The Backstory: Melissa del Bosque

Reporting from the U.S.-Mexico Border

For over a decade, Lannan reporting fellow Melissa del Bosque has reported on the increasing militarization of the U.S.-Mexico border and the consequences for residents on both sides. In her three most recent investigations for Type and the Intercept, Melissa reported that border agents had detained U.S. citizens returning from abroad, covered the fallout of the murder of two Guatemalan migrants by Texas state troopers, and discovered National Guard troops encroaching on private land as part of Texas Governor Greg Abbott’s Operation Lone Star initiative.

In this conversation, we discuss how she started reporting on the border, the difficulty of talking to the families of victims when there hasn’t been any justice, and why it’s important to talk to people on the ground when reporting for a national audience.

Paco Alvarez: My first question is, how did you start reporting on the Texas border? And did you initially face any challenges?

Melissa del Bosque: Well, we’ll have to go way back into history. I was living in San Francisco in the late 90s and decided I wanted to be a border reporter because I grew up in San Diego near the border, and I was always fascinated by it when I was a kid going back and forth visiting Mexico – just as a tourist, I didn’t have family there. So I got this idea I’d be a border reporter, which wasn’t really a thing. I mean, it was kind of a thing around the signing of NAFTA, you know the mid-to-late 90s, when newspapers were still really robust and had a lot of money and they had border bureaus, actually, so there were people who were actual border journalists at these border bureaus. And Texas had the best border coverage because it has the most border. And it was a very competitive newspaper state, lots of newspapers, lots of resources. So I thought, well, I’m going to go to Texas, and I went to journalism school at UT Austin, got a journalism degree and started doing reporting in El Paso and Juarez as a student.

And back then I was looking at the femicides, which are still going on to this day in Juarez and Chihuahua. And then I got a job at the Monitor, the daily newspaper in McAllen, which is another Texas border city. And that’s where I got my start in 2000, pre-9/11, working for the daily newspaper in McAllen and going back and forth between there and Reynosa and got a lot of experience just on my feet, working for a daily and doing what I wanted to do more or less. From there, I went and worked in the Texas Legislature for five years and crossed over to the dark side of politics, which was super informative and actually really reinforced my thinking that I needed to go back into journalism and make less money. But I had a better education, I think, as to how power worked and how laws work, which I could help put context into the stories that I wanted to do, mostly about border communities and on both sides of the border, actually. So I started there. So I have been reporting on the border off and on now for about 20 years.

Alvarez: How has reporting on the border changed over the years as militarization has increased?

del Bosque: Yeah, I mean, there are – well, you know, the bottom sort of fell out of both newspapers and the traditional sort of way that media could make money off of ads, newspapers could make money off of ads, because of the internet. So now there’s less coverage, I think, on the ground in communities along the border because the newspapers have been so gutted from a lack of ad revenue. And at the same time, there’s this huge ecosystem now of online outlets. A lot of what I’ve seen a big explosive growth in is right wing media around immigration and the border just in like the last four or five years. And really, right now, I feel like the right wing media really controls the narrative and a lot of the reporting that’s being done along the border.

Alvarez: A lot of your reporting for Type is aimed at a more national audience. How do you go about communicating the changes in daily life at the border to outsiders who might not be familiar with conditions there?

del Bosque: I guess the thing that still blows my mind is that border communities are treated as this sort of separate entity from the rest of the United States. I mean, San Diego is a border community, Brownsville, these are – we’re talking millions and millions of people, U.S. citizens and residents. It’s not just an exclusionary zone, it’s part of the United States. So I cover it as I would a story I did in Chicago or a story I did in L.A, any other part of the United States. Because it’s so used in proxy in our national debates over immigration and security, most people lose sight of the fact that these are just communities where people live and go to school and they have a grocery store receipt – just do normal things. It’s not some kind of desert hellscape where – this lawless area or something that it’s often portrayed as in political rhetoric or in right wing coverage. People use the border for other reasons. So just reporting at it from the perspective of somebody who lives in one of those communities to a national audience makes a difference, I think, and it’s just strange to me that it doesn’t happen to a larger degree. Because when national media come in, they usually come in, they do the story and they get out, and they’re usually doing it in the context of Trump said this or Biden said this. So it’s really a story about politics and not about those communities, they’re just the backdrop. So the border’s always a backdrop to something else. So I try to bring it to the forefront, and that is the story.

Alvarez: So one of your recent stories for Type was a follow up to a 2015 investigation into the circumstances around two Guatemalan migrants who were killed by a Texas Department of Safety trooper from a helicopter. What initially drew you to the original story?

del Bosque: Well, the shooting actually happened in 2012, and at the time it was just mind blowing that the Texas State Police decided it would be a great idea to have snipers in helicopters shooting out the tires of moving vehicles at the border in pursuit. And these are vehicles that they don’t know who’s in them, there’s no armed individuals. The idea was that, you know, we’ll just shoot out the tires of these cars in pursuit to disable them, which is just like an insanely bad and dangerous idea. So, of course, they ended up shooting at a truck, killing two men, almost killing a third. And it being Texas, the the legislators, the governor in charge, you know, Republican legislators were like, So? That’s what’s going to happen to you if you come across without documents. You know, they were like not sorry about it, really. Which I just thought was so outrageous because not only was it dangerous to anybody in the truck that was being pursued, but also to the all these communities along the border where they were hovering over them in helicopters, with snipers, shooting at vehicles on like busy highways. I mean, the whole thing was just completely, totally nuts.

