… He became a symbol of our profession at its most noble.”

Rodríguez cited the murder as a turning point for her: “After Armando got killed, it was just the opposite reaction to fear [for her colleagues at El Diario]. We were committed to keep on writing, to honour him.”

Death became a part of Rodríguez and her colleagues’ everyday conversations while working as a crime reporter for El Diario de Juárez. “We started to share our last wills: ‘If I get killed, don’t let anybody open my coffin’.”

In her latest book, The Story of Vicente, Who Murdered His Mother, His Father and His Sister: Life and Death in Juarez, Rodríguez uses 16-year-old Vicente’s murder of his entire family to highlight how a culture of impunity has destabilised Mexican society.

Rodríguez said: “Vicente might be a sociopath but he convinced two other kids from different backgrounds to help him… and that killing a family was totally easy. When I asked him why, his answer was a revelation for me: ‘Because this is Juarez; this is Mexico’.”

The culture of impunity in Juarez, and Mexico as a whole, is a topic that dominated much of the discussion. Rodríguez was adamant that “we have not just a problem of violence but of impunity, sending the message that killing is easy… and these kids are internalising this environment. A whole generation of kids in Mexico believe that murder is basically legal.”

Rodríguez made clear the extent of corruption in Mexico. She noted that “there is no single institution that you can trust… Not the police, not the army, not the judiciary.”

She expressed her deep belief that a lack of prosecution for crimes is central to the continuation of violence: “If a state doesn’t prosecute crime, it’s sending the message that human life isn’t worth it and that’s the tragedy of the country.”

She also highlighted the multi-layered and interweaving nexus of corruption in Mexico. “Corruption doesn’t start with the bottom of society, it starts at the top and spreads to the bottom.” When she questioned the state attorney in Juarez about an FBI indictment in which eleven out of twenty  cartel members were found to be former police officers, he told her: ”I don’t prosecute organised crime – it’s not my business.”

But Vulliamy also noted the hypocrisy present in much of the discourse on Mexico. “I always get wary of sitting in London talking about endemic corruption in Mexico. HSBC was caught laundering money and none of them went to jail either.”

Rodríguez also pointed out the injustice of the divide between neighbouring El Paso, Texas, and Juarez: “One is the safest place in the US, the other is the murder capital of the world.“ This is because “when narcos in El Paso want to kill, they do it in Juarez.”

When questioned about legalisation, Rodríguez strongly criticised the war on drugs. “The first killer in Mexico is diabetes caused by the consumption of sugar… That’s the drug that’s killing Mexican people.”

She continued: “I want to challenge the narrative of the war on drugs. It’s obviously not working… the prohibition is totally wrong.”

Following an audience question on the role of community solidarity and development, Rodríguez sounded a note of hope. “Juarez is full of grassroots movements. Juarez surprised the country by the level of organisation among the people.”

Among the audience was Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, who said: “Frontline performs a fantastic service of giving voice to journalists who are reporting what many are afraid to. Sandra Rodríguez is one of many who does this. We need to get out there what happens when governments fail to deal with the deep corruption of both banking and narco trafficking.”

One Mexican audience member was moved to tears when thanking Rodríguez for her valuable work in exposing the endemic corruption and violence in her country: “You and good journalism: that’s the solution. We will change Mexico with people like you.”