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Reporting Crime In Mexico Can Be A Bloody Business

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

A decade into the drug war, violence isn't slowing down in Mexico. 2017 was its most murderous year in modern history. This was a boon for a certain type of tabloid press in the country which combines gore, drama, sex and sports in a way that's shocking at first glance. But James Fredrick reports from Mexico City there's also value hidden behind the sleeves of the newsstands.

JAMES FREDRICK, BYLINE: Crime reporter David Alvarado calmly races through the sparse 2 a.m. traffic of Mexico City. After 30 years on this beat, everyone knows him as Gama.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE TONE)

FREDRICK: His phone lights up, alerting him to the latest crime scene.

DAVID ALVARADO: (Speaking Spanish).

FREDRICK: It's a Z1-X13, police code for homicide with a firearm. We race to the scene.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR DOOR CLOSING)

FREDRICK: Within seconds out of his car, Gama quickly sums up what happened here on the steps of a funeral home.

ALVARADO: (Speaking Spanish).

FREDRICK: Two bodies sprawled out on the sidewalk. Dozens of shell casings cover the ground. Women hold each other tight, sobbing on the edge of yellow police tape. A crime scene like this is right up Gama's alley. He works for a niche of Mexican media known as nota roja, the red reports, Mexico's bloody tabloids. They take the phrase if it bleeds, it leads to a whole other level.

SANDRA VERA ZAMBRANO: If you have blood, the more blood, the better. So it has to be very bloody. And it has to be very dramatic.

FREDRICK: Sandra Vera Zambrano is a journalism professor at the Iberoamericana University in Mexico City. She says nota roja is more than just gore. Every crime scene is layered with drama and cringeworthy headlines rivaling the New York Post.

VERA: They really know how to play with the line on good taste and bad taste because it's really - like, if you think of it from a bourgeois point of view, it's really bad taste. But if you think in terms of economic logics, it's just perfect.

FREDRICK: Nota roja outnumbers and sells better than Mexico's mainstream newspapers almost everywhere in the country. In the capital, they cost about 30 cents, half what a national newspaper costs, and are firmly the new source of the working class.

IVAN HUERTA: (Speaking Spanish).

FREDRICK: Ivan Huerta sells nota roja newspapers in the Mexico City Metro, landing a couple customers every time a crowd passes. It's where he gets his news, too.

HUERTA: (Speaking Spanish).

FREDRICK: He says these newspapers report all the crime happening in the area, things mainstream newspapers overlook. Nota roja is frank, he says. It shows crime like it is. This makes it an essential source for tracking the movement of organized crime, says Victor Sanchez Valdes, a researcher at the University of Coahuila in northern Mexico.

VICTOR SANCHEZ VALDES: (Speaking Spanish).

FREDRICK: He says these types of newspapers have a very local focus, and the reporters have very specific knowledge. They give detailed reports of crimes that the bigger national newspapers don't tell. By analyzing articles from newspapers like Gama's, Sanchez created a map showing 14 gangs or cartels operating in and around Mexico City, nearly double the number from three years ago.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLICE SIREN)

FREDRICK: Gama says tonight's murder at the funeral home is another sign of cartels encroaching on Mexico City, long a haven from the drug war.

ALVARADO: (Speaking Spanish).

FREDRICK: He says the government doesn't want to admit it, but narcos have been gaining power here for a while, and now they're fighting each other.

ALVARADO: (Speaking Spanish).

FREDRICK: But Gama says he sees even more than he can say publicly or publish. It's too dangerous, and he knows there are consequences for crossing the line. Since 2016, at least eight nota roja reporters in other parts of Mexico have been murdered for their work.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAMERA SHUTTER CLICKING)

FREDRICK: But that hasn't stopped Gama yet. In the morning, his graphic photo of the dead will cover newsstands everywhere. For NPR News, I'm James Fredrick in Mexico City.

(SOUNDBITE OF CLELIA FELIX'S "EASTERN SUNRISE (ORIGINAL MIX)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.