MediaTips: Andrea Noel, Reporting from Mexico while Surviving Sexual Assault and Trolls

Noel is a journalist based in Mexico, in the border town of Tijuana, covering immigration and the drug war. Although she is a freelance journalist, she primarily contributes to The Daily Beast, writing long-form stories spanning a wide range of topics, from the persecution of journalists to the much talked about U.S. plans for a new border wall. Interview and Story by Jose Olivares

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A screengrab of Noel’s writer page on the Daily Beast

Confusion on the Phone Line

I call Andrea Noel on a long, 12-digit phone number. The number belongs to her Mexican cellphone. It rings for a minute and then connects with a voice that begins to speak with me in Spanish with a slight accent. Our conversation is confusing at first. She asks me about a specific set of documents. I have a suspicion Noel thinks I am someone else. After clearing up the confusion, our conversation shifts to English and carries a more conversational tone.

We spoke on the phone regarding her career, which has mostly focused on Mexico and other Latin American countries. Noel, although she won’t admit it on the phone, is a brave journalist. According to the press freedom organization Articulo 19, Mexico is one of the most dangerous countries in the world to be a journalist. Mexico also suffers from having upsettingly high rates of violence against women. Noel faces these systemic problems in Mexico head-on, even if she has been threatened a countless number of times.

Noel is also well-known for her coverage on Mexico for Vice.

The Incident

Noel has covered the killing of journalists, government impunity, social movements and gendered violence. However, last year, the world’s eyes turned to her after the so-called Incident occurred.

The Incident was an event that happened to Noel, which forced her to confront the rotten and corrupt Mexican legal system. Trust in the Mexican legal system is almost nonexistent. Few crimes are reported, and even fewer are solved.

On March 8, 2016 — which was International Working Women’s Day — Noel was walking down the street in the Mexico City neighborhood of La Condesa, when a man ran up behind her, flipped her skirt up and pulled her underwear down. The sexual assault lasted three seconds. But as Noel writes, “those three seconds would end up derailing my life for six months.”

Noel decided to report the assault. However, navigating through Mexico’s corrupt legal system is anything but easy. She was bombarded by a barrage of sexist media attention and grew exhausted fighting with government bureaucrats who did not help her gain any justice. Even worse, she received countless rape and death threats online by machistas looking to intimidate her. She eventually left Mexico City when, from outside her window, a laser was pointing at her head. They had found where she lived and her anonymity was compromised. It was time to leave Mexico City. Eventually, the online community found a person who they suspected may be the culprit. He ended up not being the harasser, which brought on more media and personal attacks on Noel.

Noel wrote about the series of events called the Incident and the nightmare that ensued in a three-part article found here.

Q: Tell me about your career trajectory: How you got started as a journalist, where you’re from, how you became an international journalist:

Noel: I kind of have an unconventional path, which I think is increasingly more common. But I’m from L.A. originally. I moved to Mexico quite a while ago in about 2008. I was 18 at the time and came to Tijuana. It was right at the time when the city was at one of its most violent points, which was around 2009. But I was here for several years watching the city transform and unfold. [Tijuana] was under the control of a man named Santiago who was also called El Pozolero. He developed the name for himself for turning his victims into pozole or soup. So it was a really gruesome time for the city.

At the time I was in school still. I was a photographer, so I was just going around documenting. I kind of just happened into journalism. I became very interested in these stories that were unfolding around me. And I think as a foreigner in Mexico, I was a bit more impacted by what was going on than the locals. So for me, it was more curiosity and a fascination. So I started documenting this for myself, for a blog, just wondering around with cameras. And I was contributing to local papers in San Diego and Tijuana.

I moved to Mexico City at around 2012 or 2013 and I kind of just happened into what became my job at Vice News. I moved there about two weeks before the bureau was set to open. I was hired by the New York team and kind of worked my way up. Originally I worked as a translator/fact checker. And then just continued to become indispensable for the bureau until I eventually became Latin America editorial coordinator and I stayed on for about two years.

So I did that for a couple of years. Loved it, fell into it and then I quit and began freelancing.

And then I had an incident in Mexico City last March, which you might be aware of.

I left the city after a slew of death threats and I just couldn’t live there anymore basically because I lost my anonymity and didn’t feel comfortable. I went back to Tijuana. I’ve been working with the BBC a bit, The Daily Beast and others.

So I don’t have your traditional J-School background. I studied visual arts and documentary filmmaking. I now unfortunately don’t take as many photographs and don’t do a lot of video projects, just because I discovered that writing was more of a passion for me.

Noel had to leave Mexico City after being a victim of a much publicized sexual assault.

Q: Your Spanish is really great, and it has to be if you are going to be covering big topics in a country like Mexico. How did you learn the language?

