A teenage assassin in Mexico

A couple of weeks into my time in Mexico, I read in a local newspaper about Ponchis, a teenage assassin who had become the face of the country’s drug war, thanks to social media videos that showed him slitting a victim’s throat, beating another with a stick, and posing by corpses and weapons. Local reports, which I could barely understand, let alone verify, said he was paid $3,000 per killing and worked with a group of girls who would dispose of bodies.

The drug war had ravaged Mexico and was the bloodiest it had ever been under President Felipe Calderón. Various cartels’ battles for territory led to some 30,000 deaths since Calderón’s inauguration in 2006. This was best evidenced, at least in the areas I inhabited, by newspaper front pages carrying pictures of decapitated heads or bloodied corpses. In a tasteless and jarring juxtaposition, closeups of the dead would often appear next to glitzy topless female models.

I sent 430 words to The Times, all based upon others’ reporting. I’d added nothing original, bringing together stories by local newspapers and news agencies such as the Associated Press and Reuters. The balance in my sourcing was tipped towards the agencies, as they wrote in English. I kept to myself that what I sent in could have been written by an intern sitting in London and that, ultimately, I knew nothing of what I wrote.

I called Ed around 2.30 am my time, after a night out, to see if he was keen. He was a bit flustered, he said, as he'd just gotten in and had a busy day ahead with the Somalians' release of the British hostages. He’d get back to me—and I should sleep.

I woke up to an email saying he’d take it. It was the first time The Times of London had bitten on one of my pitches! I’d already sent the story so there was little for me to do except wait for publication, which I’d see on the newspaper’s website that evening. As I sat in a bar with friends, I hit refresh on my phone’s web browser and found the story published, just after midnight in London. I’d had publications before, but this was the first with a foreign dateline (an industry term referring to the reporter’s location). With that, I became a foreign correspondent. I’d get paid $180 for my work. I bought a round of tequila to celebrate.

A couple of weeks after my first piece on Ponchis, Mexican authorities arrested the teen killer as he and his sister tried to board a plane to Tijuana, on the U.S. border. Ponchis, paraded in front of journalists there, said he had participated in four executions but had been drugged and threatened with death himself. Rather than another shallow rewrite of others’ work, I wanted to up my game and suggested to Richard and Ed that I get a bus down to Cuernavaca, Ponchis’s hometown, and try to speak with those who knew him. They said yes but I had a favor to ask: Could they advance me $250 to cover expenses? 

“One thing I hadn't accounted for so much with freelancing was cash flow and the amount of time payments would take,” I wrote to Richard. Yes, he said; they’d send it right over.

Of course, I should have saved up far more before leaving home; of course, I should have had a better grasp of business—something that’s fundamental to freelance journalism; and, of course, I didn’t want to tell my mom that I was in such dire financial straits. But I was young and naïve. Had I not been, I wouldn’t have gone anywhere. It would be a couple of years before I’d truly grasp that the vast majority of others in this game were of a different class, often with a parent, relative or friend either already in journalism, or at least in a world adjacent to it, such as diplomacy or business. 

I called every phone number I could find in Cuernavaca, a once popular retreat for wealthy Mexicans and foreign backpackers, ahead of going there. I asked the people on the other end if they knew anything about the case. Most hung up, unable to understand my awful Spanish, but eventually one person put me through to an English speaker who, with great serendipity, happened to be the sister of the judge in the boy’s trial. She was friendly and agreed to meet the following day.

There had been a surge in drug violence in Cuernavaca since drug gang leader Arturo Beltrán Leyva was killed by authorities a year beforehand. As another gang took over, two decapitated bodies had been found hanging from a bridge in the city just a few months before my visit. Their heads were accompanied by a note warning that anyone supporting Beltrán Leyva’s cartel would suffer a similar fate. 

My mom wasn’t keen. “This is exactly what you promised you wouldn’t do,” she said on a Skype call the night before my bus ride to Cuernavaca. I was still living in the blur between backpacker and foreign correspondent, a dangerous place to be—doing enough to be in danger but not knowing enough to get out of it. But I didn’t consider not going. 

The bus journey was just a couple of hours and I got in around 10pm. Sitting in a taxi as it wound through the narrow streets of Cuernavaca away from its center was a little nerve-racking. I arrived at my intended hostel, but after five minutes of ringing the bell and shouting, got nowhere so asked the driver to take me a hotel he knew. I had to trust him.

"Don't enter a narcotown after 10pm," I wrote in my diary. It was basic security, and a mistake I wouldn’t make again. 

The next morning, I walked to Cuernavaca’s own Zócalo, or public square, and found the office of the lady with whom I’d spoken. Her brother was nearby and open to an interview, she said. She asked me to return at lunchtime. I wandered around the square. It was a sunny, pleasant town and did better than others at hiding its underworld. Men selling balloons and blowing bubbles in the square attracted children and my camera lens.

