President Colosio

16:31, April 26, 2011      

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By Luis Vega

I was never fond of martyrdom. Expected often of national heroes in the contemporary narrative of political discourse. As if blood was the price exacted to sow seeds of democracy on native tortured soil. A cancerous culture of death births new life to terrorized citizens now audience to madness. Whether it is the Taliban, blood-thirsty Latino drug cartels, or blinded by false-patriotism armies. Violence rules the world of politics as many watch too afraid to act.

This touched me personally when I covered the assassination of the future president of Mexico: Luis Donaldo Colosio.

The last murder of a prominent Mexican leader occured in 1928 when president-elect Alvaro Obregon was shot just before assuming power. Since then the Aztec nation sustained 66 years of non-political violence targeted at the top. A period ended with Colosio's murder on March 23, 1994 while campaigning for a presidency that was his. The decapitation of Mexico's ruling party was complete six months later with the assassination of the secretary general of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) Jose Francisco Ruiz Massieu, brother-in-law of president Carlos Salinas de Gortari.

"Do you speak Spanish? Have on-camera experience? Can leave immediately to Mexico?" Richard Wortman asked me by phone from Reuters Television headquarters as I watched at home news of the attack against the leading Mexican presidential candidate in Tijuana, Baja California. I did not foresee by accepting the impromptu assignment I was to uncover the first clues of an evident and tragic conspiracy to assassinate him.

During the process of translating the eyewitness report of one of Colosio's campaign workers and comparing it with the local Tijuana police version I encountered a discrepancy that would change the course of news coverage only hours after it happened. He said Luis Donaldo Colosio had absolutely no protection when he joined the crowd, according to the Baja California chief of police there were 30 security agents protecting the candidate. One of them was lying.

Looking at the candidate's picture on the newspapers' front pages with his brains and blood splattered all over his clothes and Tijuana's soil I did not see a future president. I saw a fellow human being whose life had been cowardly taken, and a circle of lies beginning to surround his lifeless corpse. I felt if I did not report what I knew my decision would be the final shot fired at him and I could not be an accomplice in the assassination of the future president of Mexico. I did not want to pull the trigger.

It felt like a scene out of the "Matrix". Choosing a "red" over a "blue" pill (reality vs. illusion), as Keanu Reaves' character, Neo, does. My choice documented the beginning of a violent period in modern Mexican history. Neo confronted a future where reality is a make-believe concoction, news choreographed snapshots. Unbeknownst I faced a similar dilemma the morning after the murder sitting at a desk at KNSD-TV in San Diego, California. Nobody would know if I kept quiet. Nobody.

I did not want to become Salman Rushdie ostracized by colleagues who might not agree with the editorial decision I was about to make, invisible in-plain-sight from then on. Forever condemned to watch my back as an outcast pariah. Yet in my mind there was no option. Between dictatorship, repression and injustice; I chose democracy, freedom and justice. It was a risk I was willing to take, a war I was sucked into. An unpredictable future I must face alone and unprotected.

At times the universe presents life defining moments to certain individuals. This was one of these moments, I thought, a rite of passage of sorts. I abhor violence unless used to impart justice. As the old saying says, "live by the sword, die by the sword." (El que a hierro mata, a hierro muere).

Based on facts I had two choices: report the truth as I knew it or restrain from informing the public for personal safety. Both thoughts crossed my mind at unison fighting for control. The world seemed to stop for an instant to allow light and darkness, fear and hope, angels and demons visit your conscience and guide a decision that can change nations, affect millions, cost more lives - including your own.

A journalist cannot pause to ponder the ramifications of the news yet one is aware its impact will spread like radioactive particles infecting everything they touch. Does being professional mean I must forsake my humanity? Is compassion incompatible with high-profile journalism? Will principle equal poverty? Whether the result is destruction or rebirth is out of your hands, influence, or power. At that moment I placed my safety in God's hands and moved forward with the truth I knew.

The day March 23, 1994 started like any other day. It was a normal Wednesday. After work, a quick visit to the supermarket, returned home, turned on the TV to listen to the news as I placed the groceries in the kitchen. Then I heard news anchor Tom Brokaw announce Mexico's leading presidential candidate, Luis Donaldo Colosio, had been shot in Tijuana less than three hours away from where I was. I stopped what I was doing, walked to the TV and watched in awe the shaky unstable images invading the screen. Spontaneously I exclaimed, "God, protect Mexico."

Instinctively I grabbed the remote to switch to a Spanish-language station. The information seemed more complete, the faces were familiar, the cultural context better. The male anchor said the attempt against Colosio came at a transcendental historical time for Mexico because the country was trying to abandon their Third World classification to join the world of industrialized nations and this incident, after the Chiapas indigenous uprising of January 1st, presented a violent image in direct conflict with Mexican government intentions.

I thought the premise was premature and potentially dangerous because it could incite more violence. So I called an American friend to comment on how quickly the stereotype of Mexico as a violent Third World country was being disseminated. He assumed it came from American mainstream media, I clarified it came from Spanish language TV out of Miami, Florida. NBC's Tom Brokaw seemed more objective. Both anchors were of Mexican extraction. I am not. Although I respected their analysis I verbally disagreed.

The chat was interrupted by Reuters Television's call from their NBC's Burbank headquarters. I replied "yes" to all of Wortman's questions. "I speak Spanish. I have on-camera experience. I can leave immediately to Mexico." He made a financial offer and I agreed to cover the story for the prestigious British news service. I negotiate my own deals without intermediary. My resume was on top of his desk because a week before I toured the facilities requesting a budget to hire his crew for future independent projects. Then this happened.

"You will cover the news for Reuters. The cameraman doesn't speak Spanish but he already left the studio to San Diego where they are moving the candidate to receive medical care at a modern hospital in La Jolla. Prepare to leave immediately. I will call back with the name of the hospital, phone number and address. Be ready. You will find him there. Thank you," he said. Within seconds fate placed me at the center of the story I had been following from home.

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