Freelancers has attained an interview with a media fixer in Mexico operating in the Sinaloa, Sonora, and Baja California regions. For those who aren’t familiar with the concept, a media fixer is a middle man that can gain access to hard to reach places, people, or groups, so that the media outlet that hires them can report on said subject. The fixer we interviewed has worked with many reputable/notable outlets, and primarily focuses on the ever-evolving cartel situation in Mexico. He had a lot to say about his work, as well as the situation in Mexico, and I hope some more understanding of this critically under-reported situation/conflict can be gained from this interview. Enjoy.
To start things out, could you explain what exactly your job entails?
Sure. So I started working casting real people (non-actors) for indie films in Mexico. One of the projects was about teenage bank robbers in Sinaloa. The profile of the characters meant that I had to cast young men from the ghettos in Sinaloa. I knew that meant I was going to have to deal with a lot of narcos and that type of character, because they control those places. After three weeks of casting, I bumped into a group of Sicarios whose group name was Las Ranas. They were really excited that I was looking for actors in their slum and they offered to participate in the castings. After I finished with the castings, I learned that the movie wasn’t going to be filmed. So I decided to do a documentary about the young men who were part of Las Ranas. As I was working on my documentary, a Magnum Photographer learned about what I was doing, and asked if I could help her out. So I worked for her in Sonora and found other cartel members, specifically “gatilleros” (hired gunmen). Then another photographer asked If I could help him out in Tijuana by looking for “coyotes” (person who smuggles immigrants over the US-Mexico border) for him to photograph. And then, a journalist from Insight Crime started using me as a source for her articles. So that’s a summary of my career as a fixer. Since I started doing this, I have witnessed someone being taken away to be killed and also someone being beaten and torture before being executed
Was/is it difficult to gain the trust of those guys? One would assume that it would be a very touchy situation to go around narco-controlled territory looking for people to film or photograph.
Most of them say no. That is usually how it works. You ask 50 cartel members and 80% say no, 10% answers with a threat, and then 10% says maybe. You work to gain the trust of that 10%, usually half of them end up saying no but they let you hang around with them without taking photos or filming. The big problem is that people from Vice or National Geographic and other similar news network are used to paying this guys for access and that is not the case for me. So for me it takes longer. Also, I’m not the best fixer around here. I’m just starting. I know fixers who can take you inside a Cessna filled with drugs.
So when working with journalists/photographers from the US/anywhere that’s not mexico, what difficulties tend to come up?
That they want to photograph or film more than what they are told. That’s the main thing. Or that they want to stay for more time than is needed. The other thing that always happens is that the cartel guys take too much cocaine and start to trip out about a gringo taking photos of them. And lastly you are always worried that the police or soldiers are going to do a raid while you’re there and end up in a shootout.
Have you ever had to turn down your services to a journalist?
No. If I think I can’t deliver the requested access I will refer them to someone else. If I get a sense the person is a fake, or not professional enough, I just ignore them. Two month ago I lost a gig because my source backed out at the last minute. It was painful because the project was cool. The journalist wanted to go to a meth lab.
On that note, I’ve heard a lot about meth production and trafficking in Mexico. Is it becoming more common?
Yeah a lot. It’s been around for like 10 years. It is so cheap to do in comparison with Cocaine or Heroin. You just import the chemicals from China, or sometimes India, and you can produce a lot with very little ingredients. Also it is easier to move to the US. You can hide it easier than other drugs. The north of Mexico is full of crystal meth addicts. A bag costs no more than $3 USD. Most of the Labs are in Jalisco and Sinaloa, but I know from a source that they also have it in Sonora and I bet it is the same in Chihuahua. Once a sicario had me do a line of crystal meth, it was horrible. I was in so much pain.
Have you had any issues with law enforcement with your work?
Not for now. But I’m sure that when my documentary gets released shit is going to hit the fan.
Why do you think that, just sensitive info?
Yeah. They are going to know how deep I got and also I’m pointing out a problem that the government doesn’t want to talk about.
Is a lot of media in Mexico hiding the reality of the situation?
No, because narco news sells very well, but their angle is sensationalist and simplistic. There are many brave independent and local journalists who do amazing work. But the government doesn’t like for the media to keep talking about it.
What is the most interesting small arm you’ve seen in use by a cartel guy?
The biggest weapon I’ve seen was a Barrett .50 caliber rifle.
I’m sure that your work requires a lot of knowledge of the current situations which to my understanding change frequently, where do you get your information primarily?
