“Formal Work in Mexico Doesn’t Pay”: An Interview with Journalist Sandra Rodríguez Nieto

Journalist Sandra Rodríguez Nieto is one of Mexico’s most respected investigative reporters. Her 2012 book, The Story of Vicente, Who Murdered His Mother, His Father, and His Sister: Life and Death in Juárez (Verso), is a detailed study of the sociological effects of impunity, the product of years of dedicated reporting from Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua at the height of drug war violence in the border city behemoth. Her book appeared originally in Spanish with the title, La fábrica del crimen. It receives its paperback release in English in February 2017.

Rodríguez Nieto’s distinctive reporting reflects a sociological eye.

Her genius lies in documenting, detailing and explaining how the decisions of the powerful affect different social groups in Mexico. A fine example of her ceaselessly excellent work – available online only in English translation – is an investigation of the wheeling and dealing behind construction of a new campus for Juárez’s autonomous university, the UACJ. This campus lies miles from the city center in Juárez’s hinterland not far from a supermax federal prison. Rodriguez Nieto’s research at the city land registry found documents about real estate transactions proving that the business elite precipitated the campus construction to benefit from land speculation. A crucial finding was that she described how the miles of traveling to the far-flung campus adversely affect the university’s students, staff and faculty. Obviously those students did not belong to Juárez’s business elite.

Her work wins prizes and garners recognition and admiration. A Nieman Fellow at Harvard University in 2013 – 2014, among other distinctions Rodríguez Nieto was awarded the Daniel Pearl Award for Courage and Integrity in Reporting (2012). Chihuahuan-born in 1973, she has reported in Mexico for more than 20 years, a career spanning Mexico’s hopeful transition from democracy to its depressing descent into the infinite present of drug war abuse and corruption.

Rodríguez Nieto spoke to Patrick Timmons for TBI’s Freedom of Expression Project via Skype from Mexico City where she works as an investigative reporter for the online news service, SinEmbargo.mx. The interview has been edited for publication. – Patrick Timmons


Trans-Border Institute: How long have you practiced journalism in Mexico, and where?

Sandra Rodríguez: More than twenty years. I’ve been an editor but above all else a reporter. I’ve worked in local and national newspapers. Local media like El Diario de Juárez, El Norte de Juárez, El Heraldo de Chihuahua, El Norte de Chihuahua. In national outlets at Reforma and Proceso. Now I report for SinEmbargo.Mx.

TBI: As a journalist, what’s your area of specialization?

SR: I graduated in the late 1990s. I went to work for Reforma as a national political news editor. It was very intense back then because of the citizens’ movement demanding democracy. As an editor I focused on the opening of the political process. Then the election took place and I started reporting in 2001.

I dedicate almost all my time to writing investigative reports rather than covering one source, although I have done that, too.

What I try to do in an investigative report is to link various aspects that I observe. That’s my primary concern as a journalist, connecting the different aspects behind a problem that are never obviously linked to just one event.

Many social problems are economic, that’s to say there are many dimensions to an issue. Think about Ciudad Juárez: when several people share an event we often only view it as linear, like a homicide. In my opinion a murder always has various dimensions. That’s the journalism I try to write. In one story I try to observe all the different elements that make up the event. Almost all the time the elements are multiple, are varied. But at the very least each story – whether it’s about crime or poverty – must be connected to public policies or to the political situation that makes the event possible. I try to find the people responsible for the situation.

Violence is not just an epidemic that springs up. Violence comes from decisions made by people who can be identified. And that’s something important to do to understand the phenomenon, identify causes and assign responsibilities.

TBI: Your career includes publishing a book, working for a provincial daily printed newspaper and an online investigative news outlet. What reflections do you have about these different sorts of media?

SR: These are the experiences of moving forward as a working journalist, of the better offers that come up. My work decisions are about the type of subjects of interest to me at a particular moment in time rather than the supposed stature of the outlet. For example, when I went to El Diario de Juárez, I was at Proceso or Reforma when I returned to Chihuahua to work for El Diario. That move could be seen as backwards. But what interested me about El Diario was that I would be able to report and research only about Ciudad Juárez.

