Anna Politkovskaya, a fearless Russian journalist, wrote about the horrors she witnessed during Vladimir Putin’s presidency. As a result of her hard hitting reporting she was shot and killed in Moscow in 2006—the identity of the gunman is still unknown. Published posthumously, a collection of her essays bears the title ‘Is Journalism Worth Dying For?’ Bernardo Ruiz, a Mexican-born and U.S. bred documentarian ponders the same question in his film Reportero.
Fighting the drug war has come at a huge cost for Mexico, mostly in lives lost. It is estimated that nearly 60,000 people have died as a result of the clamp down on drug cartels that started under former President Felipe Calderon back in 2006. A number of the drug war related murders include journalists who dared to investigate and report on the cartels. Reportero follows Sergio Haro, a veteran photojournalist for Zeta, a Tijuana-based weekly newspaper. Even in the face of constant death threats Zeta’s reporters refuse to censor themselves and routinely publish the names and photos of drug traffickers and corrupt politicians. The newspaper, from its very inception more than thirty years ago, sought to out Mexico’s government—then controlled by a single political party, the PRI—as crooked, exploitative, and undemocratic.
Zeta began as a project of frustrated journalists who banded together to subvert the government’s monopoly on news. Ruiz recounts, “The paper was started in 1980 by a journalist named Jesús Blancornelas. Blancornelas had been fired from five different papers for his aggressive editorial stance. And so in 1980, he and another reporter decided that they wanted to create a paper for journalists that would not be controlled by the government or deal with government censors. So early on in that process, they decided that they would actually print the newspaper in San Diego, across the border in the United States. And every week they’d truck the newspaper into Mexico. It was a way to defy government censorship because in 1980, paper sales were controlled by the Mexican government. From its birth the paper has always had a very clear, independent streak.” The paper’s editors stubbornly continue to stick to their early mission, crusading against government corruption and organized crime. But, their muckraking journalism continually puts their lives in peril, on a daily basis.
Adela Navarro, co-director of Zeta was recently named as one of Foreign Policy’s Top 100 Global Thinkers. Despite the international recognition, the threats on her life continue. In February of last year, an anonymous call was made to the Zeta headquarters warning that Melvin Gutiérrez Quiroz, an alleged Tijuana drug trafficker had it in for the reporter and her staff. As Ruiz explains, the cadre of reporters at Zeta hope the film will raise the profile of the paper and shield them from further intimidation, “...in the case of Sergio and Adela and the other journalists at Zeta, they feel that a film like this gives them more attention and that attention is added protection. There are some cases in the world where this type of attention would be detrimental to the journalists, but in this case, they were confident that this will bring more attention, greater protections to their work.” Hopefully, the documentary will touch a nerve with American audiences and provide a different view of their southern neighbor.
Ruiz started off making a short film about an entirely different topic but fate nudged him in a different direction. After meeting Sergio, the documentary became about Zeta’s tireless efforts to print what no other paper would dare to. Ruiz saw an opportunity to delve deeper into Mexico’s drug war violence, something that was sorely lacking in the American news media. He says, “...here in the U.S., I was reading headlines or I was seeing these sensational news packages put together on cable. It was just a report of the body count, of the heads in the street, of the blood in the street. And past a certain point there was just no analysis, there was no context. The human side of the story, the human toll of what’s been happening in Mexico was entirely neglected.” Ruiz’s film does exactly the opposite.
At the heart of film is Sergio Haro’s daily life as a journalist. Reportero opens with Haro going about his day, telling stories about the perils of journalism in Mexico as he drives to take pictures of grisly crime scenes. He then recounts how two of Zeta’s staff reporters were gunned down by hired hit men on separate occasions. His pain and anger are palpable when it is revealed that the gunmen were never brought to justice. He sometimes questions himself—the danger, the threats to his life—is journalism really worth dying for? His devotion to his craft is unshakeable. Reportero succeeds at painting a powerful portrait of a man committed to social justice and exposing the truth, no matter the cost.
Written by Juan Caceres and Vanessa Erazo, LatinoBuzz is a weekly feature on SydneysBuzz that highlights Latino indie talent and upcoming trends in Latino film with the specific objective of presenting a broad range of Latino voices. Follow @LatinoBuzz on twitter.