EL PASO — This Sunday Borderzine goes to press with Mexodus, an unprecedented bilingual student-reporting project that documents the flight of middle class families, professionals and businesses to the U.S. and safer areas of México because of soaring drug cartel violence and widespread petty crime in cities such as Ciudad Juárez.
We believe Mexodus sets the bar for future collaborate investigative journalism that builds bridges across academic, national and language borders, in this case English and Spanish, the U.S. and Mexico. The web and digital technology facilitated the collaboration, as well as expertise from professional trainers from Investigative Reporters and Editors and research by Fundación MEPI in México City. The project received funding from Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.
The result is more than 20 stories in two languages, videos, slideshows, photos, info graphics and charts produced by participation from nearly 100 student journalists from four universities, University of Texas El Paso, California State University Northridge, and Tecnológico de Monterrey in Chihuahua and México City.
Although it was difficult for students to quantify the dislocation of México’s middle class due to the violence –– researchers and demographers estimate the Mexodus at about 125,000 –– more empirical studies will likely reveal a larger number of refugees pushed out by growing violence, perhaps twice as many, according to some.
Another remarkable finding of the nine-month-long project is that the number of Mexicans filing for asylum in the U.S. has skyrocketed by 300 percent in the last five years, during the height of the drug violence, among those requesting asylum are several well-regarded journalists.
Of course, numbers alone do not tell the full story. The people of the Mexodus do.
In the project you will read about Mariana, a teenager whose parents paid an $8000 ransom to kidnappers in Juárez and now struggles to fit into a U.S. public school, how residents of Juárez, Tijuana and Chihuahua have moved their businesses to the U.S. or to safer parts of México to escape threats from extortionists, about Juárez youth who have relocated to El Paso and are transforming soccer culture there, about strategies some Juárez residents devise to survive in the city. Our students also spoke to residents of Chihuahua State who say despite violence and impunity they will not leave their country.
As pleased as we are by the quality and quantity of the student-produced journalism, there have been roadblocks. Many sources understandably refused to allow us reveal their real names for fear of more threats reaching them from across the porous border. Surprisingly, student reporters were denied an interview with the Superintendent of Schools at one El Paso area district. Later, the school spokesperson requested she submit her questions in writing, and instructed her not to use the full name of teachers and counselors although these sources had already fully consented to be interviewed and quoted by name. This was frustrating to her and her editors, but at the same time an important learning moment for the promising student journalist.
One last note: The broad scope of Mexodus is largely due to the five professors (their names are listed on the webpage), most with professional journalism backgrounds, who guided the students through the painstaking process of digging for statistics in government data bases, filing Freedom of Information Act requests, interviewing dozens of officials, experts and researchers, and overseeing the writing and rewriting the news and feature stories.
A project of this complexity also required expert editing by Borderzine executive editor David Smith-Soto and visiting editor Joe Kolb of Gallop, New Mexico, and the technical skills of Webmaster Lourdes Cueva Chacón who worked closely with graphic designer Brandon Carrillo to develop a logo and special layout for all the stories and multimedia. Translation experts Myriam Cruz and Roberto Perez Diaz translated all the stories (more than 20,000 words) from English to Spanish or Spanish to English.
I invite you to wade into Mexodus and marvel at the extraordinary work of talented U.S. and México college student journalists on an important social topic of bi national significance.