Thursday February 11, 2010
Two hours before I have to be on a flight to San Antonio NPR emails me: Did you know President Felipe Calderon will be in Juarez tomorrow? Are you available for a piece maybe a live two-way with All Things Considered?
Yes, of course I know the president is coming! And if I get on that plane, then no, I won’t be available. Begin predicament: should I stay or should I go?
After about 30 seconds of OMG mentality I started to think reasonably. If my goal is to work full time for this news network then I darn well better be willing to postpone my work/fun trip and cover the president’s visit. It’s one thing to call and pitch. It’s quite another to be called and requested!
The other side of things was that I was really looking forward to my San Antonio trip. I’d worked hard in the last week and was eager to see my friends. My luggage and audio gear was packed and I was afraid I’d lose $230 along with the flight. But there went that little persistent voice: if you want ’em to keep knocking, you better answer the door. Okay, okay I thought and hit “reply” on the menu bar. After a few emails and calls with the foreign editor it was a given that I’d be at the president’s address the next day.
I emailed my “credentials” to the state government people so I’d be allowed into the president’s event. I also emailed a professor about getting a student photographer from Juarez to join me. I did my best to prepare ahead of time, looking for useful stats, calling people to see what they knew and their availability the next day. In all that frenzy I forgot to charge my camera battery. Also, I would end up leaving my Press ID behind in the scanner.
The next day I was in Juarez by 9 am with a UT El Paso student in my passenger seat. The student had emailed me at 1 am saying he could come. But the guy had no camera, and no phone. He had a Flip, but that doesn’t do me much good. No matter, there were little things he could do, and the mere company is always welcome. Our first stop was Casa Amiga which was where the president was rumored to meet with family members of fifteen people who died in a gruesome massacre 12 days earlier.
We didn’t get very far, as I feared. Two hours before the meeting, the streets surrounding the center were barricaded and well guarded with armed federal police and military. So we spoke with some Juarenzes who’d gathered outside the barricades to see what was up. Right away I spoke with one woman whose brother had been murdered. She wore an Eeyore hoodie and held her 5 year old grandson by the hand. She wasn’t impressed by the president’s visit. “If he lost all the soldiers and police,” she said “he wouldn’t last a minute out here.”
As we wrapped up the interview my ears caught the sound of young laughter and the unmistakable sound of a bus engine. I turned to see a crowd of tweenage girls crowding the sidewalk across the street. Let’s go chat with them, I told my student. Turns out the girls were good friends of one of the boys killed in the massacre. We were also right in front of their school. I interviewed a girl with glitter lip gloss and long bangs slicked over one side of her forehead. “We miss him,” she said. “We wish we could leave this city. We don’t go out anymore.”
I thanked the girls, expressed my condolences and told them to stick to their studies. It was time to head over to the convention center for the president’s public presentation.
The convention center was respladado times ten. Hundreds of police in riot gear. Helicopters. Soldiers in camouflage. I had some trouble getting through at first because I was missing my ID but was finally successful. The convention center is the most high brow meeting place in the city. Marble floors, chandeliers, and intricate staircase hand rails. There was press from all over Mexico and some foreign media. Everyone was a little testy because the president was nearly 2 hours late. I found my fellow radio colleagues, most from Mexico City, and plugged my gear into the sound box.
President Felipe Calderon arrived within half an hour. Reporters were off to one side and on a platform towards the back. An audience of city and community leaders was up front. Local activists, family members of the massacre victims and mothers of disappeared daughters were off in another corner in front of the press. This was the attention that Juarez has been clamoring for over the last two years. For many Juarenzes, though, it was already too late.
In two years of unprecedented violence President Calderon had visited the city only once, and that visit was strictly to fire up soldiers just before an immense military surge to the city. This was his first visit facing Juarez’s massive insecurity issues. It took the death of 15 people, 13 teenagers among them, to at last drag the president to ground zero in the battle against drug trafficking– a battle which he began.
“I come not to give orders,” the president said, “but to listen to the needs of Juarez and the city’s own proposals for solutions.” From that it was evident he would unveil no grand master plan. A long list of civic, education, and religious leaders then spoke. Among the things they proposed were anti-kidnapping and anti-extortion police units, permanent security committees with citizen input and of course youth-targeted social programs.
The climax of the meeting was when a mother, who lost her only two sons in the January 31st massacre, confronted the president. Luz Maria Davila, dressed plainly in navy blue, managed to get past security and stand face to face with Calderon and his wife. Even without a microphone her voice shook the room with grief and anger. The press all strained to get a glimpse. Those with recorders held them with their arms outstretched as far as possible. Me and my fabulous shot gun mic faired better than most. I stood up on a my chair and pointed my mic up and over the heads of the other reporters in the direction of Ms. Davila. Through my headphones I could hear her words quite clearly.
“I can’t give you my hand in welcome, Mr. President, because for me you’re not welcome.”
“I want justice, not just for my two boys but for all the children.”
“If it was your son who was murdered I bet you’d turn over every rock searching for the assassin. But I don’t have the means to search for the assassin.”
I was unquestionably moved. One more suffering mother added to the legions of suffering mothers in Juarez. I couldn’t see the president’s expression, but from what I’m told it was blank. The mother retreated without the president having responded. I read the next day that after the mother took her seat the first lady approached her and hugged her.
I think President Calderon was trying hard to not let his emotions overcome him. He took to the podium shortly after the confrontation and gave an unscripted speech. His tone was no longer steady and paced and I could hear his voice quiver. His speech became more passionate and his volume more forceful. His forehead glistened.
At no moment did he apologize specifically for the deaths of those massacred or address the mother who confronted him. He’d apologized earlier for having suggested the students were gang members. But he never apologized for the deaths themselves. He said he was sorry for the deaths and the state of things in Juarez. Then he continued to give a mini history of Juarez and how the city came to this tragic point. He acknowledged the historical flaws of the country including it’s poor judicial system, where the true criminals are rarely brought to justice and a poorly trained police force that is commonly infiltrated by organized crime. We need to work on all of this, he said, the results are not going to happen overnight and people will continue to die.
Calderon defended his administration’s fight against the cartels and gave an especially passionate defense of the Mexican military presence in Juarez. The bad guy is not the government he said, the bad guys are organized crime.
The electricity in the air slowly but steadily dissipated after that speech. My fellow reporters buzzed around me phoning their distant editors with the details of what transpired. I left soon afterward not knowing if I’d be on a strict deadline soon, but also not knowing how much time I’d spend crossing back into the United States. Miraculously, the line was only about 25 minutes.
I had my student drive across the bridge and fed him chocolate while I phoned my editors. Turned out former president Bill Clinton nearly had a heart attack and both shows for tomorrow were full. No matter, I still had a piece to get into Radio Bilingue and two news spots for NPR, which would take about two hours to complete from start to finish.
Twenty four hours later, I still haven’t unpacked my bags originally meant for San Antonio. Oh yea, and Southwest credited the full amount of my missed flight for a future trip. California anyone?