By Tom Steward | Watchdog Minnesota
As anyone who’s tuned in for our Watchdog series on Sunshine Week can verify, government officials — as a general rule — tend to hoard information. You don’t need unidentified sources to confirm it goes with the territory.
Reporters can get pretty worked up about their right — and your right — to know what’s really going on behind the scenes, using the tricks laid out with adequate transparency in the Watchdog series to pry from the backrooms of bureaucracy what should be public information. Often it’s not so much about finding out what you think you know than about what the government thinks you should know.
Still, it’s one thing to launch Freedom of Information Act requests from your laptop demanding a database from a GS-11 ranking official on what you suspect may or may not be happening behind the scenes. A lot of inside baseball stuff.
But what if government authorities refuse to acknowledge, much less disclose, the hard-core facts on events playing out right in front of you? The job suddenly becomes much less theoretical.
Just ask Ildefonso Ortiz, a reporter for The Monitor, a daily newpsaper in the Rio Grande Valley near the border with Mexico in McAllen, Texas. Monday, Ortiz filed a story from the Mexican side of the border with this headline: “Four trucks filled with bodies after Reynosa firefight.”
His riveting piece made the Drudge Report for reasons that had nothing to do with Sunshine Week but had everything to do with the 32-year-old reporter’s determination to write about a massacre, which Mexican authorities stonewalled and U.S. officials evidently ignored.
Taking a closer look, I guess you could say Ortiz’s story had everything to do with Sunshine Week.
I reached out to Ildefonso on Twitter: “Courageous example for Sunshine Week by @ildefonsoortiz.” I had to call after seeing his response: “Thanks, just doing my job hehe.”
Ortiz just happened to be in Reynosa, Mexico, on Sunday night when a barrage of bullets burst out in what became a three-hour firefight between rival factions of a drug cartel.
The official version according to a news release from the Tamaulipas Attorney General’s Office? Two local residents killed in the crossfire, a taxi driver and a teenager unlucky enough to be out on the streets.
Ortiz’s version reported in The Monitor? Truckloads of bodies with an estimated three dozen dead, though the exact number could not be ascertained as the cartels carried off many of the bodies.
“The Mexican authorities will put out a press release, but you will not be able to get more than that,” Ortiz said from his office in McAllen. “A lot of times they don’t even provide the basic information. They confirmed two civilians killed but never mentioned all the gunmen that were killed.”
Mexican officials even failed to acknowledge a vehicle pockmarked with bullet holes and four bodies inside near the A.G.’s office that issued the release. One of Ortiz’s local Tamaulipas law enforcement sources called it an “insult to common sense.”
“One of the things we’ve seen is this media blackout,” Ortiz said. “ … The criminal organizations don’t want the attention, so they will tell the local media on the Mexican side to stay quiet. When you add to that the fact the local governments also stay quiet, they won’t release any information out of fear or coercion.”
It’s not just about the Mexican media imposing a news blackout, says Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera of the University of Texas at Brownsville. “This has me very worried because this blackout is coming from both sides,” Correa-Cabrera told Ortiz. “Not only are we seeing organized crime shushing the media but now we are seeing the government at all levels put a lid on the media where you now have virtually no mainstream coverage of a battle of this magnitude.”
Ortiz intends to continue his uncompromising coverage. His guiding journalistic principles: Keep a low profile and don’t trust anyone. “I have a vested interest in whatever happens in the cities in the Rio Grande Valley. I grew up here,” Ortiz said. “For somebody outside, the risk may not be worth it, but for me, it’s a personal choice I made a long time ago.”
Sure, from time to time he files FOIA requests for government information on the U.S. side. But the reality of reporting what’s unofficially not going on right in front of him puts it in perspective.
“I’ll be complaining about this department has never responded to my FOIA request when I’m waiting days,” Ortiz said. “I consider that frustrating, but when you’re talking about basic information out of Mexico? That’s a real headache.”
Contact Tom Steward at firstname.lastname@example.org