Exposing an Ecosystem: Reportero and Bernardo Ruiz at GMU

by Casey Cagley, Latin American Studies Graduate Research Assistant

Exposing an Ecosystem: Reportero and Bernardo Ruiz at GMU

On Wednesday, 10 April, students, faculty, and visitors to George Mason University attended a screening of the documentary Reportero and a discussion with award-winning filmmaker Bernardo Ruiz. Sponsored by the Film & Media Studies Visiting Filmmakers Series, the event showcased the dangers faced by journalists in Mexico, as they are targeted by drug cartels and corrupt government officials.  

The violence against reporters has been escalating: more than 50 have been killed or gone missing since 2006, when former president Felipe Calderon launched a government offensive against the cartels and organized crime. The film begins with a montage that shows journalist Sergio Haro driving his truck through dusty Mexican highways, then cuts to images of murders and funerals. Haro works for the Tijuana-based, independent newsweekly, Zeta, which has reported some of the biggest stories involving crime, corruption, and drugs in northern Mexico since it was founded in 1980. Reportero goes on to underscore the risks taken by reporters like Haro as they cover the drug war in Mexico: the paper has lost three staffers over the years, including co-founder Héctor Félix Miranda, who was assassinated in 1988, and co-editor Francisco Ortiz Franco, murdered in 2004. Another founder, J. Jesús Blancornelas, barely survived an assassination attempt in 1997.

Over 95% of crimes against journalists are not investigated by the authorities, according to Ruiz. He suggests that the violence against them is a sign of cultural and political currents, exposing a greater “ecosystem” shaped by fear and oppression. Still, Sergio Haro pursues a range of stories, the citizens affected, the children left orphaned, and the killers who too often elude arrest and conviction. In one scene, an anonymous source gives him an interview with a subject who implicates several senior government officials: "It was like holding a grenade," says Haro, as he and colleagues go on to debate whether or not to publish it, knowing that doing so might put their own lives in danger.

As Haro faces such difficult questions, the film reminds us that in Mexico, violence is insidious as well as overt, as fear and silence -- self-censorship -- help to keep the carteleros in place as much as gun battles and assassinations. For Haro, the expanding criminality is symptomatic of other forces. Outlaws thrive on the structural inequality and chronic poverty that leave some people homeless; as he shoots individuals picking through garbage at a Tijuana landfill, in search of recyclable materials, Haro explains that he prefers to focus on these "social issue" stories in order to expose the effects of corruption, beyond shootouts and grisly crime scenes.

As Reportero's camera films Haro at work with his camera, the images complicate our understanding of how the cartels operate, and challenge the usual narratives that posit good guys against villains. Rather than "romanticize the narcos," as some media headlines do, Ruiz's film examines the day-to-day lives of the individuals who cover the violence.

Following the film, discussion turned to Ruiz's own representational choices, and also, how the press covers events in Mexico, including the role of social media and citizen reporting. Ruiz lamented the quality and quantity of reporting generally, noting that limited budgets have led to a reduction in investigative work. He also called on news outlets and the public in Mexico and the US to look beyond the sensational stories and gruesome headlines from the borderlands.

This semester's event in the Visiting Filmmaker Series was cosponsored by African & African American Studies, Communication, Cultural Studies, Film & Video Studies, Global Interdisciplinary Programs, Global Studies Abroad, the Human Rights & Global Justice Working Group's Fourth Annual Film Series on Global Justice, Latin American Studies, Sociology & Anthropology, and University Life.