SCOTT SIMON, host:
Mexico is one of the world's most dangerous countries for journalists. Five reporters have been murdered so far this year, casualties in a war between rival drug cartels for influence and territory. Currently, Mexico's most violent city is Juarez, where nearly 1,300 people, including 60 police officers, have been killed so far this year. Public officials said this week, murder may have surpassed diabetes as the chief cause of mortality in this border city of a million and a half people. Now, the press may be targeted. Last week, assailants gunned down a well-known local journalist and threatened others. NPR's John Burnett and producer Peter Breslow traveled to Juarez for our story.
JOHN BURNETT: Earlier this month, authorities in Juarez made a gruesome discovery in a city that has become inured to horror. A headless body was found hanging from a highway overpass. The decapitated head was discovered inside a plastic bag resting in a park known as the Plaza of the Journalists. Local reporters braced themselves for what many feared would come next.
(Soundbite of Mexican news report)
Unidentified Reporter: (Spanish spoken)
BURNETT: On the morning of Thursday, November 13, a gunman opened fire on a 40-year-old journalist named Armando Rodriguez as he sat in his car in his driveway waiting to take his daughter to school. El Choco, nicknamed Chocolate because of his dark skin, was the crime reporter at the city's leading newspaper, El Diario de Juarez, for more than a decade. As it happens, Arturo Chacon, the police reporter at the competition, Norte de Juarez, lives two blocks from El Choco's house.
Mr. ARTURO CHACON (Police Reporter, El Norte): I heard the shots. I even counted. So I said, wow, it was like eight shots from a .45 caliber or 9-millimeters. And I was with my wife. And I said to her, somebody killed another guy. But I never realized that it was Choco.
BURNETT: Under pressure from his wife and his parents, Chacon quit the police beat last week. Now, he's a business reporter. It's a bad time to cover cops in Juarez. Now, two other crime reporters have received death threats. They fled with their families across the river to El Paso. One of them is Jorge Luis Aguirre, the 51-year-old editor of a popular Juarez news Web site called La Polaka.
Mr. JORGE LUIS AGUIRRE (Editor, La Polaka): (Through Translator) Thursday evening, I was going to the wake for Armando Rodriguez when I received a call. A stranger's voice told me I was going to be the next one killed. I panicked. I drove through the streets, thinking I would be killed then and there. Eventually, I parked my car and called my sons, who were at school, and my wife. They picked me up, and we went to the American consulate, but it was closed. We were finally able to get to the border. We crossed the bridge. So now we're refugees trying to save our lives.
BURNETT: Aguirre, looking disheveled and nervous, sits for an interview inside an ice cream parlor in El Paso, wondering if every person he sees is an informant for the cartel. Just three days ago, he received a follow-up email saying they would find him wherever he was. Aguirre says he plans to ask for political asylum for his family in the United States.
Mr. AGUIRRE: (Through Translator) I'd rather live than be a journalist. If I have to quit, I'll quit. We had a lot of success with the Web site, but there are people who don't tolerate criticism.
BURNETT: According to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, 24 reporters have been killed in Mexico since 2000, and seven have disappeared since 2005. None of the cases, not one, has been solved, despite the naming two years ago of a special federal prosecutor for crimes against journalists.
Mr. EDGAR ROMAN (News director, Channel 44, Juarez): I believe that they might get to a point where no news company is going to put out police stories. It could get to that point.
BURNETT: Edgar Roman is the news director of Channel 44 in Juarez. Like other local news outlets, Channel 44 freely reports reactions by authorities to the crime wave: about the police cadets who will be stationed at kindergartens to prevent kidnappings, about the army's offer to guard newspapers, about the police program to escort businessmen picking up their payrolls at the bank. Roman tries to protect his journalists from reporting anything at a crime scene that might get them in trouble in the first place. Because once that happens...
