Photo: Pedro Padro/ Getty Images.
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The Grave Shift

Shadowing Mexico City’s nocturnal crime reporters

 

With the cold wind pushing in through the car window, David Alvarado swerves to the right, narrowly missing the barrier that crept up on us in a dark section of road, continuing our sweep through Mexico City’s intricate network of avenues and highways. Getting out of the car a few hours later to buy some tacos, David looks at me and smiles mischievously: “We almost made the cover of the newspaper ourselves,” he says, laughing the last adrenaline out of his body. Cheating death, I soon understood, can be just as thrilling as chasing it.

David, 58, has spent the past two decades photographing all the gloom, blood and tragedy that the Mexican capital has to offer. He and his colleague Antonio Aranda — a tall, 35-year old journalist who writes about human rights issues for a news website during the day — make up the nocturnal reporting team for daily newspaper Pasala, a wild and oftentimes graphic mix of crime stories, football news and scantily-dressed women. In the subway and in the city’s micro-buses, passengers clutch their copies of sensational newspapers like Pasala, or its main competitors Metro, La Prensa or El Grafico. These publications are top sellers, and for good reason: within a few pages and for a small amount of pesos, they turn the city’s entrails inside out for all to see.

*

Every evening, journalists working the night-beat gather at the city’s General Prosecutor’s Office, a building that occupies an entire block in Colonia Doctores, a neighborhood of low reputation in central Mexico City. Beyond the receptionist — who sits at his desk in almost complete darkness but for the light coming from the vending machine to his left — a dozen or so reporters sit on handful of cheap-looking and uncomfortable couches. There, they smoke and drink coffee, waiting for the news of another murder to come in; a dedicated bunch, with an unusual mix of camaraderie and rivalry.

They used to rely on radios to listen in on the police frequencies. Nowadays, smart phone apps such as Whatsapp and Zello (which mimics a walkie-talkie radio) are used to share information in real-time. Walk in any night and you will find them checking an array of different group chats to find out where things are happening; some of the groups include ambulance rescue workers and police officers, who will tip off the journalists, sometimes in exchange for financial reward from newspaper editors. The radios are long gone but their coded language remains, both in the journalists’ nicknames as well as in their descriptions of the subject matter. A Z1 by X13, for example, means there has been a fatal victim by firearm. On any given news-day, that phrase will ring out countless times, followed by the name of a specific location, most times within the city’s colossal body of suburban neighbourhoods.

The past few nights have been quiet. On Tuesday, nothing. On Wednesday, nothing. The two-day lull is making some of the reporters anxious. Vector, who works for media group Milenio, and Carlos, a television presenter for TV Azteca, are discussing some images that came in from the daytime shift. “Did you see that woman shot six times in Ecatepec this afternoon?” Carlos asks.

“Must have been a suicide,” Vector says sarcastically. They both laugh and Carlos makes a gun with his hand and starts mock-shooting different parts of his body: “I’m not dying, I’m not dying!” The mood swiftly changes, however, when another reporter comes in bearing news of a shooting downtown.

It is a short ride to the corner of Bucarelli and Articulo 123. There, close to the taco stand where he was eating, the body of a man lies face down on the pavement, next to a white and yellow wall reflecting the blue and red beams coming from numerous patrol cars. The food vendors say that two men in a motorcycle rode by and shot the victim six times. A woman starts screaming at the TV Azteca television crew: “Stop recording, stop recording!” and El Negro, the cameraman, shoots a few seconds before he is forced to retreat. He walks away to capture the overall scene, with its growing number of police officers securing the perimeter – a wider angle shot to tell urban dwellers what they already know: the city is not safe.  The taco vendors are closing up shop, the police are cordoning off the area, but the reporters keep jostling for proximity.

As Antonio talks to some witnesses, jotting the information down in his notebook, one of the police officers starts to push David back. He goes around the block and appears on the other side of the police cordon, snapping a few more pictures. We get back in the car, and as we try to reverse, a bus blocks our exit. The driver seems captivated by the police presence, trying to locate the source of all the commotion. “Tell that fucker to move,” David says. He is not angry or aggressive. He never seems to be. After two days of nothing to cover, the city has delivered again, as it generally does.

