The police called at 5 a.m. Someone found a body near a bridge.
Still in her pajamas, Ángeles García grabbed her camera and headed to the car, a familiar rush of adrenaline sweeping over her.
She drove through empty streets, then pulled up at the bridge near a police car, its lights still flashing.
The El Sol de Tijuana photographer slung a camera around her neck. García was the first journalist to arrive.
She scanned the ground, expecting a tarp or blanket covering the body.
Then, in the corner of her eye, she saw it ...
Then, in the corner of her eye, she saw it ...
... a dead man hanging by the neck from the bridge.
Suppressing her horror, she lifted her camera and went to work.
As a journalist in Tijuana — a city that regularly ranks as one of the most dangerous in the world — Ángeles García confronts violence daily.
Situated on the southwest U.S. border, the city in Mexico’s Baja California state is in a corridor for some of the worst organized crime, including the trafficking of drugs, arms and people. The U.S. State Department warns that transnational gangs are competing for routes in the city, and that “violent crime and gang activity are common.”
According to the Baja California Secretary of Public Security, in June alone, 257 people in the city of around 2 million were victims of homicide. And so far this year, Tijuana has the highest per capita homicide rate in the world.
As one of the first female journalists assigned to cover Tijuana’s violence, García has witnessed some of the worst brutality that humanity can offer. But she has also seen how shining a light on the city’s problems can effect positive change.
Journalism has generated trust between the community and local authorities, spurred the government into action, and helped grieving families recover from loss.
García and the other Tijuana journalists whom VOA interviewed recalled how their stories of lost loved ones led to change. Community leaders described how local reporting sparked conversations about safety and helped mend relations between police and the public.
Tijuana’s reporters are known for their independence and the impact of their crucial coverage, said Celeste Gonzáles de Bustamante, the director of the Center for Border and Global Journalism at the University of Arizona and an expert on how Mexico’s media respond and adapt to violence. She also co-authored the 2021 book “Surviving Mexico,” which examines the work of journalists based in the most dangerous regions.
“There have been many journalists and journalism organizations that have been doing very critical work of the government and critical work of the communities in Tijuana,” she told VOA.
Access to credible information is vital.
When stories become off-limits to the media, people “look to other folks who are putting out information that might not be reliable,” Gonzáles de Bustamante said. “And then people are forced to make decisions that might put their own lives at risk.”
When García started shooting crime, gruesome cases such as the bridge killing were front-page news.
“Sadistically executed” screamed the headline alongside her photograph when the story was published in October 2009.
She was still photographing the scene when the morning commute began.
“It was a school day. I took several images of people who were no longer driving but were turning around looking at the bridge,” she said.
The gruesome public display was a first for the city.
The victim, Rogelio Sánchez Jiménez, head of the state vehicle licensing office, had been kidnapped days earlier.
As one of the city’s first female crime photographers working for an established newspaper, García felt a duty to do well.
Before covering crime, García’s work had a starkly different flavor. She mostly shot weddings and quinceañera celebrations.
“Very happy moments,” she said.
Then El Sol de Tijuana called, wanting her to cover the security and police beat.
“I was in a line of work full of male colleagues who had taken photos for a while, and I thought, ‘OK, here is my chance to prove I can do this,’” she said.
One of García's first assignments: a body found next to a car.
The man lay face down, a ball in his hand.
Minutes later, a teenager arrived. He looked about 16.
Seeing his father on the ground, he screamed.
“Imagine, I was taking weddings, baptisms and birthday pictures — happy events — and now this.”
“I covered my face with the camera so the other journalists wouldn't see me crying — because I worked with only men — and they were going to say, 'This lady is already crying.'”
With time, García said, she learned to be detached. But some cases, such as that of the hanged man, still haunted her months later.
At her paper, El Sol de Tijuana, a long, steep staircase leads to the newsroom.
“For several months I was terrified. I would run up and down the stairs.”
“I had the impression the body of the hanged man was there and that it was going to fall.”
“I had to run to avoid that feeling.”
Even now the image haunts.
“I see it every time that I go over that bridge, and I feel that person is still there.”
Graphic acts of violence are not García’s sole focus. She also documents those reeling in the wake of the crime, the families searching for answers.
These follow-up stories can have the biggest impact by exposing how the system can fail both victims and their families — like José Fernando Ortigoza, who has searched for his missing adult son for eight years.
Ortigoza is secretary of the United Association for the Disappeared of Baja California. Made up of dozens of civil organizations, the group not only advocates for the disappeared but also searches for them.
It’s a large undertaking: data from the Baja California Attorney General’s Office show that from 2007 to the beginning of this year, around 14,000 people have vanished in the state. In that same period, 144 graves were found.
Victims are targeted for a range of reasons: Kidnappers may want to collect a ransom, or the victim is thought to have connections to criminal activity. And, sometimes, the victim is simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.
