Human Journalism – best articles from

María Verza (Chiapas, Mexico)

( Translation by: A.L.C. Teen Translators – Asturias, Spain)

  • Mexico is the country that consumes more soft drinks per person in the world and Chiapas one of the places where not only the most is drunk but also where malnutrition and obesity prevail.
  • Experts warn, with 70% of Mexicans overweight, 30% of them obese, and diabetes the primary cause of death, that the health system will collapse by 2020.
  • Any hopes? That Congress passes the initiative supported by The UN and 47 other organizations to increase beverage company taxes and that The PRI´s current “Crusade Against Hunger” is taken into account. 

[A road-sign marking the way to YITIC, in the Altos de Chiapas (Maria Verza)]

It´s a festival day in the Altos de Chiapas, the mountain range that surrounds San Cristóbal de las Casas. San Pedro Chenalhó´s school is the center of activities because they have a large gymnasium that converts into a multiple-use meeting area. Regardless of the celebration, or the village participating, this scene invariably repeats itself. It´s ten o´clock in the morning and the number of cases of Coca-Cola that are piled up at the doorway is astounding. The audience settles in early getting good seats to watch their children´s performances. Various volunteers proceed to open and offer soft drinks, which thanks to the City Hall are usually the largest size available in the city, and everybody grabs one. The only requirement is that you are able to finish the half-liter bottles which often seem bigger than the children that are holding them. Of course if not, there´s another option: their mothers can either hold the bottle or pour it into a baby bottle to make it easier to drink.

San Pedro Chenalhó (M.V) 

Next, some little kids go to center court where they dance around the Coca-Cola brand symbol drawn on the floor. If an extra-terrestrial arrived at this moment, surely they would think that Coke was something very important to the earthlings. Everyone is pleased that a woman is offering some cookies to accompany their soft drinks between performances. All the children are doing very well and today they will save their lunches, something important in a region where poverty affects eight out of ten people and malnutrition and hunger three out of ten.

The school in San Pedro Chenalhó is on the road that joins San Cristóbal de Las Casas with Pantelho, a bit further than 60 kilometers from the colonial city. During the trip, the red and white colors stand out against the green mountain landscape. Almost all the shops, but not the normal houses, are painted in these colors because this way the paint is free. Coca-Cola Femsa (the Mexican subsidiary that is Coca-Cola´s largest bottling plant in the world, with 2.6 billion cases produced in 2011 and which supplies all Latin America) knows that these indigenous and impoverished areas are an important market. Femsa opts for advertisements in native languages and have changed over the traditional welcoming billboards to villages into large publicity posters.

Ctra S Cristobal Pantelhó (M.V.)

The strategy comes from afar. As the social anthropologist Jaime Page Pliego explains, in research about to be published in the magazine, Liminar, soft drink companies looked for local party leaders who had been supported by the PRI and who were in charge of pox production (a type of clear brandy made from sugar cane and used in Mayan ceremonies) and gave them exclusivity for Coke and Pepsi. Soon they became rich. Page Pliego cites the example of the Lopez Tuxum family from San Juan Chamula – a village today known for a large Syncretist Church where Mayan ceremonies take place in front of its altars of various virgins and saints. This family was offered the exclusive selling rights in 1962 to both brands and later both companies wanted the sole rights which Coca-Cola ended up winning. The Lopez Tuxums established themselves as money-lenders, controlled all transportation, and handed down the businesses from one generation to another. “The social prestige that Coke and Pepsi acquired in Chamula, primarily for Coke, at the family festivities and patron events, spread all over the Altos de Chiapas”, writes Page.

Little by little these refreshments have become an important focus for the communities of los Altos. Nowadays, it´s not only a beverage but rather almost a currency to pay debts or dowries and in fact even part of Prehispanic ceremonies and religious rituals. Since Evangelical churches have proliferated in the area they have also encouraged the local natives to replace their alcoholic drink pox with Coke or other sodas.

Ctra S Cristobal Pantelhó (M.V.)


Mexico is the country where the most soft drinks are consumed worldwide and Coca-Cola Femsa are the leaders. When the heat bears down in some villages of northern Mexico´s Sonora Desert, a person can drink up to five liters of Coke, according to Page Pliego´s data. The average in the country, his research found, stands at 0.4 liters daily per Mexican, a figure that multiplies in Chiapas. In los Altos, each inhabitant drinks 2.25 liters daily and is the reason why the bottles there are extra-large and not sold anywhere else.

