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Daily Depth on a Dime

Ingredients for a prize-winning story: A tent, cheap food, free guides and lots of persistence.

By Gabe Semenza

I lie on my side at the edge of a muddy orange grove only 20 yards from the Rio Grande. Low-hanging tree branches hide me from the men on the riverbank, men I fear carry guns and drugs. I am within 10 feet of their white truck now. After a slow 50-yard zigzag on my belly, I wrap my body around the base of a tree to hide my heat stamp – just as my chaperones suggested. I peer through night-vision goggles toward the riverside commotion. Did they hear my knee pop as I adjusted in the soil?

Six months into a 16-month newspaper project for the Victoria Advocate, I wonder for the first time: What the hell have I gotten myself into? Just the night before, the Zetas – former Mexican paramilitary funded by a cartel and armed with sophisticated equipment – tried unsuccessfully to smuggle cocaine here. Even though the U.S. Border Patrol intercepted the load, we thought the Zetas might be brazen enough to return this night.

To properly tell the story of “The Fatal Funnel,” we needed original reporting never done or not possible when smugglers ditched a tractor-trailer outside Victoria, Texas, on May 14, 2003. Inside the sealed trailer: 19 undocumented immigrants dead of hyperthermia, dehydration and suffocation. Never before in U.S. history had so many immigrants died during a botched smuggling attempt. We revisited the tragedy on its fifth anniversary, taking 16 monthly installments to tell where the 14 smugglers were, how first responders coped with the gruesome memories, how – or if – federal immigration law and border enforcement had changed, and finally, what new problems existed. We learned any newsroom, no matter how limited, can produce big-budget projects on sparse money and still gather the firsthand details that lend authenticity to reporting.

To produce 16 monthly print and online installments, and not fail our daily reporting requirements, we had to plan. To do all of this on a shoestring, small-paper budget, we traveled light and cheap. The black electrical tape I used that night on the Rio Grande to cover my white shoelaces is one example. Instead of buying dark boots, as suggested, I borrowed black tape from a Minuteman Civil Defense Corps leader. Jim Barnes, a 65-year-old deputy sector chief in 2008, was one of many who agreed to host or chaperone us for free along the border. For our four-day trip, photo editor Frank Tilley and I camped in a tent so small that we awoke each morning with the dew-weighted topside smashed flat against our cheeks. The cost: $120 for food and fuel.

Victoria County Sheriff T. Michael O’Connor lent the name, “The Fatal Funnel,” to our project. It stretches from the U.S.-Mexico border, through Victoria, and on toward this nation’s arterials. Our reporting took us from East Texas, across the Rio Grande Valley, into Mexico. We visited the border town where in 2003 the smugglers first packed up to 100 immigrants into the back of the trailer and locked the doors. We traveled into Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, to learn how a powerful drug cartel seized control of trafficking, making the border even more dangerous today than the day of the tragedy. We captured the voices of ranchers along the border. We toured the border wall, refugee camps and sanctuary cities. We spent months with people whose lives are affected by the problems spilling into the United States.

Four key areas helped us to produce our award-winning series:


Research, Research ... 

Before our first installment in May 2008, I’d already spent four months on research. Each day, I brought home stacks of documents to review and carved out a few hours to read. Besides archived stories from the Victoria Advocate, Associated Press and Houston Chronicle, I poured over the coroner’s reports on each of the dead. I learned Marco Antonio Villasenor, a 5-year-old boy from Mexico City, died half naked in his father’s arms. Survivors remembered the boy crying because of the heat, and the father howling when his son stopped breathing just a few hours into the trip.

In Houston, we tracked down a mother whose Mexican son died in the trailer. We wanted to feature family members of the victims, which was often difficult because they lived in foreign countries or remained undocumented and thus wary of speaking to the press. We waited for Dora Torres, the mother, outside her inner-city apartment. Torres, however, rushed from her car to her apartment, locked the door and avoided our calls. She asked the complex’s manager to escort us off the property. Disappointed, we delayed her installment for four months and tried again.

 We eventually met Torres at the site of the tragedy in Victoria. Not only did she agree to visit with us via a Spanish interpreter, she brought along a few family members. For the first time publicly, the family told the story of its dead son and brother and in doing so turned a blue corpse into a real person for our readers.


Bug Sources (Nicely)

We spent a lot of time on the road – in cities where we knew no one and had established little trust. To compensate, we contacted the people we wanted to feature months in advance. Torres agreed to meet with us only because, after months, she finally trusted us to tell the story of her son, and to accurately depict the pain a mother feels from the loss of a child.

Persistence paid off again with the state’s only sanctioned refugee camp – Refugio del Rio Grande, established by the Sanctuary Movement, a 1980s religious and political effort to shelter Guatemalans, Nicaraguans and Salvadorans denied amnesty.

We called on Lisa Brodyaga, an activist, immigration lawyer and co-creator of the camp, located south of Harlingen. For 21 years, Brodyaga had denied journalists access to her 45-acre camp. Bad press in the 1980s, she said, turned her cold to reporters. Every week for almost two months, I called Brodyaga – sometimes just to talk, other times to interview her on background and mostly to gain her trust. Finally, she agreed to let us inside the sanctuary. We were the first journalists to step foot there in more than two decades, she told us.

