Mexico’s criminal scene caught the attention of the foreign press during the six-year term of president Felipe Calderón Hinojosa — at the beginning of what he called “the war against drug trafficking.” Local journalists documented how the country became the place of massacres, drug tunnels, clandestine graves, forced disappearances, displacement, femicides, homicides, and other crimes against humanity.
With the deployment of more than seven thousand soldiers in Michoacán to combat organized crime in December 2006, a journalistic endeavor that has been going on for 17 years began and in which more than 137 communicators have been murdered.
Journalists, mostly foreign, became interested in covering the violence in Mexico and began hiring local reporters to be their fixers and guide them on the ground, helping explain the issues and providing context.
Fixer is the title given to the person who coordinates the assignment, resolves, arranges, obtains access, schedules interviews with sources, sets guidelines for possible approaches, establishes limits and is in direct contact with characters of major international news stories and investigations. Most of the time fixers do not get any recognition when the works are published.
These foreign journalists have wanted to report on the femicides in Ciudad Juárez, the kidnappings of migrants on their route to the United States and the forced disappearances carried out in collusion between authorities at all levels of government and criminal groups, as is the case of the kidnapping of the 43 students of Ayotzinapa that took place on September 26, 2014.
Journalists from the United States, Europe and Asia have come to Mexico following reports of murders in the world-renowned tourist destination of Acapulco, Guerrero, clashes between rival criminal organizations, grim images of people torn to pieces, human heads thrown into nightclubs, men hanging from bridges or threats against local police officers left in crime scenes.
Thus, the story of the Mexican fixer goes hand in hand with violence, job insecurity and the need to tell the outside world what is happening in a country in which dead and missing people pile up.
Mexico is also the deadliest country for journalists in the world without being at war, and one where communicators work hard but earn little money.
The term fixer had been used in war scenarios such as the Balkan war or in conflict zones such as the fight between gangs in Central America. Despite its complexity, there are no homogeneous rates established per day or per region for this work.
According to the journalists that Frontline Freelance México interviewed, it was between 2006 and 2007 that the work of fixers emerged in the Mexican context: those who, for example, went in search of getting an interview with a masked hitman or those who were looking for farmers who would allow them to document the process of poppy cultivation. We must not forget that the fixer also works as a driver, logistics coordinator, permit and access processor, interpreter and many other things.
The forerunners of this activity in Mexico work in places like Tijuana, Baja California; Matamoros, Tamaulipas; or Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua, border cities where migration and violence blend together. Other veterans of the profession work in southern states like Guerrero, Oaxaca and Chiapas, entities that, in addition to having a high incidence of crime, share characteristics such as high levels of poverty and marginalization, as well as a large number of indigenous populations.
The forerunners of this trade in Mexico work in Tijuana, Baja California; Matamoros, Tamaulipas, or Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua, border cities where migration and violence blend together. Other veteran fixers work in the south of the country in Guerrero, Oaxaca and Chiapas, states that, in addition to having high crime rates, share characteristics such as a large indigenous population, high levels of poverty and marginalization.
By 2008, in a country with soldiers in the streets, most major cities in the north of the country were experiencing different types of violence: extortions, kidnappings, femicides, intentional homicides, drug dealing and a war between rival drug trafficking groups. All of this occurred against a backdrop of impunity and political violence that later spread to the rest of the country.
Journalists were not exempt from experiencing the consequences of this war against the population. We became news. Attacks on newsrooms, acts that state governments always blamed on organized crime, began to become more and more frequent.
In Ciudad Juárez, violence against journalists claimed a victim on November 13, 2008. Early that day, Armando Rodríguez Carreón, “El Choco,” a renowned reporter covering the police beat for El Diario newspaper, was shot in his car as he was about to take his children to school.
Article 19, an international organization that works to defend and promote freedom of expression and information worldwide, has documented the murder of 162 journalists in Mexico between 2000 and September 2023.
