The Mexicali Valley is truly marginalized, they do not have basic cultural offerings such as a film theater, for example; there aren’t many options. That, combined with insecurity and phenomena such as exploitation of the work force and child labor, has led to the youth getting involved in more drug related activity there.
“It’s important not to lose that human connection.” Sergio Haro makes his way toward another crime scene in Tijuana, Mexico. He carries his cameras, as always, he nods briefly at milling policemen. The street corner is marked off by yellow tape, the body is crumpled and bloody. Again.
Sergio works for the independent newsweekly Semanario Zeta, renowned for its investigative journalism and focus on politics. Now, still, that focus means Sergio is covering the effects of the narco wars in Mexico and along the US border. These effects make headlines. As Sergio tells it in the documentary Reportero, most papers focus on the violence, vivid and alarming: “If we don’t publish… I don’t want to call it ‘yellow journalism,’ but sensationalist stories of corruption, drugs, and murders,” he says, “someone else will. Unfortunately, it’s what the readers are interested in.” But if that angle is profitable (“If it were up to the vendors,” he laments, “the papers would be dripping in blood”), it’s also limited. And so Sergio pursues that “human connection,” reporting on the lives that lead to such horrific ends, on the reasons individuals make their choices.
Bernardo Ruiz’s remarkable film takes Sergio’s interest as its own. After touring Mexico and the US via the Ambulante traveling documentary film festival last year, Reportero is currently airing on PBS and online through 6 February: while it provides a brief and useful history of Zeta, built on images of and archival interviews with its cofounders Jesús Blancornelas and Héctor “Gato” Félix Miranda, it maintains focus on what Sergip and his colleagues do now, the daily peril of reporting in the Mexicali region. Since the 2006 election of President Felipe Calderón (now a fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School, after he left office in 2012; the current president is Enrique Peña Nieto), more than 50 journalists have been killed or disappeared in Mexico.
As the film shows, the Zeta reporters understand their risks all too well: the paper’s co-publisher Adela Navarro recounts El Gato’s 1988 execution, over images that appeared in the paper, the bloody floorboards of his car; the film cuts back to a TV interview with Miranda, insisting, “My work in Zeta is proof that freedom of expression exists in Mexico. That others don’t practice it, is their own fault. Everyone talks about what they know.” What Miranda knew, and what the reporters at Zeta know, is that their lives are in jeopardy. Navarro’s publishing partner and Blancornelas’ son, René Blanco, recounts the 1996 assassination attempt against his father, a story illustrated with photos and footage of the shooting scene and Blancornelas in the hospital.
Navarro recounts that the paper published these pictures, with headlines indicating that Blancornelas was shot because of his reporting. Here Ruiz’s camera takes up a position at the crime scene, now as before, a suburban four-way intersection: as the camera turns to show lawns and homes, you’re struck by the pervasiveness and immediacy of the violence, even all these years later. The film cuts to black and white stills from 1996 as Navarro tells the story, that the squad of hitmen fired from multiple directions, that the lead assassin emerged from his car to take the last, fatal shot, and he was struck by shrapnel in the eye: “He drops dead,” she says, “They left him there.” Here you see the image Zeta published of the assassin. “We don’t usually know what these hitmen look like,” notes Sergio. “There he was dead, blood oozing from his eye, seven or eight liters, a shocking amount of blood. He lay curled on the ground, with his brand new shotgun, his glove, and his pistol in the back for the finishing shot. He still had his finger on the trigger, but his companions had killed him first.”
It’s a stunningly violent story, but as Reportero presents it, you’re left to contemplate not just the familiar sensational effects, but also the effects for Blanco and Navarro, certainly, but also, in Sergio’s careful verbal detail, for the young people (overwhelmingly male) who participate, who make choices out of perceived necessity, who live in poverty and without hope, who see narco gangsterism as a means to survive, not only to wreak havoc or get rich. As Sergio puts it, he hopes to explore “how drug trafficking becomes an attractive alternative to youth. Some become killers.”
The film tells this story — so wide-ranging and so devastating — in a way that resembles Sergio’s reporting. The images are contemplative: Sergio drives his white Nissan pickup for miles, to cover the many crime scenes across Mexicali. Sergio and his wife cook in their cramped kitchen, then sit to talk for the camera, her face increasingly taut as she hears him lay out his next assignment. Adela works in her office, with iPad and Starbucks coffee cup, as she describes her meetings as a young and eager political reporter, with El Gato.
The film also follows Sergio on scene, photographing young boys in a classroom at a youth center, piles of garbage and portraits of pickers, a row of newly dug graves at a cemetery. His images are lovely and horrific at once, glimpses of how fear and corruption might take hold. Rather than excoriate the evil cartels and market the mayhem, Reportero follows the lead provided by Sergio and the other reporters at Zeta (who now publish their investigative pieces under the collective byline “Investigaciones Zeta”). Reflecting on how young killers come to their choices, the film elucidates — beautifully and painfully — contexts as well as consequences.