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Documentary tells the story of Mexican journalists facing down everyday danger
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

American journalists who anger someone are likely to get angry emails or nasty web comments posted to their stories. Mexican journalists who anger powerful people might die in a hail of gunfire.

Since 1996, at least 48 reporters and editors have been murdered in Mexico, and no one has been convicted in any of the crimes.

Roberto Ruiz's documentary "Reportero" follows the weekly Tijuana newspaper Semanario Zeta, one of the few news outlets to regularly report on the drug cartels and the politicians who are in league with them.

"They made a specialty of looking at the nexus between organized crime and politics, and it's had deadly consequences," said Ruiz, referring to three staffers who have been murdered.

Certainly, journalists who go into war zones put themselves in harm's way, but being a reporter in Mexico represents a different kind of danger.

"Having covered a bunch of wars, I can tell you there's a distinct difference between deaths in combat and what is happening in Mexico," said Mike O'Connor, the Mexico representative for the Committee to Protect Journalists. "In combat, you pick up a bullet or some shrapnel. In Mexico, you pick up a bullet to the back of the head or clip [from] an assault rifle across the chest because they're looking for you as a journalist. You're quarry in Mexico. They want to get you because of something you did or something you refused to do. That's an entirely different picture."

Or as Robert Rosenthal, executive director for the Center for Investigative Reporting, tells it: "Mexico, obviously, has become killing field."

"Reportero" chronicles people who are committed to the truth and reporting it at their own risk. What's almost as startling as the violence in the documentary is that reporters like Sergio Haro are just regular people who seem to ignore the fact that what they're doing is heroic.

"His job is just to report day in and day out," Ruiz said. "And I think as to why, that's really at the heart of the film. Why does anybody keep doing something like this?"

The newspaper's offices have been attacked with grenades. Staffers have come to work and discovered coolers filled with severed heads out front — all of which creates "a constant paranoia."

"It's a very hard life," said Ioan Grillo, author of the book El Narco: Inside Mexico's Criminal Conspiracy. "It's not just the killing. It's the constant threat."

And it's not like they're doing it for personal gain. "Mexican journalists work under extraordinarily primitive labor conditions," O'Connor said. "For the most part, they don't have life insurance. They don't have basic benefits. They're paid terribly. They have no professional organizations and on and on. It's sort of like 18th-century working conditions."

And at most Mexican newspapers, they don't have the support of their bosses.

"I know of reporters who reported to their bosses they received threats and have been fired on the spot simply because the boss doesn't want the company car to get bloodied," O'Connor said.

So why do it?

Grillo said it's because the reporters "have found a mission in life. They feel it is important to tell that story, and that's why they keep at it."

It's an astonishing story, from the frontlines of the killing fields of Mexico.

spierce@sltrib.com

Reporting from Mexico's killing fields

The "P.O.V." documentary "Reportero" airs Tuesday, Jan. 8, at 11 p.m. on KUED-Channel 7.

Television • Cartels and government officials are behind the murders of at least 48 reporters.
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