By Johnny Hernandez
SAN ANTONIO — “The most dangerous place in the world is not in Pakistan, Afghanistan or Iran, it is on the border…Juarez…the most dangerous city in the world,” said Alejandro Junco, owner of Grupo Reforma, at Thursday’s World Affairs Council of San Antonio luncheon.
As the high profile owner of the largest newspaper conglomerate in Mexico, publishing three of the country’s most powerful newspapers–El Norte, Reforma and Mural–Junco has dedicated his life to freedom of speech and professional journalism.
Junco currently lives in Texas with his family, but remembers growing up in a tumultuous country settled in fear and lawless intimidation by drug cartel rivalries.
“The Mexico in which I grew up was shackled and muzzled,” Junco recalls. “It was shackled by a one-party system, lack of accountability, and muzzled by vested interests. Powerful people stopped newspapers from printing the truth and sweetheart deals lined the pockets of the privileged.”
In his teens, Junco came to the United States to study, where he learned much about freedom of speech and journalism. He took what he learned and returned home, surrounding himself with like-minded people who believed that Mexico could become a better place to live and work with freedom of speech and democracy.
“We started by remaking our own newsroom, turning our reporters into professional journalists–no bribes, no kickbacks– just the truth, printed without fear or favor,” said Junco.
As a matter of fact, journalism teachers from Texas traveled to Mexico to train Junco’s rookie reporters and transformed them into journalists of Woodward and Bernstein caliber. Many supporters have even volunteered to sell Junco’s newspapers out on the streets, knowing that the dangers are always near.
“This is a serious problem, and we have every [possible] incentive aligned to protect our journalists, not only out of moral reasons, but also out of strategy,” said Junco. “We have a team of great people that we need to protect.”
Junco and his team of reporters make every effort to protect themselves from the drug wars and violence, such as moving from single home dwellings to high rise apartment buildings, changing daily routes to and from work, excluding bylines on articles and even wearing bullet proof vests.
“The people were hungry for the truth, and we provided it,” Junco affirmed. “We campaigned for free and fair elections…for transparency in government, and freedom of information laws. For 30 years we did this, front page by front page.”
Junco and his publications won the battle to acquire newsprint without government intervention, distribute freely in the streets, and to decriminalize the laws that governed his profession.
In 2000, democracy was implemented with free and fair elections, and the ruling party was voted out. About a decade later, however, Mexico is still facing one major problem…a crooked system of the law. Junco said one will quickly find out why it is often difficult to put a criminal behind bars.
“We do not have anything like a District Attorney’s Office,” Junco admitted. “We do not even have anything that much resembles a law enforcement agency.”
In Mexico, nearly 80 percent of people dealt with by the judicial system never even see a judge throughout the entire process. They are simply charged and sentenced.
“It is a system that deprives people of fairness; it is a system that leaves people so empty of hope that they would rather climb under a railroad car, lash themselves to the chassis, or risk their lives in the desert, to roll north across the Rio Grande in hopes of a better life.”
As far as traveling to Mexico, Junco says there are manageable risks and high risks. If traveling to Mexico to enjoy the nightlife, one might experience higher levels of risk as opposed to someone traveling the country’s tourist sites by day.
Still, Junco holds high hopes that Mexico will improve its quality of life. Since relocating to the U.S. in 2008, he has funded a major research project at the University of the Incarnate Word, focusing on issues between Mexico and the U.S. These issues include the drug trade, healthcare, education, politics and the economy. Junco hopes to answer the questions: What is going wrong and why and how do we fix it?
“For as long as our newspapers keep printing a front page,” Junco said, “I hope to report a steady improvement on the condition of our patient [Mexico] and it is my sincere wish that someone can one day return here to tell the moving story of a full and complete recovery.”