Back at the General Prosecutor’s Office, at around two in the morning, Antonio takes advantage of the wait to write up the piece about the shooting. After a short while, he asks: “That women telling them not to film must have been his wife or girlfriend, no?” David is sitting on one of the couches screening his Whatsapp groups.

“Put ‘friend.’ Don’t put ‘wife,’” he answers. “We don’t know if she was his wife or just a girlfriend. Might be a lover.”

There is little else to report that night — aside from a double homicide in Iztapalapa, but the information coming in designates it a de Negro (in Black), meaning that the crime happened inside a house, where the police will certainly bar the journalists from entering. These are new boundaries, another reporter tells me; ten years ago, some of the policemen would even uncover a body to allow for a better picture.

*

Waiting around at the Prosecutor’s Office the following night, Vector is discussing the Bucarelli murder. “Just think about it: you are eating tacos one minute, and then all of the sudden someone starts firing at you. Bloody Tacos would be a good title for that story,” he says, smiling. El Negro, the cameraman, joins in and suggests The Last Supper, cracking them both up.

At the outset of each nightly shift, photographs pile up in their Whatsapp groups. These are the usual mangled bodies; suicide attempts in the subway; drug-related killings with their tendency for graphic retribution; drunken brawls or romantic disputes that end at the tip of a knife; not to mention, the usual traffic accidents. All this wretchedness is digested by the crime reporters and fed back to the city’s inhabitants.

It doesn’t take long to feel like a routine: A call comes in and I jump into the car with David and Antonio. We race through the city like madmen, trying to map out the best route to traverse the urban sprawl, speeding over massive concrete bridges and through streets with closed shops. The streets are empty, illuminated by altars with statues of the Virgin Mary of Guadalupe — an infinite number of them, boxed in behind glass and surrounded by small blinking lamps.

David soars through red lights and intersections with both caution and bravado. Every night, we watch the city pass through the window of the fast-moving car: its tilted churches on unstable ground, the taco stands serving up late night meals, the ever-present drive-in hotels, seedy-looking and temporary, keeping the city’s secrets. Speed is everything. It turns Mexico City, bumper-to-bumper during the day, into a space of nightly liberty. Speed allows the night reporters to do their job, as the time between the shooting and the arrival of the forensics team is a limited window of opportunity. A newspaper editor that finds outs about a spectacular crime in a competing outlet will rain down abuse on his nocturnal team.

*

There are always candles next to the bodies. They are placed there by neighbors or bystanders — lit to ease the passing of the soul, as David once explained to me. The gesture is so subtle that you’re liable to miss it; you look and there is a body, then you look away, jot something down in your notebook, try to read the onlookers, look back at the body and the delicate flame of a candlelight is swaying next to it. Past the Tenayuca pyramids, in a small street called Ensino, the covered body of a man shot eight times is lying on the ground with two candles at his feet.  A soft rain begins to fall. It thins out the victim’s blood, filling the holes in the concrete. Eight plastic cups on the ground each signal a bullet cap underneath, a way for the police at the scene to mark evidence before forensics arrive.

The victim, who lost one of his shoes as he fell forward, is likely not from this neighborhood. There are no sobbing relatives comforting each other, no desperate screams of disbelief. There are, however, a handful of curious neighbours, chatting peacefully nearby. One of them, a young man in gym clothes, has had to comfort his hysterical mother after someone went to her house and mistakenly warned her that her son had been shot dead. He and the victim wore identical sneakers.

This is the ideal environment for the reporters to work in: there are no aggressive onlookers eyeing the cameras with suspicion, no mourning parents demanding privacy, no threats of violence. Besides David and Antonio, a broad-shouldered and friendly photographer named Verde is also at the scene. He covers the night shift for daily newspaper La Prensa, another tabloid. At a crime scene the previous night, Verde had told me that some of the most gruesome things he has seen on the job have been the cartel-related deaths. Like the time he documented the bodies of 24 people tied up and shot near La Marquesa, in the State of Mexico, in September 2008.