The association regularly searches for remains and other evidence. VOA joined Ortigoza and other members on one such search in April in the San Pedro Valley, an area 30 minutes outside Tijuana.
They were accompanied by a convoy of vehicles carrying state and national officials, members of the state prosecutor’s office, archaeologists and geologists.
But it wasn’t always this way.
When the group started in 2015, the families provided everything themselves: funding, vehicles — and even shovels.
“We didn’t have any type of support from state or federal officials to look for our missing kids, but with time and support from reporters and media, we were able to create more awareness of the work we were doing,” Ortigoza said.
The interest from journalists, coupled with the persistence of victims’ families seeking support from then-Baja California Gov. Francisco Vega de Lamadrid, helped the association find the assistance it needed.
Without the media attention, Ortigoza said, they wouldn’t have had as much success.
“We have grown through the years because reporters have always been with us. When we do a protest or have a press conference, they are there and help bring more awareness to state officials of our efforts,” he said.
García has photographed several search parties over the years and understands how those involved rely on the coverage. One time, a woman approached to thank her.
“That’s why we’re here,” García told her.
The presence of media also prevents cases from fading away. Take the disappearance in 2007 of Juan Antonio Orpinela Osuna, then 19.
Wearing a T-shirt bearing his photo, his mother, Teresita del Niño Jesús Osuna, told VOA she still doesn’t know why her son was taken.
“My son came to spend a few days with his uncle,” she said. A few days after he arrived in Tijuana, an armed commando ambushed them and took him, his uncle, his uncle’s wife and her son, “a 14-year-old boy.”
The family never heard from them again, and Osuna now travels from location to location trying to discover their fate.
In April, she traveled from Mazatlán, around 1,750 kilometers away, after an anonymous tip had indicated that criminal groups use the San Pedro Valley scrubland as a dumping area.
José Fernando Ortigoza, United Association for the Disappeared of Baja California.
Family members use metal rods to probe for human remains.
LEFT: José Fernando Ortigoza, United Association for the Disappeared of Baja California. RIGHT: Family members use metal rods to probe for human remains.
Carrying shovels and rods and wearing hats, long-sleeved shirts and masks, Osuna and the others toiled for hours under the sun.
They probed the ground with rods as they pushed through bushes, mountainous terrain and desert, hoping to find bone fragments or belongings to send for forensic examination.
For association secretary Ortigoza, searches help cope with the pain of not knowing.
His son, José Alberto Ortigoza Martinez, worked for a food company and regularly crossed the Mexico-U.S. border for business. But on January 24, 2014, the 26-year-old disappeared at the Otay Mesa, California, port of entry on the U.S. side while traveling for work. His phone quickly went dead. His family, including his partner and young child, never heard from him again.
“This helps with the sadness and the depression someone may feel staying at home doing nothing,” his father told VOA. “You feel you’re doing something for your kids.”
And the media attention helps him and the other families feel supported.
Such coverage, Ortigoza said, is “imperative.”
“Through their (the media’s) work, more people reach out to us, ask what we’re doing and want to join our efforts,” he said.
Media can bridge the gap between residents and local authorities, a rift widened by years of distrust and disrupted communication.
Because of its inaction and failure to secure prosecutions, Tijuana’s police force has scored poorly on national security reviews. According to the 2022 National Survey of Urban Public Safety, it received 300 complaints about police behavior.
Some police officers face threats from organized crime, while others are paid off. Either way, law enforcement is a risky profession with a high death rate.
In 2022, Tijuana’s mayor and its head of police pledged to combat corruption and criminal elements in the ranks.
Some residents haven’t waited. As crime rose in recent years, Genaro de la Torre’s trust in the authorities sank.
Born and raised in Tijuana, de la Torre is devoted to his city and his family, which owns a large food distribution company.
In his city office, its walls adorned with family photos and university diplomas, de la Torre described how he and his family watched as the killings and kidnappings escalated locally.
By 2008, “I received information that there were up to five kidnappings a day, and the authorities were blindfolded,” de la Torre said. Officials seemed unsure about where to start investigating or even about what was happening.
In 2015, with the help of other residents, de la Torre formed the Tijuana Citizens Public Safety Committee, a group of business owners and residents who work together to organize initiatives to protect communities. They often invite local police to their meetings.
It’s an opportunity to share concerns and information about robberies, threats and organized crime.
Media coverage of recent incidents often sparks conversation at such gatherings.
“Journalists are in every part of the city at every moment and in any situation. They know where to look for things that are hidden,” de la Torre said.
The association soon exposed one hurdle to combating crime: “No one had trust,” he said.
“During the meetings, we would ask, ‘OK, there are 150 people here. Who informed the police about this incident?’ And only three people would raise their hands.”