The Coca-Cola Femsa bottling plant in San Cristóbal de las Casas is, furthermore, one of the two largest in Mexico (the other is in Tlaxcala, near the capital) with guaranteed water access since it´s situated on the slopes of the Huitepec, known as the “volcano of water”. Page Pliego says that besides the actual well, which is used to supply all Chiapas and part of Oaxaca and Tabasco, another is being built. Various organizations have denounced agreementsbetween the company and officials for being able to access the water at a very low cost in a state where having rights to this resource causes major legal problems among communities.

Ctra S Cristóbal Pantelhó (M.V.)

That´s why Chiapas is the best example of what has become known as “Coca-Colization”,or the invasion of the soft drinks. While maybe not the only cause of what experts term as “the new war of the twenty-first century” or the obesity epidemic, it is clearly one of the main reasons why in Mexico, according to expert studies, 70% of the population is overweight and 30% of them are obese.

Yet for UN Food Program spokesperson Oliver de Schutter, the point where a marked change in the Mexicans´ food habits and also an increase in sugar and processed fats intake occurred, is when on the first of January 1994 The North American Free Trade Act was signed. Food imports soared and, in just a decade, Coke consumption doubled among children, according to Schutter.

School in Yitic (M.V.)


In Chiapas this makes for an explosive combination: high soft drink consumption and high levels of malnourishment. “Most Mexican adults were malnourished as children, so their bodies are programmed for less and when suddenly there is an excess of sugar the metabolic damage is terrible” explains Dr. Abelardo Avila, researcher for The National Institute for Health and Nutrition. The consequences range from diabetes to heart-disease, blindness, amputations and lower work output.

According to the 2012 Health and Nutrition Survey, diabetes is the primary cause of death in the country, with an estimated 13 million affected and only half diagnosed and treated. This survey found that 70% of households demonstrated some level of food imbalance.

Nutritionist Marisol Vega knows what the combination of these factors mean. She has spent more than ten years working in several communities in los Altos de Chiapas with university or NGO projects and has seen “how traditional diets have been replaced by soft drinks and junk-food that is cheaper and easier to prepare”.

Zinacantan´s Mrs. Petrona making tortillas (M.V.)

For ten pesos (half a Euro) they can buy a large bottle of soda for the whole family to drink for breakfast, later another for lunch and perhaps even one more for dinner, because it´s cheap(less than bottled water)and thirst-quenching, especially when served with tortillas. In addition, it is also socially respected”, adds Vega. The researcher warns of the danger that this implies in some communities where there exists historically-inherited malnutrition. Breastfeeding is being given up early and soft drinks are even being served to infants. The result is that in the same family there are under-nourished children and obese adults. Not only has the rate of diabetes shot up, but Vega warns that the problem will multiply in the future.


Many schools, not only in Chiapas or Yucatan where the problem is more apparent, but also in the metropolitan area of the Mexican capital, haven´t got drinkable water and the children hydrate with soft drinks. This is a horrible problem”, points out Dr. Abelardo Avila. “I have even seen mothers who fill their baby bottles with Coca-Cola”, he adds. Also, schools have been converted into “junk-food paradises” even though their sale has already been prohibited. You only need to go to the schools´ entrances to see that what used to be sold inside, now has moved outside. “Right, during a few months we couldn´t sell” – says Señora Juana while she loads her small carriage with sweets at a centrally located school near the capital –“ but now there´s no problem”.

Ctra S Cristobal Pantelhó (M.V.)

All experts agree, that although in some places like the capital anti-obesity and some nutritional programs have been launched, in general the state has not done enough to control the overweight epidemic and the diseases related to these problems. With diabetes at the top, the problems have grown so much that “if continued at the current rate, in 2020 the financial and public health damage for México will be unsustainable, a catastrophe” predicts Dr. Ávila.

Coca Cola and the rest of the soft drink companies has done everything that the government has let them do”, protests Alejandro Calvillo, Director of the NGO “The Power of the Consumer”.

On several occasions their group has denounced the excessive permissiveness of the authorities regarding the expansion of beverage industries who have operated with very low costs and taxes and even with unfair practices. “We can demonstrate that agreements between Coca-Cola and school directors from Chiapas permitted their exclusive beverage sales on school property and that they paid them with bottles of Coke that were later resold for their own personal gain”. Calvillo also remembers that the relationship that this company has with the powers to be is very strong. “You just have to recall that not long ago, from 2000 to 2006, Mexico had a president that was the director of Coca-Cola (Vicente Fox)”.

Ctra S Cristobal Pantelhó (M.V.)

