Photo by Jon Ledford
J. Malcolm Garcia is a regular contributor to VQR, whose essays have been anthologized in Best American Non-Required Reading and Best American Travel Writing. For his piece in our Fall 2009 issue, Garcia accompanied tabloid journalists in Juárez who follow narco-related violence. He wrote to us from Afghanistan, where he was finishing his memoir, The Kharagee: A Chronicle of Friendship and War in Kabul (Beacon 2009).
How did this story come into being?
Cruising the internet, I saw references to PM, the newspaper in the story. I became intrigued by a tabloid devoted solely to garish exploitation of violence. The idea of photographers chasing after executions and competing for the most graphic pictures also intrigued me. I thought hanging out with these guys would be a good way to capture the bizarre world of Juárez.
Did you feel prepared for the kinds of experiences you had while there?
Yes. Before I started in journalism, I assisted homeless people as a social worker and had been exposed to violence, so the Juárez environment did not seem too alien. I was also a night cops reporter when I first got into journalism, so that helped.
How long were you in Juárez, and why did you pick the nights of the 29th/30th of June on which to focus your story?
About three weeks. The 29th and 30th were my first days there, and created my most vivid “gut” impressions.
Your piece is written in way that seems magnified, in that your play-by-play coverage of the events includes even the minutest details—the radio buzzing, then a cockroach twitching, then Ernesto running to his car, for example. Why write the story this way?
While the photographers waited for opportunities to take their pictures at crime scenes, I became very conscious of my environment and the slow movement of time as we waited. I tried to capture that so I could show the contrast when things broke and we had to run off to another crime scene.
Do you have any advice for journalists seeking out potentially dangerous stories (that you can mention here)?
Understand the risks, talk to people who have been there before, know the story you want to tell so you have a clear idea of why you’re going. The story can always change, but it’s good to have a foundation to start from. Then just do it. Sort of like a first date. You can ask for all the advice in the world, but in the end there’s no way of avoiding the fact that if you want the date you have to ask the person out.
For a story like this, how do you balance the elements of fact, narrative, and confidentiality?
Be aware of the story you want to tell, and move it along with those themes as your compass. Be aware, too, you are dealing with real people who will still be in the dangerous environment when you leave. So no matter how good a particular fact may be, you don’t use it if it puts someone in danger.
What are you writing now?
A piece on the presidential election in Afghanistan, to be followed by a profile of a rap artist on Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, to be followed by work in Cambodia (I hope).
Are you reading any books of interest lately?
I use my travel time to read “classics” I ignored in school. On this trip [to Afghanistan], I’m reading The Odyssey.