Video: Training Day
Deborah Bonello reporting for MexicoReporter.com
My breath is tearing out of my lungs and my leg muscles are screaming for a reprieve. I just scaled a 60-degree hill coated in thorny brambles and poisonous plants whilst being pounded by rain. In the dark. I thought it couldn’t get any worse, but it did. Later that night, my fellow journalists and I were kidnapped by masked guerillas who jumped onto our bus.
Our only comfort? That none of this was real. But it could have been, which is the point of the survival course 18 journalists who live and work in Mexico attended last week in Toluca, just outside of Mexico City.
During the five day survival program, the journalists dodged tear gas and Army tanks and learned how to survive in the wilderness. The psychological stresses were addressed, too; they learned strategies for dealing with emotions.
In Mexico these days, that may be the most important lesson of all.
“Once in Apatzingan a cameraman and I were taken,” says Miguel Garcia Tinoco, a 40-year-old journalist and owner of the Notivideo video news website based in Michoacan.
“They took us to talk with a drug-trafficking boss on a street in Apatzingan, and they wanted to make us write what they wanted, what they wanted to communicate.”
This group of traffickers gained infamy three years ago when they tossed the severed heads of six enemies onto the dance floor of a nightclub.
“They wanted us to publish an explanation of why they’d murdered those six people. What we told them was that we couldn’t make a decision in terms of what we published or didn’t publish in the newspaper – that it was up to the editor. And in the end my editor decided not to publish anything at all.”
Antonio Ramos Tafolla, a 58-year-old reporter in the same state as Garcia, was kidnapped and beaten up by a group he says he was never able to identify.
“It limited me and the boldness that I had before to write. It limited me but it didn’t shut me up or stop me thinking, but I have more reservations now.”
Some don’t get granted any conditions. Ramos said that a colleague of his went missing two years ago and has never reappeared. Garcia says the same of two other fellow journalists in Michoacan. They are three of the eight journalists currently listed as missing in Mexico.
It’s not only reporters covering Mexico’s drug traffickers and organized crime networks that run the risk of reprisals. These journalists recounted tales from covering everything from car accidents, massacres and assassinations, to shoot-outs, kidnappings and election campaigns.
Run-ins with the federal police, the army and local governors are common for any reporter who questions local power networks.
“Sadly, the army has seen us, to a certain point, as enemies,” Garcia said.
“They close their operations and don’t let us film, they don’t let us into some crime scenes to get information … And they also take away our gear and they assault us.”
Back in the classroom Dr. Ana Zellhuber gives the journalists some practical guidance in dealing both with people who have just come out of emergency situations, as well their own emotional reactions to tough circumstances.
“You’re not heroes,” she says. “You’re reporters. Everyone has a duty to perform – do yours. Don’t turn yourselves into one of the victims.”
Stories unfolded in the classroom. One of the four women on the course, a reporter from Tijuana, talked about the time she was approached by a man who said the Mexican Army had massacred people in his town.
She didn’t know what to do because as the man told her his story she knew she was going to cry but she worried that crying would draw attention to herself.
“There are no wrong emotions,” said Zellhuber. “And there are always emotions.”
Monica Franco is a 31-year-old journalist working in Puebla.
“Intimidation is a daily reality for us,” she told me.
“We’re not just intimidated by the police – we’re intimidated by government spheres, by press officers, intimidated by politicians and by civilians who now don’t see us as allies.
“A lot of co-workers end up losing the point of why we’re here, which is to inform and give a voice to those people who don’t have one. And that’s what leads a lot of people to see us as enemies of society.”
Franco hits on an interesting point. Some of the journalists that have been killed here in Mexico over the last few years (see here for more numbers) were targeted as a direct result of reports they’d filed.
But in Mexico, where training is in short supply, wages are pitifully low and reporters aren’t protected or helped by their employers, it’s easy to see how they themselves can fall prey to corruption.
Franco says that someone broke into her home in Puebla. The burglars only stole journalism gear, nothing else.
“Instead of helping us we were intimidated by the police and told that due to our jobs, they could break into our homes, she said.”
They never learned who did the break in, Franco says.
“We just put up a stronger gate on the front door.”
Article 19 and the Rory Peck Trust organized the survival course, which took place between May 17th – 22nd in Toluca, Mexico.