For a class on narrative techniques here in Mexico, I was looking for examples of the kind of writing you find in New Yorker. The magazine Gatopardo has that reputation.
It was there I found the story of "A hapless narco" ("Un narco sin suerte") by Alejandro Almazan and immediately got hooked. It tells the story of one J.R., a singer of corridos, traditional songs that tell stories of heroes and villains based on real people and events.
J.R. and his family are living a quiet life up in the mountains when he hears about the fortunes being made in the illegal drug trade by people in Culiacan, in northwestern Mexico. He decides he wants a piece of that. But his every attempt fails for reasons that are by turns hilarious and frightening.
The story is perfect in every detail. So perfect, in fact, that I wondered if this were really journalism or fiction. The magazine gave it a journalistic label: "reportaje," which is definitely not fiction.
The deception of perfection
As a reporter and editor, I learned to be suspicious of stories that are perfect in every detail: when the people fit a perfect stereotype, when the stories unfold in a perfect dramatic sequence, when the characters always utter the perfect phrase.
People love to repeat these kinds of stories, and I had spent many hours as a reporter trying to verify them. You could never find any of the people named because they existed only in that perfect world. These stories are called urban legends.
So I asked some of my Mexican friends, do you know this journalist Almazan? Does he have a good reputation? Is he credible? For the first time I heard the term "infrarrealistic journalism" and I read the movement's manifesto by Diego Enrique Osorno. It shares many traits with the New Journalism of Tom Wolfe. I also learned in an article by Jorge Tirzo of the debate about whether there is a new wave of journalism storytelling in Latin America.
The impolite question
I decided I had to interview Almazan himself and ask him the tactless question directly: Did you make up any of it?
I found his Twitter account, sent him a message and found out that we would both be attending an appropriate event, a presentation on journalism ethics sponsored by the Gabriel Garcia Marquez Foundation for the New Iberoamerican Journalism. Almazan was on a panel. He had won the foundation's prize the year before for feature writing.
After the event I went up to him and asked him the impolite question. Was J.R., the wannabe drug dealer, a real person or is he a composite of several people? Did the events happen exactly as you portrayed them in your story? Or did you add a little spice to it? Almazan was gracious and said he was accustomed to these kinds of questions.
"You have to ask"
For him, the truth lies in the details, and the reporter's job is to gather those details.
"My journalism is no different from that of anybody else," he said. "I go out into the streets and I ask questions. I ask and I ask. The perfection comes from asking and asking and asking.
"We all have a story to tell. If I ask you about your glasses, surely there is a story there. If I ask you about your jacket, it has a story. Your ring has a story. I'm a relentless questioner and I am going to keep asking you questions.
"You have to show the reader that you know everything. When you include these small details, you make your story credible.
"The story is an interpretation of reality. You and I have a different interpretation. We could tell the story of what's happening in this room, and your story and mine would be different."
A journalist's conscience
"My primary duty is to myself, and that is to tell the truth. My truth. The interpretation of what I saw. The other duty is to the people I talked with. I can't betray or distort their story because in the end they are going to read it. What I try to do is be sufficiently honest."
Almazan has been criticized for using anonymous sources or changing people's names. He does it to protect their lives, he said. Some of his sources have been killed because they were quoted in his stories.
"That has happened to me. Those deaths will stay with me my whole life. I don't want more of them pursuing me."
When his editors or his critics ask him about an anonymous source, he invites them to call the person up to verify the facts or to come with him and see the places he described in his stories with their own eyes.
Ties to El Chapo
In the case of J.R., who had ties with the drug kingpin Chapo Guzman, the hapless singer asked Almazan not to use his real name. He feared he would be killed by a rival drug gang. Almazan told me the real name of J.R. and told me to look up his songs on YouTube. I can tell you that they do exist.
Then I asked Almazan if he thought it would cause the real J.R. any problem if I used his real name in a story. He said probably not because the singer had moved to another city and the events had occurred four years ago. But he had not asked the singer's permission to use his real name. I decided not to use it here.
Almazan has published several books of journalism, among them, The Kalashnikov Babes and Other Stories (Chicas Kaláshnikov y otras crónicas) and a novel based on the life of Chapo Guzman, Public Enemy No. 1 (El más buscado).
The challenge of writing fiction
A publisher approached him with the idea of writing a biography of Chapo but Almazan declined.
"The life of Chapo is surrounded by urban legends," he explained. It's impossible today to sort out what is true and what has been invented. "Journalistically I could not write a biography of Chapo. If I said this is the life of Chapo Guzman, I would be lying. So I decided to write a novel based on these urban legends."
It takes him much more time and effort to write fiction. "For me, reality is better than fiction. I don't have the ability to invent so many stupid things."
Daily reality has enough amazing things, he said, that journalists don't need to go "searching for Macondo," the imaginary town of the novelist Garcia Marquez. "The fantastic is out there in the streets. From literature we need to steal everything but the fiction."
By the end of the interview, Almazan had convinced this skeptic.
It seems appropriate to mention that two giants of journalism in Latin America, the same Garcia Marquez and Ryszard Kapuściński, have also been the target of critics who question the truthfulness of their work. The suggestion is that they manipulated facts to create more-perfect stories.
A response lies in the comments of Garcia Marquez to a journalism class at El Pais newspaper in Spain in 1995. They were recorded by Jan Martínez Ahrens and are translated here:
"A story requires a narrator who is grounded in reality. And this is where ethics comes in. In the profession of journalism there are two requirements: the journalist has to make the story credible and he has to know in his conscience that what he writes is the truth. Whoever gives in to the temptation and lies, even if it is about the color of someone's eyes, betrays the profession."
This post originally appeared on the blog News Entrepreneurs. It is published on IJNet with the author's permission.
James Breiner is a consultant in online journalism and leadership. He is a former co-director of the Global Business Journalism Program at Tsinghua University and a former ICFJ Knight International Journalism Fellow who launched and directed the Center for Digital Journalism at the University of Guadalajara. He is bilingual in Spanish and English. You can follow him on Twitter here.
Image CC-licensed on Flickr via MTSOfan.