On the night of September 26, 2014, state security forces in collusion with organized crime attacked and kidnapped 43 students from the Ayotzinapa Rural Teachers College in Iguala, Guerrero. Almost 10 years later, the tragic story of this forced disappearance has gone around the world. But before the international spotlight focused on Guerrero, it was local journalists who reported on what happened and, later, paved the way for journalists from abroad to understand the magnitude of this tragedy and the collusion between organized crime and all levels of government.
Margena de la O is one of these local journalists. For the past 17 years, she has reported from Chilpancingo, Guerrero’s capital, and has specialized in human rights. Her reporting has focused on different events that have become international news. Guerrero, with a population that includes a large number of indigenous and Afro-descendant communities, has a long history of forced disappearances dating back to the 1960s when the army repressed guerrillas and social movements in the state. The Ayotzinapa case uncovered that sewer that seemed forgotten and exposed a state dotted with clandestine graves that contain the remains of thousands of people who have disappeared since the beginning of military repression.
In her opinion, the disappearance of the 43 students from Ayotzinapa triggered the journalistic documentation in her state. As a result of this endeavor, the importance and value of the fixer’s work is revealed, says Margena.
“I actually started consciously working as a fixer in 2017. That is, a very short time ago. Because whenever colleagues came from other places, particularly from Mexico City or from abroad, they always looked for us to find out about certain situations, especially with assignments during times of crisis,” she says.
The experienced journalist says that there is a lot of camaraderie among the reporters working in Chilpancingo and other parts of Guerrero. She assures that she herself “was very helpful” with fellow journalists who came from other places, offering them contacts, explaining the situation, giving them an x-ray of certain areas, or detailing the context of certain topics.
“This was filled with journalists from all over the world, not just from Mexico,” she remembers. “I realize that being a fixer is an additional professional job and adds to the precarious conditions in which journalists work and live, especially in marginalized areas.”
Margena says that sometimes you learn to be a fixer by experiencing unfair practices from other journalists. She remembers that one time, while helping some foreign correspondents to obtain and do interviews about the Ayotzinapa students, she was subcontracted by another foreign fixer who, from Mexico City, used the contacts and field knowledge that she provided from Guerrero to take credit for that work.
This taught her that there are foreigners working as fixers in Mexico who use the work of local fixers to earn money without sharing their profits with those who have helped them. There are also those who literally steal ideas and stories. On one occasion he took some journalists from a national media outlet and shared with them a very good story that she had not been able to do. Some time later, when she read the work that these journalists had published, she realized that many of the details in their story had been elements taken from that very good story she had shared with them.
“If people knew that a large part (of the story) is mine, because it was my information, it was my knowledge… and it made me furious seeing that written piece because I said: ‘if I had that space in a national media outlet, that story would be there but with my name,’” she says.
Margena understood that in times of crisis many took advantage of local journalists to do their work. She says that, in the end, all of these foreign journalists were in contact with journalists who covered the issue every day and knew the situation firsthand.
“You gave them the context and told them ‘it’s not here, it’s there.’ All they did was shape the angle and, besides them coming from outside, they had spaces of greater privilege. I worked in a state media outlet. And although it had an important reach, it was still a state outlet, and I had the urgency for it to be known, for the information to go beyond Guerrero,” she says.
Another journalist in Guerrero, who requests anonymity and that we call her Luisa, highlights the unequal relationships that are hidden in the fixer’s chain. She has worked with foreign colleagues, mostly from the United States and Europe, but only in very few cases has she received fair and timely payment. Luisa works in municipalities like Chilapa, one of the most dangerous in Guerrero where, according to the State Prosecutor’s Office, two criminal groups are fighting for control of the town, causing a marked increase in gender and political violence. The town also experienced a series of forced disappearances in 2015. Due to this context, her fixer services are highly sought after by journalists who want to produce stories there.
She wishes she didn’t have to work on the same story many times, but guiding foreign colleagues she earns between $150 and $250 a day. In contrast, writing a story as a freelance contributor pays around $400. That is to say that, according to her, with only two or three days working as a fixer she earns the same as publishing an article that takes her more than a month to put together.
