Luis Najera covered the border in Mexico for 18 years. "Drug hot spots. Mostly in Ciudad Juarez," Najera said.
For his last four years, he was at one of Mexico’s most respected newspapers. But, Najera’s life has changed.
"I am a janitor. I clean toilets. Friday, I was cleaning toilets. And look where I am now," Najera said. He was at a prestigious press freedom seminar at the Institute of the Americas in La Jolla.
"And Wednesday, when I go back, I’ll clean bathrooms again," the former reporter said.
In the summer of 2008, Najera was in Ciudad Juarez. The drug war was heating up. The number of homicides in the city was on its way to tripling the previous year’s total. Mexico’s president had deployed more than 2,500 soldiers to Ciudad Juarez try to stop the fighting. Najera was investigating how the army was trying to do that.
He said he got proof that soldiers were kidnapping, killing and using torture in the crack down. That's when his problems began.
"A federal policeman who was close to me and the army and knew the story I was working on told me to watch out," Najera recalled.
He said he was used to getting threats, which, sadly, comes with covering the police beat in Mexico. But then someone threatened his wife. And he had a feeling this one was real. Najera checked with his sources. They told him it was.
Two days later, Najera said he locked the front door of his house for the last time and fled with his family.
Najera said he didn’t feel safe going to the United States. A street gang was unhappy with him for exposing how it worked on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border.
"Knowing how that the gang operates in the U.S., we thought Canada was safer," Najera said. Neither he nor his wife had ever been to Canada.
They and their three children landed in Vancouver. They asked for asylum. Two years and 900 pages of evidence later, they got it.
"It’s hard. When you’re there cleaning bathrooms and you think: 'I could be writing'," Najera said. "Sometimes I really want to be back in Ciudad Juarez, because it’s what I love. But, at the same time, who’d guarantee that I’d be alive?"
Since Najera left Mexico, journalists have increasingly gotten caught in the cross-hairs of drug cartels. Some media outlets have stopped covering crime. Others have resorted to printing only police press releases. Mexico’s government has done little to protect reporters.
Calderon agreed that attacks by organized crime groups on the media threaten Mexico’s democracy. He promised to do more to safeguard journalists. Simon said nothing concrete has come of it.
"Nothing that has made the work of journalists any easier or that has provided any significant basis to think that they are safer today than they were a year ago," Simon said.
Nonprofit organizations, like Article 19, have stepped in to help. Cynthia Cardenas is the legal director. The group offers what she calls holistic training for reporters. It includes self-defense, what to do if you get kidnapped, psychological counseling and relocation services.
"We tell people that the best protection is practicing good, ethical journalism," Cardenas said.
But, even so, in Mexico there's no guarantee that reporters like Najera, who do things right, won't end up dead.