We journalists have denounced that politicians have allied with criminals to attack us or that they are themselves members or leaders of criminal organizations. In a scenario in which interests mixed, the legal benefited from the illegal. A clear example can be seen in how politicians now use violence to gain territory and get their local councils and mayors elected into office.
In 2010, an armed group fired on the facilities of the regional newspaper El Sur in Acapulco, where the war strategy led by the Army only caused more disappearances and acts of violence.
The numbers of dead and missing are not the only metric to quantify attacks and harassment. There is also the frequency of violence against journalists.
When Enrique Peña Nieto’s presidency ended in 2018, there were attacks against the press every 24 hours, according to Article 19. After the government change, the rate increased an attack against journalists every 14 hours, the organization’s most recent data shows (2021).
Mexico was among the top 10 countries in the world with the most impunity for these crimes in the Committee to Protect Journalists’ (CPJ) 2022 Global Impunity Index. The committee highlighted that Mexico “is one of the most atrocious cases” given that the organization has documented “28 unsolved journalist murders there in the last 10 years, the most in any country on the index and the most dangerous in the Western Hemisphere for journalists.”
CPJ explains that its Global Impunity Index calculates the number of unsolved murders of journalists as a percentage relative to each country’s population.
In addition, the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated our colleagues’ precariousness: at least 32 journalists have died from the disease and many had their salaries cut.
Ministry of the Interior figures show that between 2007 and 2022 more than 330,000 people were murdered throughout the country; the ministry also estimates that about 100,000 more people have been missing since 1964. In the last 15 years, journalistic work, whether for a local media or as a fixer for foreign productions, documented the discovery of clandestine graves and the forced disappearance of people as a terror strategy.
While the official discourse established 15 years ago claimed that violence was due to the confrontation between the State and criminal groups, looking at the territory from a local perspective reveals that there are many more layers that must be delved into to understand the complexity of the country’s violence and how the people are governed. In the midst of all this we find journalists, fixers and local producers.
For colleagues like Félix Márquez in Veracruz, Teresa Montaño in the State of Mexico, Luis Daniel Nava in Guerrero’s Lower Mountains (Montaña Baja) or Lenin Mosso in the indigenous region of that same state, doing journalism and working as a fixer for foreign journalists is walking on dangerous terrain. All of them assure that working for someone else doubles the risk because fixers live in the place where the story zeros in.
In addition to this, these fixers have no say in the angle of the story, the words that will be printed in the newspaper or the images that the television station will broadcast. If a face or name is revealed, even when foreign reporters promise to respect anonymity, local reporters and fixers are the ones who will pay the consequences. The same goes if the sources don’t like the headlines or the overall narrative.
Félix Márquez explains why it is more difficult to live in the territory. A colleague who more than a decade ago taught him how to cover the police beat had to go into exile after his family was murdered. Living in a region with high rates of violence spreads the risks to your loved ones, exposing people who have no idea how deeply involved you could be in certain issues. Félix himself even left the country for a time after the murder of his colleague photojournalist Rubén Espinosa in 2015.
But he also believes that without local journalists the work of foreign colleagues would not have the same impact. “It wouldn’t be easy to report it in a state like Veracruz, with the violence, with the territory we have, with complicated terrain, with a lot of effervescence between municipality and municipality that can be five minutes from each other,” says Felíx. He also questions why, if his services are so key to the investigations, his name doesn’t show in the credits. “This knowledge must have authoral as well as economic recognition,” he says.
Breaking down the fixer’s work
In the words of Jorge Nieto, a journalist and field producer who started working as a fixer in 2007 in Tijuana, Baja California, the definition of the activity alludes to the senses: the fixer is sight, hearing, the intuition of experiencing the subject on the surface to offer outside journalists our context and access to a specific community or city.
Jorge says: “a fixer is also in charge of helping to get accommodation, food, transportation; and he must have the ability to respond to technical problems; he must solve problems, have emergency contacts, security contacts, contacts of those in charge of certain areas, especially when you are working on safety issues.”