Demands of the civil organizations and the UN itself to alleviate the problem have been the same for some years and they follow two directives: prohibiting soft drink and junk-food publicity aimed at children and raising taxes on the industry. But companies in the sector, very powerful and with double moral standards (some, for example, support nutritional programs developed by NGOs), have managed to skirt the measures by committing to self-regulation, stating that the problem isn’t soft drinks or some foods but rather nutritional habits, as Jaime Zabludovsky, President of ConMéxico and sector employer, explains. Imagen de previsualización de YouTube

Up for debate, the next Mexican Congressional Sessions will answer to the demands of 47 organizations to raise the taxes on the soft drink companies and to try to counteract the consumption of sweetened beverages. These groups also know that it will be necessary to invest in nutritional education as much in rural areas as in the urban ones and also to recover traditional diets with produce grown in their own community when possible. Imagen de previsualización de YouTube

UN Secretary Schutter agrees with this diagnosis. México must ”study the possibility of levying taxes to discourage energy-rich diets, especially soft drink consumption” he said this past March.

Mexico should also “grant subsidies so poorer communities are able to have water, fruit and vegetables” and work towards “agricultural and trade policies” which have a good effect on population diet, namely, policies supporting individual production in agricultural communities instead of imports.

As the experts agree, this should be one of the basic objectives of the “Crusade against Hunger“, which has just been set up by Enrique Peña Nieto’s government with 30,000 million pesos (about 1,800 million euros) focused on 400 highly marginalized towns in the country.

Welcome to Zinacantán 16km from San Cristobal (M.V)



Majo Siscar / Translation: Blanca G. Bertolaza
  • The neighbors of Chachapa have been fighting for 60 years against rigged contracts, pressures and harassment from chieftains and the government which have ripped them off almost 5,000 acres.
  • In this time 13 villagers who fought for their land have been murdered
  • Now, three years after the last expropriation, they have united again to defend what belongs to them

Throughout his life, Cándido Trujillo has seen how Chachapa’s communal land has shrunk due to pressure and harassment. M.S.

Cándido Trujillo lives off and for animals. Now he only has about sixty left including goats, cows, horses and even a donkey. But before he had about 200. There is no land left to herd them. His village, San Salvador Chachapa, which belongs to the township of Amozoc, has lost more than 6,000 acres of communal land since he was young.

“Before I had to buy very little food, just some during the dry season, that was all. But now, since I can’t sow pastures and have less land, it doesn’t add up anymore”, tells Trujillo, resigned. He is one of the few villagers who still live exclusively off the land in his community. Now to defend his way of life he has built himself a small house in one of the few plots of land they have left that is under the threat of expropriation.

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Majo Siscar · Fotos: Raúl Ibáñez · Traslation: Blanca G. Bertolaza
  • Ciudad Juarez is the most violent city in the world with a murder rate of 240 per every 100,000 inhabitants
  • However, in the midst of this death spree, the citizens look for ways to heal their wounds and prevent the violence from rising in the absence of action from the authorities.

Memorial for the women dead in Juarez in the border bridge between this city and the US. Raúl Ibáñez

In the midst of the spiral of violence that affects Mexico some places are much more hazardous than others. Ciudad Juarez is one of them.  It has the dubious honor of being the most violent city in the world. In the last four years almost 10,000 people have been murdered, one fourth of all the drug trafficking-related murders in the country. The figures are outrageous all over the country, but Juarez reached in 2010 a rate of 240 violent deaths per 100,000 inhabitants, more than triple the deaths that take place in El Salvador, the bloodiest country in Latin America. However, in the midst of this death spree, life looks for its ways. Although about 300,000 people have left the city because of the insecurity, more than a million still fight to survive in this town, marked by being right on the border with the US.

This dividing line has been its source of wealth but also the root of its worst tragedies. In the 80’s the maquilas, manufacturing factories dedicated to export, that took advantage of the cheap labor and the proximity to the US, began concentrating there. The economic development that followed attracted migrants from all over the country. In the 90’s, Juarez was the zero-unemployment town. The possibility of work made the authorities not worry about creating some minimum well-being and the city grew without the proper services or infrastructures. Juarez also became the US’s backyard, not just because the factories were located there but because Americans from the South crossed the border every day to have wild fun, drawn by the cheap alcohol, drugs and sex. Trafficking networks started to flourish in the midst of a climate of impunity and a huge contempt for life and the female gender. In 1993 a group of mothers raised the alarms when they denounced 300 feminicides of young women, kidnapped, raped, mutilated and murdered in the city’s surroundings. And since 2008, when the Mexican government deployed the Army to fight against organized crime, the disappearances and murders of women have multiplied. In the last three and a half years, 903 more women have been murdered and another hundred have disappeared state-wide. Mónica Alanís Esparza is one of them. On the morning of March 26th, 2009, her father, Ricardo Alanís dropped her off like every other day at the University of Ciudad Juarez, where Mónica studied Business Administration.

