IRE Conference Blog

Investigating trafficking across the U.S.-Mexico border

By Kolten Parker and Perla Arellano

Keeping a low profile and scavenging online court records are vital when covering drug trafficking across the United States-Mexico border.

San Antonio Express-News reporter Jason Buch, Knight International Journalism Fellow Jorge Luis Sierra and Belo Corp. border bureau chief Angela Kocherga discussed tools and strategies they utilize to investigate illegal activity in Mexico.

Buch’s techniques include digging through court records using PACER. He said he cross-references bare-bones indictments with civil suits such as asset forfeitures to paint a broader picture for the reader. That cross-referencing unearths interesting facts that might not otherwise come to light in a criminal trial.

Jorge Luis Sierra, who reports in Mexico and Texas, stressed the importance of protecting sources – especially when they face potential danger - and remaining out of the spotlight when investigating organized crime. Sometimes it is easier to get sources on the United States side of the boarder since many of the Mexico border patrols are corrupted, he added. Either way, one must still be very precautious.

“Be invisible,” he said. “Share your idea only on a need-to-know basis.” 

Sierra suggested using encrypted files on laptops and not transporting investigative files across the border. Sierra also added to not carry expensive equipment, for example carry a cheap laptop and encrypt the documents in the computer, as well as emails.

“Use technology to your advantage,” Sierra said.

Angela Kocherga said that most sources that she interviewed were very hesitant to give information. She said that many sources didn’t want to appear on camera but the information they did give would be a piece of the story. Try to interview sources on the U.S. side of the border, if possible, she said.

Kocherga said she often gauges the level of violence at her destination before crossing the border with sources. She said using common sense helps to ensure safety in dangerous situations.

Kolten Parker is a journalism student at Texas State University and reports on politics for the San Antonio Express-News. Follow on Twitter @KoltenParkerPerla Arellano is a journalism student at Amarillo College.

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