But with time, as reporters covered both the gatherings and the police follow-through on complaints, people began to trust the meetings. That led to a series of protests and even more reporting on the rising violence.
That publicity persuaded more people to attend, de le Torre said.
“It is important to make that connection between authorities and citizens. We had these meetings to break that lack of respect between police toward the citizens and the citizens toward the police,” he said.
Trust was key, but so, too, was the contribution of journalists.
“Issues come to light due to a reporter’s work, and many times the authorities do not even know about it,” de la Torre said.
At the meetings now, community members raise issues, and police update them on investigations.
“Their (journalists’) support helped us work hand-in-hand with authorities, and we started perceiving a change among residents. They start trusting more and talking more, which is important, so that there is no impunity,” de la Torre said.
A deadly year
January underscored the fine line that journalists in Tijuana walk between covering crime and becoming the story.
Colleagues of Martínez believe killers targeted him over a false Facebook account set up in his name. The account published posts claiming to be able to identify people behind criminal activity in the city.
Police say suspects in both cases have been identified and arrested. But even so, the killings prompted journalists to take extra safety precautions.
They now inform colleagues about stories they are working on or places they plan to visit, use text messaging to stay connected, and no longer travel solo to some locations.
“There are no guarantees for us journalists that prevent the day someone wants to come for one of us. Whoever wants to come for us, does. And the worst thing is, there is no justice,” said Sonia de Anda.
The co-director of the news site and radio show “Esquina 32” is a member of the WhatsApp group #YoSiSoyPeriodista, or “I Am a Journalist.”
Initially set up in 2019 with the free expression group Article 19 so that media could report harassment related to state elections that year, the online chat was repurposed by de Anda to keep journalists safe and give them a voice.
Scrolling through her phone, de Anda, who works in a small studio in Tijuana, said the members focus on defending freedom of expression and their independence.
March 30, 2022 11:05 a.m.
Pollo: Good morning colleagues. We talked a long time ago about notifying if one of us came to work on “las playas” (the beaches)
I'll be here for about an hour, I don't see the guys who are usually on the lookout, only a few in the parking lot. There is a patrol car half a block away.
Pollo: We just left the area, thank you very much
Excellent. Everything ok?
“This a place where we agree to make public statements or a call to action,” de Anda said.
One hundred members strong, #YoSiSoyPeriodista also fosters a sense of community and safety by serving as an alert system for journalists threatened while on assignment.
When that happens, members jump into action. Some track the journalists, even heading out to meet them. Others inform the authorities.
De Anda recounted how a reporter had used the system in December when he thought he was being followed.
One message to the WhatsApp group resulted in police being informed quickly. They could then track and find the reporter to ensure he was safe.
“There were always WhatsApp groups here and there, but this is the first time most of us get together in this front, putting aside all the differences,” de Anda said.
Why take the risk?
From the outside, it may be hard to understand why, when faced with so much violence and risk, Tijuana’s journalists continue.
But they are passionate. Several shared stories with VOA about how their reporting resulted in change.
Gabriela Martínez, a freelancer who contributes to the newspaper El Universal, reported on a young offenders’ detention center where security officers allegedly beat and raped the residents.
“When I published the story, some parents printed it and started giving it to people outside the detention facility,” Martínez said. “That created a chain reaction where people started to protest and demand answers.”
Because of Martínez’s work, authorities ordered an investigation, dismissed the facility director and put new policies in place.
Daniel Ángel Rubio, a news editor at El Sol de Tijuana, described how his coverage of dire working conditions at a textile factory promoted change.
“They had horrible transportation conditions for workers. There were reports of several accidents,” Rubio said.
When his story was published, the person overseeing the transport contracts called his newspaper.
“Changes were made. Workers had better transportation services,” Rubio said.
Research by the academic Gonzáles de Bustamante and her “Surviving Mexico” co-author, Jeannine Relly, found that media coverage generates action.
“After journalists report on all the violence … there are individuals, citizens who see the violence, and they want to give back,” Relly, from the University of Arizona’s School of Journalism, told VOA.
Some citizens are inspired to get involved. Others find relief in a shared experience.
A similar sense of solidarity is mirrored by the media — in how they absorb the daily trauma of covering violence and seeing colleagues targeted, Relly and Gonzáles de Bustamante write in “Surviving Mexico.”
“Through tough times, journalists in Tijuana had demonstrated resilience and a willingness to overcome any personal trauma to continue to do their work.”
In García’s case, she still covers crime and police activity, but what used to be a six-day schedule is now just two.
Her interest in the beat has not lessened. But her focus has expanded into other issues including migration and environmental disasters that impact the city.
And while she has a sense of relief in the growing solidarity among journalists, each assignment leaves a mark.
“I do remember most of the photos I have taken through the years,” she said. “The pain of the family, the pain of the victim, the impact that story had and, most of the time, the pain I felt while taking the photo.”