Brodyaga led me along a groomed dirt road bordered with green southern pines, palms, mesquite flowers and cacti. At the height of the first Sanctuary Movement, refugees came there by the busload. They farmed and created an assembly. Federal authorities, fearful of bad press, stayed clear. But the image we got of this once-bustling community – now a ghost town – gave legs to an idea we’d heard about but didn’t know if it was true: After Sept. 11, federal authorities cracked down even in areas once thought inviolate. Refugees no longer flooded the camp for fear of becoming easy targets. As far as I know, we were the only ones to tell that story from inside the camp, a Texas border landmark that showcases the effects of intense federal scrutiny in a terrorism-laden world.


A Savvy Tour Guide

To tell stories in unfamiliar places, we needed guides. To tell authentic stories, we needed real people who sometimes commit crimes. We got creative. One installment detailed cartel violence in Mexico and the trail leading to Victoria. We cajoled documentary filmmaker Rusty Fleming into meeting us on the border and taking us into Mexican hotspots held by the Gulf cartel. Fleming had just wrapped work on his documentary, Drug Wars: Silver or Lead. Fleming knew the key players, locations that offered the best video, and horrifying stories that prompted my wife on more than one occasion to suggest I skip this installment altogether. Fleming’s film showed the cartel feeding men to lions, burning people alive and shooting others in the head from close range.

To entice Fleming to act as our free guide, we proposed premiering his documentary inside a 500-seat Victoria performing arts center. He agreed. We met in Laredo.

I stepped outside my Laredo hotel room just as Fleming’s black SUV veered into the parking lot. His cigar smoke filled my nose even before I hopped in. He zipped southward through the city, across the International Bridge and beyond the Mexican soldiers, who held machine guns. We parked in front of a home where the cartel had months before gunned down the police chief – eight hours after officials swore him in. We toured a corner store where two American women were kidnapped. We talked to business owners who planned to flee the country because of extortion and kidnapping threats. In an upscale neighborhood, we saw bullet holes in the plaster facades of the homes. With the legitimate businesspeople fleeing, cartel members had moved right in. From the sidewalk, we videotaped the homes, the bullet holes and the eerie quiet. Moments later, a Mexican police truck sped toward us from down the street, dispensing four officers, each with a military-style machine gun. They stopped questioning us only after Fleming fed them a wad of cash.

With the filmmaker’s help, we got our story: A close-up look at Gulf cartel strongholds, terrified Nuevo Laredo business owners and a flux of wealthy Mexican business owners moving to San Antonio. Fleming got his movie premiere, which was so well attended we hosted two showings in one night.


A Shoestring Budget

No one was better suited to pull off this project on a dime than yours truly. Just ask my wife. We haven’t taken a true vacation in about eight years, and you can hear the clanging from one of our two used cars blocks away. My coworkers, I’m sure, hate Dave Ramsey, a syndicated personal finance guru whose wisdom I dispel even when it’s not solicited: ditch debt, spend sparingly and save, save, save. To meet face-to-face with as many people as we did I had to keep costs low, very low. Frank Tilley and I camped in a tent for free. When we stayed in hotels, we sought the $45-per-night versions and slept in the same room. We ate cheap – homemade sandwiches and fruit or fast food. When possible, we took day trips – drove into a city, conducted interviews and returned home.

To tell the story of the tractor-trailer driver – a man locked in federal prison because 19 illegal immigrants died in his rig – we needed court transcripts. Federal documents, however, are not cheap. Instead of buying them for several thousand dollars, I built trust with a Houston lawyer who had copies. While it would have been against the law for him to give me copies for free, it was legal to let me review them.

I spent a week in a cramped room on the second floor of his Houston office, plucking pertinent testimony and details. Those notes filled in historical crevices that would have left our reporting spotty. We would have never known, for example, details of the smugglers ring and how they plotted the 2003 trip. We learned behind-the-scenes details about the coyotes,  one involving a romance – a quirky history that helped us to build compelling portraits of those involved in the 19 deaths. We learned that while many human smugglers have little regard for human life and dignity, others are regular folks just along for the ride and the paycheck.

The Advocate’s Editor Chris Cobler not only encouraged our work, but the project was his idea. While maintaining daily production levels and cranking out a Texas-sized feature each month was a bear, I’ve never had more fun despite the shoestring budget.

We never learned whether the men with the white truck smuggled guns and drugs that night on the Rio Grande. Some of the Minuteman members worried about our safety, and urged us to leave. We retraced our steps through the orange grove and marched quietly through an adjacent sorghum field alongside a dense thicket. Our vehicles were still there, parked under the cover of tall sugarcanes. Nearby, a 900-year-old Montezuma Bald Cypress reminded us that nighttime river crossings in these parts are nothing new.

Ingredients for a prize-winning story: A tent, cheap food, free guides and lots of persistence.
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