Nobody to trust in Mexico’s north
The first version of the killings came from Mexico City media. “Massacre in Tamaulipas State,” said the news anchorman. Seventy-two corpses had been discovered on a ranch in San Fernando municipality, all showing signs of a mass execution.
News of executions, macabre assassinations and kidnappings are commonplace in northern Mexico, but this headline was not. With journalists’ reflexes we began to plan a trip to what suddenly became the bloodiest theater in the drug war. In the past two months a candidate for governor was gunned down, two mayors assassinated, grenades exploded on city streets and the cousin of a media mogul kidnapped. In one weekend 51 people had been murdered in infamous Ciudad Juarez.
My editors asked me if I wanted to go to Ciudad Victoria, where the government announced it would send the 72 bodies for identification. I knew the routine. In less than an hour I was headed out the door to the airport with my equipment and a hastily-packed suitcase, just as my youngest daughter arrived from school.
“Where are you going Papá?” she asked. “Can you take me with you?” My daughter is still a child.
“I can’t take you. I’m going for work,” I told her as I touched her cheek, avoiding her big eyes as they searched out mine.
Night fell and I found Reuters TV colleague Alberto in the airport. We stuffed our equipment into the plane that was only slightly bigger than a bus, and soon we were airborne. The airport in Ciudad Victoria was empty. It began to rain and from the taxi window we could see very few houses in the deserted streets lit by amber lights.
“We can’t go out at night here anymore,” our taxi driver told us. Since drug gangs began fighting over the trafficking routes, residents stopped leaving their homes, especially at night.
When we reached the downtown hotel across from a park and a church, we managed to phone a government spokesman in Mexico City. They confirmed that the 72 dead were illegal immigrants executed by organized crime as they were heading toward the U.S. border. We were also told that the bodies would no longer be transported to Ciudad Victoria, but rather to San Fernando, a town closer to the ranch.
We knew the 180 km of single-lane highway to San Fernando was full of roadblocks, some manned by government soldiers and others by gunmen at the service of the drug mafia. It was a scenario of armed confrontation for control of the region, and not a word of the massacre was spoken on the local TV news programs. It was understandable if journalists were frightened. Recently many Mexican journalists had been kidnapped and threatened, and some provincial newspapers had been attacked with grenades. We began to feel the same fear, and decided to stay inside the hotel.
The night was calm but at times I awoke to look out the window for anything moving. Just before dawn I saw the first light make a silhouette of the church tower and took some photos, only to find that next door Alberto was also awake filming the same scene.
At breakfast we could feel everyone’s eyes on us. There the people distrust strangers. In the end, nobody trusts anybody. We began to feel paranoid, with no way to tell if the person staring at us was just curious or an informer of organized crime.
We reached an agreement with colleagues from other foreign media to stay in a group when leaving to report. When I told our taxi driver to take us to the morgue where we hoped to learn about the massacre investigation, he just looked at me as if I had asked him to take me to the gates of hell. “Take the next taxi. I can’t take you. I don’t know where it is,” he told me.
We lied to the next taxi so he would take us to the morgue, but when we arrived he refused to wait for us there. “You can stay here. I’m leaving. Take another taxi.” Now it was my turn to be paranoid.
Frustrated, we returned to the hotel and considered driving to San Fernando. We asked the police about the route and were told they couldn’t guarantee our safety. We spoke with our editors and after analyzing our options we were instructed to return home the next day.
As I packed in the early morning my laptop logged onto Twitter showed a tweet about two explosions in Ciudad Victoria. I couldn’t believe it. There had been two explosions nearby and we hadn’t heard anything. Through the window I saw only dark and empty streets. I spoke to Alberto. It was only two hours until our return flight so I called my editor and we decided to wait for first light and check the version of a car bomb in front of the local Televisa network studio.
We headed to Televisa’s building and two blocks away found three soldiers blocking access with yellow tape, too far from the damage to see anything. The soldiers wouldn’t heed our pleas for access, but one murmured, “It’s on the other block, go around.”
He was right. From the other direction we could approach and see a bombed car on a sidewalk. More soldiers came toward us and gestured for us to leave. We told one that another soldier had given us permission, and in the time it took for him to check our story we managed enough images with long lenses of the damage about 80 meters away.
Suddenly the paranoia returned. I noticed some double-cab pickup trucks circulating in the area with three or four men observing us before driving away. I alerted my colleagues that we should leave. In the taxi we decided to head to the airport and transmit the car bomb photos from there, and not expose ourselves to any more observers in the land where nobody trusts anybody.