Skip to main content

« Within seconds, we went from the quake to covering the news. »

How would you sum up the Mexico bureau's year?

Very busy! We have had several significant events, first and foremost the assassination of one of our stringers, Javier Valdez, correspondent in the state of Sinaloa, one of the most dangerous in Mexico. He was a specialist in the drug trafficking trade and worked for a weekly investigative local paper called Riodoce and the La Jornada daily. He was shot dead on May 15 outside his office. His death affected us all deeply. He was a very valued journalist and a friend for many of us. This tragedy reminded us how working conditions for journalists have deteriorated in this country. The other major event of 2017 was of course the earthquake that hit Mexico on September 19.

Can you get straight into the coverage after such a shock?

Within seconds, we had to go from the quake to covering a natural disaster that hit a city of 20 million. For a week, we had to play it slightly by ear. Although we had no video journalist on the ground -- the bureau's video reporter was in Puerto Rico covering Hurricane Maria -- our multimedia coverage was excellent. All staff members from all sections of the bureau made a contribution. Text journalists produced video and photo, sales staff did some video, photographers and secretaries did text interviews. There was total togetherness.

Did the earthquake have a direct impact on AFP staff?

We were hit because the bureau is in a very earthquake-prone area of Mexico. The epicentre was extremely close. As we do on every anniversary of the 1985 quake, we did a rehearsal. Then, two hours later, the quake hit without warning. Amazingly, the early warning alert went off at the same time as the quake. Luckily, no one in the office was hurt but we were very shaken up.

Did the catastrophe have any psychological impact?

The post-quake period was hard for everyone. We were in a sort of hyper-vigilance and often slept fully clothed in the fear it would happen again. Our staff members had to deal with the shock and at the same time, do their job and look after their families. Having all that weight on one's shoulders might seem very difficult but there were lots of positive aspects: teamwork, solidarity and loyalty to the Agency. At the request of Paris, we organised a debriefing session which enabled us to assess the quake's impact on the staff. Some found it very difficult to bear. AFP employed a group of psychologists to look after them and treat them.

How were you prepared?

Preparation was critical. Luckily, we had done several rehearsals and had a security protocol in place, given the strong likelihood of a big catastrophe. We had plan A, B, C and D with different meet-up points for all members of the bureau because we thought that communications might be down -- which turned out to be the case.

Are there any less dramatic moments you will remember in 2017?

I will remember a nice joint project with the Washington bureau where we sent photographers down to go along both sides of the US-Mexico border, more than 3,000 kilometres. There were three AFP staff, an American on the US side, a Mexican and a Salvadorean on the Mexico side. The images from their trip, with perspectives and drone footage, were very heavily picked up by our clients. At the end of 2017, the images were shown at an exhibition at UNAM, Mexico's most prestigious university.

September 20, 2017 – Front page of the New York Times. © Ronaldo SCHEMIDT / AFP

September 19 and 20, 2017 – AFP photos on the front pages of the websites of Bloomberg, El Nuovo Diario, The Straits Times, Epoch Times. © Ronaldo SCHEMIDT / Victor CRUZ / AFP

Sylvain Estibal

Sylvain Estibal

Mexico Bureau Chief