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By Majo Siscar (México) / Translation: Blanca García Bertolaza

  • 180 organizations travel in the Peace with Justice and Dignity Convoy around the country’s most violent spots getting together with the victims of the war on drug trafficking
  • We travel with them, listening, watching how they share their grief, and in many cases, how they are heard, comforted in their grief for the first time

“If I end up dead one day, I’ll be grateful because I’ll be going with my sons”, Bibian Echevarría heartbreakingly blurts out in Durango’s main square, in Northern Mexico. Her three sons, Luis, Hugo and Miguel, 27, 22 and 20, went out to have fun and were murdered. The only explanation: “We are sorry madam, your sons were good, it was a mistake”. A “mistake” that remains unpunished under the wing of the war on narcos implemented by president Felipe Calderón that has already killed more than 40,000 people since 2007, most of them the same age as Luis, Hugo and Miguel.

Bibian Martínez and Javier Sicilia cry for their dead ones and for the sorrow of all the relatives who got together on Monday in Durango to support the convoy (Raúl Ibáñez)

Bibian’s words join dozens of testimonies from parents, children, siblings, friends or partners who were murdered and disappeared, who, like a never-ending stream of horror and death, are discovered as the Peace with Justice and Dignity Convoy passes by. This initiative, driven by 180 social organizations, wants to make society aware and put an end to the violence that is terrifying most of the country.

That’s why 14 buses and 25 cars left Cuernavaca last Tuesday, capital of the state of Morelos, where on March 28th Juan Francisco Sicilia, son of the poet Javier Sicilia, was murdered along with six other friends. That father’s sorrow has crystallized the grief of a wounded society and after two months of local demonstrations, it has been channeled into a pilgrimage through the states harder hit by the violence in which they try to bring all those atrocities to light, often darkened by the fear of being persecuted, marked, stigmatized.  That way, the route of fear has turned into the route of “consolation”, as Sicilia named it. “This war, crime, our government, fractured us, they lead us to silence and lack of unity. But this convoy that springs from the grief, from the offenses, from the dead, and that is getting a lot of victims together, this convoy speaks of comfort, of being with the other one’s solitude”, said the poet, who tries to bring society together so that it gets organized

Only 6 years old, Francisco Fernando Rodríguez knows that his father has been murdered by the narcos (Raúl Ibáñez)

against crime for itself. The convoy will arrive on the 9th to Ciudad Juárez, the country’s most hurt city. There, a citizens’ agreement will be discussed and signed. It sets six essential points to get the Army off of the streets, put an end to immunity and corruption, regain the memory of the victims, give young people opportunities, strengthen the democracy and rebuild the social fabric.

“This convoy is about comfort, about being with the other one’s solitude”

But in a country in which the shadow of doubt falls upon the dead, where fear is the way to silence desperation, the first step is for the victims to unburden themselves and meet each other. The

testimony of the victims’ relatives is joined by dozens of people who want their dramas to be heard, which get more intense as they head north. On Monday, in Durango, the first northern state the convoy gets to, a six year old boy went to welcome Sicilia with his mother. They put up with the five-hour delay, until 9 at night, in a van in the middle of a city where normally people do not leave their houses after dark. Francisco Fernando Rodríguez carried his father’s picture, after whom he is also named. He was shot to death.

In this city’s schools, kids the age of Francisco Fernando learn to throw themselves to the ground if there is a shootout, they know if they are being followed by a van and they talk to each other about the dead unburied from the narco-pits every week. Two hundred twenty eight corpses from April to June according to official data. Many more, according to local journalists. Of all of those, only one has been identified until now, but dozens of relatives show up at the forensic lab looking for answers.

Imagen de previsualización de YouTube

[This video showing a teacher enthusiastically teaching the kids a song while there is a shootout outside in which 5 people died, in Monterrey, became world-famous a couple of weeks ago]

Diana Jacobo was one of them. She is looking for her husband, Abraham Salazar, kidnapped by the state police last April 1st. According to an eye witness, the officers arrested him in a police post inside the city, they beat him and took him. Abraham did not have an arrest warrant, no one asked for a ransom, he was just disappeared. Now, Diana takes part in the convoy with the hope that it will bring her husband back. Her two kids and several of her husband’s cab-driver colleagues are with her. They all agree that the police is working with the criminals, and that the officers themselves steal, extort and assault.

