CIUDAD JUAREZ – Among the dozens of parks, plazas, and statues scattered around Ciudad Juarez, one located in the center of the city recognizes the importance and sacrifices of journalists, some of whom were killed because of their reporting.
The Plaza del Periodistas project was spearheaded by the Association of Journalists of Ciudad Juarez and dedicated in 2005.
The size of a city block and paid for through public funds, the plaza is adorned with plaques commemorating journalists, as well as a large symbolic statue of a newspaper delivery boy.
Pedro Torres, editor for El Diario de Juarez and president of the Association of Journalists of Ciudad Juarez at the time of the dedication, said the inspiration for the plaza came from the newsboy statue which was a memorial for a Mexico City journalist murdered in 1984. The statue sat inconspicuously in an alley behind the city hall.
"We thought the people needed to know and remember those who work in the media and the importance of their work to keep them informed," Torres said. "It's very important to have a place to honor journalists here."’
Torres knows firsthand the risks involved in reporting crime and politics in Mexico. Outside the El Diario office are two large banners adorned with the faces of two staffers—Armando Rodriguez, 40, an investigative reporter shot dead in front of his house in 2008, and Luis Carlos Santiago, 21, a photographer killed in 2010. The banners call for justice since their killers have never been found.
Rodriguez and Santiago are among the 67 journalists killed in Mexico since 2006.
Carlos Sanchez, now 20, was in the car when Santiago was ambushed. He sustained wounds to the head, shoulder, and chest resulting in a collapsed lung. Out of work for four months to recuperate, Sanchez returned to photograph the very types of crime that nearly cost him his life.
With an annual salary of $6,800, Sanchez said the money is not worth the risks, but he loves what he does and feels he provides an important service to the city.
He thinks the plaza should serve as a reminder of the sacrifices journalists make to inform the public.
"I like that the plaza makes people realize the job we do," Sanchez said.
A plaque on the wall behind the delivery boy statue says the plaza is dedicated to freedom of expression, but it does not mention at what cost.
Torres takes it a step further.
"There is more trust for journalists here than for the authorities," Torres said. "People come to us because they don't get satisfaction from the authorities."
Luis Torres, 45, a veteran photographer at the paper nearly lost his son, also a photographer, in a street battle that included not only automatic weapons but a hand grenade. There was also a beating at the hands of police, but he still wants to do this work.
"People don't take real value in journalists, but we are anonymous heroes," Torres said. "When Armando was killed there was a big emptiness here, but nobody ever thought of quitting."
He said residents paid little attention to the plaza until the deaths of Rodriguez and Santiago, when more people began reading the plaques and even leaving flowers and mementos.
But like the rest of Ciudad Juarez in recent years, the Plaza of Journalists was unable to escape the violence. In a macabre display of depravity, someone left the head of a decapitated body that was found hanging from a freeway overpass at the feet of the newspaper delivery boy statue in 2008.
Beyond the statues and plaques are murals depicting journalists at work, which adds to the artistic and symbolic ambiance of the plaza. On the plaza stands a small building with newspaper-themed murals as well as on the wall of a large building across a vacant lot near the plaza.
"There has to be journalists here. If not, there will be no democracy, which has to evolve through a free press," Torres said. "This is also the only way we can change the image of Ciudad Juarez."
Despite the violence, Pedro Torres remains optimistic about the future of his profession. He says the plaza serves as a constant reminder that hope is in the very people who grind out photos and stories each day.
"The plaza is a place where parents can take their children and tell them what we do," he said. "That's the future of Ciudad Juarez."