Dozens of Mexican journalists have been killed covering the drug war [EPA]

As part of Al Jazeera's
Mexico in the Crossfire series, Luis Perez, a Mexican crime reporter at Zeta magazine, an investigative weekly in Tijuana that focuses on the cartels, describes what it is like to cover the drug war.

At my magazine we mainly focus on public safety, drug operations and drug trafficking for [the Mexican border city of] Tijuana and the state, so most stories are related to violence.

This year has been quite hectic. Last year was one of the most violent in Tijuana so I have been spending most of my time running around.

The journalists here use one-way radios to share information, so whenever something happens I'll hear the radio going crazy and that's an indication that there is work to do.

In depth
In the last year I've covered maybe 50 killings. I was sent to more but I arrived on time on 50 occasions at least. And nine out of 10 are drug related.

If someone is massacred or shot several times or shot from one car into another, that kind of indicates that it's drug-trafficking related.

I'll speak to photographers and other writers and ask what kind of incident it is and they'll say: "Well, there were three people riding in the car, and the one approached and sprayed the car with bullets."

Caught in the crossfire

I'm also a freelance video journalist, which makes for double the work and double the risk, because sometimes if I go to a police bust and there are bullets flying all over the place and I want to get good image, I have to see whether I want to take the risk of being exposed.

I don't want to be recognised by drug traffickers because they might be caught but could be freed weeks afterwards and I'm worried about retaliation.

"This fear is almost a way of auto-censorship, the crime is our main restriction of free speech"

Luis Perez

I also fear getting caught in the crossfire. I've been caught in about 10 shootings, and have been scared for my life in about three, especially when you hear bullets buzzing past you. 

In one [incident] the army busted a safe house in eastern Tijuana in late 2007 and people told me it appeared the suspects were putting up a fight, which is very dangerous to go down to.

When I arrived the authorities hadn't put out the safety tape or secured the perimeter, so we got as near as we could, then suddenly one of them tried to flee from the same side of the house we were getting images from, and he started shooting, the military started shooting back and we got stuck.

In a matter of seconds they had sprayed the whole place with pepper spray, mostly to get us out of there, so after a couple of minutes we ran as the gas was gagging us, getting in our eyes.

Split-second decisions

They [the gangs] do everything, kidnap, traffick, sell, steal drugs from other people, collect what is owed, it's a very complex business they run.

A Zeta magazine editor was shot dead in
Tijuana in 2004 [EPA] 
When a crime scene gets hot, I sometimes have to make the decision that if I leave I'm not going to get the video or if I get closer I expose myself more.

Sometimes when the bullets are flying around, and when the adrenalin rushes I don't sometimes don't make the smartest decisions I must say.

It's different when I'm writing, because I have time to think "should I go into this".

I'm not allowed to report on the drug traffickers but you often get bits and pieces of information here and there about their activities and it awakens my wish to dig a little deeper.

So that decision I have a little more time to take. Is it worth it? What's the risk? How powerful is this guy? How violent is this group? Should I pass this information to my editors and be a bit more safe or keep it and get the credit?'

Taking risks

But it's so risky - three people have been killed at the paper where I work, shot by drug traffickers, though not recently.

The precaution is that editors don't sign [byline] the stories with the hardest facts [about the gangs].

If people know that you're nosing around in their business they're going to notice and sometimes you don't want to get involved.

This fear is almost a way of auto-censorship, the crime is our main restriction of free speech.

I sometimes feat the corrupt police authorities more than the bad guys, the bad guys aren't driving around in official cars, the police are and they have the badge to back it up, and you can't tell them apart from an honest cop.

Tijuana

Most of the violence over the last few years in Tijuana has been caused by two factions of the Arellano-Felix cartel.

This year from February until now they have had a kind of truce, because they were losing money and others wre taking their business.

Drug arrests can be dangerous for reporters
to cover [EPA]
The truce has significantly lowered the amount of assassinations durin the past two months, but I don't know how frail the truce is.

What is clear is that the tranquillity we're feeling right now is not because of the authorities, it's because of the cartels, because they want to be at peace.

The army has, however, lessened corruption.

The police are the cornerstones of the cartel operations and if you clear the bad apples the cartels will fall because they no longer have the protection, the information.

'Irresponsible' coverage

The war on drugs, for me personally, has been quite profitable. I don't want people to get shot but they do and if I do my job I want to do it responsibly and if I'm taking a risk I want to know I'm getting money for it.

If things slow down you might want to inflate or blow up the story so you can still get good sales on the newspapers and get hits on the website.

Most coverage is good but some reporting from Mexican and international media is unfortunately irresponsible. 

The international media sometimes see things from outside. When almost 600 people get shot in Tijuana and you don't take time to explain that most of the victims were involved in drug trafficking and not tourists or innocent victims, that's being irresponsible.

It's hit tourism very hard in Tijuana, people used to come from San Diego, the US city just across the border.

Now the party  scene is dead. No one wants to come here because they fear it, and I think that's been a little irresponsible.

Read Luis Perez's reports at Zeta magazine online (in Spanish).

Source: Al Jazeera