This seasoned fixer also believes that when the journalist or local guide offers field knowledge, editorial suggestions, possible interviews, approaches to reporting, he goes from being “a fixer” to being a field producer or associate producer.
A fixer repairs things, situations, problems and also seeks to prevent risks for foreign journalists. While a local field producer also actively contributes to the story that will be told.
Jorge remembers that he began guiding foreign colleagues, most of them from the United States, in 2006. With the start of the war on drugs, the government deployed security programs such as Operation Chihuahua or, in his city, Operation Tijuana.
Human rights violations increased soon after the military was deployed to the streets in 2006. In Tijuana, Jorge had to cover shootings in broad daylight, while convoys of police, soldiers, bodyguards of organized crime leaders and members of cartels roamed through the city brazenly carrying their weapons.
“It seemed that there wasn’t any kind of control in Tijuana,” he says.
That same violence attracted correspondents from abroad. But, in his opinion, those foreign journalists wanted to focus a lot on clichés because that is what sells the most.
“Sometimes they think they are going to see children with machine guns on the corners; that’s the movie scene they imagine. And yes, Mexico and Tijuana have a serious context of violence, but that does not necessarily have to be told from the number of murders and executions; but also from the narrative and complexity of the large number of players involved; of the problems that arise due to the border’s interculturality mix, because it is a border crossing, because it has shallow roots; many more factors, and not just that there are armed people.”
When he was asked to secure access to a drug tunnel, he refused, acknowledging the great risk this work presented. Instead, he was able to secure access to a shipment of 250 kilos of cocaine for an Australian production. Although for a moment he regretted it, because he came to think what would happen to him if something went wrong and the embassy of his foreign colleagues had to intervene to rescue its citizens but not him, who was the only Mexican in that dangerous production. Seeking some protection, he has sometimes asked not to be credited, putting aside his ego or reputation in the industry.
His partner Mariana Martínez Esténs also works as a journalist and local field producer in the border region of Tijuana and San Diego. Like Jorge, she has more than 20 years of experience covering this binational area for various international outlets.
Her book “Inside People: Stories from Prison” focuses on the work she has done inside Mexican prisons. It is one of the few documents exposing the precariousness we journalists face as we do our job and also addresses the conditions in which fixers work.
Mariana writes that if the relationship between media outlets and fixers is not balanced and with clear parameters, they turn into colonial relationships that end up being more violent for local journalists. Mariana opposes practices that make the work of local journalists invisible once they are hired. It’s not fair, she says, because journalists who work for local media in almost any region of the country must also work in more than three places to make up a barely adequate income.
While being a fixer offers the opportunity for a better pay—sometimes more than $200 a day—their work, which often involves risking their lives, also deserves recognition.
Many times fixers have their hands on high-impact stories but lack sufficient time or resources to develop them. When foreign journalists want to investigate one of these topics, they collaborate with local journalists without giving them the recognition they deserve.
With or without recognition, the lives of Mexican journalists are always at risk.
The murder of the photojournalist and fixer Margarito Martínez Esquivel on January 10, 2021, in Tijuana illustrates the level of violence that journalists face. Known among his colleagues as 4×4 because colleagues considered him an “all-terrain” journalist given his intrepid nature, Margarito covered police and security issues.
Margarito, who worked as a photojournalist and fixer for international media such as the BBC, The San Diego Union-Tribune and the Los Angeles Times, was shot dead outside his home despite filing reports of threats against him and having requested the government to include him in a protection program. But the government did not protect him.
That is why the conditions of those of us who work as fixers must improve. Not only do we run the risk of being murdered, but the precariousness of our working conditions forces us to accept dangerous assignments for foreign media given the greater financial incentive that come with these jobs.