Noel: Just full immersion. I learned it and have just been practicing and improving. I think that being in so many different parts of Mexico and speaking so many different types of vernacular Spanish — and also traveling through Central America — just picking up all these different facets of the language, I think that’s probably helped in being able to dominate the language.

Q: Mexican politics are complex and messy, with a long, intricate history. How did you learn and immerse yourself in the Mexican political environment to be able to report on it?

Noel: As a foreigner in Mexico, I think I was particularly taken aback by what was going on. And I think I was just hyper vigilant and just extra curious. I am pretty much self-taught in pretty much every regard and have been very fortunate to be able to just reach out to people and pick people’s brains.

I’ve spent a lot of time in historical archives in various cities. I found that old archivists are actually very helpful in understanding the feel and history of a lot of cities in Mexico. I would say it was mostly curiosity and being fascinated by lost stories.

Initially, how a lot of my curiosity was piqued was through architecture. I would discover these old buildings in Mexico that had been abandoned for a very long time and would wonder about their backstory. I found dozens of buildings that have the most fascinating backstories: Whether they were tied to the drug war, or a property that was seized by the DEA, or people had died because of a fire caused by political corruption — I found architecture was just a really interesting way to find these forgotten stories. People kind of just walked past these buildings and didn’t really know or care about them. I think curiosity about [architecture] played a really big role.

Q: You recently wrote a three-part story regarding The Incident and the colossal events that followed. Did writing this piece provide closure and answers for yourself and spectators to this story?

Noel: It was entirely about closure and letting it out. Obviously once the final resolution of the story came out, they produced this terrible headline that read “Reporter accuses the wrong man…” just this terrible summary of what happened that doesn’t explain the situation at all.

So [writing the three-part series] was just a way to get it all out there, explain it’s not quite as straightforward as “this idiot reporter gets this guy into trouble.” It had nothing to do with that in the end. But obviously in the age of quick headlines and not requesting comment from the actual subjects of your article, that’s how it played out. So it was really important for me to lay it all out there. One, for myself. But also to explain that something has got to change.

Q: Mexico is one of the most dangerous countries in the world of journalists. Are you ever scared to be a journalist in Mexico?

Noel: Well, it’s always a consideration. Obviously national reporters do run greater risks than foreign correspondents. Even if you look at the numbers, in terms of who dies and who doesn’t, it’s really unfortunately divided among those lines.

I think the last foreign correspondent who died here was… There was this AP intern that died very mysteriously in an elevator shaft in Mexico City. There have been a few that have been shot during protests. There were a couple of Al Jazeera journalists kidnapped around three weeks ago, and they were released within the same day. So, you know, that’s really nothing compared to the numbers you see for national journalists. So that is something that this privilege comes with.

However, there have always been concerns for safety. You always have to be vigilant. That’s a huge reason why I left Mexico City because you can’t receive 8,000 death threats and hope they’re all fake. It would be insane to do so. So I tried to do that for a couple of days, but it eats at you.

I try to stay out of hairy situations. I used to do the “this protest is happening, this is on fire.” I used to do all that, but not so much anymore. I’m really more interested in the really interesting one-on-one stories of women, stories of deportees, of immigrants. And with those stories maybe you’re interviewing people in a bad neighborhood, but you’re not walking into a drug den and pulling out a camera. So it is a little bit different in regards to the types of stories I choose to involve myself in.

Q: Mexico is an increasingly dangerous country for women. What is it like being a woman reporter in Mexico fighting back against machismo, especially after The Incident?

Noel: It is difficult. I kind of put myself in the cross-hairs of a really interesting debate last year. And it was wholly accidental. I never expected that, I was just trying to make a point. Just trying to stand up for myself. So I never thought it was going to be an issue until it became an issue. I just kind of opened up that channel for debate and now it’s a debate that’s being had. I think that’s good.

It’s obviously always a consideration. As a reporter, being a woman, where I’m working, what I’m doing, I always have to think about it.

Q: What advice do you have for people wanting to become an international journalist?

Noel: Well, just do it. I mean, that would be my advice. Just be curious and willing to talk to people.

Really it’s just about finding your own take, your own scoop on the story. There’s obviously certain media events like “Chapo just got captured” or, right now, “[ex-governor of Veracruz] Duarte just got captured” and everybody is going to be telling the same story. But it’s really, really important to fight the temptation to tell the story everybody else is telling. Go find what people aren’t saying about it, if you have to tell that story. You always have to look for the double take, the alternate take.

Reporting and Interview by Jose Olivares for the Reynolds Sandbox

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Reynolds Sandbox
The Reynolds Sandbox

Showcasing innovative and engaging multimedia storytelling by students with the Reynolds Media Lab in Reno.