But in this war, like in others, there is not a good side and a bad side. The convoy is also made up of policemen’s relatives, killed or missing in this trickle of blood. Like Ofelia Castillo, whose son, Edgar Humberto Quesada, local policeman in Calera, Zacatecas, has been missing for a year. On July 13th last year, Edgar was on duty. At 4 in the morning he was on the phone with his wife when he told her he had to hang up because “some people” had come in. He never answered the phone again. When it was time to go, his wife called the station to be told that he was in some classes.  In the

Ofelia Medina shows pictures of her son, disappeared in the Calera local police station, in Zacatecas state (Raúl Ibánez)

evening, a colleague confessed to his wife that he had been kidnapped by the Zetas and that the police was not going to do anything about it. In fact, Ofelia asked her son’s bosses for an explanation and they did not even pick up the phone. The attorney had the nerve to tell her: “don’t worry, he must be working with them and he will make good money”. Ofelia wants to know but she doesn’t dare to ask anymore. She is scared. Her own husband did not want her to go meet the Zacatecas convoy, but she decided to go alone. For her son and for her two grandchildren, 15 and 8, who are practically orphans.

“Ofelia wants to know but she doesn’t dare to ask anymore. She is scared.”

Like Francisco, like so many other kids, like María Herrera’s five grandchildren. This woman from Michoacán has four missing sons. Every night she imagines their faces, hoping to see them again, although she knows that is not easy. The first two to disappear were Raúl and Jesús Trujillo Herrera, last seen on August 2008 in Guerrero state, where they went to buy gold to sell later on in their town, Pajuacarán. The buying and selling of jewelry is the biggest source of income in that place, but to get it they have to travel all over the country, facing roads and towns where crime is the only law.  Two years later, in September 2010, Gustavo and Luis Armando disappeared on the way to Veracruz. María’s family has looked for them everywhere, they have reported it to different authorities, but not only have they not given them answers, they have hindered the investigations. However, María does not give up. In her community, there are 15 more young men missing while they worked buying and selling gold. “Today it is them, but tomorrow it can be you and we have to put an end to it, we have to support each other”, asserts María, visibly moved, in the same square in Morelia – the state’s capital – where in 2008 eight people were killed by the explosion of hand-grenades in the course of a popular festivity.

“We walk among the remains of the dead, and their death hurts more than our own life, and I ask Calderón, are there collateral casualties?” exclaimed Sicilia to the hundreds of moved citizens of Durango who for once defied the implicit curfew. She pleaded for a unitary demand of justice and “if necessary, organize a boycott, civil disobedience, until we change the institutions”. In this sense, she gave the example of Cheran, an indigenous purépecha community in Michoacán state, who after years of harassment form criminal groups paid by the timber merchants who are destroying their forests, they decided to close down every access to their community with barricades and bonfires. Meanwhile, they move forward in their autonomy project according the ways and customs of the native Mexican peoples. “ ‘Enough’ to us means reflection, meeting, union, conscience”, expressed the Cheran commoner.

Hundreds of people gathered at the passing of the Convoy in Morelia’s main square, the same one where two years ago 8 people died victim of the narcos’ first terrorist attack (Raúl Ibáñez)

And that reflection and organization is happening in the heart of the convoy. The faltering voices and bleary looks become embraces and their stifled cries are channeled into a single one: ‘Stop the violence’. For that, besides the events in every city, they swap experiences and discuss the proposals during the trips, the rests and the meals. The deepest work will be done in Ciudad Juárez but when that moment comes they will already have traveled over 3,000 kilometers in this route of grief and hope. For now they still have to visit Saltillo, in Coahuila state –where dozens of corpses have also been unburied from narco-pits-, Monterrey, the country’s second most important city that has become a trench in the last couple of months, and Chihuahua, the capital of the state where Juárez is. There, they will go to the door of the government house where, last December, activist Marisela Escobedo was murdered while demanding justice for her daughter’s feminicide, to remember them, to condemn their deaths and to point at those responsible for so much pain. From town to town, they unravel the mesh of silence that perpetuates corruption, violence and impunity.

“What would happen if all this was done in every neighborhood of every town, of every state, of the whole country? Where would Mexico’s criminals hide?”, proposed to the crowd Julián Le Barón, a farmer from Chihuahua whose brother was murdered after leading a citizens movement that managed to free their youngest brother, kidnapped by the narcos. The suggestion is enough to silence the skeptic.