Mariana points out that: “as things began to catch fire in Mexico, to become more dangerous, the international media only sent their correspondents if they had someone as a local journalist to be their guide; that’s when the term fixer was coined.”
With violence escalating at the border between 2006 and 2008, international journalists in need of a fixer sought after local colleagues who collaborated for international news agencies such as the Associated Press or Reuters, or for important media in Mexico like Reforma or Semanario Zeta.
“They invited us for a coffee: we, eager for attention, gave them contacts, told them how to do it, we were eager to help. But then it turned out that it was a job,” Mariana says.
She feels lucky to have been a translator for journalists who had covered wars or worked in Central America, scenarios where it was important that the work of journalists be paid and recognized. She remembers that it was these foreign correspondents who told her that she should be paid for her work of advising and guiding other journalists. Hence, she is against the use of the term fixer, since a journalist in the field works too hard to facilitate the work of a colleague who only arrives for a few days as a “parachutist.”
Mariana believes that the issue of colonial and vertical relationships that end up affecting fixers must be solved by everyone who at some point plans to hire a journalist or local guide. She also says that these foreign journalists must be aware of the context and place where they require help, that the people who help them live where their stories happen and that, with that help, their published work can earn them awards back home.
In 2016, the Global Reporting Center published the study “‘Fixing’ the Journalist-Fixer Relationship: A Critical Look Towards Developing Best Practices In Global Reporting”, that elaborates on the relationship between foreign correspondents and fixers, who tend to be local journalists.
The document includes an anonymous survey of 450 people working in journalism in 71 countries. The survey shows that 60 percent of the participants have not been credited in the stories they worked as fixers, while 86 percent said they are interested in having their name appear in the published works.
For our microsite, Fixing Journalism, we interviewed 35 colleagues from the states of Baja California, Chiapas, Chihuahua, Mexico City, Coahuila, State of Mexico, Guanajuato, Guerrero, Nuevo León, Oaxaca, San Luis Potosí, Sinaloa, Tamaulipas, Veracruz and Yucatan; they all agreed that getting credited is important to do their job, unless the journalist opts for anonymity to protect his or her safety.
All the respondents have worked as fixers to improve their income. They have earned from $75 to $500 USD a day. Journalists in Oaxaca, Chiapas and Guerrero earn the lowest salaries – in some cases $5 per day -, while in northern states such as Chihuahua, Sinaloa and Baja California daily salaries can reach $20.
The founder of Frontline Freelance México, Andalusia K. Soloff, a multimedia journalist from the United States based in Mexico City who specializes in state violence, migration, indigenous land struggles and gender violence in Latin America, believes that the relationships between those who hire a fixer and the fixer must be balanced. In her experience she has learned positive things working as a fixer.
“Being a fixer has been both good and bad. When you don’t have much experience being a journalist you can learn a lot from experienced journalists: angles, how they move, that because they work in media with a higher profile they can secure much more important interviews than when you work for unknown media,” she says.
Although the term fixer is not degrading at all, it has sometimes been used to degrade the work fixers do in news or entertainment production. The term itself falls short because “it is not [a term] that encompasses all the work we do. It is a term that does not recognize our journalistic value,” the journalist says.
Andalusia, who is co-coordinator of Fixing Journalism and has given workshops to journalists to instill the notion of fair payment for their work, says that not all media credit fixers. She says that for many media outlets the fixer is “the last link in the chain; we do not have much influence and we have only had to obey or (or) lose our job.”
She points out that the unequal power relations arising in this context bring about several problems. What she has noticed is that international media traveling from all over the world to Mexico often fail to give fair recognition to those who facilitate their field work, fail to pay adequately or even endanger the journalists they hire.
Fixers must also ensure that the stories coming out from their workplaces don’t get lost in the fantasies of foreign journalists, many of whom arrive with the impulse to address phenomena of violence or indigenous cultures as if they were exotic subjects. An example of this can be seen in the story angles that many foreigners have in mind when explaining a state. In Sinaloa, for instance, many journalists have only wanted to focus on the impact of the Sinaloa Cartel without truly going in and explaining that drug trafficking affects, in one way or another, the entire Mexican society.
