Knight Fellow reflects on conflict journalism

March 8, 2012, 3:00 a.m.

“The danger in Ciudad Juarez is to be alive,” said Judith Torrea, a John S. Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford, speaking Wednesday night at the Women’s Community Center on her experience as an award-winning journalist and blogger.


Torrea, who is originally from Spain, won the Reporters Without Borders BOB (Best of Blogs) award in 2011 for reporting from the front line of the Mexican drug conflict in her blog “Ciudad Juarez, en la sombra del narcotrafico”. The title, when translated to English, reads “Ciudad Juarez, under the shadow of drug trafficking.”


Ciudad Juarez, a Mexican town that borders the Texan city of El Paso, is one of the most dangerous cities in the world and is a focal point of Mexican President Felipe Calderon’s “war on drug trafficking.” Torrea estimated that there have been over 10,000 deaths by violence in the city since the “war on drug trafficking” was launched in 2006.


Torrea said that, while working for the Spanish-language People magazine in New York City from 2007 to 2009, she witnessed how the celebrity culture of drug usage in the United States is linked to the drug conflict in Mexico. In 2009, she left her post at People and moved back to Ciudad Juarez.


“People thought I was crazy because they were trying to leave and I was coming back,” she said. “But I felt obligated to tell society what was happening.”


“I found the life, the happiness [in Ciudad Juarez] that I do not find in other parts of the world,” she added. “It is not a beautiful city, but the people are amazing.”


During her talk, Torrea shared a slideshow of her photos from Ciudad Juarez and recounted several anecdotes from her time reporting and living in the city.


She emphasized that she witnessed firsthand how accounts of events in Ciudad Juarez put forward by the Mexican authorities rarely match what is really happening on the ground.


She criticized the security, business and governmental institutions in Mexico, citing their corruption and ineffectiveness. Torrea also claimed that the Calderon administration started the “so-called war on drugs” because it had links to the Sinaloa Cartel, and thus had an interest in defeating the Juarez Cartel.


Torrea said the outspoken nature of her blog posts has led to threats from government and security officials, but she remains undeterred.


“When you are a journalist, you do not need to believe anything that somebody is telling you, you need to prove what is really happening,” she said. “The only thing I am afraid of is not doing what I know I need to do.”


Torrea also said she is passionate about representing the voice of the people rather than focusing on the voice of the “powerful,” in addition to avoiding characterizing people by labels of “good” and “evil” — a negative trait she attributed to the mainstream media.


She recounted meetings with those involved in the drug trade in Ciudad Juarez who have no opportunity for further education and employment.


“They are trapped in a prison in the desert…They turn to consuming drugs then being involved in a cartel,” she said. “This is a world of people with no opportunities  — they did not choose to be born into this.”


“The Calderon administration is trying to change the image of Ciudad Juarez…They should change the reality instead,” she added.


As a project for her Knight Fellowship, Torrea intends to build a multimedia platform for women bloggers in conflict zones worldwide. She said her next step will be to recruit Stanford students to help with programming, translation and networking.


“Silicon Valley might be primarily men but it is women who are making the most difference with technology in conflict zones,” she said.


After her talk, audience members raised questions on topics ranging from her work as a journalist to her thoughts on policy issues.


Responding to a question on the difficulties of being a female journalist in a conflict zone, Torrea said, “I think women are often better at reporting the situation because of the instinctive sensitivity they bring to the story.”


“It’s fascinating to hear her story and how she risked her life to provide the facts,” said audience member Shahab Fadavi ‘15. “It was a genuinely inspiring talk.”


Torrea’s talk was part of a series of events put on this week to recognize International Women’s Week.

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