On October 24, 2013, Mexican Journalist Marcela Turati received the WOLA Human Rights Award for her fearless reporting on the drug war in Mexico, as well as her work to elevate the courageous voices of those who risk their lives to expose some of regions most violent criminal organizations.
Marcela Turati is a reporter for Mexican magazine Proceso, and co-founder of Periodistas de a Pie, a journalism network created to protect reporters under threat in Mexico and ensure that the press is not silenced. Ms. Turati’s courageous coverage as a journalist has shown the human toll of Mexico’s drug war. She has fearlessly worked on the frontlines—often at great risk—to expose human rights abuses and stories of human tragedy behind the 70,000 deaths and 26,000 disappeared in Mexico in the past six years.
This is the speech that she gave that night.
“I feel very honored to be here with you this evening, especially for what WOLA has represented in the field of human rights in Latin America. I feel very moved also to be recognized with a prize that people I admire have received in the past and this year. Thanks to my friend Alfredo Corchado who came from México to present me with this award, and because he is worried about the situation there.
I still haven’t gotten used to being up here, on the microphone. I should be next to the speakers, taking notes to put together an informative piece about the event, asking the editors to wait because the program is delayed and the speakers are going over their allotted times.
But with the violence triggered in Mexico that began with the “war on drugs” –the six-year military strategy undertaken with U.S. funds and support through the Merida Initiative until now– my country changed. The change was so rapid that by the time we journalists noticed, we were already taking up other roles.
In those times, I founded, along with journalist friends of mine who ought to be here sharing this award with me tonight, a network that we called Periodistas de a Pie (Journalists on foot). The objective was to get space in the media for pieces about social issues.
But the violence pushed us to another path.
In my case, my life changed from being a reporter dedicated to covering poverty, to suddenly having to cover the discovery of mass graves with up to 200 bodies in them, and having to interview dozens of itinerant parents who had traveled through the country looking for their missing children.
Suddenly I was no longer dealing with the victims of natural disasters, but rather I met with entire towns displaced by the hurricane of turf disputes between the drug cartels and federal forces.
I was no longer reporting on commemorative events for people who were detained and disappeared in the 1970s and 80s, during the so-called “dirty wars” in the time of the PRI. Instead I was accompanying marches of parents who held color photos of young people who were disappeared barely yesterday, in the time of democracy.
Violence encircled us. Journalists had the option of blindfolding ourselves, so as to pass over the blood without seeing, shielding our ears to the suffering, or we could grab the camera, notebook, and pen and go to places where people were fleeing in stampedes. We could tell that in cities like Juarez—bordering El Paso, Texas—there were so many assassinations that the morgue was saturated, that blood was scarce in the hospitals, that the city was populated with the tombs of young people, that people were squeezed in the houses of family members on the other side of the border, and that legions of orphaned children chewed on nightmares every night, without anyone to watch over them while they slept.
I have had the responsibility and the privilege of being able to tell these stories weekly through the magazine Proceso. This magazine is a free space where its team of reporters documents governmental ties with the cartels, drug lords, war strategy, the relationship with the U.S., the systematic violations of human rights, and the voices of the victims.
At that time, members of the network (Periodistas de a Pie) and I who dedicated ourselves to covering the violence immediately knew that we were unprepared to meet the humanitarian crisis we were experiencing. We asked for help from the UN and other organizations to put together workshops with Colombian journalists. From there came the choice to cover the violence from the point of view of the victims, those who no one listened to, who were regarded with suspicion, forced to mourn in silence, and whose children’s bodies were thrown into the anonymous graves of impunity.
The situation demanded us to design new workshops. Sometimes the challenge was how to interview children transformed by the violence, how to encrypt information so it would not be detected, how to enter and leave from insecure zones, and how to care for ourselves emotionally so that what we reported on did not rob us of the joy of living.
Journalists from the provinces of the country began to come to the workshops in Mexico City, dumb with fright, with the nightmare stuck like a cataract in their eyes, who told us how the narcos, the police, or the politicians had intended to silence them or had forever silenced some friend of theirs. Or how their office caught fire while they were working. Or of the grenade that left a friend injured. Or of the kidnapping and torturing by the narcos that were protected by soldiers who refused to follow orders. Or of the disappearance of friends who were tracking criminal enterprises involving members of the government.
