Silence or Death in Mexico’s Press

Why I Went Into Exile

By Luis Horacio Nájera

So far, I have not been able to figure out whether I was cowardly or brave in fleeing Ciudad Juárez with my family and three bags, leaving everything else behind. Two years into exile, I still grapple with the feelings of abandoning my home, leaving my parents, and stopping my journalism, which I loved so much after 18 years in the profession.

Video: Nájera’s journey

The decision to leave Mexico was complicated, emerging over time but arriving with sudden finality. The idea first came to mind after I received veiled warnings from corrupt police officers who “recommended” that I stop asking questions or taking photos of dead bodies that would shed light on the criminals that they—in their uniforms and badges—had protected. State police once held me at gunpoint while I was covering a shooting.

For nearly two decades I covered the Ciudad Juárez area, West Texas, and New Mexico for Grupo Reforma, one of Mexico’s most prominent publishing houses. I was threatened with death multiple times, followed, harassed, and intimidated as a result of my investigative work. In February 2006, after receiving death threats related to my coverage of the murder of a prominent lawyer, I left Juárez temporarily and went to Nuevo Laredo—where I was again followed and harassed after reporting on the activities of the Gulf cartel. I was back in Juárez a few months later, only to become the target of more threats for reporting on the killing of my colleague Enrique Perea Quintanilla in August 2006.

In pursuing what was not merely my job but my passion, I exceeded sheer reason on many occasions. So it often happened that in trying to capture the best image or dig up a scoop I crossed the thin line into danger. In 2008, I received reliable information that several journalists were named on an organized crime hit list because of their reporting on the Juárez drug wars. My source told me I was on that list. I would learn later that two others were also named: Armando Rodríguez Carreón, who was killed in November of that year, and Jorge Luis Aguirre, who is now living in exile in Texas.

I sometimes think I was like a frog in an experiment, placed in water whose temperature is raised bit by bit until it dies. Despite being photographed at crime scenes by shadowy men in luxury vehicles, despite being followed by individuals carrying assault rifles, I did not sense for some time that my life was at risk. But unlike the frog, I finally recognized I was in imminent danger when the temperature went up suddenly in August 2008.

A massacre at a Juárez drug rehabilitation center that month had exposed the use of such facilities to hide the hit men of criminal gangs. I wrote a piece detailing the complicity of state police and soldiers in concealing these killers, along with articles alleging illegal arrests and torture committed by these soldiers who were supposed to be fighting the drug traffickers.

Threats came from all sides. In the crossfire, I had no one to turn to for help. Having seen the pervasive climate of violent crime and impunity, I could not trust the government and I could not simply let myself be killed under some lonely streetlight. In September 2008, I left Mexico with my family and went to Vancouver, Canada.

I am still alive, and I am fortunate for that. But I feel the pain of having fled my country and my profession. I now have a part-time job as a janitor, the only work I could find after 14 months of unemployment. My wife, who has expertise in human resources, works as a housekeeper. We are supporting our two sons and our daughter. We are alive, out of the crossfire but having lost so much.

Luis Horacio Nájera is a former correspondent for Grupo Reforma.

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