<i>"The Name of Our Country is América" - Simon Bolivar</i> The Narco News Bulletin<br><small>Reporting on the War on Drugs and Democracy from Latin America
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Al Giordano

Opening Statement, April 18, 2000
¡Bienvenidos en Español!
Bem Vindos em Português!

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Mario Menéndez Passionately Reveals his Authentic Life Story

Meet the Journalist and Publisher of Por Esto! – a Man Whose Life Story Has Witnessed Political Turmoil, Government Censorship and the Constant Struggle to Remain Authentic

By Mariana Simoes
Class of 2010, School of Authentic Journalism

February 21, 2010

Veteran journalist Mario Menéndez granted a four hour interview to Narco News publisher Al Giordano at the warehouse garage of the daily Por Esto! on February 5 in Mérida, Yucatán.
D.R. 2010 Noah Friedman-Rudovsky
MERIDA, YUCATAN: On the afternoon of Febuary 5, 2010, Mario Menéndez walked into the garage of the headquarters of his newspaper Por Esto! where he was interviewed by Narco News publisher Al Giordano. Menéndez started by apologizing for the simplicity of the environment. He was forced to meet with Al and the 65 students and professors of the School of Authentic Journalism at the garage-warehouse due to security measures. “The circumstances demand that we be out of view of our enemies,” he explained.

Despite his disclaimer over the simplicity of the environment, the garage formulated the perfect backdrop to embrace the authenticity of Menéndez’s work as a journalist.

Giordano borrowed the term authentic journalism from Mario, who strongly believes that in order for journalists to write authentically they should report from the streets and from inside the homes of the people whose stories they are telling. Authentic journalists wander the warehouses of all the stories they tell and make their way into the backrooms where the workers of the corporations sit and take their cigarette break. This is where true journalistic content is.

“I personally am on the side of the people,” said Menéndez.

Journalist by Chance, Authentic Journalist by Choice

Mario Menéndez was born into the world of journalism. His grandfather owned a prominent newspaper in Mexico: the Diario de Yucatan. In 1958, when Menéndez was twenty years old, he returned to Mexico after studying abroad. Upon his return, his father denied him an executive position in the family newspaper. It was September 1 when his father said that although he had returned with a handful of degrees, he “had yet to learn from the University of Life.”

That’s why from 1960 on Menéndez began to take on the family business not from the head offices where his grandfather and father administrated the newspaper, but from the printing machines. There he learned about the printing process and spent his breaks arm wrestling with the workers in the warehouse and back rooms of the Diario de Yucatán.

Mario Menéndez welcomes US civil rights leader James Lawson, strategist in the 1950s and 60s for Dr. Martin Luther King, to the headquarters of the daily Por Esto!
D.R. 2010 Noah Friedman-Rudovsky
Every branch of the newspaper received Menéndez’s professional input as he was promoted from the printing press to the typesetting department. He learned about the entire process of manufacturing a newspaper, and then and went after his own story when he decided to write a seventy five page article on the production of henequen in Mexico. He did not publish it in the conservative family newspaper, but in the Mexico City based Excelsior, at the time the most widely read daily in Latin America.

A career in journalism was likely for a man whose entire family was involved in the business, but his approach in how he went about reporting were both a product of the time period in which he lived in and his choice to immerse himself in the political turmoil of the 1960s.

“I am a journalist. I look for the truth and through practice I look to see if this is the reality. If it is, then I publish it,” he says.

When Guatemala’s communist insurgent movement broke into guerrilla warfare in 1960, Menéndez left Mexico to report the story. In Guatemala, Menéndez checked into a hotel where other journalists were situated, and there he was met with a message: “you have already seen one side of Guatemala, if you want to see the other side be at the hotel tomorrow at seven.” Menéndez soon found out that all the other journalists who were there had received the same proposal. But the next day nobody but Menéndez spent the evening at the hotel.

As promised, at seven-o-clock, Menéndez met the other side of Guatemala when a group of guerrilla fighters paid him a visit and took him to Sierra de la Mina, a mountain range situated in the southeast. There, he met Luis Augusto Turcios Lima, the leader of the guerrilla movement. Menéndez went on to report his experiences in the northwestern jungles of the country where he continued to travel with the guerrilla forces. For the first time, the authenticity of his articles were questioned when some competing media suggested that he had not really traveled with guerrilla fighters. He was, however, the only journalist who accepted an invitation to physically involve himself in the story. Menéndez had to go return to the jungle to have photos taken with the guerrilla fighters to prove the point that “the journalist has the obligation to live the same life as the people that he is reporting.”

A Mistake that Pays Off

Menéndez is a firm believer that a journalist must live the lives of those being reported on. He didn’t, however, always hold true to this value. He recounts today that as a young man, he committed the foolish mistake of writing story on Cuba in 1959 at the beginning of the Cuban Revolution, without having traveled to the island. But then, after receiving a message from Ernesto Che Guevara himself and realizing the mistake, his quest to fix it placed him at the heart of many of the following stories that he wrote, and paved the way towards the construction of his character.

Noting that Menéndez had no concrete understanding of what the situation was really like in Cuba, Guevara invited him to come to the island and investigate the country, and then write whatever he wanted. At that time, Menéndez could not go, so he went on reporting, but kept in mind that he owed it to Guevara to make up his foolish mistake.