Mr. ROMAN: If the mafia wants to kill you, they're going to kill you. And I think everybody knows that. Whether you wear a bulletproof vest, whether you publish your stories without names, these people know more than anybody else. If you go into the U.S., somehow you're going to have to come back someday, or they're going to find you.
BURNETT: Mexican journalists say with both mafia hit men and police agents able to intimidate, kidnap or exterminate reporters with impunity, they have to look out for themselves. Among recent security measures in Juarez, some reporters don't go to crime scenes anymore. Nobody uses bylines on crime stories. And there's no in-depth reporting. Investigative journalism in Juarez is suicide, said a veteran editor grimly. No names, addresses, license plates, speculation on the culprits. No details beyond the basic facts.
After El Choco was murdered, Raymundo Ruiz, the longtime photographer for El Norte, started wearing a bulletproof vest. It bulks him up like a wrestler under his sweater as he digs into a plate of enchiladas at a Juarez cafe.
Mr. RAYMUNDO RUIZ (Photographer, El Norte): (Through Translator) Now when I arrive at a crime scene, I look around to see who's in my surroundings. It's not the Juarez of the past, where the bad guys would only kill amongst themselves. Now they'll kill state police, even journalists. Now the violence has reached all of us.
BURNETT: Ruiz says he, too, has received threats in the past, but he refuses to leave the profession.
Mr. RUIZ: (Through Translator) I'm addicted to journalism, to the danger, to the adrenaline. I tried to quit once, but I couldn't. And besides, I like my work. It helps people.
BURNETT: Ruiz lives his job. He juggles two cell phones constantly, talking with cops, ambulance drivers and other photographers. And his ear is always cocked to the police scanner that rides in the top pocket of his vest. After lunch, he hears a report of a body discovered in a shallow grave south of town. He guns the accelerator of his decrepit Toyota, a car straight out of "Road Warrior," and starts feeding the tip to the rest of the press corps.
Mr. RUIZ: (Spanish spoken)
BURNETT: The dusty little sedan hurtles down the boulevards, past prayer houses, Alcoholics Anonymous meeting halls, immense supermarkets, foreign-owned factories and other landmarks of this post-modern city rising from the desert. Ruiz spots a white forensics van and speeds up. They weave through traffic together until the van pulls off onto a dirt road that leads into the wasteland south of Juarez. Thorn bushes and piles of household trash are everywhere. He stops, gets out, walks up to the police tape, and raises his Nikon D70.
Forensic agents in white biosuits gingerly shovel sand around a rib cage protruding from the earth. Ruiz walks over to the man who discovered the skeleton. He's a 26-year-old soccer referee, flush with the excitement of his momentary celebrity. He says he was looking for recyclable trash with his son out here when they spotted the human bones.
Unidentified Man: (Spanish spoken)
BURNETT: He's saying this desert has become a burial ground. Corpses turn up all the time. Here in Juarez, the way things are nowadays, you can find a dead body almost anywhere. The crime scene is almost festive. The forensic workers are bantering. The photographers trade jibes. Clusters of youngsters from the nearby housing complex cut up and throw gang signs for the cameras. Another member of the Juarez crime paparazzi arrives: Lucio Soria, a photographer for El Diario. He was El Choco's partner. Soria looks around and shakes his head.
Mr. LUCIO SORIA (Photographer, El Diario): (Through Translator) There are times when the vendors come to sell burritos, chips, sodas. They do good business. And people see it as normal. It's like a picnic for them. That's the daily routine here on the border. We have lots of deaths. It's like our daily bread, the little daily deaths.
BURNETT: A longtime newspaper editor in Juarez whose reporters have been threatened summed it up this way: There will be an end to the violence, he said. But it won't be because of intervention by the authorities. It will end because one side will win and one side will lose in the killings. It's tragic, but it's logical.
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BURNETT: What, if anything, can be done about this war raging between drug cartels just across the southern border? Send us your thoughts at npr.org/soapbox. John Burnett, NPR News.