One morning of 2010 we were walking down Avenida Reforma, carrying placards with photos of our assassinated colleagues, taking to the streets to demand justice. We shouted that we did not want “Ni uno más”—not one more—and that we wanted them alive. We wanted us alive. We already sensed what would later be obvious—there was a hunting down of journalists.
I remember that we were not inspired to take the Avenue. We had always been in the marches, interviewing the protestors who closed off traffic with their protests, but now it was our turn. Friends from human rights organizations we encountered there were saying to us— “No se rajen, cabrones, para que vean lo feo que se siente”— “Come, on cabrones, don’t give up. You see how ugly it feels.”
While we were marching in silence, a colleague approached to interview me and asked if I would carry the poster he was holding while he wrote down my responses. When he finished, I asked him if he could take my placard so that I could now interview him. At the end of it, we asked ourselves— “How are we going to sign the story, if we too are its protagonists?” All of a sudden, we who were used to writing news became the news.
(We didn’t stop there. One day we were making collections for the journalist exiled in the U.S., campaigning against police beatings against photographers, or making symbolic gestures, almost invisibles ones, like cleaning the grave of the brave assassinated journalist Regina Martinez, a correspondent of my magazine in Veracruz, and marching side-by-side with her friends.*)
Many colleagues ask us if we are still journalists, or if we are now activists. This is because, besides the day-to-day work of preparing the daily news, we are militant against the silence, for the right of citizens to be informed, and for all of us to express ourselves, and so that they do not kill, disappear, or intimidate one more person for doing their work, and so that those responsible are punished, and for our right to happiness, and because what
’s happening is not normal, because we cannot get used to this, and because we cannot give in to the silencers.
Hence we had to make some adjustments to our identity. Mine and of many of my colleagues who create networks in all the country to protect themselves and keep the information safe, knowing that they are alone, and that neither media owners nor government care.
During a workshop a journalist asked me: “Am I still a journalist if I cry?” And I thought, who did not cry in that caravan of pain that crossed the country and where each kilometer appeared dozens of mutilated souls who had to hide the fact that their children had been killed? How could you not flinch at the sight of Reforma Avenue every May 10, when it fills with mothers that do not need to wear the head-scarf of the mothers of Plaza de Mayo because we know who they are? How should we feel when they call to thank us for mentioning in a line of our story the name of a child who disappeared among 26,000 others registered only the last six years? Or who was killed among the 70,000 thousand in the same period?
Anyone who has witnessed such horror, who has been touched by such pain, who meets the survivors that rise through the ashes, is never again a soul at peace. The conscience never stops prickling. You cannot erase the experience.
We have organized to take care of ourselves; we have put together collective projects to recover the memory of the victims, and to put the faces, names, ages, and broken dreams with the death statistics. So that society (not only the victims or the perpetrators) knows what happened.
Although the governmental party changed in December, the PRI has returned, new victims continue coming to the newsroom where I work to be heard, while most of the news spaces have closed the door to them again. As if by magic, the government talks of peace in Mexico and wants to hide the victims under the carpet.
And the massacres continue to occur. And in places like Mexico City young people leaving from bars are disappeared. And there are mothers on hunger strikes begging the search for their missing children. And threatened journalists seeking the protection of a government mechanism created to provide safety, but that doesn’t work.
The question is: Who will sign the story when they silence everyone? Will there be a story?
This is the battle against the silence that is being waged right now in Mexico.
We need to create conditions to gather the information we have recorded in our notebooks, and, along with experts, put together the pieces to see who has benefitted from so much pain, what the mechanisms of death were, how they were brought to an end, and what role the state played.
So far, what we have tried to do is to walk with the victims seeking justice and to document their steps. As the court has denied the justice and the truth, we aspire to see their truth acknowledged in the press, so that what happened remains in the social memory, in the manner of a truth commission in real time.