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For the last three years, a turf battle between drug cartels operating in Northern Baja has resulted in spiking murder rates in Tijuana and across the border region.

Veteran Tijuana journalist Vicente Calderón, one of the founders of TijuanaPress.com, has watched the escalation in violence with dismay, while attempting to catalog it for people sometimes a world away.

By partnering with U.S. and international news outlets like KPBS in San Diego and television stations in Los Angeles and London, Calderón’s aim is to provide on-the-ground perspective from his city to media organizations that don’t have the resources to send their own reporters south of the border.

In addition to breaking his own news stories, Calderón often works as a field producer for editors anywhere from Miami to Rome. When news outlets want to scope out a lead they have received, or research an interesting story they’ve seen printed or broadcast elsewhere, they turn to Calderón to provide local insight and set up interviews with local sources in Mexico.

That’s work that can be risky, especially as Calderón’s team expands its work beyond Tijuana to violent hotspots like Ciudad Juarez and Monterrey.

Since 2004, 43 journalists have disappeared or been killed in Mexico, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Several of the confirmed murders of journalists in that time took place in the border region, including at least one in Tijuana.

I sat down with Calderón in a cafe north of the border to discuss the state of journalism in Tijuana, the pressure of working in a region in crisis and other ongoing stresses on Mexican journalists, including the ever-present pressure to accept wads of cash in paper envelopes.

Is being a reporter in Tijuana right now similar to being a reporter in a war zone like Iraq or Libya?

I think it’s like reporting in a “conflict zone,” because the rules are not stated. There’s not two clear factions fighting each other. You just have to be doubly cautious. You have to be aware that they are reading what you’re doing.

It’s not as dangerous as it looks. Knock on wood.

But it can be tricky. You could just be covering a car accident and the driver could be linked to some group that doesn’t want their picture taken. Or the girl in the car could be a drug trafficker’s girl, or the girl of a corrupted cop and they could try to put some pressure on you.

Over the last few years, have you seen a deterioration in the quality of news coming out of the border region?

Every year, American media is becoming more and more reliant on second-hand reporting. There are a lot less reporters assigned to Tijuana than in the past.

I know that because I used to work with a lot of them on daily pieces. Now it needs to be a whole project for them to be able to be assigned to Tijuana.

For example, AP and Reuters, they have nobody based here now.

But in Tijuana, it’s ironic. At the same time, I see a lot of advancement. When I began working as a reporter, the government control of the media was a lot more strict. Now you can practically print whatever you want. You have to deal with the consequences, but the government was much more politically controlling before.

Do you think Tijuana is unfairly characterized by the media because news outlets always report on the violence, on the killings, or is that characterization fair enough?

I think it’s fair to cover a topic that’s very relevant and an issue. My problem is that this is not the only aspect of Tijuana.

The city’s moving. There’s a lot of people that are not directly or even indirectly affected by the violence. But, with some honorable exceptions, most of the stories that you see are drug-related.

I hate to say it, but I think there’s a lot of preconceived notions and prejudice from the reporters. They know that it’s easier to convince an editor in New York or L.A. that has no idea, that doesn’t speak Spanish, that the drug trafficking story is a very sellable, a very sexy story.

So what do you think that U.S. and other foreign journalists should be writing about in your region?

There are things like the effort to move ahead the aerospace industry here. About 50 percent of the companies related to the aerospace industry are in Baja California. Tijuana has several of those.

There’s also a big movement of I.T. creativity being pushed in Tijuana.

But you don’t see much coverage of those. For every one of those stories, you see 15 about killings, or mass murders or decapitations.

Like any big city, there’s a lot of stories that you can find.

In your reporting, have you been the subject of threats on your safety, on your life?

That’s not something I like to talk about.

A lot of people wear those threats like badges of honor, and I think that’s dumb.

Let’s just say that, fortunately, that has not been the case in the last 10 years. But this is like a shadow over us. You start seeing things and the natural instinct is to be more cautious.

Is there much corruption of the media in Tijuana?

Yeah. That’s a big problem for us, and it’s manifested in very subtle ways.

Keep in mind that we come from an era of government-controlled media, so even though the freedom of the press existed, it wasn’t very easy to exercise it. From the little guy who wants to appear in the newspaper and will give you a bribe, to the government that offers you good advertising contracts or cancels your advertising contract, it’s there in different measures.

That’s actually understood by a lot of the media companies, in the terrible salaries that reporters get paid. Some of the newspapers, they just assume that reporters will supplement their income.

I know of a reporter who had a new car appear outside his house, for example. We have a case we printed two years ago when City Hall was giving money away.

We had a new reporter and we explained to him that this was part of being a reporter but that we don’t go along with that.

It was his first six months of work and he got to the press office at city hall. The official brought him into the office and closed the door and said, “How are things? Why weren’t you guys covering this event of the mayor? Is that your beat?”

So the reporter said that because we’re so small, we don’t have such specific beats. He was just making small talk. Well, at the end the official said “They gave me this for you,” and came out with an envelope with about $50.

So the reporter said, “That’s for me? For what?”

“For you to have lunch,” he said.

But the reporter said he already had lunch money, so the official said, “Well, to get some gas then.”

The reporter said that they gave him gas at the office, so the official said, “Well, just for you then.” The reporter refused it. Very kindly. The guy was chasing him, trying to stuff it in his pocket.

Well, we did a story on that.

Anything that sticks out in covering the violence in Tijuana?

The heads.

The beheadings and the people hanging from the bridges. Between Rosarito and Tijuana, there were bodies hung in different areas of the city.

I’ve seen tortured bodies more times than I wanted to.

Do you become used to that?

Yeah. Unfortunately, you do. You have to. It’s just like a doctor who opens the body many times, no? You have to.

Do you think that the role of the media in Mexico’s democracy has been getting stronger, despite the safety problems and financial pressures?

Yes, sure.

Just keep in mind that 20 years ago, to talk about human rights was unheard of.

Now we have a culture with a lot of problems, still with a lot corruption, but the issue of human rights is always there now.

We are making progress. Not because the government is nice, not because there’s a good PR campaign, but because we are moving ahead.

A lot of those things aren’t covered enough.

Interview conducted and edited by Will Carless. He can be reached at will.carless@voiceofsandiego.org or at 619.550.5670 and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/willcarless.

Will Carless

Will Carless was formerly the head of investigations at Voice of San Diego.

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