It was only after crawling through stalled traffic for about an hour on a Tijuana, Mexico, highway that we saw the crash that caused hours of congestion.
Two vehicles, a pickup truck and an old four-door sedan were piled up at a busy intersection. The entire window on the passenger side of the truck was clearly blown off.
“Oh that one?” Jesus Aguilar, a Tijuana journalist who covered the crime, said we are getting late to meet. “Yeah, that was like murder scene number five today. It’s going to be a busy night.”
The driver of the truck was shot through the passenger side window at the intersection and collided with the sedan as a result.
It is not uncommon to stumble upon a murder scene in Tijuana. In a murder-stricken country, the city stands out. According to city officials, more than 800 homicides have been recorded so far this year alone – and that counts only documented homicides. Experts say the true number of murders is much higher.
The state of Baja California, where Tijuana is located, is also notorious for disappearing. If the past is any indication, many of them will never be found – and are likely dead.
Independent crime journalist Arturo Rosales – who agreed to let CNN accompany him on his one night shift last week – is aware of that reality every night.
We meet in an empty park near the city’s infamous red-light district, where Rosales arrives in a taxi he owns.
“If I have downtime between crime scenes, I give people a ride,” he said. “This job doesn’t pay much.”
Rosales’ work depends entirely on what he hears on a small radio mounted on the car’s console. This is in line with the frequencies of police and first responders. We are with him for about five minutes before getting a call about a body being found in a truck near the highway.
“We go into very dangerous neighborhoods to document these things,” Rosales said, as we speed toward the scene.
He said, ‘I get scared sometimes.
Many of the killings in Tijuana involve organized crime driven by cartels and gangs that have dominated life in many parts of Mexico for generations.
Simply approaching those murders inherently puts journalists at risk, with everything from being targeted for directly covering crimes at risk – to being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
At the murder scene, we are greeted by two police officers. They are taking possession of the area until the crime scene investigators arrive. There are so many murders in Tijuana every day that it takes hours for even technicians to show up.
Rosales greeted one of the officers: “What happened?”
The driver was shot in his car, the officer said, “Stay behind this line but (photo) do whatever you want.”
Rosales takes photos and goes live on Facebook, clearly sticking to only the most basic facts: place, time, and mode of death.
“I have not yet received threats from any cartel, as I am here to document the violent incident and nothing else,” he explained. “I don’t get into trouble or accuse any cartel, it’s not my business.”
However, in the business of covering up crime, this does not always protect journalists from harm.
‘He taught me everything’
The first thing people say about journalist Margarito Martínez is that he was a jovial person, that he smiled more than others – regardless of what he covered.
Martinez was from a small, but well-known group of independent journalists covering crime in Tijuana. Every night he would go out with his camera and document view, largely reporting only the basic facts.
On January 17, he was shot several times outside his house. Some of his close friends and colleagues with whom he worked showed up to document it.
Aguilar, one of Martinez’s best friends, is also gone. “That’s what we do, we cover up the murders. Now I saw that.”
“They didn’t investigate anything,” Aguilar said. “Other journalists investigate these crimes but Margarito just reported the basic facts. He didn’t deserve what happened,” he said, adding: “He was a great friend … He taught me everything that happened.” I know.”
Ten people were detained by Mexican authorities in connection with Martinez’s death. Officials said all 10 have links to organized crime.
But the authorities have not yet given any specific motive for the murder. Many of the 10 people taken into custody were eventually released. No one has been formally charged.
Several Tijuana journalists have told CNN that they know why Martinez was killed and have offered various theories, including falsely accusing Martinez of sharing information about the family of a local crime boss.
CNN cannot independently verify that information.
assault and impunity
This particularly violent year for Mexican journalists has sparked outrage across the country and within the media.
Critics say the Mexican government is either unable or unwilling to protect journalists, such that it is unable to prevent the sheer level of violence across society.
“Look how many of us are killed,” Aguilar said. “They say that level of violence isn’t happening, but that bull**t. Pure lies.”
Aguilar is referring to the federal government led by President Andres Manuel López Obrador.
López Obrador has regularly said that his government protects journalists.
“In each of these cases (of the murdered journalists) people have already been detained and there are no exemptions,” López Obrador told a news conference earlier this year.
However, official figures paint a different picture. According to the federal government’s own statistics, more than 90% of crimes in Mexico remain unsolved – and most murders in which journalists have been killed are no different.
“Whatever the threats, the obstacles to their work, whoever kills the journalist, there is no consequence because we live in a country of impunity,” Tijuana journalist and press freedom advocate Sonia De Anda told CNN.
They argue that this culture encourages criminals to commit violence against journalists just to do their job.
Critics say the president’s statement is also contributing to the violence.
López Obrador regularly criticizes members of the media, attacks them personally for not liking them, and labels some as enemies of the Mexican people.
That rhetoric, De Anda said, creates an environment where violence against journalists becomes more likely, if not encouraged outright.
“We have a president who attacks freedom of expression,” De Anda said. “He invites his followers to attack those periodists (journalists) when they don’t agree with him. And then comes the violence. This is the worst time ever.”
One reporter, who asked CNN to withdraw her name for security concerns, told CNN: “It’s been very hard for some of us lately, the grief, the fear, the pressure.”
Rosales said that everyone feels the same way these days. It’s not hard to see why.
We accompanied him to several other murder scenes that evening, to some of the most dangerous areas in Tijuana. Police presence is limited on each one, some people are standing and watching.
They are potential spotters, called Panteros, who work for certain cartels and watch what happens at crime scenes, Rosales explained.
“I just do my job frankly and honestly and then leave. But it can be scary,” he said.
In that 24-hour time frame, 15 murders were recorded in Tijuana – the most violent day ever for the city.
It is only a matter of time before another journalist becomes another victim, Rosales said.