“One of the things that worries me a lot are the awards. It is one thing when you as a journalist do this work with passion, for social change, because with your work you spread important stories beyond the awards. However, the awards help to understand issues and make problems visible. Awards help a lot. They give high prestige to journalists, and it is very serious that when we are producers or fixers they do not include us in the awards,” Andalusia says.
Alicia Fernández, who along with Andalusia is co-coordinator of Fixing Journalism, is a visual journalist and independent producer in Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua. She used to work as a fixer. She now works as a field producer and collaborates with international media, independent journalists and researchers. Alicia is one of the pioneers of this profession in the Juárez – El Paso border.
Becoming a fixer in 2009 represented growth; it took her out of a bleak environment that, at the time, had enveloped the journalism of her border region. In 2010, her job was to document “deaths and more deaths.” Her photographic work was immersed in the crime and violence that plagued her city. These were experiences that took her on a roller coaster of emotions, where adrenaline suddenly shot up as she delved deeper into the sadness and tragedy of covering the conflict in Ciudad Juárez. So learning about other journalistic perspectives expanded her horizons.
Doing journalism and covering the crime beat in a place like Ciudad Juárez meant working at night, exposing herself to the dangers that this entails. The media have never invested in training their reporters to carry out this type of coverage. They have been the ones who, in a self-managed manner, have struggled to train themselves to cover shootings, to know how to protect their photographic equipment, and even to establish protocols on the streets so that the work will be accomplished in the safest way, despite the lack of conditions to actually do it.
Alicia has worked with award-winning and world-renowned photographers—such as Ron Haviv—as well as productions focused on human rights. These experiences strengthened her photographic gaze and her evolution as a producer.
“For me, it was an opportunity to learn from everyone because they were great people,” Alicia says.
Alicia was already a journalist when she began working as a fixer, and she took advantage of the opportunity. For her it was not only about being able to work with great photographers, but also to make sure she was paid fairly. Furthermore, she asked them questions to be able to learn more, to know what her perspectives and methodologies were for working and traveling around the world.
For her part, journalist Melva Frutos, dean of the profession in Monterrey, Nuevo León, points out that it is important to recognize that being a journalist, woman, mother and fixer adds levels of complexity to the profession. She, who has also been a fixer and has covered issues of security, migration, politics and freedom of expression, points out that payments should be better regulated and that ideally there should be a pay scale.
She has worked as a fixer and independent journalist in many of the northern states, including Coahuila and Tamaulipas. Those jobs have included long road trips that made her think and worry about the additional risks of being a woman and a mother. She has developed her own security tools, “since I started doing it I have always had a monitoring system with other colleagues and I have always contacted colleagues in the city I go to to have an anchor there, so to speak,” Melva says.
Colonial relations, indigenous land and security
Lenin Mosso is a Mè’ phàà communicator who works in the indigenous region of the Montaña de Guerrero, a multicultural territory, where indigenous peoples such as the Ñuu Savi, Mè’ phàà and Ñomda’a coexist.
Mosso says that both the cultural context and the security conditions in which local journalists work must be considered. Like many other colleagues in the rest of the country, Lenin has had bad experiences when he has been hired by foreign journalists: they have not paid him, they cover local traditions with a morbid interest or they ask him for interviews that put him and his family at risk in the city of Tlapa, where he lives. He started out as a fixer to spread his culture, but over time, after the forced disappearance of 43 students from the Ayotzinapa rural teacher’s college that took place in Iguala in 2014, everything focused on drug trafficking and violence.
“Everyone started looking for me because of issues of violence, drugs and poppy. We even called it the ‘poppy tour’ because everyone came almost to sightsee,” Lenin recalls.