By Majo Sicar (México D.F.) /Translation: Blanca García
  • 183 corpses have been exhumed in 40 illegal communal graves in Tamaulipas that the narcos use to bury their victims
  • Hundreds of relatives of missing persons search for their own among the remains
  • The discovery also brought to light the Mexican state’s inability to guarantee the safety of its population

Guadalupe Ríos waits seated on the stairs of the Mexican State’s Attorney’s Anti-Kidnapping Unit. Inside is her oldest daughter, Angélica Velazquez, to have a DNA sample taken, and to try to remember peculiar details that reveal the identities of her sister and her son, who disappeared seven months ago. They come from far away with the hope of finding their relatives among the 183 corpses unburied in April in the 40 illegal pits found in the municipality of San Fernando, Tamaulipas. More than 130 of these people show signs of torture, exposed fractures and head trauma, as the authorities revealed after the autopsies. According to the investigations, these massacred corpses could belong to people that would have been kidnapped by the two drug trafficking cartels that are fighting over the area, El Golfo and Los Zetas, to join their ranks, and when they resist, they are tortured to death.

The Matamoros and Mexico DF forensic medical services work to identify the 183 bodies unburied in Tamaulipas. Alexandre Meneghini/AP

“We want to have them back in any way, we would want them to turn up alive, but if not, at least we want to find them so we can bury them”, Guadalupe Ríos manages to say among tears. Her daughter, Julia, traveled to Reynosa last September to bring goods for the store she ran in Tula, Hidalgo. Her nephew, Miguel Ángel, Angélica’s youngest son, went with her. On the night of September 25th Julia talked to her husband to tell him that they were already on the road and that, at the latest, they’d be home by 9 or 10 in the morning. They never got there. Julia’s husband reported them missing, he asked formally to see the tapes of the tolls on the road, and for five months he traveled all over desolate paths and villages. Everywhere the same answer from the government workers: “she’s not the only one, there’s hundreds of missing people”. Now many of their relatives, certainly many more than the 183 corpses found, line up in Mexico DF and in the Matamoros, Tamaulipas, morgue, where the bodies have been distributed. With each one of these remains the everyday abnormality this country, and especially this border state, lives in has been unburied: daily massacres, the barbarity of the criminal groups, the connivance of many government workers, the society’s fear of reporting it, and the mass disappearances.

According to a Ministry of Defense report, from January to October 2010 there were 1,700 people reported missing in Tamaulipas and Nuevo León (adjacent states). And by the end of March, the National Human Rights Commission had registered 18,000 missing throughout the country since 2006, when the war over control of the territory broke out between the drug traffickers and the Mexican Army. And that in spite of the fact that most of the ones who go looking for their relatives now confess that they hadn’t dared to report it. They feared the authorities would answer them with the already traditional “they must have been up to something” or that they themselves were conniving with crime. In fact, the Citizens in Support of Human Rights organization (CADHAC), of Nuevo León, who along with other NGO’s from the Northeastern Mexican states submitted a report about forced disappearances to the UN office, has heard about threats against people who are looking for their missing relatives from government workers -attorneys, policemen and soldiers, as well as from strangers. For instance, among the 76 people arrested related to these graves that the authorities have now hurried to show appear 16 San Fernando local police officers. They have also arrested the alleged mastermind, Martín Omar Estrada, aka El Kiko, pointed as the leader for the Zetas in that same city and alleged murderer of about 200 people.

However, its residents do not think that these arrests will make much of a difference. “Before the ones from El Golfo and the Zetas lived in San Fernando and there were no problems, but since (president Felipe) Calderón came in with his soldiers, both of them are fighting for the area and they keep recruiting new people. Now there are a lot of massacres, kidnappings, extortion, robberies. And they are done by armed 14 or 16 year old kids. Or they pull people off the buses so they join the cartel, if they don’t want to get in, they kill them”, a San Fernando neighbor who is waiting for news of her daughter tells.

A woman waits in front of the Matamoros, Tamauplias, morgue, to find her 16 year old son among the corpses. AP Photo/Alexandre Meneghini

That is also the way the National Security office handles it. It points out that most of the 183 corpses found would be those of people who traveled in the passenger buses that go to the neighboring country. The Tamaulipas customs are the southernmost along the border, and a lot of Mexican and Central American migrants choose to cross through them because they are more permissive and they are the shortest way to cross Mexico. In fact, it was in San Fernando itself where last August the corpses of 72 undocumented Central and South Americans were found.