So it took me three years of pursuing the state and Hidalgo County, which is the border county where the shooting happened, to get the documents, to get the footage from the video from the helicopter of what happened, because after the incident, the police wouldn’t release any documentation. They wouldn’t release the video, so they really swept it under the rug just as soon as they possibly could, of course. So it took three years to get that information. And so I wasn’t able to do the story until 2015. And then I ended up going to Guatemala and interviewing the families who lost their loved ones in the shooting.

Alvarez: And what was it like going back to the story for that follow up?

del Bosque: Well, I mean, it was difficult. Originally, I had planned to go down to Guatemala and see the families again, but because of COVID and it’s been so bad there, in Guatemala especially, I wasn’t able to go in person. And these are people who are living up in the Guatemalan highlands in pretty remote areas, so they’re not particularly easy to to reach. With this kind of reporting, you really need to go in person, which is what I would have liked to have done, but I couldn’t. So I had to do the best I could under the circumstances in talking to the lawyer representing them. A community leader from that area.

What was particularly painful for me was that there has been no justice, and that their case will probably never go to trial. I mean, what the state is doing is they’re just winding it out. They’re wearing them down so that they’ll run out of money, they’ll run out of time and it will never go to trial and there will never be justice. So it’s very difficult to go back to the families and be this person from the United States, the only person that they’re really seeing from the United States, and then even worse from Texas, which is the state that killed their children and saying, would you talk to me again about what happened, you know? Because every time they hear from me, they grow more and more frustrated, like, will we talked to you and nothing happened – why should we even talk to you? What is the point? So, that’s really hard, especially.

When you’ve been reporting for a long time and you follow a story for a long time where you keep interacting with the families. Like so much of the work I do is that there’s just no justice, and there won’t be. So it’s hard to come to terms with that, I think, and also to talk with the families about it, because I can’t over promise. I have to be honest and say the best I can do is tell your story, you know, and do honor to your children. But in terms of will there be a settlement? Will there be some acknowledgment of guilt? I don’t think there probably will be.

Alvarez: So given that you’re often reporting in areas with heavy police and military presence. How do you prepare for your reporting trips? Are you ever worried about being detained yourself?

del Bosque: Well, I have the benefit of being a middle aged white lady, so I really use that to my advantage. I mean I’m continuously underestimated and I’m very lowkey, and I prefer it that way. I don’t raise any flags. So I mean, I do a lot of research in advance. I talk to people in those communities. I don’t just show up. I take the temperature of the place and. And, you know, I’m genuinely interested and curious about all sides, so I approach it, in a sort of open manner. And, you know, I’m curious about people I want to know, even militia members, you know, like what are you up to? Why are you here? And people, if you approach them with an open mind, they’ll talk to you often. So I just try to be low key.

Alvarez: So this past fall, you started a bi weekly newsletter with Todd Miller called The Border Chronicle, where you provide original reporting and analysis of news about the U.S.-Mexico border. How does your reporting process for the newsletter differ from your reporting process for longer investigations?

del Bosque: I mean, it doesn’t really differ. In a way, it’s a continuation of what I did for many years at the Texas Observer, where I was doing weekly stories on top of longer investigations and then shorter pieces online. I mean, this is something that most journalists have to do now, where we have to be thinking short term, long term, all the time. And so I’m doing the newsletter with Todd Miller, who is really like my Arizona counterpart. He and I are about the same age. We’ve both been writing about the border for about 20 years. He and Arizona and I in Texas. So it’s a great combination of experience, I think. And we’re both pretty well versed in doing the short term story in the long term story. So, I’m working on something I’m going to publish next week, but then I’m also working on things I’m going to publish. In the future as well, longer pieces.

Alvarez: And so my last question is, do you have any advice for reporters who are interested in doing more investigative journalism around the US-Mexico border and its militarization?

del Bosque: My biggest advice is always just go to those communities, you know, with an open mind and talk to people on the ground. And pretty soon, I think you’re going to have a much more complex understanding and so often just the story that you thought you were going to tell changes once you get there and you spend some time there. Try to carve out some time for yourself because it’s hard when you’re coming in from the East Coast or wherever, a lot of times you only have like two days or something. Try to try to take longer if you can, because it takes a little bit of time. At least try to do three or four days if you can.If you look at most national coverage of the border, it’s very different from the way communities actually are. Like I said, these are people who are just going on about their lives.

And there’s a lot of great grassroots organizations. El Paso, Tucson – there’s a lot of good people who are doing really great work along the border who are really receptive to talking to people. Any reporters out there who are interested in writing on the border, I encourage them to email me and I’d be happy to give them some contacts in whatever city that they’re heading to, if that helps. And yeah, just, you know, have fun.

About the reporter