The Spanish blogger Judith Torrea writes about Ciudad Juárez, a Mexican city on the US-border severely affected by drug trafficking and homicides. She was awarded the Reporters Without Borders BOB Award 2011 during the Global Media Conference for her blog “Ciudad Juárez, en la sombra del narcotráfico” (Ciudad Juárez in the shadow of drug trafficking). An interview about journalistic passion – and fear.
Judith, you have been reporting on Ciudad Juárez for 15 years now and even moved there in 2009 – what draw you towards one of the most dangerous cities in the world?
I am a journalist and our duty is to tell the stories that have to be told. If we don’t do that, we become accomplices of war, massacres or genocides like those involved in the so-called „War on Drugs“ led by the Mexican president Felipe Calderón. Once I stepped into this topic I couldn’t just ignore it and go back to Washington as if nothing had happened.
Stepping into it, how did that happen?
Even if I was born in Northern Spain, my heart is purely Mexican, it’s Juárezian. I always wanted to live in Mexico, but finally it all happened by pure coincidence. Fifteen years ago I crossed the Mexican border for the first time and the first city I came across was Ciudad Juárez. At that time the first women were disappearing, and there was nobody else who was reporting on it.
Most bloggers are citizen journalists and activists – when you started blogging, you have already been a highly experienced and awarded journalist. What made you leave your prestigious job as a White House correspondent and become a blogger in Mexico?
Originally, I wanted to work there as a freelance journalist. But then I discovered that in full economic crisis, nobody wanted to buy my stories. But I didn’t want to give up: I published them on a blog instead – not to nourish me, but to lift my spirits. I even renounced on advertisements or collaborations with traditional media, because I want to be as independent as possible. However, I would never have thought that it might become so popular and even receive the prestigious BOB Awards. Just consider how technically simple it looks. Perhaps I won’t earn much money with this blog, but it makes me happy. In times like those Juárez is going through, it is essential that people rise their voices, that they talk or write about what they are experiencing. I also teach citizen journalists in Juárez – my “pupils” are common people, but they tell some stories better than me.
You have been the first Spanish reporter to witness and report about death penalty executions in the US – another dark topic. Are you fascinated by the proximity of death?
In no way! I am a very happy person who loves life. But Juárez is my mission. Nobody asks to be born in a certain place at a certain time. If I don’t tell the story of Juárez, the winners of this „War on Drugs“ will tell it. What keeps me here is my passion and my love for this city. I am fascinated by the mothers of the murdered girls who succeed in transforming adversities into strength. Ciudad Juárez taught me to live.
What was your impression of Juárez when you entered the city for the first time? Was it love at first sight?
The city is neither fascinating nor beautiful. But when you cross the bridge across the US-Mexican border into Juárez, you immediately feel the energy of this town. It’s a women’s city: While many men are unemployed, women have for decades worked in the export oriented assembly plants, the maquiladoras. Their strong position causes jealousy in the city’s macho culture.
Since 1993 hundreds or thousands of young women have been murdered in Juárez; many locals even speak of 5.000 cases. You said that the first media reports came extremely late – how does the Mexican press react?
Absurdly the first newspaper that reported on it was the New York Times. The Mexican press even claimed that the people of Juárez invented these stories, following the discourse of president Felipe Calderón. Mexican media is mainly concentrated in two outlets tightly related to the government. Today mainstream media can’t ignore the feminicidios any longer, but instead of analyzing the reasons for it, they show gruesome pictures of the victims and indirectly blame them for provoking these violent acts by dressing up or going out.
The city lacks international attention: You are the only foreign journalist living in Juárez – and when you wanted to sell your first freelance stories on Juárez in 2009, the editorial offices weren’t interested. Where does this ignorance come from?
Mexico is not Afghanistan. Many foreign editors don’t consider it an important topic. Furthermore it is a dangerous job; many journalists come with bodyguards and don’t want to sleep in the city, because they don’t want to risk anything. When I was back in New York reading the news about the so-called „War on Drugs“ in Ciudad Juárez, I realized that my perspective differed from that of most journalists: Unlike them, I distrust Calderón when he states that the victims have been related to drug dealing.
Once you accused the Mexican president Felipe Calderón on TV of supporting the Sinaloa Cartel, the most powerful drug cartel in Juárez. Are you not frightened?
The only fear I have is not doing what I have to do. I am a journalist that will never betray herself, that is not corrupt. Neither the Sinaloa Cartel nor Calderón can stop me. As Juárezians, we all share the same danger.
“Hours go by. The fear. She doesn’t come back. Days go by. Years.” – Many mothers are still waiting for their daughters to come back, years after their disappearance. Judith Torrea blogs about forbidden activism, ghost towns and the power of memory.
Have you ever been threatened?
The government tries to put me under constant pressure. But I won’t go into details.
What will the future bring for Juárez?
Peace will come soon; the death toll is already dropping. But it won’t be a peace for the love of peace – Calderon’s „War on Drugs“ simply costs too much money. And it will be a false peace: This “War” has left tremendous social problems, hundreds of orphans, empty houses, lots of unemployed and many, many traumatized people.
What will you do when this “war” is over?
Hard to say – I hardly ever think about the future.
The interview was conducted in Spanish and translated into English.
Ciudad Juárez is a city of 1,5 million inhabitants in Northern Mexico directly bordering the US city El Paso. Due to its location, the city is a major point of entry and transportation into the United States – for migrants and goods as well as for drugs. Juárez attracted several drug cartels by its low-wage work force, the proximity of the lucrative U.S. market and its social disorganization. In the 90ies it became the epicentre of Mexico’s “War on Drugs”; with between 6 and 27 homicides each day it is considered “the most violent zone in the world outside of declared war zones.”
Judith Torrea is a 37-year-old journalist from Pamplona/ Spain. After working for several US media she decided to dedicate her work to the fight against drug trafficking and the Mexican „War on Drugs“. She was awarded with the Spanish journalist award Premio Ortega y Gasset as well as with Deutsche Welle’s international weblog awards, the BOBs, for her blog “Ciudad Juárez, en la sombre del narcotráfico” (Ciudad Juárez in the shadow of drug trafficking). Based on her blog and long lasting experience she recently published her book “Juárez en la sombra” (Juárez in the shadow).
By: Christina Felschen