But fear spreads everywhere there. “It’s awful. If, for example, you are riding a car they like on any road they take it away, and if you don’t give it to them, they kill you”, says the same San Fernando neighbor. Among the relatives runs around 4 years-old Tania, oblivious to anything. Her mother, Esmeralda, 8 months pregnant, told her they were going to the doctor to get from her a blood sample that will help identify her husband, missing since a couple of months ago, when he went to take a van to Tamaulipas. He worked in a used car agency in DF and he was supposed to bring another vehicle back. He never got to deliver the van.

He might have disappeared in San Fernando or anywhere else in the state, because in the Tamaupilas roads criminal squads are multiplying and there does not seem to be any law apart from theirs. A National Human Rights Commission (CNDH) report from last February identifies 71 towns in 16 different states, road and railroad stretches in which there have been kidnappings, extortion, robberies, sexual assaults and abuse on migrants. But as the CNDH points out, 39 of these risk spots congregate in only four states: Nuevo León, Veracruz, Chiapas and Tamaulipas.

The government’s promises of increasing security measures after the finding of the 72 murdered migrants last August do not seem to have made much of a difference. The open war between the Golfo (Gulf) Cartel and its former military arm, the Zetas Cartel, added to the militarization and the police corruption maintain what analysts have dubbed a “failed State”. The thugs themselves murdered last year the governor candidate, and his brother, who replaced him, set up an ineffective government. The press is silenced by beatings or by bills and the local police is an accomplice to the cartels. The state has become considerably depopulated and those who have stayed live subdued to floor rights charges and extortion, mandatory toll for any business in the region.  And if they refuse, they’re killed, its residents assure. They don’t leave their houses after dark anymore. “No one can speak, we don’t even have neither Police, nor Justice, nor anything. Security is paid for through extortion. But what security? If they want to they kill you. We’ve been living a massacre for more than a year”, the same San Fernando neighbor, who prefers not to give her name, tells.

Uriel Carvajal left for the US on a bus that passed through Tamaulipas. They never heard from him again. Two of his brothers went looking for him and now all three are missing. A fourth brother and their parents wait for them to turn up in the town of La Concepción, in Hidalgo. Alexandre Meneghini/AP

Guadalupe, on the other hand, asks: “What would happen if it were the politicians’ relatives the ones who were in this situation? What would Calderón do if his children disappeared? And the criminals? Don’t they know that they are destroying entire families? We all suffer, children, grandchildren, siblings…

All of their stories transmit an eerie feeling of fragility. It will still be a while before they get answers. As just this week, after almost a month, the Attorney’s office has delivered the first three identified bodies. And while they are still waiting, 104 more have been unburied in the also northern state of Durango. This dance of corpses seems like a convicting enumeration to the State, which not only is incapable of maintaining the civil population’s integrity, but that sentences them to the uncertainty of not knowing what has happened to their thousands of missing persons.

by Cristina F. Pereda /translation: Blanca García

  • Claudia Nuñez is one of the most prestigious journalists of US Hispanic media
  • The situation on the border has changed the way many professionals work, directly affected by the violence
  • Nuñez says that migratory flows are not the same as before: “Now they also emigrate because of the violence”

Border between Mexico and California (Bisayan Lady, Flickr)

When North American media talks about immigration, violence, insecurity on the border, they talk about thousands of citizens -with and without documents- who live trapped in that situation. Among them there is a handful of journalists, many of them immigrants themselves, who have seen the change on the face of the border from a privileged perspective.

One of them is Claudia Nuñez, one of the country’s most prestigious Hispanic journalists. Her articles for the Los Angeles newspaper La Opinión have earned her numerous awards and they are a window to the true reality of the border. Testimonies from victims of modern slavery, of the failure of George Bush’s fight against sexual exploitation and of an FBI operation to eliminate a human trafficking net. This same week, the journalist is investigating the alleged fraud of customs agents on the border between Mexico and the US, who have been accused of letting traffickers in.

“It is true that violence rates have gone up, but the argument used by politicians, who have linked violence and immigration, is not true”, says Nuñez. “They have manipulated it, it is an issue of drugs, of drug use, of addiction, of weapons and of security. The victims have entered a vicious circle because of the authorities, who want to control the way everything is represented”.