It has stopped raining. The flash of Verde’s camera repeatedly illuminates the dark street. I ask him if he ever has nightmares. “No,” he says, “But sometimes the dead cling to you.” When this happens you carry around an eerie heaviness, he explains, as the drizzle starts up again on the now empty corner, making the candles flicker. “Once it happened to me. My baby daughter would start crying as soon as I came into the house. My wife said that I had brought the bad vibe with me.”

There is, however, a way to deal with the clingy dead, for this is Mexico, and every ailment has a prescribed treatment. “You pour sugar in a pan and light the stove, letting the sugar burn until white smoke comes out,” he told me a couple of nights later. “Then you let the smoke surround and cover you.” His mother-in-law taught him that trick. “She is from the countryside. I don’t believe in these things, but it works.”

David has heard about reporters getting stuck with the dead, but it has never happened to him. He doesn’t dream about violence or blood either. “I just dream about taking pictures, I see myself walking around a scene.”

*

It is a sight I have witnessed many times, around car crashes and homicide victims, amongst hordes of protesting teachers, during an attempted lynching in the outskirts of the City: David’s thin figure, silent and waiting, moving around like a spectre. He looks calm and collected, constantly waiting for an opportunity to get his shot. His shot, he claims, is what the readers want, and therefore, what his editor demands: in bloody close-ups, unusual illustrations of human tragedy. To the readers, the pictures communicate two main ideas. Firstly, this could happen to you. More importantly: at least for now, it isn’t you.

David tells me he is often confronted about the violent nature of his job. “My friends and family sometimes tell me that I like death. It is not true. I don’t like that these horrible things happen, but the truth is that they do, this is the world we live in. Without us, people would not know what happens in the city. We are the eyes of the night.”

One Friday evening, we head to nearby Paseo de la Reforma, one of the city’s main avenues. Three teenagers on a motorcycle jumped a red light and were hit by a van. Two of them were taken to the hospital, but 14-year-old Melany Zamora was killed instantly. Her body is lying on the grass of a big roundabout crossing. She is covered by a white sheet, except for her feet, the sneakers’ glittery pattern shining. The police have cordoned-off the area, and the usual amount of curious observers stand in sombre silence. But then a cab hastily breaks and a woman in her sixties comes out running, chased by two younger women and a bulky man wearing a cap and a sleeveless t-shirt. Getting closer, she seems to recognize the dead teenager, screaming, “No! No! No!” as she runs towards her. She crosses under the yellow band marking the perimeter and the man behind her grabs her, hugs her, and tries to calm her down.

Other cars start to arrive, as well as a group of youngsters perched on scooters. Antonio quickly takes off his reporter’s vest and folds it neatly, before giving it to me. “Hold this and hide it from view,” he says. The woman, who turns out to be the dead teenager’s grandmother, screams with a piercing voice, heavy with loss and bewilderment, the severe incredulity that comes with tragedy. “Get up, come on, we’re going home,” she yells, and then screams, “I’m taking my girl with me.” Antonio and David blend in with the onlookers, silent and respectful amid the grandmother’s loud mourning. More family members arrive in a black and yellow Camaro.

Antonio walks around, trying to find information about the victim and the other two injured. He talks to policemen and ambulance personnel, eavesdrops on potential witnesses, slowly trying to compose the scene in his head. David, on the other hand, has stayed perfectly still, almost at the exact same spot where he first arrived. Subtly, he fires off a few pictures from his hip, before hiding the camera next to his body again. This is a scene David understands all too well, having lost one of his sons not long ago to a heart attack. I began to notice how it affected him. Every single time the screams of a mother or a father or a brother filled the scene, he would become introspective and remote, as if he was reliving his own loss.

