Archive for February, 2010

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.

Neighborhood children protest outside a barricaded area where Mexican President Felipe Calderon met privately with Juarez residents.

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.

Security outside the president's meeting.

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.”

Mexican President Felipe Calderon addresses an audience in Juarez.

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?


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The Funerals

Wednesday February 4, 2010

The heavens over Ciudad Juarez weeped today. The sky rained on a neighborhood where four days ago fifteen people, mostly high school teenagers, were massacred while they celebrated a friend’s birthday. It’s a terrible, terrible tragedy and already far too much than this city can take.

A line of hearses wait to pick up the coffins of four murdered teens.

“We beg for justice. We scream for help and no one will answer,” an uncle told me as his nephew was being carried off in a coffin from his living room to a hearse.

The man broke up in sobs, “Chuyito, Chuyito,” he called to his dead nephew. “Dios mio!”

Behind him the boy’s mother wailed painfully, “Don’t take him, don’t take him. He’s mine, mine. He’s my son.”

Vigils for four of the teens where held this morning at three homes on the same street where they were killed. As the hearses arrived and family members carried out the coffins, the rain feel harder.

“Es Dios mostrando su tristeza,” said one man. “This is God showing his sadness.”

I held back my own tears and held out my microphone, which was shielded from the rain by a hotel shower cap. The scene was so surreal, how could there be so much tragedy in one place? I couldn’t imagine, couldn’t begin to phantom these people’s pain. Life is so unfair for them. To bear the pain of the crime itself and then on top of that live with such injustice. One mother lost her only two sons. One was in high school, the other a university student.

“Please,” the uncle told me. “You are from the United States. We need help. We want this to stop, we can’t take anymore. Estamos artos!”

Neighbors in Villa de Salvacar wait for the funeral procession of four teens to begin.

Chihuahua governor Jose Reyes Baeza arrived in the neighborhood shortly before the coffins were carried out. His caravan of giant white SUVs looked larger than most of the houses lining the street. He spent some time in each of the homes. I think it was absolutely the very least he could do. For many families it was far too little, far too late.

A photographer from the Dallas Morning News and I were allowed to enter one of the homes where a boy was being kept. Under the dim yellow light the tiny living room felt like a humid jungle surrounded by so many memorial wreaths. A photo of the boy as a baby hung on the wall and on his coffin lay his soccer uniform. The elder women sat around the casket their wrinkled faces wrought with hurt. Children sat about with sad eyes, some slurping the soup from a bowl of menudo.

Outside people created small fires out of sticks of plywood to stay warm. The weather was gray, rainy and cold. The street was full of people, young and old. Ironically, I don’t think the neighborhood had ever been safer than it was that very moment. Police and army were everywhere. I roamed around the block taking pictures of abandoned homes and graffitied walls.

I even spoke briefly with a female police officer. She had just graduated the police academy in September. I asked her somewhat baffled, “What motivated you to become a police officer in this city?” She smiled a little and said, “Just like everyone else I was sick of seeing the city being taken over by so much violence. I felt I could do something, take action so I joined the police.” But now that she’s an officer, she says it’s not what she imagined. There are a lot of limitations to what she can do. She can’t make like Batman and clean up the streets.

Wouldn’t it be nice if there was a Batman? Frankly, I can’t think of any better solution.

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Courtesy of El Norte newspaper. Adrian Encina was one of the young people killed during a mass shoot out at a birthday party in Juarez

Sunday January 31st, 2010

Sunday morning I woke up late. I’d been at a day-long conference the day before –a Saturday– with loads of Latino community organizers. It wasn’t a bad deal, but I had to sit through 2 hour sessions to get maybe 5 or 10 minutes of useful material or potential story ideas. The conference was set to continue Sunday, but I felt it wasn’t necessary for me to attend. Sleep late, I told myself then work on your story about the Juan Gabriel school of music in Juarez. Sounded like an especially good plan when my cell phone alarm went off at 7 am. When I finally pulled off the bedsheets at 9 am I went to my computer and scanned the headlines languidly. I went downstairs for breakfast then came back to my computer. I scanned the headlines once again, something I don’t typically do, and saw the shocking news. Fourteen people slain during a house party in Juarez. My jaw dropped. Mostly teenage high school students. Multiple gunmen in multiple cars. Dear lord. I reach for my cell phone and dial the news desk at National Public Radio. I tell the editor what I’m reading and offer a spot. She accepts and about an hour later I file. In the course of my phone calls, a government spokesman tells me there will be a press conference at 3 pm. I never thought of going until after I filed the news spot. More and more news agencies, mostly foreign, began posting reports on the killings. Then I thought, gosh it’s Sunday afternoon, most of the NPR reporters who might cover this are in Haiti….I should cover this.

I look to my equipment bag which is only semi-organized after a day of heavy usage. My rechargeable batteries need charging. My SD cards are close to full. I need to shower. I look at the clock, nearing 1 pm. I send an email off to NPR editors and make for the shower. When I’m out, the editors have responded in the positive. Now the question becomes do I go alone or try and find company. I text my compañero from the Dallas Morning News. “Vas a ir?” “Are you going,” I ask. Yes, he says, going with the Belo TV correspondent. Hmmm three reporters together might cause flexibility issues (it may also result in 3 identical stories!). Okay scratch that, I call up a reporter at a local Juarez paper and ask if he’d be so kind as to take me to the site of the killings. I didn’t have time to go figuring it out myself. Quickly, I braid my hair back, pick out a plain navy sweater and hide my passport, driver’s license and credit card in a safe place. I call my friend Julia, a.k.a. “mission control”, and give her the details of my intended trip. Then I bolt out the door.

