29/08/2012 12:59 BST | Updated 29/10/2012 05:12 GMT

'How many did they kill today?' - A reporter's life in the north of Mexico

Rolando Nájera is a journalist from Chihuahua, northern Mexico. He has worked for a range of different newspapers in one of Mexico's most dangerous cities, Ciudad Juárez. He was a friend and colleague of the crime reporter Armando Rodríguez Carreón who was murdered in front of his young daughter in 2008. Since the year 2000, more than 80 journalists and writers have been killed in Mexico. I interviewed Rolando about life as a journalist as part of PEN International's campaign Write Against Impunity 2012. (This is a translation of the original Spanish.)

Describe what it's like for a journalist - both personally and at work - when a colleague like Armando Rodríguez is murdered.

As a journalist and as a human being, the murder of any person is a painful event. It hurts me that there are so many murders in my country, and especially in Chihuahua, the state in which I was born and in which I still live. It's something that we see everyday, and as a society, we're already accustomed to it. At times we lose our sense of the real magnitude of these awful events.

Obviously, it's much more painful when a colleague or friend suffers this kind of attack. It makes you think that it could have been you - that you could have been in his or her place. As well as Armando, who was a friend, and with whom I had a close working relationship when I was working for El Diario in Juárez, they also killed another colleague, the photographer Luis Carlos Santiago. I didn't have a close relationship with him, but it was something that hurt all of us; he was young and was only starting out in his journalistic career.

We all thought so highly of Armando. His death had a huge impact on us. As well as being a loss to journalism in Juárez, and for the newspaper business, a person with that kind of talent and experience is difficult to find. Very few dare to do a job that is so dangerous.

How has the life of a Mexican journalist changed in the last six years? How have journalists changed the way they work?

In Chihuahua every job is risky, be it a Popsicle salesman, a taxi driver, a lawyer, a businessman....Sadly, everything carries a risk when you live and operate in the north of Mexico.

Certainly, my profession has become riskier, and this has forced crime reporters to change the way they work. Many of them now work in groups where they can protect each other. It has created more solidarity among members of the press.

Despite everything, there are those who put themselves at great risk. Personally, I admire the women journalists who have been a model of courage for the men. I believe that the female example has been crucial.

How has life in Ciudad Juárez changed in recent years? What effect has the violence had?

The violence has had a devastating effect, so much so, that I chose to leave the city and search for other jobs.

I lived in Ciudad Juárez during the years of the worst violence, when they used to kill up to 18 people a day, when they used to burn down businesses. The assaults, the extortion, the robberies and kidnappings were everyday occurrences. The violence meant that people went out less frequently and locked themselves up in their houses. Juárez was converted into a ghost town, the streets were empty at nights, and the people spoke of nothing except the violence. The daily question was: 'How many did they kill today?'

With every murder, the victim seemed to be closer to you. At first, it was the body of a stranger discovered in the outskirts of the city, then it was an acquaintance, then a neighbour, then a friend, and then came the moment when it was a member of your family.

I had to leave the city due to the violence. I was never attacked physically, but, yes, I was the victim of threats and attempted extortion.

Now, I see Ciudad Juárez slowly improving, thanks to the solidarity of its people and their fighting spirit. Their journalists also have this spirit.

Journalists regularly face death threats in Mexico - where do the threats come from? What has been your experience?

This is the worst part of it all: they are faceless persons; you never know who they are, nor where they're from. They are the threatening voices that call your telephone to tell you that they're watching you, that you'd better be careful. Some years ago, when I was the editor of Periódico PM, I was a victim of threats made by criminals. They phoned me at home to tell me that they were watching me. They said that I should go to the window, from where I would see a van parked in front of my house. I didn't sleep very well in those days. I used to receive emailed death threats everyday because of my work.

During that period, the newspaper received a direct attack. The reporter Eugenia Cicero and the photo-journalist Jaime Murrieta (may he rest in peace) were beaten up by hooded men while they were trying to report on an incident.

Those were tense days. Afterwards, I performed other roles at El Diario and I lived a calmer life. At the moment, I live in Chihuahua and I cover political news for the Grupo Informativo Omnia, so my work is less stressful than it used to be.

Do you trust the police? The politicians? What do you think their role is in impunity?

When you see that so many innocent people have died and that no-one does anything about it, it's difficult to trust the authorities. When you see how investigations are manipulated, when you see that there are never concrete results, it's difficult to trust.

I can tell you that I definitely do not trust the authorities; I think that the general population doesn't trust them either. And because of this, people don't report crimes. So, it's a vicious circle where impunity is the protagonist.

Why do journalists continue working in these dangerous states? What's their motivation? How do their families deal with it?

Well, I think it's because we love our native land and our profession. The majority of journalists that work in Chihuahua were born in Chihuahua and those who aren't from here love this place as if they were native. Our families, friends and work are here. It's difficult to let go of something that you love and to give up the fight to change things for the better.

There are many reporters who risk their lives because they're dedicated to their profession. I think that they do it because they're convinced that there's something that can be done to change the harsh reality in which we live. I have colleagues who are very dedicated, especially those who report on crime. I know that they are motivated because of their families - they all want their children to grow up in a better environment, and because of this, they fight for change, report on crime and ask questions of the authorities.

What do you think about the new federalization of crimes against journalists?

I hope that it will have a positive result. It's something for which my colleagues have long fought, and which has finally been achieved. However, investigations carried out by the authorities into cases of murdered journalists leave much to be desired. You're always left with doubts....

I hope that the Law to Protect Journalists won't be another easily-violated law. You have to trust that the law will be properly enforced, that it won't be tarnished by the shadow of corruption.

What more must the government do to defeat impunity and protect journalists? What should the new president (Enrique Peña Nieto) do?

I believe that citizens' security must be guaranteed in general, and that in the case of journalists, mechanisms must be created that permit real free expression and bring an end to censorship. The new president of Mexico faces a huge challenge. The election was very controversial and he has a poor image amongst a large part of the population.

I think that Enrique Peña Nieto will have to give great attention to the violence suffered by journalists, and not just to those acts of physical violence, but to harassment too.

The new president has to drive forward a country that has been severely beaten by organised crime during the last six years. [President] Felipe Calderón leaves a country with grave security problems, with cases of femicides unsolved and attacks on journalists that need urgent attention.

In this regard, he (Peña Nieto) must make sure that the Attorney General of the Republic enforces the Law to Protect Journalists, and that corruption is not allowed to tarnish this law. Government officials will also need to be made more aware of the law and how it works.

What can foreign governments and NGOs do regarding impunity in Mexico?

Sadly, foreign governments and NGOs seem more interested than the Mexican government in the problem of impunity. I believe that drawing attention to what is happening in this country is already a great help, as pressure from foreign governments and NGOs, at times, does have an effect on our government.

There's a lot of talent in Mexico and there are a lot of projects organised by journalists. However, at times, this talent is wasted because of a lack of support. I believe that foreign governments and NGOS could provide this support and thereby help launch these projects that aren't supported here in Mexico.