And among the victims, there are also journalists. Although Nuñez says that she feels bad because, in some way, she has a privileged position being able to tell the story from this side of the border: “My colleagues in Mexico live in a much worse situation. After all these years, we’ve never seen anything at this level”. Nuñez is talking about having to modify articles, to take out part of the information, to stop having relatives’ photos in her wallet or to take off her wedding ring when she goes to cover certain stories. “Now it doesn’t matter if you are going to cover a story about agricultural fields, they follow you anyway. They control everything”.

Journalism in between fear and silence

After more than ten years as a field reporter, and in one of the areas of the country that have changed the most in a decade, Nuñez has witnessed the problems that affect Southwestern United States. Even though she covers all sorts of topics, her investigation articles have uncovered in many occasions stories that slip past national media.

Cover of La Opinión newspaper from march 21st with an article by Claudia Nuñez about the all eged fraud in the border control

“I’ve always been interested in social and human issues, the drug and human trafficking, the violence, the brain drain, everything that surrounds such a drastic change that has happened in so little time”. Nuñez talks about the rise in violence. And about all the fear that has impregnated everything: “There’s so much fear, so much intimidation that many things are not denounced. Fear has silenced a lot of victims, a lot of beatings, a lot of kidnappings”.

And it has changed the way journalists work. The current situation on the border hasn’t only made Nuñez, and so many other local journalists, change some habits and work differently with her sources. Before they felt, seeing her as a Hispanic reporter, that they had a connection with her. They shared information they wouldn’t give to other North American journalists. Now they are afraid of talking and even of people knowing she is a journalist. “I just covered a story in Laredo and I stayed with a family that asked me to never identify myself as a journalist. They are scared”, she states.

It also prevents her from getting the other side of the story. “Even though we try to walk away from stereotypes, it is getting harder every time to have all the sources”, she states. Authorities, government agencies and local organizations now give out less information when they see they are Hispanic journalists.

Journalists and immigrants

In spite of her years as a journalist, of exposing human trafficking nets and bringing to light 21st century slavery, Nuñez still talks about all these changes with a certain surprise. As if she didn’t believe how much the border community has had to suffer. When she talks about immigration, she changes her tone. Like many other colleagues and like her sources, she is an immigrant. She studied in Mexico and she arrived to the United States as a correspondent in 1988. Afterwards came the chance she had never dared to dream about, working for La Opinión – the big West Coast newspaper-.

And meanwhile, an immigrant family, the memories of relatives who left for the US, celebrations for those who came back, and a grandmother who witnessed how everybody came and went.

“When we heard about the reform, for some it is only a political discourse, but for journalists like us who are close to the families we see that it’s not. They are stories of hope, broken dreams and starting over. They are mothers who want a future for their children, who are afraid to go out on the street, to walk by a policeman, obsessed with not drawing attention”, she remarks.

Nuñez is convinced that any immigration reform will be designed solely for those who are already in the country and it won’t change at all the new migratory flows. President Barack Obama promised during the election campaign that he would undertake a reform during his first 12 months in power. He didn’t fulfill it. The health care reform went wrong, it required more negotiations and concessions than expected and immigration fell off the list. Later attempts, such as a law to grant citizenship to young students under the condition of going to college or joining the army, have been held back because of Republican opposition.

The attempts to fulfill “the promise” have been, also, very mild and have given way to more radical efforts such as controversial Arizona law SB1070, which allows officers to check the papers of anyone “suspected of being illegal”. Until then, only immigration agents could do it and only once the person had committed an offense, not before.

Obama’s Administration filed a lawsuit in federal court against the Arizona law, but that hasn’t stopped other states from thinking about passing copies of it or from trying to take away the right of citizenship to children of immigrants without papers who are born in the United States. Two years and too many controversies later, undocumented immigrants are still in the same situation, only more scared.

What has changed is the context of those who emigrate now. “We’re not talking about the waves of immigrants of five years ago, when they crossed the border hoping for a job. Now they have other reasons, and one of them is violence”, states Nuñez. “Now you don’t die because of the desert or the river, it is because the cartel kills you for not paying”

Inside the US, many of those who survived the river aren’t expecting the reform anymore. When the first news of immigrants going back to Mexico came, many of them read them with skepticism. They were stories of the crisis, of the lack of opportunities, of the economic collapse that suffocated and still suffocates many Hispanic families. Now it is a confirmed trend that many, like Nuñez, never imagined.

“I’m telling it now as if I were telling an implausible story, but it’s there, there are immigrants in the consulates asking for double citizenship for their children- who are North American- to be able to go back to their country, there are no kids in some schools because their parents have taken them to Mexico…”, she remarks with a smile. “A story I never thought I’d see in this country”.