When I reappeared at lunchtime, she told me I looked young—“too young.” The two of us spoke for a couple of hours outside the judge’s courtroom and she reminded me of my mom a little, having been divorced and looking after a young son who loved animals and wanted to study biology. She also wanted nothing to do with her former husband. It was a comfortable though at times harrowing chat. She was also a little scared about her brother’s involvement in this and similar cases. Judges in Mexico who deal in high-profile trials were often killed by cartels wanting to show that the state can't win.  

Sadly, the judge messaged his sister to say he wouldn’t be able to meet. He’d answer questions by email, she relayed. That ruined my plan. I wrote him an email but knew that I was unlikely to get a response, let alone a good one. I needed to think of other ways into this story. I also needed to get some food; sadly the $250 hadn’t yet come in, so I made do with a cheap slice of pizza and hoped to have a better meal the next day. I was more worried about returning to Mexico City without a story than I was about my food intake. 

The next morning, I wandered about the same Zócalo area in Cuernavaca thinking about a way in. I bumped into a TV cameraman who was filming what’s called B-roll, general footage that can be spliced into more specific stories. I told him what I was up to in searching for more on Ponchis. Halfway through the chat, we were interrupted by his phone. There was a shootout nearby. We both ran to see what was happening.

Shopkeepers shuttered their shops and people scrambled out of the way as police and military, weapons drawn, looked for gunmen. Shots were fired by both sides, but it seemed the gunmen had escaped. From a safe corner, I emailed Reuters and continued to take photos of scared shoppers peering through shutters and wannabe-artistic shots of bullet casings lying on the floor, ringed by police chalk. My phone pinged with an email response from Reuters within minutes. “Unfortunately,” replied Krista Hughes, the bureau chief who had interviewed me a few days earlier about Guatemala, “shootouts are so common here that it has to be a massacre … or have something very different about it. Take care!”

It turned out that the shootout was a jewelry store robbery gone wrong, rather than anything directly to do with the drug war—though of course, all crime there was connected. Still, I’d caught a glimpse of Mexico’s underbelly. And, as things calmed, I met a local journalist who took me to a government building where, he said, someone may help me with the Ponchis case. Maybe, he said, the judge I wanted to speak with worked nearby. I imagined having to jump through hoops to get anywhere near the judge’s office and his annoyance that I’d turned up regardless of his request to talk by email.

However, I needn’t have worried. “Are you Girish?” said a well-dressed man outside a government building. “You met my sister yesterday.” The judge invited me into his office. He spoke candidly on- and off-the-record about the case and his life as a judge in this dangerous world. Off-the-record is an undefined term which journalists use to mean anything from, “I’ll quote what you say but not use your name,” to, “I’ll not publish anything you say, even indirectly, and try to source it elsewhere.” The lack of precision in its meaning means that sources can get annoyed when a journalist prints something they weren’t expecting. Far better to not use the term “off the record” and simply say what you mean. 

The judge explained how extraordinary the case was and how Ponchis was clearly scared, as was he to an extent, of retribution from the gangs. He got me in touch with others who may be willing to speak. I didn’t feel I yet had much for the story, but now money concerns were pressing. 

The $250 from The Times hadn’t yet arrived and I was maxed out. This wasn’t a good place to be maxed out and I wouldn’t eat that evening since I needed to spend the cash I had on a taxi to do more reporting. I sent Richard and Ed details of where I was at, the plate number of the taxi I’d hired and the driver’s name, as well as the addresses I was heading to. While I was young and naïve, I did have a head for security. 

“Good precautions,” Ed wrote back. “Good luck,” added Richard. They’d never been this responsive in the past. They seemed to care and that meant a lot.

In the end, I got nothing groundbreaking, just some quotes about how scrawny Ponchis was. “He’s a skinny, short child.” I sent photos of the boy’s school and neighborhood to The Times’ picture desk. I still felt I needed more but it was time to get back, I realized, as did Ed and Richard. I didn’t understand this world well enough to hang around longer than necessary. “You may well have your story without realizing it,” wrote Ed, somewhat cryptically I thought, but I quickly realized he was right. I got a bus back home, relieved, grabbed some food and wrote my piece. 

Ed and Richard were pleased and, a couple of days later, my piece, lightly edited, filled the front page of their world section. This was my first serious—i.e., with actual reporting—publication as a foreign correspondent. I learned to “always go,” a mantra for good foreign correspondents. I also learned that I should be better prepared, both in logistics and knowledge of the topic. It still wasn’t lost on me that I hadn’t a clue about the drug war, or even Mexico, and, frankly, I couldn’t have been the best person to do this work. It also occurred to me that The Times wasn’t exactly after depth.

The Times paid $360, plus the $250 to cover expenses—which arrived once I was back in Mexico City. Small overdraft and credit card charges loomed but I’d made it. I thanked Ed for the help, for trusting me to come back with something and for placing the piece so prominently. 

“Yes,” he said, “Not bad for a freelancer we barely know!”