In Ciudad Juárez I wanted to focus on a universe that was filled with more action, with more facts. Maybe it was because the national news I had to cover at the time was very political – like the switch to the Fox Administration – and it was pretty tedious. In Ciudad Juárez the problems seemed more real in some sense and less discursive. That’s what the politics was like, and obviously that time was very important for Mexico but I needed to be in Ciudad Juárez and that’s why I went to El Diario.

And now what really interests me about where I work is the editorial freedom at SinEmbargo.mx. We are publishing on subjects that have almost no visibility at other outlets even though they are really important, like the energy reform. That’s part of this well known, seriously wanting process propping up this economic model. But there are still different ways to report on it and I think now you have to be very aseptic in covering what’s going on because there’s a historical context behind this process. It’s been filled with attempts that try to open things up but that have also failed in really bad ways. That’s what fascinates me about observing this period of really intense structural reforms under Peña Nieto.

It’s really interesting to be able to see all of this with the freedom that I have at SinEmbargo and I really appreciate that. I’ve seen editorial freedom and independence as necessities for a long time. Mexico interests me. Looking at this government and its structural reforms interests me. Of course there is a lot more I need to see and understand and report on in this process but it’s been very important for me to have the independence to be able to link big business interests to the energy reform. The private North American companies are obviously there. I put names to the people who for more than twenty years have made the decisions to change the economic model. These are the same people who now benefit from the structural reforms.

TBI: How does violence affect journalism in Mexico?

SR: Violence is still the context in which everybody lives. Violence has the same cause. If there’s no investigation, if there are no arrests and there is no punishment then whoever it is will kill journalists, are going to kill people – I mean they are going to kill journalists, doctors, street vendors, soldiers, whoever. The climate of impunity makes violence possible.

TBI: So the violence no longer surprises you. Are there things that do surprise you about being a journalist in Mexico?

SR: What surprises me is how fast events are moving right now. I’m not saying this as an analyst, just as somebody who observes political events. It surprises me how quickly people have turned to talking about the effects of free trade, of NAFTA. In the 20 or so days since the election of Trump, with him putting trade up for discussion. Well, that’s something I would have viewed as totally impossible two years ago. The subject is now on the agenda.

All of this talk of free trade seems to me like it has happened very fast. Right now everybody is going around talking about neoliberalism being in crisis, crisis, crisis. I’ve seen this crisis happening for about three years but I didn’t realize that it could so quickly become consensus. And that’s surprised me in a good way. That’s excited me, actually. I think what’s going to happen in a lot of places is going to be dramatic, but these are historical events.

TBI: Do you think Mexico would be a better place without NAFTA? Why?

SR: I don’t think the subject is with or without NAFTA. I think the subject is the process of how NAFTA was decided, how it was applied. It was designed to take advantage of low Mexican salaries and wages. That’s obvious. It was designed to just benefit one segment of the population. From the interviews I’ve done and the things that I have read that’s clear.

NAFTA is Mexico’s only bet. The gamble was that transnational companies would come and provide direct investment in Mexico and provide work but at exaggeratedly low wages. And that’s been one of the most significant products of all this transformation: work and wages are no longer something that the government bets on for the population’s benefit. No, no longer. Now the market determines wages. That means there’s competition over wages.

With Mexico’s low level of educational attainment the only thing we have to sell at low cost is manpower. And that’s been terrible, really terrible. That’s what we see as a result of neoliberal reforms. If you look at the countryside and the small producers who cannot convert themselves into large corporations they’ve really lost out from free trade. The only people who have won are the wealthy. And this has happened in the United States, too.

That’s how NAFTA was designed. It’s just amazing in Mexico every time there’s documentation published about how it was negotiated. Just look at the Trans Pacific Partnership under negotiation right now. It’s incredible that in the United States and Mexico nobody knows what the negotiators are talking about. Nobody knows! And that’s the NAFTA history, too, according to the people who have been documenting the treaty. There’s a lot of work in Mexico about the treaty, particularly at the National Autonomous University (UNAM) and its effects on free trade. What’s notorious is how businessmen negotiated the treaty among themselves. These are people from the same families in Mexico who have become rich over the last two decades.

