EMILIO MOVES from paper to paper and eventually winds up at the Ascensión bureau of El Diario, a daily based in nearby Juárez. Emilio loves politics and develops Page 1 stories by dutifully interviewing politicians and publishing their inane answers. It is a wink to the readers—much like La Jornada, a left-of-center Mexico City paper that used to publish articles bought and paid for by the Mexican government in italics. Sometimes when a leading drug figure is arrested, usually as a show to placate US agencies, he interviews them also. He is hard driving, at least until his son is born. After that, he becomes cautious because he must think of his son and not give in to the dangers of ambition.
Here is what a wise man knows: that certain people—the cartel leaders, the corrupt police, the corrupt military—these things cannot be written about at all. That other people should be mentioned favorably unless they are caught in circumstances so extreme that the news cannot be suppressed. Then, the blow is softened as much as possible. Nor are investigations favored. If someone is murdered, you call the proper authorities and you print exactly what they tell you. But you don't poke around in such matters.
This is the reality of Mexican reporting, where a person is inside but outside, where a person knows more than the public but can only say what is known in code and this code had better not be too clear. He has mastered, he thinks, the rules of the game. He is clean; he avoids taking bribes. But he also ignores the fact that other reporters are taking bribes. He is not looking for trouble. When top military officials say if there are any rapes and robberies they will be the fault of narcotraficantes masquerading as soldiers, well, that is the way it will be reported.
He will obey those instructions for a very simple reason. For three years, Emilio has been afraid he will be murdered by the Mexican Army. He has, to his horror, committed an error. And nothing he has done in the past three years has made up for this mistake. He has ceased reporting on the Army completely. He has focused on safe things such as fighting the creation of a toxic waste facility in the town. He has apologized to various military officers and endured their tongue-lashings. Still, this cloud hangs over him.
He can remember the day he blundered into this dangerous country.
I AM SITTING in the Hotel San Francisco in Palomas almost four years to the day from the moment Emilio Gutiérrez Soto destroyed his life. The small restaurant has eight tables; the walls host an explosion of plastic flowers screaming yellow, red, and pink. Carved wooden mallard heads spike out as hat racks for Stetsons. Music floats through the air, Bob Dylan singing "Knockin' on Heaven's Door." In the kitchen, short, dark women chop vegetables for salsa. Their movements are very slow and their faces blank. In the lobby are murals of an imaginary Sierra Madre in an imaginary Mexico. A huge buck stands in an alpine meadow, an eagle swoops down on a lake, a caballero in a sequined suit stares with love at a beautiful señorita. Also in the lobby is a large statue of St. Francis and in his hands and at his feet are handwritten messages and offerings left by migrants. Just five blocks away, the poor plunged through the line and headed into El Norte—but none of the notes are very recent. The river of misery has changed course for the moment.
The tile floor is the color of flesh. The notes whisper of a people in flight: "Father, help us all who pass as wetbacks. Help us Our Father. Bless us all who think of You, who trust in You. And I ask You to bless and help my mother, my father and me and my brothers and sisters and all of my family. In Your hands we place our good luck to pass ALIVE. Adios Our Father."
Another note says: "Please I ask You with all my heart look after and protect my husband that he pass safely. Amen." A Bible lies open and someone has dropped this plea on the page:
God bless us and protect us along the way
Guide us on a good road and protect us.
As I leave the Hotel San Francisco, Johnny Cash is singing,
You can run on for a long time
Run on for a long time
Run on for a long time
Sooner or later God'll cut you down
Sooner or later God'll cut you down
IT BEGAN for Emilio on January 28, 2005, when six soldiers came to La Estrella Hotel, a run-down boardinghouse for migrants across the street from the Hotel San Francisco, took food off people's plates, and then robbed the customers of their money and jewelry. Emilio got tipped off and so he phoned the local police chief. He called the Army also but as is their custom they refused to answer any questions. He filed a brief article about the incident, one of three he wrote during that period noting similar actions by the Army in the area.
That is how he destroyed his life.
Several days later, February 8, 2005, Colonel Filadelfo Martínez Piedra calls Emilio at home, explains that he is "the boss," and orders him to come immediately to the Hotel Miami in downtown Ascensión. The colonel says, "If you don't come, we'll come looking for you at home or wherever you are."
So he puts his then-11-year-old son in his truck and goes there. He notices scores of ordinary soldiers around the hotel, and two vans full of elite troops who are bodyguards for the officers. He leaves his son in the truck and walks up to the colonel. It is a very cold night.
In his mind, he is thinking, "What the fuck are these cabrones up to?" Soldiers swiftly surround him. The colonel says to another officer, "Look general, the son of a whore who has written all kinds of stupidities has arrived."
Then the general, Alfonso García Vega, says, "So you are the son of a whore who is lowering our prestige. You son of a fucking whore, you are denigrating us and my boss. The minister in Mexico is extremely bothered by your fucking lies, idiot."
Emilio tries to form words to excuse himself but he cannot. The general is in charge of Chihuahua. He is very short and his uniform is brilliant with gold trim.
Emilio is very frightened and he says that he only writes what the officials or the victims tell him.
The general says, "No, you have no sources for that information. You made it up. Just how much schooling do you have, asshole?"
Emilio lies, and claims two years of communication studies at a university.
The general explains that Emilio lacks an education equal to his own.
To have a general speak to you is not something to be desired. They can hand out death like a party favor.
The general suggests he should write about drug people.
Emilio says he does not know any and besides they frighten him.
"So, you don't know them and you fear them," the general bristles. "You should fear us for we fuck the fucking drug traffickers, you son of a whore. I feel like putting you in the van and taking you to the mountains so you can see how we fuck over the drug traffickers, asshole."
The guards surround him, he can see his son in the truck about 15 yards away, and the boy looks very frightened. Then people walking past the hotel greet Emilio and he thinks this is what saves him from a beating.
He grovels, apologizes profusely to the general.
"You've written idiocies three times and there shall be no fourth. You'd better not mention this meeting or you'll be sent to hell, asshole."
The colonel tells him he is under surveillance "and should not fuck up."
Then, he is dismissed. He gets back in his truck and his son asks what is going on. He says, "They want to kidnap me." He drives aimlessly, and finally calls his boss at the paper who tells him, "This is serious. This is a problem."