What it’s like to work in media in one of the world’s deadliest countries for journalists.
In international journalism, a local journalist hired by foreign reporters for his or her special knowledge of the local area, culture, and language is called a fixer. This series explores the untold stories behind their largely unrecognized work.
Mexico is the deadliest country for journalists in the western hemisphere. Despite attempts by the government to crack down on the violence—a special prosecutor for crimes against journalists was announced in 2013—those in media continue to face violence and intimidation and receive little help from the government.
Jorge Armando Nieto, a journalist from Tijuana, has been a fixer for about three years. We discussed the role of corruption in media, drug tunnels, and why you don’t just knock on a narco’s door and introduce yourself.
Roads & Kingdoms: How did you first start working in journalism?
Jorge Armando Nieto: In 2004, I was studying communications at the University of Tijuana. I started out working at a local station called Sintesis TV doing audio work. A year later, I started working the cameras, writing notes, and then reporting as well.
R&K: And how did you start working as a fixer?
Nieto: I started working as a freelancer for a group from Los Angeles, and shortly afterward they said to me, there’s this journalist from whatever city who wants to do a story on Tijuana, some story on narcos, drug trafficking, and migration. They were looking for someone who knew the city, who had sources and knew the danger zones. Then they started calling me more and more, and the word started getting out.
R&K: What are some misconceptions foreign correspondents have when they first contact you?
Nieto: Recently, a reporter from French public television contacted me wanting to get into a drug tunnel. I told him: “Look, this is really complicated, really dangerous,” and he asked me if I was sure I didn’t personally know any drug smugglers who had a tunnel they used to traffic drugs! This really made me realize that foreigners have a certain image of Tijuana that’s a little … far from reality.
Everything you hear generally about Tijuana—that there’s a lot of sex, drugs, prostitution, a lot of corruption—that’s true, for sure. But once you get here, fixers can help change your perspective in relation to the border. But we’re not trying to change [your perspective]—we’re just trying to show what’s here.
A reporter is in constant contact with possible sources of danger
R&K: Given the violence perpetrated against journalists in Mexico, do you worry about your safety?
Nieto: I don’t think so. Being a fixer is a more temporary experience. A reporter, on the other hand, is in constant contact with possible sources of danger. And this danger isn’t just physical violence: it includes intimidation, emotional abuse, and economic corruption. And a study by Articulo 19 found that the principal source of aggression towards journalists wasn’t criminal organizations but actually people within the federal and municipal government.
But it’s obviously still a risk. Like I was saying about this French journalist who, not understanding the level of danger surrounding drug cartels in Mexico, believed it would be really easy for me to go knock on the door of some narco and say, “Hey, how are you? Look, my name is Jorge Nieto, I’m a fixer…” and tell him that the French journalist wanted to get access to a drug tunnel. I had to explain to him, “Look, brother, this is not how it works.”
R&K: Do you see a large part of your job as explaining to journalists that something they’re asking for is unrealistic?
Nieto: Exactly, and I try to do it very honestly. Someone else, in my place, might have said, “Yeah, sure, I’ll take you,” but you have to think about it this way: if something were to happen to a foreign journalist who was collaborating with me, it could become an international incident. After this conversation [the French journalist] didn’t call me again for another story, which I mentioned to some colleagues, other fixers. Some said to me, “But the money was good!” He was offering 300 dollars a day for 15 days, so, yes, the money was good. But I said, “Look, this money won’t be enough to get me out of jail, and it won’t be enough to save him from harm either.”
I’ve done other stories that brought with them plenty of risk, but it was a risk that I could assess: the type of risk you can have a certain control over.
R&K: In your experience, what’s the government’s reaction to violence against journalists?
Nieto: At the federal level, the government has taken a number of actions that in my opinion have been very ineffective. The federal government, through the federal agency of investigation that’s called “procuradurías de la republica,” created a division to deal with crimes committed against journalists, crimes committed against free expression. It’s called “Fiscalia especial para la atención de delitos cometidos contra la libertad de expresión” (FEADLE). Unwieldy name, no?
I had an experience three or four years ago with the municipal police. They attacked and threatened me. I did everything you’re supposed to afterward: I presented myself before the special prosecutor and they took my statement. And, I suppose, it’s lying abandoned in some government office somewhere.
Yesterday, I was reading a follow-up story about a photographer who left [his home state of] Veracruz to seek refuge in Mexico City and was killed with four other people in an apartment in some neighborhood there, and nothing happened, nothing. No arrests, no suspects. The photographer had even said publicly that he had been threatened by the governor of Veracruz, that they were spying on him. We live in a state where the politicians are practically untouchable.
Why do you think that when a journalist is killed in Mexico, society doesn’t care?
R&K: What’s the public’s response to these attacks?
Nieto: A while ago, I went to a journalism panel in Mexico City, and one of the commentators asked us: “Why do you think that when a journalist is killed in Mexico, society doesn’t care?” There are no protests in the streets, no demands for justice. They kill a journalist and who complains? Other journalists who might be killed, too. But I don’t see that society at large feels affected by aggression directed at reporters. I think that in this country we don’t consider freedom of expression a primary necessity, as is the case in other places in the world.
There’s a word that describes the government economically influencing journalists: “chayote.” A chayote is a vegetable like a squash. It means giving money to direct your journalism in a certain direction, and this practice is unfortunately really common. [Journalism] is a profession that has been widely denounced, and because of this relationship that certain journalists have cultivated with the government, it doesn’t carry much credibility in society.
R&K: Has the Internet opened up new opportunities in the tightly controlled Mexican media market?
Nieto: Yes, definitely, and for the better. Also, the cost of the equipment that’s necessary for a news outlet has gone down. For example, in the 90s it would cost around $1,000 dollars to buy a television camera, so they were almost entirely restricted to professional sources. Today, the price of technology is more accessible to more people. And with the Internet, it’s not complicated or expensive to transmit [information]; there are a thousand ways to get a platform. All of this means that things are changing. Today it’s not only [major Mexican media company] Televisa and these official channels.
R&K: Despite the drawbacks, are you glad that you’ve stayed in media?
Nieto: We’re really privileged, those of use who dedicate ourselves to this work, despite everything we have to face. It’s a profession that takes a lot of will, a lot of passion, but it leaves you with tremendous experiences as well. I don’t think I was wrong to dedicate the rest of my life to it. I’m very happy doing what I do, having the chance to travel, to gain knowledge. I want to be part of creating change so that more people understand the value of information, the value of freedom of expression, in order to have a better community.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Cover illustration by Paweł Jońca