Before I go into a no-go zone or a high risk location, I do a lot of research first through the local newspapers as well as searching twitter and facebook by the name of the town and seeing what types of posts I can find from the local population. Then I contact the local politician, a local journalist, or a community leader to hear from them how the situation is. Then I start asking my own contacts if they know someone from the cartel in the town I’m planning on going. I never go to a place without doing my homework.
As a fixer do you have any certain rules while working or limitations you place on yourself out of safety?
Yeah, I only work in Sinaloa, Sonora and Baja California. And I try to avoid places with an intense turf war.
On that note, as of date, where is most of the conflict occurring and who is it between?
There is currently fighting in Michoacan between CJNG vs La Familia and Los Viagras, there is Tamaulipas infighting between splinter groups inside CDG and CDS and CJNG, there is fighting in Guanajuato between CJNG and Cartel Santa Rosa, and conflict in Guerrero between Los Rojos vs Guerreros Unidos vs Different Self Defence Groups, and also there is presence from Sinaloa and from Zetas and CJNG.
If there is one in particular, what has been your most stressful/frightening moment as a fixer?
What I mentioned earlier, when I witnessed someone being taken away to be killed, and also someone being beaten and tortured before being executed.
What do you think people in the US (speaking broadly here because I know people get a lot wrong) get wrong about the situation in Mexico?
They underestimate the impact that gun laws in the US have in Mexico. They don’t want to talk about the collusion and corruption between the cartel and the Border Patrol plus the CBP. They don’t acknowledge the blood trail the DEA has left in Mexico. They think of the cartel as just sicarios and peasants. And ignore the hundreds of financial advisors in Texas, California and Arizona that work to clean the drug money. Or the many chemists with PHDs who are working with the cartels developing new drugs. Finally, they need to start understanding that for a lot of mexican people, especially in the rural areas, some of the cartels are for them what big pharma, oil, or chemical companies are for Middle America: a necessary evil. In the sense that even though they do evil shit in other parts, just like Union Carbide did in India or Chevron in Ecuador, they also create jobs and help with other things. One more thing. You can’t have a free market in favor of capitalist rhetoric, but expect Colombians to turn their back on something as profitable as cocaine. One kilo in Colombia costs $2000 USD, but if you are able to cross it, it goes for $40,000-50,000 usd. That’s mad money. What is the motivation to stop? So that Tarantino or Hunter Biden stop doing blow?
As a fixer being able to gain the trust of certain groups (or at least enough to help set up something with them and the media) are you given any special treatment such as passing checkpoints without payment?
You mentioned earlier that sometimes they’ll threaten you or otherwise try to intimidate you when you’re trying to get an interview/photo, is it usually easy to tell who’s being serious and who’s just trying to scare you?
Well. It depends on who does it. Rockies and wannabes you can tell. But when someone with power wants to intimidate you just to fuck around, there is no way to tell. But the best reaction you can have is to always take it seriously no matter where it comes from. You need to have your pitch ready, and you need to make it clear that it is something you don’t want to joke with.
In your history working as a fixer what job/project are you most proud of?
I was hired to find street kids for a movie that was filmed in Sonora. Finding a 12-year-old named Angel who was cleaning windows at a street stop is my proudest moment. The few moments I felt that I made a difference.
What qualities do you think make a good fixer? Obviously not everyone is cut out for this work.
Good rapport and the ability to weaponize empathy and a lot of humbleness.
How do you see the current coronavirus crisis affecting the situation in Mexico?
(laughs) Violence hasn’t stopped. The sicarios are still fighting each other for turf. It is harder to move cocaine from Colombia to Mexico, and fentanyl from China to Mexico. Most of the cartels are subsisting on their stash.
What do you carry with you while you’re on the job/what equipment/stuff do you find necessary for your work?
Just my phone and a notebook. Too much equipment makes you look suspicious.
How do you see the future of your field (as a fixer) changing as the situation in Mexico changes?
It will get more dangerous and expensive to do. The more the cartel members know about networks like Netflix, National Geographic, and Vice, the more money they will ask for and the more exposure they will feel.
What message would you like to get across to the world through your work as a fixer, and what should people outside of Mexico know about the situation in terms of how it may affect them?
Most people who are part of the cartels are not evil or twisted killers. The majority just wants to make ends meet and protect their turf. That’s it. There’s no difference between the guy from Oklahoma working for Erik Prince in Iraq and the guy from Sinaloa working for Mayo Zambada in Colombia. People just want to survive and give the best to their family with whatever means they have.