Want to Interview Cartel Hit Men or Human Smugglers? These Men and Women Can Make It Happen

October 11, 2019by Gustavo Solis
Tijuana "fixer" Margarito Martinez, a photographer himself helps visiting photojournalists and reporters to navigate the complexities of Tijuana. He was photographed in Tijuana on Thursday, October 3, 019. (John Gibbins/The San Diego Union-Tribune/TNS)

TIJUANA, Mexico — Margarito Martinez spent 10 nights sleeping inside his white minivan parked outside a Tijuana makeshift shelter last year when a caravan of Central American migrants reached the U.S.-Mexico border.

Inside the shelter, thousands of men, women and children were crammed into a park. When the winter rains came many slept on mud and disease spread throughout the shelter.

Martinez was working. He’d been hired by French journalists to be their eyes and ears in Tijuana.

“I had to be aware of everything that was going on in the shelter,” he said, “If anything big happened, I’d call the journalists and they’d come right away.”

Martinez, who works as a freelance news photographer for multiple publications in Tijuana, wasn’t the only local reporter hired by foreign journalists who descended upon Tijuana when the migrant caravan arrived.

Whenever the foreign press drops in to cover a big international story — be it a natural disaster in Southeast Asia, a civil war in Africa, or a humanitarian crisis on the U.S.-Mexico border — they rely on local guides to show them around town, arrange interviews, scout locations, serve as translators, and sometimes even negotiate interview terms with local cartel bosses.

These local guides are referred to as “fixers.” Whenever the BBC, CNN, New York Times, or pretty much any big news organization comes to Tijuana, they call local fixers.

“Basically, they are looking for someone with good contacts who understands the unwritten rules of the city — like which neighborhoods are safe to go to, how to speak with drug dealers or human smugglers, those types of things,” said Jorge Nieto, a Tijuana-based independent journalist who also works as a fixer.

The names of the men and women who do this behind-the-scenes work don’t often appear on bylines or credits, but without their work a lot of the award-winning news articles, gripping television segments and iconic photographs from the migrant caravan would not have seen the light of day.

In Tijuana, that work can be particularly gruesome.

Martinez still remembers the first time he photographed a dead body.

He was 30 at the time and driving home from a pawn shop with his mother in the city’s Zona Norte when they heard a barrage of gunfire.

His mother, who managed a political magazine called La Lucha de las Feminas, got out of the car and ran in the middle of the street, still wearing her high heels, toward the action.

“A normal mother says, ‘son, get down,’” Martinez said. “But I have a journalist mother. She told me to grab my camera and took me to the gunfight.”

Martinez sold his photos to local publications and has been covering Tijuana’s crime and mayhem ever since. He drives around town in his minivan listening to a police scanner, with a Raiders coffee mug on the dashboard and a bulletproof vest in the passenger seat.

His reputation as a crime photographer got around and he became the go-to fixer for any foreign journalists who wanted to cover Tijuana’s escalating violence.

Historically, foreign journalists go to Tijuana almost exclusively to report on crime, drugs, the border and immigration.

That’s because, for decades, Tijuana has been ground zero for all of those stories.

From when the first border wall was built in the 1990s, to when Mexico’s war on cartels brought unprecedented levels of violence to the city after 2006, or during President Barack Obama’s mass deportations, Tijuana has been where news happens.

More recently, President Donald Trump’s border wall prototypes were erected in San Diego, and the migrant caravan that the president referred to as an invasion landed in Tijuana.

Each major event brings hordes of foreign journalists to the city. And the hordes need local guides to show them around.

When the caravan arrived, it also brought reporters from China, Australia, Japan, France, Germany, Italy, South Africa and all over the United States. Those reporters came from news organizations that pay fixers between $300 and $450 per day. That’s more than local journalists in Mexico make in a week.

It takes a special skill-set to be a good fixer. You don’t simply drive people around town, said Arturo Pichardo, who coincidentally also runs an ecotourism company in Baja.

“Driving tourists to a winery isn’t the same as getting journalists into a migrant shelter,” said Pichardo, who spent several weeks with photographers from Reuters who ended up winning the Pulitzer Prize for their coverage of the migrant caravan.

Fixers are guides. But apart from showing other journalists their city, fixers have to be cultural guides as well to reporters who have never worked in Latin America.

“I have to translate,” Nieto said. “Not just Spanish and English, but I have to translate culturally how the work is going to be done.”

For example, Nieto said, reporters who have never worked in Mexico may not understand that when a source says, “I’ll see you in 15 minutes,” they really mean, “we’ll meet eventually.”

Sometimes fixers have to give up the secret spots to other journalists.

“I feel badly about giving away my secret, especially when they are the ones who are going to get a great photo published in The New York Times,” said fixer Jim Platel. “But I bite the bullet and say, ‘well, it’s for the best.’”

Additionally, fixers are asked to be editors, managing expectations from foreign journalists who think they will be able to get a one-on-one interview with a cartel boss on a few days’ notice.

“Their requests are like a wish list to Santa Claus,” said Gaby Martinez, another Tijuana-based fixer and journalist.

She specifically remembers getting a request to set up an on-camera interview with a cartel’s money launderer. In one week.

Part of her laughed, but the other part felt a little hurt. Almost as if some foreign reporters don’t see her as a colleague but rather someone to carry their suitcases. They ask for interviews that put fixers at great risks, but when the story is over they can leave Mexico while the fixer has to stay and assume potential backlash.

Nieto experienced a similar situation with a European journalist who asked him to set up a film shoot inside an active drug tunnel.

Nieto offered to show them a tunnel that had already been discovered and to interview a cartel member who had worked in it. But the journalists wanted to be in a tunnel when drugs were moving through it.

“At one point, he asked me, if the people we’re going to be doing this are trustworthy,” Nieto recalls. “Well, I told him that they are criminals. How much can you trust a criminal? We were going into a tunnel and they can shut it down at any moment.”

If they had gotten kidnapped, the French journalist could’ve called his embassy and it would’ve been an international scandal. But Nieto is Mexican, he lives along the border and therefore would’ve assumed a greater risk.

When the foreign journalists leave, the fixers stay and wait for the next big international story to come to Tijuana.

In the meantime, fixers go back to their day jobs. Nieto and Martinez work as freelance journalists and fine-tune their skills by going to different journalist workshops.

Pichardo goes back to his tourism business and shows people from San Diego Tijuana’s good side — something he wishes more journalists were interested in.

“It’s important for reporters to see how beautiful Tijuana is,” he said. “Yes, you can talk about violence. But you can also talk about art, history, culture, sports, gastronomy, so many things.”

Martinez simply goes back to doing what he does best: driving around Tijuana’s most dangerous neighborhood in his minivan, listening to the police scanner, and waiting for something to happen.


©2019 The San Diego Union-Tribune

Visit The San Diego Union-Tribune at www.sandiegouniontribune.com

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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