The thing is, with or without NAFTA, Mexico doesn’t really have any other sources of legitimate income than trade with the United States.

TBI: What continues to interest you as a journalist in Mexico?

SR: What interests me is economic analysis and the market’s impact, those sorts of stories. I’m interested, too, in impunity and the parts of the judicial process that make it possible and that fail to restrain violence.

TBI: Does the media have to adapt itself to the election of Donald Trump?

SR: No, he needs to be reported on like every other phenomenon. Just like Bernie Sanders, I don’t think either candidate was taken seriously enough at first by the media. And that was a terrible mistake, particularly for the Sanders campaign, as it obliterated a whole narrative.

TBI: You’ve been a journalist in Mexico over a timeline that includes three major events: ‘democratization’ in 2000; the beginning of the military phase of the drug war in 2006, and, the return of the PRI to the presidency in 2012. What have you learned about Mexican politics, society, and economics working through these major events?

 My thoughts here are very disheartening. It’s very interesting for me to think about how I once saw the supposed democratization as an exciting objective, especially in 2000 with the fall of the PRI. Now, sixteen years later, I think that the collapse of the PRI has been more costly than we thought.

I don’t think anybody realized that with the collapse of the PRI – let’s call it the political repository of governability in the country – central authority would be drained of power. And before that happened, do you know what they did? The PRI shifted focus to governorships. And what happened? The governors turned themselves into megamonsters. They became thugs on the make. Their power grew from what they allow organized crime to do in their territory.

The state governors have bathed like pigs in all the money. That’s something I’m looking at right now: since 2000 those in power have modified several laws so the governors can have access to public resources, like petroleum surpluses. The only point of political power is money. And the states have just been swimming in money: Veracruz, Chihuahua, all of them. They will all be broke. They have all been spending money. Since the price of oil collapsed the states have no money.

The crucial thing is none of this was casual. The people in power designed this system when they lost the presidency in 2000. They began to design mechanisms to control public financing. There was a lot of money because at the time oil was at its peak price in the early 2000s.

I think about how I have seen the evolution of the country through the way in which people in power can keep as much as possible for themselves. It’s obvious to me that they don’t care if the PRI keeps the presidency in 2018. What’s important to them is that somebody wins who does not change anything, and they get to keep the money they are rolling in.

TBI: What stories have you been working on recently?

SR: Right now I’m working on stories about what happens in Mexico as a result of free trade. Since 1982 and the beginning of the neoliberal reforms some specific changes have been taking place to the welfare state. What’s happened socially really interests me. Wages dropped, labor policies changed, and the quality of life in Mexico absolutely contracted. And that’s what I want to document.

The falling value of wages is not a trivial issue. Everybody has given up expecting decent wages. Formal work in Mexico doesn’t pay. What I have noticed in my own experience is that twenty years ago I earned three times the amount I earn today. That contraction is widespread. And it makes everybody despondent. This is a big issue, like impunity.

The legal labor market stopped being attractive. Mexico – as an option – stopped being attractive. It’s very depressing. I see my cousins and my young colleagues really depressed. In my generation we weren’t like that, quite the contrary. It’s important to make sure this story is not about personal responsibility, it’s a phenomenon occurring throughout the country. It’s really astonishing what young people earn and it makes me very sad. Mexico’s fall from where it was in the 1970s – with eight percent growth a year – that’s never going to happen again, and the decline has been severe.

Sandra Rodríguez Nieto was interviewed by Patrick Timmons as a part of his guest editing of TBI’s Freedom of Expression Project for the week of December 12, 2016. He is a lecturer in History at El Paso Community College, Texas.

About Michael Lettieri

Program Officer at the Trans-Border Institute

One thought on ““Formal Work in Mexico Doesn’t Pay”: An Interview with Journalist Sandra Rodríguez Nieto

  1. Sandra Rodríguez Nieto’s reporting — along with others of the likes of Sergio González Rodriguez and Diana Washington Valdez — has been crucial and fearless. And Mexican journalism, particularly around topics about Ciudad Juárez, is better because of her.

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