Conroy: Journey to the Dark Heart of the Drug War
November 8, 2012
Conroy: Journey to the Dark Heart of the Drug War
The House of Death is located several blocks off of Panamericana, near a large, seemingly new hotel. We pulled to a stop in front of a house on the short U-shaped Parsioneros Street. All of the houses on the street are connected to each other, like row houses, and they look very similar. But I knew what this house looked like; it had been in my dreams more than once in the four years I have been covering the House of Death murders.
… As we were driving out, we noticed a Juarez municipal police car, with lights flashing, blocking one side of the only exit…. All of us became instantly focused.
This was a moment, I realized, where making the wrong choice could change your life — maybe even end it.…
The above narrative is excerpted from a story I wrote for Narco News chronicling my journey to the House of Death — just as Mexican President Felipe Calderon was surging military troops into the city. I am convinced I survived that trip because of the training I received at the School of Authentic Journalism, which I attended for the first time in Bolivia in 2004.
By the skin of our teeth, we made it out of Juarez, Mexico, that weekend day in April 2008, a trip that led us into the dark heart of the drug war, to a house that was the site of a grizzly murder chamber that left a dozen people buried, decaying, in its backyard — the House of Death. It’s a story I pursued relentlessly for Narco News for more than half a decade, because it mattered and was being ignored by the mainstream media.
Eventually, though, because of Narco News’ coverage, the for-profit media could no longer ignore the House of Death. The story was picked up by numerous US media outlets, such as the Miami Herald, the Washington Times, National Public Radio, the Associated Press and many more — years after Narco News had documented the corruption of the Mexican law enforcers involved and the plight of their victims (murdered with the assistance of a former Mexcian cop who was a US government informant and whose deeds were condoned by US law enforcement agents and prosecutors).
The House of Death is now etched in the world’s consciousness, a symbol of all the horror and pretense of the so-called drug war. Perhaps even you have heard of it?
The School of Authentic Journalism taught me many things about reporting in conflict zones, chief among them was assuring that you plan well in advance for the unexpected, so that you are prepared to make the correct decisions on the spot, so that your decision-making is not clouded by panic.
The school assembles journalists and social-movement leaders from around the world, some as students, others as professors — many of whom have experience in the weeds in conflict zones. On that day in Juarez in late April 2008, when confronted with the decision on whether or not to stop for that Juarez cop, who almost assuredly had tailed us from the House of Death and was part of its legacy [the killers at the House of death were all cops], the right decision was made — and the fact that I and my fellow travelers are still alive is proof of that conclusion.
That is so because among the lessons I learned at the School of Authentic Journalism was that when pursuing any story in the field where high risk is present, it is essential to conduct a survey of your surroundings in advance — assuring that you are aware of all possible escape routes should things go awry.
And our survival that day in Juarez mattered, because we were able to bring the truth of the drug war to thousands, online via the Narco News and on TV. The Peruvian filmmaker accompanying me that day was a freelancer for Al Jazeera and his documentary on the House of Death aired throughout Europe.
Since Bolivia, I have attended three other gatherings of the School of Authentic Journalism, on those occasions as a professor. But even as a professor, each time I also learned as a student. The school teaches all of us how to become better, faster and more coherent across multiple mediums — video, photography, social media, blogging, long-form investigative journalism and more — all with the goal of advancing authentic journalism. But as importantly, anyone attending will learn firsthand from individuals, whom I consider to be among the real giants of journalism today, the skills necessary to cover social movements and the drug war without putting yourself or others, or the people and movements you are covering, in harms way needlessly because you failed to plan properly or consider all the variables and consequences of your actions.
In an era where news has become a commodity and too many journalists have become self-important desk jockeys hypnotized by the cult of personality, it is vital that we find a way to teach young, promising journalists the skills and thinking necessary to cover the stories that matter up close, in person, and in a way that is not driven exclusively by ego and making money, but rather by an overriding desire to be honest, to be authentic. That kind of journalism is fraught with risks, intimate danger at times, because it challenges power. Lives literally depend on it being done right as does the advancement of social movements — whether it be those standing up against the impunity of a drug war that has cost the lives of 120,000 people in Mexico over the past six years or those working to advance human rights and civil society across the globe, in Europe, Africa, Asia, the Middle East and the Americas.
The survival of the School of Authentic Journalism depends on you. Please support the work of the school by making a donation today. You can do it online at this link:
Or you can send a check to:
The Fund for Authentic Journalism PO Box 1446 Easthampton, MA 01027 United States
The School of Authentic Journalism has helped to train hundreds of people to date, who have gone on to teach the skills they have learned to an even wider circle. It is vital that we support it, because a world without such a school is one in which journalism, as a force for positive change and good, is itself buried in the backyard of a House of Death.
Bill Conroy School of Authentic Journalism, Class of 2004