2010 Authentic Journalism Scholar Noha Atef of Egypt is greeted by Mario Menéndez. In background: Journalists Jill Freidberg and Quetzal Belmont.
D.R. 2010 Noah Friedman-Rudovsky
In 1963 Menéndez returned from Guatemala and wrote a letter to Fidel Castro explaining that he was coming to Cuba where he would settle his debt to Guevara. He also requested an interview with Fidel on the preface that he must pay his debt to Cuba. He was granted his request and flew to Cuba where he became the first foreign Latin American journalist to interview Castro.

That night, the hotel room in Havana felt sticky and heavy with warm air, Menéndez said. All day long, the sun had beat down hard on the concrete walls that enveloped the building. Menéndez took off his shirt, carried his sheets to the balcony where it was cooler, and made his bed there for the night. At four in the morning, he was awakened. The lights were off, and Menéndez was still in his underwear when someone tapped him on the shoulder.

“That’s when I saw the beard,” Menéndez recalled. “That’s when I knew that it was Fidel.” After examining the bed that Menéndez had made for himself in the veranda, the commander joked “I see that you have learned the customs of the guerrilla fighters in Guatemala.”

The Creator and His Creations

Menéndez did more then pick up the customs of the guerrilla bands. He picked up his family’s instinct for business. In 1966, he decided that it was time to oversee the creation of a new media outlet in Mexico, so he began to put together a weekly magazine with some family members and named it “Por Que?” (“Why?” in English). The magazine joined forces with the student uprising at the time, and “Por Que?” proceeded to publish the information the students reported to the magazine.

Some time later, on October 2 1968, at the Tlatelolco Plaza in Mexico City, police officers and military troops shot into a crowd of unarmed students and killed hundreds of young people. “Por Que?” was the only media outlet in Mexico to publish reports and photographs on the student massacres that year.

Government sources had officially reported that four people had been killed and twenty wounded, even though eyewitnesses saw hundreds of dead bodies being hauled out of the plaza.

Luis Echeverría Alvarez, government minister at the time, had bought the entire Mexican Press,” explained Menendez, who is also called Don Mario by those who know and admire him. It was as if the stories published at “Por Que?” and the newspaper’s editors, had simply been “erased.”

Menéndez’s Mexico City newspaper Por Que? (“Why?,” in English) was the only publication in the country to report the massacre of student protesters on October 2, 1968.
D.R. Por Esto!
The Mexican government heightened its persecution of “Por Que?” Anyone carrying a copy of the newspaper on the street was thrown into jail. Government persecution against “Por Que?” continued into the early 1970s. After the 1968 massacre, Menendez took refuge in the forests of Kanxoc with the help of the Yucatán town’s Mayan indigenous residents. As he traveled through the forests of Yucatan, Quintana Roo, Chiapas, Campeche, and Tabasco, communities everywhere took him in and protected him from the military forces.

The magazine kept circulating until the government arrested Menéndez and blew up its offices. He was later exiled to Cuba and the Mexican government took away his passport. The authentic journalist ended up living in Cuba for almost a decade, and obtained documentation from the Cuban government that allowed him to travel the world. The same man went on to report on the other side of the Cold War, all over the world from El Salvador to Vietnam.

Back in Mexico, the government was under pressure in the early 1980s to allow Menendez’s return. President José Lopez Portillo decided to negotiate these terms in person. He told Menéndez that he could return to Mexico on the condition that he no longer publish his magazine “Por Que?” or name any other media outlets the same name. The existence of “Por Que?” was to be erased from Mexican history. Menéndez agreed, and returned to create another newspaper.

The newspaper was named “Por Esto!”, or, “That’s Why!” in English, a name that did not sit well with the President. López Portillo who felt that he was being mocked, demanded an explanation from Menéndez as to why he had given the newspaper that name.

Sitting at the warehouse, covered from head to toe in white, Menéndez interrupted his story and apologized to the students and professors of the School of Authentic Journalism for what he was about to do.

Menendez explained that President López Portillo was mad that a young man like Menéndez had managed to make someone of his authority feel so mocked. Menéndez reenacted Portillo’s reaction to the newspaper’s title by mimicking the President’s reply. Menéndez stood up, signaled towards his manhood and proudly yelled: “Por Esto!” Once this gesture was revealed it became obvious that Menèndez’s life experiences had truly awarded him the ability to grow from the good, confront the bad and laugh at the ugly. His imitation of López Portillo’s reaction provoked intense laughter from the assembled.

A Life Lesson on Journalism

In the Por Esto! warehouse, Menéndez reported his life story to the School of Authentic Journalism the same way he had reported countless stories throughout his career—passionately. He reported it from behind the scenes, where the simple people who struggle hang out, and where the real stories are hidden.

“I ask: what do the mothers and fathers of the young people killed in Ciudad Juarez think? What does a campesino from Chiapas want?” he asked, referring to violence in the various regions of Mexico. “Each person should answer these questions themselves. As a journalist it’s my responsibility to defend those people who lost everything.”

Mario Menéndez passionately advocates for the responsibility that all reporters must have to write what they see. Menendez’s definition of authenticity is not measured according to a person’s personality, but is rooted in a person’s ability to be consistent with their values. “Today I tried to explain that the struggle to be authentic is hard,” he told the students.

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The Narco News Bulletin: Reporting on the Drug War and Democracy from Latin America