Luisa points out that the Sierra de Guerrero is another high-risk area, where a large part of the low-income population works harvesting poppies. Going to that region to guide other journalists represents a challenge for Luisa. After numerous assignments in towns of this area, she is becoming more and more visible to local politicians and criminals.
But it is not only about becoming more visible in a risk area; there are also the agreements she makes with the people she interviews. Luisa’s commitment is to the victims and their families when she helps other journalists cover a story. There have been times when they have complained about why a certain reporter or photographer didn’t keep his promise to return, jeopardizing her relationship with the sources she has cultivated throughout her journalistic career.
“One doesn’t know how to get paid and doesn’t understand the dimensions of being a fixer. They are experiences that mark you and teach you more about the state, which is very rich in traditions, in gastronomy; Guerrero’s food is delicious. There is also mezcal. There are many untapped products like chilate,” she says.
But apart from the bad experiences, she says that working as a fixer has also allowed her to analyze her state from the depths, looking closely at the roots and their connection to the corrupt and poor Mexico where impunity reigns. However, she questions above all how much fixers share with foreign correspondents.
“It’s as if we were giving away all the knowledge we have acquired from Guerrero and our very specialized understanding,” she says.
Luisa says that being a fixer is being connected to murderers, hitmen, drug traffickers and a reality that goes beyond them.
“If we do not learn that this is the value that fixers or local producers bring, I think we are not only squandering our work, but we are also leaving a bad precedent in a criminal, social and political context with plenty of scarcity.”
For Francisco Robles, who has worked as a fixer primarily in his base of operations in Acapulco, doing this job has brought him good and bad experiences. He shares with others the collective feeling that if he earned more as a photojournalist covering crime—his true passion—he wouldn’t have to work as a fixer. But he likes it and has learned a lot.
“I started in 2014 helping a colleague who had been hired as a fixer. I started out as the liaison between the government and a journalist who came from the United States and wanted to make a story about the violence in Acapulco. Back then, we were experiencing a heightened crime rate with the criminal groups here in the port. The experience of being a fixer leaves good memories, but it also leaves some bad memories,” he says.
Francisco has worked with many renowned international news outlets. “What they normally ask for are the issues of violence, drug trafficking, poppy harvest, community police and social movements. I receive very few requests on the topic of tourism, because Acapulco is not a trend abroad and tourism levels are very low. Currently, Mexicans are the bulk of tourism that visits the port. There is no longer tourism coming from abroad,” he says.
He remembers when he worked for a big international media outlet covering a story about poppy plantations, and at the same time the news headlines focused on mass kidnappings and a local criminal boss from the Sierra de San Miguel Totolapan, a municipality located in the region known as Tierra Caliente.
“Right after an outlet [from the United States] came. British news media also came. A television station came from the Netherlands, another from Italy. Then came a television station from Belgium. Thanks to this I have been able to heal my finances, because they pay in dollars and that gives you a guarantee, a profit, compared to what you earn here with a national media outlet,” he shares.
In Acapulco, the largest city in Guerrero, his colleagues earn between 6,000 and 10,000 pesos a month.
“From my point of view, they pay very little considering all the risks involved. It’s fine if you’re covering an issue like politics or entertainment, but when you have to cover violence, it means an extra expense or a cut in your paycheck because local media doesn’t cover your expenses if you have to take a bus or pay for gasoline if you use your car,” he says.
Francisco is very focused on his work as a fixer. But when he’s hired by several media outlets at the same time, although an economic boon, it presents him with the problem of dividing himself into several ‘Franciscos’ in order to be able to work as a photojournalist for a national media outlet and also collaborate with international news agencies like Agence France-Presse (AFP).
Francisco says that one of the dangers of being a fixer is losing control of the information that will get published, which presents security risks.
“We asked the foreign journalist to cover some names and faces. But when the piece aired on TV, it turns out he didn’t (cover them). It leaves a bad taste in your mouth because you look bad with the source and then it can cause a conflict with them, with the sources, for putting them at risk,” he says.