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Journalist on the run

Published in J-Source on Nov. 18, 2010 Another version appeared in The Tyee on Nov. 29.

On a fall evening, after dark, you might find Luis Horacio Najera in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, peering down the desolate alleyways with a small Canon digital camera in his hand. He’s wearing a red ski jacket, and he’s uncommonly alert, a trained observer.

He might be photographing a surreptitious drug deal, or a junkie asleep by a dumpster. Luis will occasionally overhear snatches of conversation in Spanish. And that will tell him something significant. “There are Latins dealing in drugs up here,” he’ll say. He means Mexicans. He means gangs. And he should know.

Because for nearly half his life, Luis, 40, whose friends know him as Horacio, was a journalist in one of the most dangerous places in the Western Hemisphere—the Mexican-U.S. borderlands. His job was reporting on organized crime, illegal immigration, arms trafficking and police corruption. The good guys and the bad guys knew his name and his work, even though his employers, the Grupo Reforma, a prominent publishing house, kept his name off his stories. His exposes were bylined simply “Staff Reporter.” (See Luis' video Silencio o muerte, "Silence or Death")

That anonymity is no protection at all in Mexico. Since 2006, 34 journalists and media workers have been assassinated in Mexico. In Chihuahua province alone, where Luis plied his trade, the death toll was more than a half dozen. And it isn’t just the hit men of the drug cartels you have to worry about; the police and the federales also operate on the dark side. Reporters with zeal and integrity walk a very fine line.

Luis stepped over that line once too often. In August 2008, he wrote a story about a massacre at a Ciudad Juarez drug rehab centre. “I wrote that these places were hideouts for gangsters. I knew why the massacre happened. The military and the state police were involved. That’s when the military and the gangs converged against me. I was caught between two fires.”

Media organizations in Mexico do little or nothing to safeguard their employers, Luis says. In fact, reporters are all required to sign waivers that relieve their newspapers of any liability if they are injured or killed. For specialists like Luis, who work the crime beat, that’s a heavy psychological burden.

A reliable source told Luis that his name was on a death list, marked for assassination. As he would later write: “I could not trust the government, and I could not simply let myself be killed under some lonely streetlight.” So a month later, Luis, his wife and their three children slipped across the border carrying three suitcases, and came to Canada. They applied for refugee status.

Luis worried that his flight might be seen as an act of cowardice. But he was vindicated two months later when another journalist on the list, Armando Rodriguez Carreon, was gunned down outside his home.

Today, Luis and his family live in a small rented home in North Delta. After 14 months without a job, he found work as a janitor. He cleans floors and toilets. It pays $900 a month. The rent is $1100. They survive with the help of friends and the Mormon Church, where they worship. Some of their clothes and furniture “came right out of the garbage.”

Luis’ shoes are soaked from the rain when we meet for coffee at Tim Horton’s. “One thing about Canada,” he remarks, “is that the rain comes sideways, not straight down.” I wait for the grin, a sign that’s he’s joking. He’s not. I notice that his shoes are also flecked with paint (from a recent contracting job.) He says he spent a week selling video cameras at Futureshop, another week as a glazier’s assistant. But the janitor’s work is the most reliable. “It’s the refugee’s life,” he shrugs.

Later this month, Luis will be in Toronto to be recognized as one of the 2010 International Press Freedom Award winners. He hopes the exposure will help him find a better job, something in the academic world maybe. “I could do research in public safety, or intelligence.” Meanwhile, he’s studying English to improve his employability.

Luis knows that, for all the melodrama in his life, he’s lucky to be here. Fewer than 10% of Mexicans who apply for refugee status in Canada are accepted. It is, after all, a democracy with stable institutions. If you feel threatened in one province, you can move to another where it’s safer. And despite the occasional eruptions of drug cartel violence in the north, Mexico is still seen as a cheap and safe vacation spot for Canadians.

But one man’s paradise is another man’s purgatory. Luis spent 18 months preparing his case for the Refugee Board, and he didn’t leave anything to chance. He had letters of support from Reporters without Borders, the Committee to Protect Journalists, Canadian Journalists for Free Expression, Article 19 from the UK, and even a publishing group in Germany. They all vouched for the fact that he was likely a marked man if he remained in Mexico.

“The smartest choice we made in Canada,” says Luis, “was to buy a printer from Futureship. My file was more than 900 pages of evidence.”

In that file, he covered his years of work as an investigative journalist in Ciudad Juarez, West Texas and New Mexico. He told of how he was threatened with death many times, how he was followed and harassed and intimidated. Once, a van parked outside his home and as his wife passed by, a thug in the van formed his fist into the shape of a gun and pretended to shoot her.

The most terrifying incident of all involved a fellow journalist, Enrique Perea Quintanilla in August 2006. Perea lived in another city, and the two men texted regularly, exchanging information about the stories they were following. One day, Luis sent a text message to Perea at 2pm, and a few minutes later, he received an innocuous message in reply. What Luis didn’t know then, was that Perea had been abducted by a gang, and that the gangsters were intercepting his text messages, and replying to them. Perea was killed shortly after. A source later told him that the killers were trying to make Luis a “scapegoat” for the killing, on the basis of the text messages.

The refugee board hearing in downtown Vancouver this past summer started at 9 a.m. and lasted barely an hour. By 11:30, Luis had a decision: His application was accepted.

Today, Luis still has all the instincts and mannerisms of a journalist. Apart from his exploratory forays in the Downtown Eastside, he’s also an inveterate shutterbug. He takes pictures of everything with his pocket Canon. He’s especially proud of his 19-year-old son who marched on a recent Remembrance Day parade as a member of the Boy Scouts. He shows me a dozen snapshots.

“I want my grandsons and my great-grandsons to know why they are in Canada,” he says. “I want that to be my legacy.”

Does he feel secure now in Canada?

Luis thinks a minute and then replies in his unpolished English: “It may sound paranoid, but I know that for drug dealers, revenge is a plate you can enjoy cold.”

It’s a reminder that after two years, Luis Najera still carries the past with him. And he still keeps a wary eye over his shoulder. In that sense, he remains a journalist on the run.