This reporter is risking his life to give an insider's view of the Mexican drug war
Reporter Luis Chaparro has covered drug trafficking, the cartels and human smuggling from the city of Juarez in Mexico since 2007 for FoxNews, Vice and many more. We talked to him by phone to see how that's going.
You've interviewed hitmen, drug dealers and coyotes.
That's the job.
How do you find them?
I was born and raised in Ciudad Juarez, so you get to meet these people casually. I went to highschool with guys who eventually became drug dealers or went to work for the cartels. When I need to get an interview with a hitman, I definitely call them.
Is it as dangerous as I think it is, to cover the Drug War?
In 2010, really the worst times for the drug war, we had 13 murders in Juarez every day. So I was trying to figure out who was killing these people, why, where. And I wrote something the police didn't like. Two or three days later, the local police stopped me in the street and they kidnapped me. They tied my arms and feet, they put me in the back of the truck and started to threaten to shoot me. After a while they took me to this super dark place in the middle of the night. They took me down out of the truck and put me on my knees. One of them put his gun to the back of my head. I thought I was gone. I thought, this is it.
People always ask, did you have your whole life going through your head? I really didn't. What I was thinking of was, How do I manage to communicate, after I was dead, that I was executed by the local police? I was hoping that my colleagues were going to investigate, and I was going to put my hands behind my head so they knew that I had nothing in my hands, that they executed me on my knees, and that I wasn't running or anything or threatening them or fighting. Because I knew that these officers were just going to lie and say that I was a threat, that I had drugs on me, or a gun or something like that.
The police just shoot people like that?
Definitely. Some of them are in jail right now for shooting and killing local activists.
If they had been criminals, I would have had some leverage on them. I could tell them, hey, I'm an international news correspondent, people are going to look for me. But because they were local police unit, I had no leverage with them. They have the power to just fucking shoot whoever they want.
It's ironic to me that the worst thing that happened to you wasn't from the narcos, it was from the police.
It's kind of ironic if you're not used to covering the drug war in Mexico. With the police, they just don't give a fuck. They're like, fuck it, we're the authority.
How'd you get out?
I said to them, just do me a favor. I'll give you money and you'll give me two hours to run. Then you can find me and kill me. They started fighting between themselves to see if they wanted to actually do that or not. In the end, they decided they would. So I gave them 6000 pesos — around 450 dollars — and they told me, ok, they're gonna find me again in the next two hours. What they didn't know is that I am a U.S. resident and so I basically crossed the border and stayed there for nine months.
So you're more afraid of the police than the narcos?
Have you had any trouble with the narcos?
Two months ago, I had this contact with a middle-man cartel boss, and he took me in this stash house to write a story about the heroin on the border. Then he left, and I stayed there taking pictures and videos of the stash. Some of the other bosses came in, and I couldn't explain why was I in that place with a camera. They were all shot up with heroin, all paranoid. They wanted me to go with them and, I don't know, maybe get kidnapped or killed, or at least get a beating. But I was like, no, no way.
Just today, I was doing an article on Trump's wall — the wall Trump wants to build. I found this human trafficker in some very sketchy area of the city, and I asked him, can you show me where you guys are taking people through into the U.S.? He took me there and I was recording him going through the hole, into the U.S., and one of the bosses showed up and was like, "What the fuck are you doing?" These guys had masks on their face. And I was like, "What the fuck? Am I in trouble?" The guy who took me there, he was also scared of getting shot by them. So he said I was his friend, It's ok, he's cool. He was all drunk and stuff, he didn't care. Then I asked that guy, the trafficker, I can give you like 100 pesos if you get me out of this territory alive. And he took me out of this sketchy place, safe. I was worried they were going to get me, like, when I got to my car or something.
These are the sorts of tense situations that you run into almost every time you go out on the streets to cover something.
You must know a lot of things that, if you wrote them, you would die.
I have information on drug traffickers or politicians or businessmen. But I can't publish that shit because they're gonna get me and my family. So I just keep that information to myself.
Can you tell me the kind of things that you know but can't publish?
In 2014, there was this man in this place outside Juarez, Valle de Juarez — they were calling it Valle de los Muertos (Valley of the Dead), because 90 percent of the people that were living there were either dead or disappeared. So I was receiving a lot of information about this man who was supposed to be the one that was killing a bunch of people. Then people called me and said, this guy has just kidnapped three college students and he's gonna kill them. And I'm like, fuck, if I put it out, maybe I could save them, but if I put it out, I'm gonna be dead. So I talked to my editors. They were like, don't publish anything. And he killed them. They found them dead on the highway. It was a very hard spot to be.
Have you thought about quitting journalism?
I have. I just recently I had a kid. So I was like, this is way too fucking risky and very underpaid. But I'm really passionate about my job.
How much money do you make?
Never enough, man. Sometimes you get a check for $350, and you're like, "Why the fuck did I go to talk to these hitmen in this sketchy remote place for $350 bucks? It certainly wasn't for the money."
Why do you do this then?
To tell the story. I get the feeling that if I don't do it, who's gonna do it?
Do you think your reporting has affected things?
I think so. Two months ago, one of the biggest bosses of the Juarez Cartel told me, "In two weeks, we're going to start up a very ugly war against the Sinaloa Cartel in the city, and you better hide, 'cause the city's gonna be a fucking hell." So they started a campaign to tell people, where and how can they be safe. And then two weeks later all hell broke loose, a lot of killings in the city like crazy.
Maybe people hid. Maybe you saved a life or two.
This all has to do with drugs. What do you personally think about drugs — heroin, cocaine, marijuana whatever?
It's just stuff. It's just like alcohol, cigarettes.
Has marijuana legalization here in the U.S. made a difference?
It has. Because weed is not that huge of a business now, the Mexican drug businesses, they've had to switch to something harder, to heroin, and they've found a new niche. And they're always going to be switching to a new thing as long as it something is profitable because it is illegal. Making things illegal is just giving out money to the bad guys.
Is Trump's wall ridiculous?
Totally. No one's even using the tunnels right now. Everyone's just crossing on the bridge using fake documents.
What do you think about Trump, generally?
It's going to be hell for the U.S. He's trying to do harm to Mexico and to Mexicans, and at the end of the day, all of the harm he's going to do, it's going to be to the U.S.
What do you think Trump's policies' effect on the cartels will be?
Coyotes are already smelling the packs of money they're going to make. Once this man builds this huge wall, they are going to get paid more to get around it. It's not going to stop anything. He's going to make the cartels richer and more powerful.
What other kinds of crazy things have you seen, covering the Drug War?
Crazy things? (Laughs.) It's just been crazy over crazy over crazy things. Dead bodies, beheadings. Crazy stuff.
But the crazy things in Juarez is actually people helping other people.
There was a story that I was reporting on that I couldn't publish. A profile of a guy who was working as a Red Cross volunteer saving lives, but, on the other hand, he was a hitman for the cartel. And I was like, Why are you killing people and saving them, too? He was like, "People who deserve to die, they deserve to die, and I'm getting paid for that. But being a Red Cross volunteer, it's people who are in crashes, who are in accidents, they didn't do anything. So I save their lives." And I was like, Man, that's fucking crazy.
There must be a lot of people like that, people who aren't clearly good or bad.
Ciudad Juarez, it shows you how life really is. There is no black and white, there's no "Good people" and "bad people." People have a good side and a bad side, a light and a dark. We all live on a gray scale. Ciudad Juarez is all about that. The city has some really profound teachings to give.