Women journalists covering Mexican drug cartel murders faced death threats, psychological impact

Thursday, February 13, 2014 - 10:54

DENTON (UNT), Texas -- The 2007-2011 drug cartel wars in Mexico's border city of Ciudad Juarez were covered mostly by veteran female reporters, who often arrived at murder scenes before law enforcement officials. And many of these women needed emotional support from each other as a result, says a University of North Texas faculty member who spent several months researching media coverage of the crimes.

Tracy Everbach, associate professor of journalism in UNT's Frank W. and Sue Mayborn School of Journalism, interviewed journalists in Ciudad Juarez and El Paso on the Texas-Mexico border, and San Diego and its Mexican border city of Tijuana. She was accompanied by Samantha Guzman, a master's student in the school who served as a translator and photographer. Everbach wrote about research in the November/December 2013 issue of Quill, the publication of the Society of Professional Journalists, which also published some of Guzman's photos.

Ciudad Juarez, which has 1.5 million people, experienced 10,000 murders during the four years. Everbach says many law enforcement officials either couldn't keep up with the crimes, or accepted money from the drug cartels suspected of ordering the murders to not investigate, Everbach says.

"The women covered the story to focus on the murders' impact on the victims' families, including their children and spouses. They didn't just see the story as statistics and a competition between the cartels. They felt it was a human story," she says.

Everbach followed seven female reporters -- five American citizens and two Mexican citizens -- in the Ciudad Juarez-El Paso area. Some of them had grown up in the area, and the reporter for El Diario de Juarez, the city's largest newspaper, had personally experienced the violence when her brother-in-law was murdered. This reporter had also replaced a male reporter who covered the story and was shot to death while taking his daughter to school, Everbach says. The crime, like 95 percent of the murders, has not been solved, she adds.

"The newspaper actually started taking bylines off of stories to protect reporters' identities," she says. "And some of the women received death threats, possibly from the cartels who didn't want them poking around, so the women started supporting each other."

The women in Juarez, along with a few male reporters, set up a website to share information and training opportunities with each other and provide each other with emotional support.

"There was a psychological impact to covering the murders. One journalist said she had to work more in the office instead of going out and seeing dead bodies," Everbach says.

She noted that their counterparts in El Paso would avoid going into Juarez to cover the stories as much as possible, with one of the male editors at the El Paso Times stating that he'd rather cover war in Syria than the drug cartel war in Juarez.

"The American reporters said that crossing back into the U.S. after reporting from Juarez provided a sense of relief," she says.

Everbach also talked to one Mexican journalist and four American journalists who covered the border of San Diego and Tijuana. The area experienced some violence from the drug cartels in recent years, but unlike the reporters in Juarez, these reporters' coverage wasn't all about the violence, Everbach says.

She plans to present the research this summer at the annual conference of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication. She also plans to study the cultural divide for reporters who cover the Texas-Mexico border.

"You're considered to be a California resident if you live within five miles of the U.S. border," she says. "One woman reporter goes back and forth between San Diego and Tijuana daily, and has done that for 25 years and lived in both cities."

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