Reporting From A Mexican War Zone
October 04, 2012

Ben Saenz
Monica Ortiz Uribe interviews a sex worker in downtown Ciudad Juarez.

EL PASO, Texas -- It's a difficult truth to accept, but I've become something of an adrenaline junkie.

My last reporting trip to the Mexican border city of Nuevo Laredo only confirmed my previous suspicion.

In my last blog I wrote about violence decreasing in my sister city of Juárez, welcome news after four gut-wrenching years. Likewise my anxiety has subsided whenever I visit the city.

Nuevo Laredo is an entirely different story.

The city is experiencing a frightening spike in violence that was only too apparent when I arrived. The warnings came like paintball hits from government officials, locals and journalists alike: You will be watched. You could be followed. Don't trust anyone. Don't go into the city alone. Don't interview anyone you don't know.

Just one day earlier, 131 inmates had escaped from a Mexican prison two hours away. No telling where they went and what they'd be up to. The week before nine bodies were dumped below a city bridge. Word was there was an internal split in the cartel that controls the city, making the situation all the more tense. The local army colonel I called within an hour of my arrival had to hang up promptly after he answered. He happened to be in the middle of a gun battle.

For the first time in my career I felt suppressed.

Never before had I been in a position where I felt I couldn't do my job. At least not safely.

But that night in my hotel room, something clicked. The war correspondent in me had been awakened. And the most uncomfortable part of it was I felt like I was back on familiar territory.

The next day I managed to get a driver to take me into the city and allow me to do some reporting, albeit limited.

When I first started in journalism, the last thing on my mind was covering a war. My thing was reporting cultural news as tame as the international food festival at my university. I never imagined myself one day covering dismembered corpses. Never.

But then Juárez happened. And as a journalist who spoke the language, knew the city and lived 10 minutes away on the American side I couldn't turn away. And since then nothing I've covered has felt as important.

And that's just the problem. When I reported from Juárez I was entering a place most preferred to flee. My mission was to record and share the voices of those who had no choice but to stay and try to survive. When I reported from Juárez all five senses, and perhaps a sixth, were alive.

And in the most awkward way, that's what I miss. Nuevo Laredo reminded me.

On the other hand, I don't anticipate becoming a storm chaser. If I were offered an opportunity to report in a war zone, say in the Middle East, I might consider a temporary assignment but never anything long-term.

You see on a more personal level, I chose to cover the violence across the border because I care about Mexico. And when you care about something, you are willing to sacrifice for it. I don't have a personal connection to the war zones in the Middle East. Mexico, however, is in my blood.

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