Tijuana Journalist Protest
Tijuana Journalist Protest

Journalists spend their working lives interviewing other people. But when two members of Tijuana’s press corps were shot dead within a six-day period this month, longtime colleagues found themselves in the unusual position of turning to each other for answers. 

“How do you feel about what is happening?” they asked fellow reporters, diligently recording the responses for the next newscast, news article or website post.  

Angry. Fearful. And for the most part, determined to keep working amid a greater sense of risk. 

“I’m no longer so certain of being safe,” Alberto Sarmiento, editor of the news website Hiptex.com, told Vicente Calderon, editor of Tijuanapress.com, during a demonstration staged outside the Tijuana offices of the Federal Attorney General’s Office. 

It’s unclear why police photographer Margarito Martínez and Lourdes Maldonado, a broadcast and radio journalist, were killed, and authorities have yet to link their deaths to their work as journalists. But both Martínez, 49, and Maldonado, who was to turn 67 next month, were well established veterans of the journalism community, and both had sought government protection in recent months. 

The killings drew me back to Tijuana repeatedly over the past few days. For funeral services, a candlelight vigil and a march to the federal attorney general’s office. Some remembered their friends with tearful tributes, others spoke with indignation and anger as they called for justice. As I listened, two things were clear.  

First, that the slayings have hit painfully close to home. While Mexico has become one of the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists — and the crimes are rarely solved — it had been nearly 18 years since such an attack occurred on a journalist in the city — and now there were two in less than a week’s time.  “I’ve been here for 30 years, and never seen this level of fear,” one veteran journalist told me.  

And second, they have brought the city’s journalists closer together than I’ve ever seen them in more than two decades of reporting here. 

“I guess the silver lining, if you can even speak of such a thing in this situation, is that Mexican journalists have an extraordinary capacity to channel their anger and frustration in a very positive way,” said Jan-Albert Hootsen, Mexico representative for the Committee to Protect Journalists.  

Margarito Martinez Esquivel Vigil
Colleagues of slain photojournalist Margarito Martinez Esquivel gathered to commemorate his life and passing at a candlelight vigil memorial in Tijuana, Mexico on Jan. 21, 2022. / Photo by Carlos A. Moreno

I spoke with him Wednesday, the morning after journalists and supporters staged protests across Mexico to demand justice for the Tijuana journalists and a third journalist killed in Veracruz this month. “What they did was show Mexicans that they are still united.” 

I belong to small and grateful cadre of San Diego journalists who over the years have received much support from their Tijuana counterparts. They share insights, contacts and even news tips. They call us companions, compañeros.If we’re too far back in a crowd encircling a public official, we can count someone’s helping hand reaching back to carry our recorder to the front. 

But I’ve also been acutely aware of the large gap in working conditions. We earn U.S. salaries, often have access to company cars, and we have the option of seeking safety north of the border if something does not feel right. Our houses, families, bank accounts are north of the border. And we’re not the first to show up at crime scenes where we might end up inadvertently angering someone with our photographs. 

Tijuana journalists make up a widely varied group, and within it, I have found many people I’ve come to admire — for their tenacity, their independence, their courageous pursuit of justice. But more than anything, for their demand for dignity in a world that has grown less and less friendly to people who report the news. They have always protected me, and more than anything, this has made me feel helpless about protecting them. 

Being a journalist in Tijuana has never been easy. I had been in the city for three years in 1997, when Jesús Blancornelas, the editor of the Tijuana investigative newsweekly, Zeta, survived an attack by members of the Arellano Felix Cartel, though his bodyguard did not.  In 2004, Zeta’s co-editor Francisco Ortiz Franco, was shot to death in front of his two young children after his name appeared on an article identifying organized crime members with police identification cards. The masterminds of the crime remain unpunished. 

While it is the violence that gets wide coverage, journalists also face other kinds of pressures. Many reporters work for low pay, without benefits such as health care, social security or life insurance. Media outlets have long relied on government-paid publicity — and editors with critical stances risk a loss of revenue and becoming targets of orchestrated attacks on their reputations. 

