Jason McGahan is an investigative reporter who covers organized crime and drug trafficking in Mexico and the United States. His special investigative report “Drugs in Chicago” was awarded a 2014 Peter Lisagor Award for In-Depth Reporting from the Chicago Society of Professional Journalists. His work has appeared in Vice
, The Daily Beast
, The Guardian
, Texas Observer
, Chicago Reader
, Chicago Magazine, The LA Times
, and in Spanish in Proceso
, M-X, SinEmbargo, and Spleen! Journal. Follow him @JasonMcGahan
By Virginia Isaad
You recently wrote about anti-clericalism and the murders of priests in Tierra Caliente. Do you see the violence against priests escalating or do you think these are isolated to certain areas?
Centro Católico Multimedia tabulated eight murders of Catholic priests and two forcible disappearances since the start of the Enrique Pena Nieto presidency in December 2012. I wrote about the Dec 21 murder of Father Gregorio Lopez Gorostieta. In the course of my reporting, I learned that Father Gregorio was the fourth priest murdered in the region of La Tierra Caliente since 2009, not counting two students at a Catholic seminary who were also murdered. Another priest was wounded, and yet another was kidnapped and managed to escape with his life through a very fortuitous incident that distracted his kidnappers. When my story about the priests of La Tierra Caliente came out, Chivis, the administrator of the news site Borderland Beat, commented that priests have also been murdered in Tamaulipas and Veracruz. So the danger does not appear to be isolated to any one part of Mexico.
The slogan for Ayotzinapa is, as you mentioned, “the cradle of social consciousness.” do you believe the cartels were trying to send a specific message by going after the 43 students?
I think the problem with the Ayotzinapa case is the lack of a verifiable explanation from the PGR as to what happened that night. Even though the massacre is more than 5 months old, the story is still developing, the search for the students continues, and highly qualified professional investigators continue to examine the evidence A major break in the case is liable to happen at any time. Certainly, the Ayotzinapa students are known for their political activism. Part of the reason the abduction of the 43 students resonated so strongly with the Mexican public was that the student victims had no ties to organized crime. The truly mobbed-up elements of the Mexican political class, and here I am thinking of someone like the First Lady of Iguala, Maria de los Angeles Pineda, tend to keep an especially virulent form of disdain for political idealism. They don’t understand it, they don’t speak the same language. At this point, what we can interpret about the “message” of the Ayotzinapa massacre is that three students can be murdered (one of whose corpse was found with the face sliced off and the eyes plucked out) and forty-three forcibly disappeared in the downtown area of a mid-sized Mexican city, without legal consequences for most, if any, of the individuals responsible for the crime.
From priests to young social activists/students, the violence knows no bounds. How do you feel the impassioned protests and heightened attention have affected the war against drugs?
I think the protests have inspired individual Mexicans to risk taking a stand against the impunity of organized crime in Mexico. The parents of the disappeared students from Aytozinapa have played the most decisive role in that respect. Thousands of Mexican parents have walked the proverbial mile in their shoes, have seen their children disappeared in recent years. But other parents were too afraid of reprisals to demand answers, much less to take matters like the search or investigation into their own hands, the way the parents of the Ayotzinapa students have. They carry a tremendous moral authority in Mexico, both for the pain they have endured and the courage they have displayed in demanding justice. The parents have set an example that others are following, to take a crisis into one’s own hands and to challenge the climate of impunity that prevails in the Mexican justice system.
In my investigations, it seems as though the agencies of the United States Government charged with combating organized crime invariably seek to identify and enlist the help of insiders –criminals or corrupt public servants– as a way to study the architecture of a given criminal organization. Any DEA agent, in a moment of candor, will admit that confidential informants are the bread-and-butter of any investigation. Much more important, in the grand scheme, than things like electronic surveillance or wiretaps. What I found, in the investigation of mine that you reference in your question, is that the higher up in the chain of command that investigators reach for their informants, the better position the agents are in to influence the outcome of a conflict, like the turf war in Ciudad Juarez. I wrote about a situation where high-level traffickers and enforcers for the Sinaloa Cartel in Chihuahua were provided with visas to enter the United States and provide sensitive information on their enemies in the Juarez Cartel. But all the while these informants continued to work as active members in mid- to high-level management roles within an international crime syndicate that was the largest supplier of cocaine, meth, and heroin to the United States.
I recently wrapped up a six-month murder investigation in Mexico. I won’t get into specifics until the article comes out. But gaining the trust of sources who do not know anything about you, who have never met a reporter before, much less a reporter from the United States, and where the decision for them to talk can have immediate life or death consequences, is a challenge that can only be overcome with patience and understanding.