null: nullpx
Latin America

How one reporter uncovered the U.S. role in a massacre in Mexico

Ginger Thompson, ProPublica reporter and winner of the Pulitzer Prize, describes the behind the scenes reporting for her investigation of the role played by DEA in the Allende massacre.
3 May 2018 – 11:52 AM EDT
Residents of Allende, with faces painted with skulls, participate in the Day of the Dead celebrations. Crédito: Kirsten Luce / National Geographic

MEXICO CITY- “What do the streets look like in a town that is controlled by drug traffickers? How do you see that control? How does it manifest itself?” asked Pulitzer Prize winning ProPublica senior reporter Ginger Thompson.

During the two years she spent investigating the role of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) in the 2011 massacre in Allende, Mexico, she worked to understand and portray that reality of life for citizens in Allende, many of whose family members were murdered by the Zetas.

Her story, “How the US Triggered a Massacre in Mexico” a joint publication between ProPublica and National Geographic, came out in June 2017. (It was also published in Spanish by Univision)

The power and moral force of Thompson’s work is undeniable, and what is equally compelling is the poetics with which she manages to narrate and share stories. To discover this for yourself, download the new Audible podcast “The Making of a Massacre” in which Thompson, whose voice conveys the weight of the work she undertook, shares oral histories of those who went missing or died in Allende.

Plenty has been written about corruption in Mexico, and according to Thompson what made the story important and compelling was discovering “the US role and how we used corruption in Mexico as a cover so if these things happened we could walk away and lay all the blame on Mexico.”

Some time before the 2011 massacre, the Drug Enforcement Administration got its hands on the trackable cellphone identification numbers of Miguel Ángel Treviño and his brother Omar, two of the most wanted drug kingpins in Mexico. Although one member of the DEA warned his superiors not to turn the identification numbers over to the Mexican federal police because they were known to leak information, the DEA didn’t heed those warnings.

The result was that the Mexican federal police alerted the Treviño brothers that they had been betrayed, and the Treviños, who believed that the leak had come from a snitch in Allende, sent members of the Zetas to murder and disappear entire families in the town. Thompson, who spent significant time in Allende reporting, remembers driving past a three-story tall tree with a platform that was built inside the tree where the Zetas used to post a lookout. Citizens told Thompson that the lookout would watch the traffic that came by with and report via a walkie-talkie, and they would send food up to him. As she described, “It was a real occupation with checkpoints and nobody on the streets at night.”

When Thompson began reporting the story with photographer Kirsten Luce in 2016, she said that the grip of the Zetas cartel on Allende had been significantly weakened because most of the leaders were dead or in prison. “It made it safe for me to report there and it also made it safer for people to speak about 2011,” said Thompson. When she first went to Allende, people were embarrassed about how much control they had given over to the drug traffickers.

As Thompson discussed, municipal officials felt somewhat responsible for having let the traffickers take over the town. She admitted that a key to her reporting was being able to spend so much time in Allende, to eat breakfast with families and sit around listening as they told stories. “I think they were slowly willing to test me and were interested in having an account of the story told that included their voices, in which they weren’t just nameless and faceless,” said Thompson. “It was an evolution that took some time and a lot of trust building between me and them.” She reflected that the photos, which are hauntingly powerful, were perhaps trickier than the reporting because people were nervous about having their faces shown.

Before Thompson’s investigation, the DEA had not come forward to acknowledge its role in the massacre and the fact that there might be problems within the mechanism that it had created to fund, train and fight the drug war. For Thompson, accountability was at the heart of her story, and she hoped that she would be able to get members of the DEA speaking on the record about their role in the Allende massacre. Thompson admitted that the DEA “certainly didn’t cooperate easily and didn’t provide me any sort of help until close to the end of the reporting when it was clear that I had spoken to so many people on so many sides of this thing.” As she neared the end of her reporting, the DEA did allow her to speak to the agent who led the operation in Dallas that was responsible for the betrayal, and for that she was grateful.

As a result of her reporting, Thompson said, “In Congress leading Democrats are calling for an investigation into the DEA’s role in the massacre in Allende.” She also received messages of support from people who felt like they could talk about their loss openly for the first time. In Mexico, as was true in Allende, families of those who have been murdered or disappeared by cartels are often accused of being a part of the drug trade. Thompson explained, “It can be a stigmatizing thing to lose a loved one to the drug war in Mexico. In this case, a lot of the people who were killed were in the wrong place at the wrong time.”