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Border Reporter: New Doc Puts Mexico's Drug Violence in a Human Context

By KJ Relth

Reportero Photo: Bernardo Ruiz/Quiet Pictures

Centered around the daily life of a single beat reporter, Bernardo Ruiz's feature documentary debut, Reportero, paints an unfiltered portrait of the state of journalism on the Mexican side of the US-Mexico border. By addressing the history of the weekly periodical Zeta and its founders, editors and reporters, Reportero spotlights the challenges of one editorial team as they fight for an independent and free journalistic voice—sometimes even risking their own lives for the truth. Death and violence have a strong presence in this film, with iterations of both internal cartel brutality and vengeful assassinations of journalists. But Ruiz isn't interested in dwelling on the dead. He'd much rather have Reportero celebrate the lives of those working so hard to secure their freedom of the press.

"So much of the news coverage about the US-Mexico border was so decontextualized," Ruiz recalls. "It's what I call ‘vulture journalism'— bodies in the street and the decapitations and the shootouts—but there was no context. I just found it astonishing that even reputable media outlets were just doing slapdash coverage of the war next door. It continues to this day." It is precisely this sloppy, sensationalist coverage that led a few daring reporters to demand a new standard in journalism, its instigators wanting nothing more than to distance themselves from private interests and government influence.

Founded in 1980 by journalists Jesús Blancornelas, Héctor Félix Miranda and Francisco Ortiz Franco, Zeta was created as an answer to the heavily censored newspapers then commonplace in Baja California. No longer interested in being told what they could not print, these three men formed their own paper to expose the truths behind the rising tide of drug traffickers and political corruption surging through Northern Mexico. We learn about these men through editors and reporters who used to work with them, as well as through footage Ruiz and his team unearthed in the Tijuana and public media archives. "The newspapers have always been controlled by businessmen or politicians," Blancornelas admits in an archival interview. "And when I worked for them, I couldn't write what I saw. I don't mean my own opinions, but what I witnessed with my own eyes."

Once the magazine gained visibility, so too did the reputations of its founders. Now hard-hitting journalists unafraid to dig deep for the truth, each man eventually learned that he was putting his life at risk with the material he published. Eight years after the founding of the paper, Félix was shot and killed by the bodyguards of a high-profile political figure; Blancornelas was attacked in 1997 (but luckily survived); and Ortiz was assassinated in 2004 for his sensitive coverage of one of the biggest cartels in Tijuana. The editors and reporters who worked with these men recall these attacks, with no tears shed over the dead—again, Ruiz is not interested in dwelling on grief.

"Reportero is important because it highlights the horrific risks, pressures and dilemmas facing Mexican journalists," Los Angeles Times Mexico Bureau Chief Tracy Atkinson writes via e-mail, about the film's impact and the severity of the issues it addresses. "The encouraging thing is that Zeta has continued to do its job despite its painful losses over the years and in the face of the dangers."

After stepping back from the film, one starts to realize that the filmmaker documenting the lives of these at-risk journalists must also have been putting himself in harm's way. But Ruiz insists that he never felt himself to be in direct danger. "I always had the advantage of being able to leave when things got hot," he says. "The reality too is that we weren't covering Juarez street battles. We were trying to tell a more mindful or a more thoughtful story."

Ruiz holds Mexican and United States passports, and works and lives, for the most part, in New York City. He has spent most of his career working as a freelance director and producer for cable networks and PBS, dabbling in both narrative and nonfiction productions with tight schedules and quick turnarounds. A story about his native country would seem the perfect fit for Ruiz, but he's not interested in self-referential filmmaking. By keeping both his voice and his face out of the picture, Ruiz directs our focus on the unsung hero of Zeta, beat reporter Sergio Haro.

Through Haro, we're guided through the history of an organization, a tour dense and historically reflective of the political and economic climate in Baja California. Abandoning the constrictions of a network production, Ruiz was afforded the time needed to truly invest in a subject's life and work. Once he started doing research and meeting with people for this project in 2007, he was convinced that Haro would be the perfect living archivist of the last three decades of crime and its coverage in Northern Mexico.

"I didn't approach Sergio with a very specific agenda in the beginning," Ruiz recalls, "although I did have a sense early on that he would be a compelling presence in a film. I treated him as a collaborator. Once we really got into it, he was sending me material and we were sharing ideas back and forth. I very much included him in the process."

Reportero almost feels more like Haro's film than Ruiz's—at times, we see things as if through Sergio's camera lens, sharing these moments out on his beat as if from the first person. We drive with him at dawn and we follow him home, meeting his wife and eating a home-cooked meal in his humble kitchen. Throughout the film, we listen to his insight and watch him on the job, meeting with everyone from educational directors to trash pickers. Even though breaking scandals and violence make the front page, Haro is always pushing Zeta to cover these everyday stories. His main focus at the paper is on social issues; he stresses, "It's important not to lose that human connection."

"If it were up to the newspaper vendors," Haro insists in the film, "the paper would be dripping in blood." But his focus on the real people living, working and trying to survive in Baja California are what makes him think of the abundance of humanity in his world. It's important for both American and Mexican audiences to be reminded of this fact.

"Reportero does a fantastic job of showing the human struggles in covering drug trafficking and violence in Mexico," says Ioan Grillo, author of El Narco: Inside Mexico's Criminal Insurgency. "By focusing on the characters, it gives viewers a great sense of the fear, intimidation, violence, adrenaline, comradeship, skill and pride of the photographers and reporters on the border police beat."

Although Haro can usually be found on the periphery behind a camera or a pen, Reportero is his story. And even though Ruiz didn't set out knowing what his film would turn into, now that it's completed he wouldn't have it any other way.

Reportero premieres January 7 on PBS' POV series.

Katharine Relth is the Web and Social Media Producer at IDA.