<em>Alarma!</em> is the oldest of Mexico's <em>prensa roja</em> (red press) tabloids.
INTERVIEWED BY SANTIAGO STELLEY
PHOTO BY TOMAS MORALES
Alarma! is the oldest of Mexico’s prensa roja (red press) tabloids. It is mostly made up of gruesome news stories, photos of mutilated corpses, and headlines that contain 1960s-Borscht-Belt-comedian-worthy puns about death and pain. We recently spoke with Miguel Angel Rodriguez Vazquez, the magazine’s editor.
Vice: How’d you become director of Alarma!?
Miguel Angel Rodriguez Vazquez: I started in the mailroom back in 1981 and eventually learned to do the layouts. Then I started writing and taking pictures for the magazine and, years after that, I became the assistant to the director. He passed away four years ago, and that’s how I became the director.
And what does the job entail?
Basically, I go through all the material that comes to my desk, pick the stories I like, write the headlines, and edit the stories.
Sounds easy enough. Alarma! was the first paper of its kind, right? The first presna roja tabloid?
Yeah, Alarma! was first published in 1963. What happened was a newspaper man by the name of Don Carlos Amayo Lizarraga had the idea to start a magazine that would deal exclusively with crime.
The magazine really took off in 1964 with the story of Las Poquianchis, who were three women who ran an infamous prostitution ring in Guanajuato. They were accused of committing 28 homicides. All of their victims were young girls that worked for them as prostitutes, and all of their bodies were found buried in Las Poquianchis’s backyard.
And Alarma! covered the story in full, gory detail, I assume?
The magazine followed the story for over eight months. One of our reporters, Jesus Sanchez Hermosillo, went up to Guanajuato and became good friends with Ms. Delfina and Ms. Maria de Jesus, the two first Poquianchis who were detained. They shared their stories with him, and they talked about how they had been paying off all the local officials like the police and the municipal presidents…
Las Poquianchis became a sort of foto novela, or magazine soap opera, for our readers, but it was even better because it was a true story complete with murdered women, buried fetuses, girls forced into prostitution, humans bought and sold…
We have over 2,000 photographs from just that one story. We published their love letters, their family albums, absolutely everything. The story really grabbed Mexico’s attention, and that was when the magazine had its first boom.
I’ve always been a big fan of the Mexico City earthquake issue.
The Mexico City earthquake in 1985 was also a huge story for us. Our print run in the first week was over 2.5 million. The next week it went down to 2 million, but it was still extraordinary. We covered every possible angle during the earthquake.
What’s your favorite story from that issue?
I remember one story about a kid called Monchito. He was a young boy that was supposed to be buried under a house that had fallen in the earthquake. Everyone in Mexico was worried about Monchito and praying for Monchito. They brought in all these experts to figure out how to rescue him. At the end it turned out that Monchito didn’t even exist. The owners of the house had made him up because they wanted to rescue a safe box that had been buried with their house.
Soon after the huge boost we received from the earthquake, Alarma! was shut down by the government.
Why did that happen?
In 1986 Mexico was hosting the World Cup, and the government decided to close down all the pornographic magazines in the country. Alarma! didn’t feature any naked girls or anything like that, but according to the government commission, we had committed some technical fouls, things like not printing the appropriate “adult only” warnings on the cover or selling the magazine in plastic bags. We were given a lot of excuses, but the truth was simply that one of our sister publications, a magazine called Impacto, was very critical of the government then. So we were punished for political reasons. At the time, other publications—which for the most part considered our magazine to be vulgar and trashy or what have you—came to our defense. Everybody knew what was happening but nobody could stop it. Alarma! was shut down for almost five years.
When we finally re-launched in ’91 we had to change our name and became El Nuevo Alarma!. As soon as we hit the newsstands, we got back all of our readers and put all the other crime magazines that had popped up in the intervening years out of business.
How is the new version different?
The magazine itself hasn’t changed much over the years. In essence it’s the exact same magazine Don Carlos dreamed of. We’ve had a lot of internal discussions when people have wanted to change the design, but I’ve always fought to keep it very simple. People enjoy it the way it is, and it makes it a quick, easy read. We’re not a modern, artsy magazine, and that’s not what our readers want us to be. We just try to keep it very simple and very visual. If there are no pictures there’s no story. Our readers like to see pictures.
Yeah, why is that? What’s the fascination with photos of headless corpses and the like?
People are interested in the kind of thing we publish. I don’t think it’s an illness—I think it’s curiosity. People like to see what we’re made of inside. We have millions of photographs of cadavers with their intestines hanging out. There’s kilos and kilos of intestines stuffed in there. It’s really strange, and lots of people love to see that. Plus, if we don’t publish enough dead bodies in an issue we get emails telling us that we were too conservative.
That’s funny. I’d imagine you got more from people saying you were too sensational.
Oh, that too. A lot of people write us off for being too sensational, but none of the information that we publish is made up. It’s all absolutely factual and true. We don’t make up facts and we don’t retouch photographs. There’s no need to.
What kind of story works best for you?
The types of crimes that we’re reporting have changed a bit. The stories that work best for us now are narco-traffic crime stories, for example the decapitated bodies they recently found in Acapulco. In Michoacan, five people had their heads blown off while they were dancing in a nightclub. That kind of piece really works for us.
It seems like most of your stories come from the cities.
Actually, most of our stories right now are coming from Michoacan and Guerrero. Last year it was Tamaulipas, and five years ago it was Culiacán. It’s really interesting to see how the crime wave moves around the country. For example, I’m surprised that Culiacán isn’t more violent. Around 2001 we counted up to 1,000 executions in a couple of months there. It’s also interesting to see how the crimes are getting more violent. It used to just be drive-by shootings. Now the victims are always decapitated or buried alive. The crimes are getting more and more depraved.
I wonder why that is.
Because they want to instill more fear in others. “If I kill you more violently, then your people will respect me more,” or something like that. Because most of the crimes are drug related, I think they need to scare each other more and more to secure areas.
My dad was a police officer and said the same thing, that drug crimes are generally more violent than other crimes.
Drug-related crimes are very different from crimes of passion. If you look at older issues of Alarma! most of the stories are crimes of passion, with headlines like “He killed her for being a flirt.”
That used to be our bread and butter. Now the headlines are really different, but that also has to do with the fact that we have to be more delicate with our choice of words.
Don Carlos used to pick some great words. For example, to refer to homosexuals, he used to say “los mujercitos” [“little women” in the masculine form] and lesbians were “hombrecitas”—the reverse. We can’t use these kinds of words anymore because everyone thinks you’re violating their human rights if you do.
Strangely enough, Alarma! has never been sued, but for safe measure, we now try to keep our humor a bit less dark. We’ve basically gone from black to gray.
What stories are you working on right now?
This week we actually had four different crimes of passion in Mexico City. I’m running out of ideas for the headlines.
Ha. Well, tell me one of the headlines.
One of the crimes was a man who killed his wife. They were both schoolteachers and he killed her in front of her students, so I came up with a headline that hopefully isn’t too offensive and doesn’t make fun of the situation but will still spark people’s interest. It reads, “He got an A in homicide.”
These are the type of ideas that Don Carlos left us with. He used to have a lot of fun doing his job. He was very passionate about it. For example, another crime we had this week that was kind of amusing was a man who shot his wife in the head while she was in the bathroom using the toilet. Don Carlos would’ve really enjoyed writing that headline.