More recently, journalists have seen a growing threat from “influencers” who pose as journalists yet gain strong followings on Facebook with crime coverage that doesn’t follow journalistic standards. Martínez, who documented homicide scenes, was falsely accused by the owner of one crime-oriented Facebook page of running another page that ran the photos and names of drug traffickers. And Martinez’s colleagues fear that the accusation led to his death. 

All this has not gone unnoticed by the younger generation. During a protest march last week, I ran into Feliciano Castro, a former journalist who now teaches the subject at the Autonomous University of Baja California. “I’ve seen a drastic drop in interest in studying journalism,” he told me, as we stepped down Paseo de los Heroes. “It’s a risky profession and it just doesn’t offer adequate compensation.” 

A lot has been said about the two journalists in the past few days. Martínez had spent nearly two decades covering crime in Tijuana, one of Mexico’s most violent cities, with the Canon camera he called “La Negra Tomasa,” after a popular song. He had worked as a “fixer” for foreign journalists and freelanced for a half dozen news organizations in Tijuana. Several younger reporters told me he had been a mentor to them. 

“He was cautious, in the end what mattered to both of us was getting home safely,” said Gerardo Andrade, a longtime police reporter who now works for Zeta. Martínez, who was married with a 16-year-old daughter, got many of his tips listening to Red Cross radio calls, and raced out to the scene. The job is not only dangerous, but can be tiring and tedious, yet Martínez “was tireless and passionate about his work,” Andrade said. 

Maldonado moved from Mexico City to Tijuana in the 1990s, becoming known to local audiences as a tough-talking reporter for the local affiliate of the Mexican network Televisa.  

For several years, she worked for Primer Sistema and Noticias, PSN, a news channel owned by Baja California’s former governor, Jaime Bonilla. She had been in a nine-year legal battle against Bonilla’s company for illegal dismissal and back wages, and in the days before her death had celebrated a victory. At the time of her death, she was hosting a web-based program, Brebaje.  

Known as Luby to her friends, the journalist had struggled economically, sharing her modest two-story house with several cats and a pitbull mix named Chato. If her public persona could be abrasive, combative and loud, she also had another side.  

“To her being a journalist meant being biting, asking questions, and if the public official didn’t respond, she’d say, ‘You don’t know anything’,” said Odilón García, a longtime friend and radio host. “But she was affectionate with her friends, and in the world of cats she was extraordinarily kind.” 

Their violent deaths have made them national symbols for a members profession demanding protection and justice. But as the days pass and the Tijuana’s busy news cycle relentlessly moves on, the absence of the two journalists has felt all too real—and extraordinarily painful. 

Also Notable

Fourth journalist killed: Another Mexican journalist was killed Monday – making it the fourth death in less than a month. Roverto Toledo worked for the website Monitor Michoacán. The newsroom’s director said the website had received threats for reporting on corruption. (AP, San Diego Union-Tribune)  

New municipality: The port town of San Felipe, on the Upper Gulf of California, formally became Baja California’s ninth municipality this month. Located about 120 miles south of the state capital of Mexicali, it has a population of 22,000, and covers a land area of over 4,000 square miles. In recent decades, the small fishing community has been at the center of efforts to save the vaquita marina. (La Jornada) 

The first gray whales arrive to the coastal lagoons of Baja California Sur. / Photo courtesy of Comision Nacional de Areas Naturales Protegidas (CONANP)

San Diego journalists stage vigil: The San Diego-Tijuana chapter of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists staged a vigil in Little Italy outside the Mexican Consulate on Friday night to honor slain Mexican colleagues and call for justice. (San Diego Union-Tribune, Fox5 San Diego) 

San Diego workers move south: Tijuana’s El Sol newspaper reported on the growing numbers of San Diego workers who are moving to Tijuana because they can’t afford rising San Diego housing costs.

Migrating whales: The annual gray whale migration to Mexico is now in full swing as the giant marine mammals arrive from their Artic feeding grounds to winter and give birth in shallow lagoons off the Baja California peninsula. The whales, which weigh up to 90,000 pounds and measure up to 49 feet, also draw thousands of human visitors each year to the lagoons to observe and sometimes touch whales. (La Jornada, CONANP, The Log, NOAA) 

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