On the drive to the bridge, less than 10 minutes away from my house, I call an NPR editor to outline my plan. The Mexican and American flags atop the international bridge whip in the wind ahead of me. I end my call and with my right hand do the sign of the cross across my face once as I turn into the bridge, twice as I pass under the “Bienvendios a Mexico” sign, and thrice right before I pass the customs checkpoint.

Okay no sweat, I can do this, I tell myself. This is the first real “breaking” news story I do for NPR. Doing this story means being on par with all the major international networks. It’s me representing NPR with this piece. No doubt it’s a huge opportunity to prove myself to this network. The clock inches towards 3 pm. Can I really pull of a stellar piece in one afternoon, which inevitably meant staying in Juarez past dark?

I arrive at the local newspaper office to meet my reporter friend. There few people in the newsroom, mostly middle aged men. A photographer calls me over to his computer screen and shows me dreadful images of the crime scene. There were mini rivers of blood streaming down the street. Ample puddles on the house floor. Blood stained hand prints on the wall. I felt like I was looking at a Quentin Tarantino film set. No more, I said, turning away.

My reporter friend tells me the press conference has been changed to 5 pm. Let’s go to the house then, I say. He shakes his head, it takes an hour to get there and back he said. The press conference is on the opposite side of town. He shows me a map of the neighborhood. Oh, I would’ve known how to get there on my own I say! Darn. There was little for me to do then but wait until it was time to leave for the press conference. In the meantime I ask the reporter if he’d let me interview him, after all he’d been at the crime scene earlier that morning. Plus, he spoke English.

As five o’clock drew near, we learned the press conference was switched to a location not far from the crime scene. Urrrgh! I hate how this is so typical in Mexico. I could have made it to the neighborhood instead of sitting around waiting. I clenched my teeth. Things weren’t looking so great. I grab my stuff and tell the reporter that I can make it on my own to the press conference and neighborhood on my own.

Mexican officials, including Chihuahua state attorney general Patricia Gonzalez and Juarez mayor Jose Reyes Ferriz, at a press conference.

There was palpable tension at the press conference. The state attorney general, a thin woman with dyed blonde hair, even flew in for the event One reporter barked at the officials that Juarez was sick and tired of this violence, “What are you going to do,” he demanded. I sat on the floor trying to capture everything with my shot gun mic. When the press conference ended, I took a deep breath and headed towards the neighborhood. The sun was starting to dip into the horizon. I was in the far southeast corner of the city, far from the American border. I was going into a strange neighborhood uncertain of the possible outcomes. But I tried not to linger on those thoughts.

The hospital where most of the injured victims were taken is not far from the homes where the killings occurred. As I passed it on my way to the neighborhood I thought maybe I’d have better luck finding loved ones there. And it certainly felt safer. The hospital was large and modern looking. Okay, I thought quickly, I’ll give this a shot. So I found a parking spot and prepped my recorder so that it would be ready to pull out should I find someone to interview. What may have been even smarter is if I had taken the recorder out completely and recorded from the moment I approached the hospital.

Turns out the first people I asked were friends of one of the injured boys. Go up to main doors, they told me, his mother is up there. Okay. Indeed the mother was there, she was slumped in a plastic chair surrounded by other family members, wailing. Had I had my recorder out and recording I could have captured that scene. But it felt totally inappropriate for me to take it out once I was already there and point my microphone in the direction of the sobbing mother. This kind of situation is one of the most difficult yet necessary parts of a reporter’s job. Capturing these moments is what really gets a listening audience to comprehend the severity of the situation. It’s the kind of scene that causes you to stop and listen. I tapped one of the family members on the shoulder and introduced myself. Could she speak with me? Turns out no. Try to speak with the mother, she says. Almost guiltily I approach the mother who’s sobs have transitioned into gentle sniffles. I ask and she politely declines. Okay, I say, a little flustered not knowing what to say next. I’m going to hang around for a while, I say, and patter off to the side.

Courtesy of El Norte newspaper. Bloodstains at the crime scene

Now I pull out my recorder and have it ready to push record. Meanwhile, I manage to speak with one of the boy’s friends. Turns out they are in a football team together. Our coach, he said, is on his way over here maybe in about half an hour. Sigh, okay. I begin to question my decision to choose the hospital instead of the neighborhood. I hang out a little, record some ambi and then try to approach the mother again. This time when I make my request I am recording and holding my shotgun microphone close to her. Luckily the space we’re in is pretty dark and the microphone doesn’t call to much attention to itself. Again she politely declines. When my son is released from the hospital, she says, then with pleasure I’ll speak with you. Sadly, the next morning I learned her son had died.

Before I left the hospital I interviewed the boy’s coach and recorded the group of family and friends reciting a prayer. I think I spent a little over two hours at the hospital, so by the time I left, it was night. I had to get back, log tape, and write the piece. Honestly I didn’t feel it was smart to go knocking on doors in the neighborhood at this hour. The tape I had was pretty good. I did drive by the neighborhood, although in the darkness it was hard to find the exact location and I was feeling too antsy to really find out. The homes were tiny pastel colored and pressed together like matchboxes. People glared at me as I drove by. Okay, time to go I told myself and swerved out to the main road. I called my mission control friend and drove directly to the international bridge. It took 90 minutes to cross into the United States.

I walked through my front door at 10:00 pm. My editor said she wanted a piece no more than 3 minutes and 45 seconds. She needed a script first thing in the morning. I stayed up all night writing. Luckily, my new intern helped with logging some tape. I went to bed at 5:30 and woke up at 8:20 to finish the work. I had one more interview to do with a professor at UTEP. Back at home I did and edit and voiced my tracks under a bed sheet. Then I filed my story just in time to make the deadline for All Things Considered. Robert Siegel needs to practice saying my last name.

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