This article appeared originally in the book, Tú y yo coincídimos en la noche terrible, a collection of essays about murdered or disappeared Mexican journalists, by Lolita Bosch and Alejandro Vélez Salas, published by Nuestra Aparente Rendición in 2012. It has been translated without permission for the Mexican Journalism Translation Project (MxJTP).
The Photojournalist who Disappeared: Manuel Gabriel Fonseca Hernández, ‘Cuco’
By Galia García Palafox (Nuestra Aparente Rendición)
Cuco is the story about a boy who wanted to be a journalist.
He hadn’t finished secondary school but Manuel Gabriel needed to work to take money home. He got a job cleaning the house of Araceli Shimabuko, a journalist in his town.
Araceli stopped him from cleaning and set him to hand out the magazine she edited, Paisajes. He took a taxi every day from his neighborhood to the center of town. While she reported he distributed the magazine to government offices. It was the closest he had been to these two worlds: inside and behind the scenes at the town hall, a view from afar of its mayor, some press conference or other when he went with Araceli. Her secretary, that’s what some officials and journalists called him.
After work they ate something or met with other reporters. Manuel Gabriel was fascinated. He became friends with journalists in Acayucan, a town of 83,000 residents in the south of the state of Veracruz. He didn’t skip the opportunity of going with somebody covering an accident, a fire or a fight. Manuel Gabriel knew immediately what the news world wanted, especially when it came to the police blotter.
He started helping journalist friends collect information, making visits to the public prosecutor, taking photos. One day he came home with a newspaper in his hands. His parents and his brother, Ricardo, could hardly believe it: at home Manuel Gabriel was known as José and in the news world somebody nicknamed him ‘Cuco,’ and he had published a story. He was a sixteen-year old reporter.
From that moment on his parents asked him to take care with what he published. He mustn’t get himself in trouble.
Somehow he got hold of an old, roll camera. He took photos and he took the roll to be developed. From a cybercafé he sent photos and news to magazines where he had begun to work.
One day he went to El Diario of Acayucan. He asked to speak with its owner. He didn’t want to talk with anybody else. Marcos Fonrouge, chief editor, dealt with him. He had heard talk about him. He had read him. Cuco wanted work and there was a position open for a reporter covering the crime beat. The job was his.
Fights between drunkards, men who beat people, car crashes. Cuco covered those stories. “They all made him proud,” Fonrouge says. Night and day he looked for an exclusive. He took it for granted he would get it. “Hey, I have the exclusive,” that’s what he said to reporter colleagues when he met them. He spent nights in police stations or in the public prosecutor’s office to get the scoop. He got home early in the morning.
Don Juan, his father, remembers that some days he only used to come home to change clothes after a visit to the morgue, to get rid of the smell of a body. Other times they didn’t used to see him at home until dawn. “He used to get home when we were all asleep, at one a.m., two in the morning. He used to bring us memelas [akin to a tostada (hard tortilla) with savory toppings] and empanadas and he got us all up to eat,” says Ricardo, his little brother. “He used to tell us that he had seen dead people or accidents.” He used to tell, he tells. He used to arrive, he arrives. He was, he is. Everybody who talks about Cuco changes verb tenses. Not Cuco used to be, no: Cuco is.
Cuco liked the dead. On one occasion his boss sent him to cover a social meeting of lawyers. Cuco returned with photos so bad that Fonrouge knew that it was his way of telling him that he did not want to be sent to cover events that weren’t part of the crime beat.
After a spell at El Diario of Acayucan, Cuco went to El Mañanero, a new daily with five reporters and a circulation of three thousand issues. He graduated from film to a digital camera. He used to show it off to people who wanted to see. And he showed it off to those who did not want to see it, too.
Saturday 17 September 2011 was his day off. In the morning he played cards with his brother. Five peso hands. He didn’t have any luck at the cards. He lost.
Ricardo went to play football. Cuco went to El Mañanero’s offices to collect his pay. He spoke with his boss for a few minutes. He told him he was going to eat some tamales nearby. Cuco was always ready to party.
That night he didn’t return home to sleep. His father went to look for him. He did not find him. In the newspaper they were waiting for his Sunday stories. They never arrived. His phone went straight to voicemail.
On Monday his father went to ask at the newspaper. The journalists had begun to mobilize. A group went to look for him in a neighboring town where a party was rumored to have taken place. There was no sign of Cuco. Another group met in an ice cream parlor to decide what to do. One of them called a deputy prosecutor and they filed a complaint. They started to investigate: did anybody see him in the park with a friend on Saturday night? Another said that he had been at the morgue. Did a witness see him get into a car with a sandwich seller? It wasn’t a sandwich seller but the hotdog seller. Rumors and rumors. Criminal investigations. More rumors. Nothing convincing.
El Mañanero has a policy of not publishing news about criminal groups who might endanger its workers. Cuco had not published anything compromising. Maybe he saw something he shouldn’t have seen. Maybe they weren’t going for him. Maybe he opened his mouth too much. Maybe he fell in with bad company. More rumors.
Journalist Galia García Palafox is editor in chief at Milenio Digital. She has reported for news outlets in the United States and Mexico and graduated with a Master’s from the Columbia School of Journalism. This article was first published under the title, “Manuel Gabriel Fonseca Hernández, ‘Cuco’,” and is available at: http://nuestraaparenterendicion.com/tuyyocoincidimosenlanocheterrible/index.php?option=com_k2&view=item&id=84:manuel-gabriel-fonseca-hernandez#.VANQzWSwLBw.
Translator Patrick Timmons is a human rights investigator and journalist. He edits the Mexican Journalism Translation Project (MxJTP), a quality selection of Spanish-language journalism about Latin America rendered into English. Follow him on Twitter @patricktimmons. The MxJTP has a Facebook page: like it, here.