It escalates quickly. More youngsters arrive, and one of them, visibly distraught, begins to aggressively push one of the police officers guarding the scene. Another officer, close to us, asks for backup on his walkie-talkie: “Esto se está poniendo cabron!” Suddenly, the mob starts to run to another intersection to the right. There, an insurance appraiser who had been checking the damage to the family van that hit the youngsters on the motorcycle becomes a target for retaliation. Chased and kicked by a handful of onlookers he runs a long and hopeful arch around the scene, stumbling at one point. Reaching the safety of the patrol cars, he is put inside one of them by police officers and quickly driven away. Seeing how the situation could spiral if the mourning mob takes a second look at David, I begin to wonder what we’re still doing here. I scan the scene and find him at the exact same spot. He is still waiting for his chance. It comes shortly after. The forensic team arrives, and after lifting the white sheet, they start photographing the body. David takes a few more pictures before the three of us leave.

Back in the car, parked away from the scene, he shows Antonio and me the images. “The family were hugging the body and they turned her, so I couldn’t get a shot of her face,” he says.

*

When you work the night shift for too long, the murders start to link up with one another, blending cause and effect in a centrifugal force that gnaws away at the city. The veteran reporters start to see this; the man gunned down one night is related to an ongoing gang dispute, which originates in another murder from the previous week, and so on. The crimes dot their personal maps. Driving by Mosqueta Street, David points to a specific building and recalls the night he photographed an injured man that had been hit by a car. It was only later that his editor pointed out to him that the victim was in fact José Luis Calva Zepeda, also known as the Guerrero Cannibal, one of contemporary Mexico’s most notorious serial killers, accused of eating parts of his victims, all young women. When the police located him, he jumped out of his apartment window and ran across the street, before being struck by a car and apprehended.

Like all of the night reporters that meet every evening at the General Prosecutor’s Office, David is aware that the violence that haunts the city could eventually get him, turning the chronicler into the chronicled. They have all had their share of close calls: threatened with firearms, beaten up, having their equipment stolen or destroyed by enraged mobs, chased away with stones and machetes. “One time we were covering a gang murder and had to get in the car and leave. Some guys chased us with a machine gun, but we were going fast and they were not able to get a clear shot,” he recalls.

Back at the Prosecutor’s Office, he tells me that it has become more dangerous, that people nowadays will kill you for next to nothing. We are eating homemade guacamole that Antonio prepared before the shift. He also brought a bottle of pulque, a viscous and milked-coloured drink made out of fermented agave sap. Minutes later, a voice message drones through Whatsapp on Vector’s phone. An ambulance crew working in Ecatepec just had all of their possessions stolen at gunpoint. “Luckily we are all alright,” the still shaken voice adds. David looks at me with authority: “See? They don’t respect anyone!”

This is why David’s wife tells him to be careful every night before he goes out. She promised him her full support when he wanted to study journalism in his early thirties, rather than working the same odd jobs. He completed a technical course in journalism and another one in photography, supplementing his income by driving a taxi around the city. His last rite of passage before finishing the study program, which included a focus on criminology and forensics, was to witness an autopsy. “They told us all to bring our food and the next day sat us in front of the autopsy table at around 9:00 AM to eat breakfast as we watched it,” he remembers. “Many people were vomiting, but I was OK. I can handle death better than most people.” He also seems to have made peace with his own inevitable death, whether from old age, his diabetes, a wrong turn on the road, or an unfortunate visit to one of Mexico City’s dangerous areas. “We all have one candle, and we don’t know how long it will last. But when that candle goes out, that’s it.”

Several weeks later, our candles are almost put out. Under pouring rain, the street illuminated by thunder, David hits the gas to beat another red light. We avoid the traffic on the left of the intersection, only to be nearly smashed by a car coming from the right.  Antonio is the first to see it, this alternative future of disaster. David is looking to the left, thinking he has it covered, but finally sees the incoming car on the other side and swerves violently. Both vehicles slide on the wet road, missing each other by mere centimeters. Another close call for David and Antonio, their fast-paced nightly existence allowed to continue.