Reporting on the serious social issues of Central America and working as a journalist for the “blow horn” that is the New York Times has its challenges, said the newspaper’s bureau chief for the turbulent area.
Randal Archibold, the New York Times bureau chief for Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean, gave journalism and Chicano and Latin American studies students an insight into the life of a professional in a speech at the Alice Peters Auditorium on Thursday.
Reporting about some of the world’s most important stories, Archibold said, is like working in an “atmosphere of fear and anxiety” in which you have to “watch yourself and think things through.”
Yet despite the “sketchy” atmosphere, working within the diverse region ensures stories of variety. During his past four years based in Mexico City, Archibold has covered a number of issues.
His experiences include investigating the “very much struggling” Haiti after the dramatic 2010 earthquake, the overcrowded prisons and gang relations in El Salvador and Pope Benedict XVI’s 2012 visit to communist Cuba – a place Archibold said journalists are not followed but assumed to be “watched.”
While travel in Archibold’s position is prevalent, being prominently situated in Mexico City means his main coverage is about organized crime and drug cartels. Currently, his work includes the aftermath of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán Loera’s capture. Loera is the head of the Sinaloa cartel — arguably the world’s most powerful drug trafficking organization.
Covering a story as big as El Chapo’s capture, Archibold said in today’s media means “you’re feeding the Web with one hand and preparing the story for print with the other.”
Another major issue concerning news about organized crime is filtering through “murky water” in order to find reliable sources. It’s a situation Archibold said involves having to “tread lightly” due to the potential dangers journalists face.
“One of the bigger issues these days are the threats to journalists in Mexico today, in particular Mexican journalists,” Archibald said.
While the New York Times flies at “30,000 feet giving more of an overview” about organized crime, Archibold said the experience is worse for local journalists. At times “probing where they were told not to probe,” for example, questioning connections between politicians and organized crime leaders, many Mexican journalists have been murdered or fled the country.
“I think the ones that are really in danger, the real heroes of journalism, are the Mexican journalists who suffer a great deal more,” Archibold said. “Many stay on despite dealing with the death threats because they believe in a brighter future for the country, and, again, the only way to change it is by exposing these issues.”
Archibold said drug cartels “think twice” before threatening an American journalist in the same way.
“Harming an American journalist would bring such tremendous response and heat,” he said. “These are practical business-minded people who run the cartels. They don’t want interruptions to their products.”
It’s a career that seems extensively serious, but Archibold was sure to emphasize there is a lighter side to the area so commonly portrayed as threatening.
His example? Researching the resurgence amongst young people of traditional Mexican spirits such as mezcal and tequila.
His news gathering method? Attending an alcohol company’s promotional taste testing – an experience he admitted left him not sure of “who he was” after “the eighth or ninth glass of mezcal.”
“I told it because I wanted to illustrate one, that you do get to do fun stuff in this job,” Archibold said. “Also, that Mexico is a pretty complicated place with lots of different types of stories – not just the sober, depressing insecurities of violence. There’re light stories, too.”
Dr. Annabella España-Nájera, a professor in Chicano and Latin American studies, organized Archibold’s visit in hope of showing students the diversity of the region and how its issues affect the United States.
“I thought Randy, as a reporter for the New York Times, is used to talking about Latin America to an American audience,” España-Nájera said.
With a new bachelor’s degree in Latin American studies, España-Nájera said the department has been working this year “to bring different speakers and films to show students how exciting it is to learn about Latin America.”
“I thought it would be something students are interested in and let us raise the profile of Latin America,” she said.