The state of Guerrero is the largest poppy producer in Mexico, harvesting 44 percent of the national production. This also places Mexico as one of the most important opium producers worldwide, only after countries like Afghanistan and Myanmar.
At first he liked that in one day he could make six or seven thousand pesos, something that would take him an entire month in other jobs. But little by little his work changed.
“I became involved in the dangerous issues of crime and violence, which was no longer so cool because it can bring me problems, like my security and not living in peace. All this leaves you with post-traumatic stress. After each job it felt like I was going crazy, thinking about what could happen,” Lenin says.
One of his bad experiences happened when doing a story in Filo de Caballos, a town in the Sierra de Guerrero known for forced internal displacement and poppy harvesting. The people interviewed asked to not show their faces, however their faces were shown in the final product.
“The worst thing has been failing the families who trusted me and that trust was broken; because they did not blur their faces, their names and jeopardized their town. That is what hurts me the most, more than the problem of insecurity, but the issue of failing to fulfill my part of the agreement or keeping my word with that family weighs more,” says the Guerrero journalist.
He once believed in the power of journalism to bring about social change, but little by little he lost that hope when he saw that many of the stories were more about adrenaline and a morbid interest. But that does not mean that Lenin has walked away from documenting the reality of the communities in the mountains of Guerrero; his work has simply been transformed. He now focuses more on being a documentary photographer instead of a fixer, taking advantage of what he has learned in all these years “fixing” stories for others.
“I paid attention to their images, their angles, their framing, their way of weaving stories and that’s my most precious takeaway from that world,” he says.
The fixers’ relationships with their clients must take into account the community’s context, especially if the fixers belong to the same indigenous community where the stories are produced. Roselia Chaca, a Zapotec journalist with more than 20 years of experience working in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, the most traditional and largest indigenous region in Oaxaca, says that on the rare occasions that she has served as a fixer, foreign journalists and producers have taken advantage of the community.
In the Isthmus, there is a lot of interest in the Muxe people, who identify as a third gender. This culture has attracted the attention of documentary filmmakers and journalists from all over the world. Roselia started being a fixer 15 years ago without knowing that she should be paid for it. Many times foreign journalists promised to pay her, but that money never arrived, she says.
Rosalia feels that the reality of her region and the people who live there is too complex to understand in two or three days, which is how long most foreign journalists stay in the Isthmus. She says that once some journalists posed as anthropologists in order to interview the Muxe people who had refused to give interviews to the media. That’s why she has already taken a stance.
“I refuse to take them (with Muxe people) and, in some way, sell this issue. I feel like it’s like selling part of my culture just out of a morbid interest,” she says.
She is also concerned that foreign productions extract her culture to replicate and sell it. Zapotec communities, for example, have a long tradition of weaving and embroidery, and there have already been cases in which high fashion brands have stolen designs from indigenous communities in Oaxaca, she says.
“I have had bad experiences of cultural appropriation. I start to think about how much I expose people from the communities acting in good faith. Now I demand a document [from my clients] where they explain to me, there should be a contract where I can carefully review the scope of the project, the benefits for the people,” the Oaxacan journalist says. She also recognizes that sometimes productions pay to document Muxe people or weavers and, taking advantage of their economic need, they do what she calls “cultural and knowledge looting.”
Like Lenin, the journalist from Guerrero, she is concerned in earning and keeping people’s trust because of her previous work, for speaking the same language and for belonging to the same indigenous people, and that foreign journalists come to take advantage of that trust and publish stories with a narrative that, to her, seems unfair.
All the journalists interviewed agree that since the work of fixers in Mexico goes hand in hand with precariousness, the stories presented here must vindicate journalism. How many of the accounts and stories that we see in different formats, television series or popular movies are owed to the work of fixer journalists?
In this website we show a tour of the country through the work of colleagues who have covered, beyond their physical, mental and emotional health, under terrible working and salary conditions, the violent geography that Mexico has become. With you, the fixers.