To Go or Not to Go: the Juarez Question

April 5th, 2011  |  by  |  Published in Uncategorized  |  6 Comments

I spoke last week on a panel on how journalists cover immigration, hosted by the rather ominously-named Deadline Club.

It was a nice little event–a couple old friends showed up, I met some good people for the first time. I learned a bit more about NYU’s intriguing Beyond the Border student journalism project. There was also enough blowharding and grandstanding to keep the panel interesting (I include myself in that pomposity: as a friend pointed out afterwards, I had at one point said something to the effect of “all that tragedy and death on the border is in that fruit salad you buy from the bodega in New York).

But it has got me thinking, both before and after the panel, about my next story, and whether or not I should go to the town uniformly described as the Most Dangerous City in the Western Hemisphere: Juárez, right across the river from El Paso. It’s a hell of story: a manufacturing town where manufacturing costs are now lower than in mainland China, and, in the past few years, a total bloodbath. Internecine fighting between narcogangs that are killing each other for the right to intoxicate us Americans. For a sense of the velocity of death: reports say that 24 people were killed in the city in the last 24 hours.

How can you tell the story of the border–which I’m hoping to do with my next travels later this month–without telling the story of Juárez? But is the danger there simply too great?

I know the answer to the first: you can’t. Juárez has to be a part of the puzzle.

The answer to the second is, I don’t know yet. The reporting protocols for Juárez now look a lot like Baghdad, circa 2005. Move often. Travel with a buddy. Let three people know where you’re headed and whom you’re meeting. If your contact isn’t there, or if anything looks even slightly off, leave immediately. In the case of Juárez, you probably should back over the border before nightfall (a luxury that Iraq reporters never had–El Paso is one of the safest cities in the country, and certainly safer than the Green Zone).

All of these things won’t eliminate the risk. But I don’t know that I can avoid going.

I should state, for those who don’t already know, that I am not a war reporter. I’m not naturally brave, don’t have much use for bravado, and I lack that continual drive that the war guys (and gals) have to go where the story is literally blowing up.

I’ve been in Kevlar situations with the police in Baltimore, and been detained and watched and suspected by various foreign governments, but I’ve never been in a war zone or something that rises to Juárez’s level of danger. I volunteered for Iraq in 2003 when it was not a killzone (for foreign journalists anyhow), and was rebuffed by Time, because I was just a freelancer. By 2004 I was married with an unwritten prenup that included not going to war. By 2006 I was a father, and in all honesty, my desire to go in harm’s way for a story–any story–had diminished all on its own. I have a powerful new constituency in my children, and they teamed up with my natural inclination against risk to effectively end that discussion.

And yet.

I’m a correspondent. And it just feels incomplete if you go out of your way to stay out of harm’s way. Because as we all know, I’m still more likely to get hit by a bus while Tweeting in Manhattan rather than have something bad happen overseas.  So it feels like sitting on the sideline to avoid conflict areas when some of the journalists I admire most–personally and professionally–are out there now, in Libya, in Juárez, everywhere.

I’m headed this morning to NYU to talk to journalism masters students about covering immigration. I’ve got a full hour to tell them what I know. Not sure I’ll have a chance to walk them through one of the things I don’t know–whether I stay out of the fight for my kids or for myself.


  1. Jason says:

    April 5th, 2011at 1:13 pm(#)

    I have many fond memories of Mexico; as a college student, many a Friday night was spent in Tijuana, hitting the bars on Revolucion, and knowing that if you didn’t act like a complete jagoff you’d have no problems with the locals. Later I ventured further south, down to Rosarita and Ensenada. We honeymooned in Cabo. There was always talk of surf trips, exploring the hundreds of miles of empty Mexican coastline. Now? No way in hell I’d go to Baja.

  2. Nathan says:

    April 5th, 2011at 4:05 pm(#)

    I get a lot of that in my house, too. My wife’s people are from Baja and she’s still not interested in going to Ensenada or anywhere there right now. Still, those parts of the country are as safe as they’ve been–and cheaper!–but the danger in neighboring states has everyone tweaked. And I think that with plenty of nice places to visit, there’s an argument for not choosing places that give you the willies.

  3. The Momma says:

    April 5th, 2011at 5:34 pm(#)

    I grew up in El Paso, and spent many years day tripping with family to the markets in our sister city. And I can still clearly remember my first time getting roaring drunk at a crappy bar in Juarez that served anyone who could reach the bar (they also had a weird sandwich stand in the bar. I…still can’t fathom eating there). The year after I graduated high school they found the first of many many mass graves full of girls and women. I never even knew the danger in my own backyard as I tripped back across the border in a drunk state.
    Juarez is a sad, scary place now. I no more would take myself across the border than I would willingly walk into a war zone. But then…I’m not a journalist. So I’m not sure how that would change my attitude.

  4. dadwagon says:

    April 5th, 2011at 5:42 pm(#)

    The Momma–I was hoping to hear from an El Pasoan. I’m looking forward to getting their take when I’m down there (like I said, I’d be spending my evenings on the near side of the border, if you know what I mean). I’m sure the testimonies sound a bit like yours. Sad that the towns should be divided so deeply on so many levels.


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