Mexico City’s Motorcycle Reporters

January 17, 2013
By Jeremiah Knupp
Photos by Holly Marcus
Be careful out there!
The streets of Mexico City are often clogged with traffic, making a motorcycle one of the best (and potentially most dangerous) ways of getting around.

The decrepit ’68 Ford ignores the stop light and nearly T-bones you, screeching to a halt just inches away. The extra adrenaline comes in handy seconds later when you are forced to brake hard to avoid the armored truck that cuts you off without even the courtesy of a turn signal. These little dramas all take place in a motorized version of dodge ball, with green and white Volkswagen Beetle taxis flying in from all directions, like space invaders in an arcade game. Swerve to miss the lady carrying a basket of roses she’s selling in the middle of the street and you almost clip the guy trying to peddle rubber steering wheel covers. You scan ahead. Is that a donkey cart about to pull out in front of me?

It may seem like the most hostile environment imaginable for a motorcycle (conditions that would make a New York cabbie pull over to the side of the street in tears), but throw in the handlebars, windscreen and gauge set of a Suzuki Katana 600 and you’re in the office of Mexico City radio reporter Jorge Gonzàlez. Six days a week, Gonzàlez tackles some of the most dangerous streets in the world on his Katana to bring the news to the listeners of Reporte 98.5 FM.

Mexico City is one of the largest cities in the world. The surrounding mountains form a valley that contains over 22 million people, or nearly one-fifth of the entire country’s population. To say that overcrowding is a problem in Mexico City is like saying Siberia gets cold in the winter. Urban planning started here about 750 years before the invention of the automobile. Streets are a maze of traffic circles, overpasses, underpasses and narrow, one way alleys. The morning commute sees 3.5 million vehicles clogging the city’s overtaxed and constantly under repair thoroughfares. This is where Gonzàlez and his fellow motorcyclist’s first duty comes in, reporting the traffic.

Reporte 98.5 FM has a host of tools to help them provide 24 hours worth of news  every day of the week.
Reporte 98.5 FM has a host of tools to help them provide 24 hours worth of news, every day of the week.

“We’re here to gather information,” said fellow reporter Héctor Cano. “We’re the first to see the problems and we provide options and solutions.”

Reporte 98.5 FM added motorcycle mounted reporters to its staff nine years ago when it changed its format to all news 24 hours a day. The reporters’ information goes out live, by cell phone or radio from the scene to two million listeners in the Mexico City metro area.

“It’s a huge service to our listeners,” said the station’s Director of Operations, Beatriz Fregoso. “They’re the first on the scene and they give our listeners the first view of the situation.”

The station divides the city into eight zones, which it covers with 30 riders divided between two shifts, the first starting at 6 a.m. and ending at 2 p.m. when the second starts and runs until 10 p.m., Monday through Saturday.

Gonzàlez’s day starts at 4 a.m. when he gets out of bed to prepare for a 7 a.m. rendezvous with the station helicopter at the airport for a two-hour traffic reconnaissance before returning to his motorcycle for additional reporting from the ground. By mid-morning, as the early commute is slowing down, he begins the second part of his job description, circling his assigned zone on the lookout for breaking news.

Back at the station, traffic reporter coordinator Mario Rodriguez sits in a small, windowless room, its walls covered with soundproofing material to muffle the squeals of a dozen police and emergency radios he monitors with an assistant, alerting his riders by phone or radio to unfolding action. A typical day can include such events as a political demonstration, a crime or accident scene and a last-minute political announcement. Whatever happens, you can expect the Katana-mounted reporters to be the first on the scene.

Hmmm   .
A typical day can include last-minute political announcements as well as crime and accident scenes.

“[A motorcycle is] the fastest way to get anywhere in this traffic,” said Gonzàlez. “On a motorcycle we can beat any other reporter to the scene.”

“It’s the fastest, but it’s also the most dangerous,” added Cano. “It’s difficult because the cars don’t respect you. In Mexico City, there is no motorcycle culture, so you have to ride aggressively like a car.”

When it comes to combating cages, the weapon of choice for the “reporteros de moto” is a Suzuki Katana. The Katana’s combination of an aggressive, yet upright riding position, bullet-proof, low-tech simplicity and just enough ground clearance to hop curves, make it the optimal working streetfighter.

“The Katana is the perfect motorcycle in the city,” Gonzàlez said. “If we have to report on a demonstration or protest march and we have to drive an hour at a walking pace it won’t overheat on us.”

“It’s comfortable for riding all day, with plenty of room for all our gear,” added Cano.

Modifications to the motorcycles are limited. Jetted carbs and a Two Brothers slip-on are the only performance enhancements on the Michelin Pilot Power shod machines. Custom green and black paint, along with a flashing orange light, give the riders increased visibility. A radio, cell phone, digital camera and tape recorder are all stowed in a makeshift tailpack and a magnetic tank bag.

Always ready for the next breaking story, Reporte’s motorcycle reporters are part of the cycling elite in Mexico City.

The rest of the modifications are personal; a set of carbon fiber turn signals here, a chrome cover there, polished rims, a sticker on the front fender; all subtle hints at the attitude that goes with reporting from a motorcycle.

Ask the riders what traditional reporters think of them and all you get is averted eyes and slight smirks. Look past their laid-back attitude and you see their fighter pilot crew-cuts and calculating, gunfighter eyes. Move over Katie Couric. These are the rock stars of the news world. No hazardous duty pay here, motorcycle reporters pull the same salary as their desk-jockey counterparts. Their only incentive is the rush that comes from speeding to the scene on a motorcycle and being the first to arrive.

“Normal reporters arrive later to ask follow-up questions,” Gonzàlez said proudly. “They go to the press conference, all asking the same questions and all getting the same answers. We have the action life. I don’t like the office or sitting at a desk.”

Those interested in becoming motorcycle reporters need only two qualifications; that they be university-educated journalists and that they can ride a motorcycle.

“Those are the only two qualities we care about,” said Fregoso. “If they don’t have a voice for the radio, we can train them.”

“It takes a certain character to be interested in this job,” she added. “Our normal reporters have no desire to ride the motorcycles. They see it as too risky. We have lots of kids just out of school who want this job. They like the suit and they like the motorcycle, but they’re too reckless. All of our motorcycle reporters are very experienced professionals.”

Reporte 98.5 FM motorcycle reporters scour their assigned areas every day to find breaking news

Following them on the street, the motorcycle reporters are fast, but smooth, frantic, yet focused. More calculating and cool than hooligan, they ride like seasoned racers on the world’s most dangerous track. Walking down a crowded midday sidewalk, they blast by like anime warriors in a postmodern urban jungle; flashy, yet anonymous, their faces hidden in SWAT team balaclava hoods behind tinted faceshields.

The rider’s work clothes are a pair of Sidi Corsa boots, a Nolan flip-front helmet and a locally-produced Manauilli suit of race leathers that match their green and black motorcycles. It’s battle dress uniform, because even these highly experienced, consummate professionals occasionally meet the pavement.

At 27-years-old, Efren Arguelles is the “baby” of 98.5’s motorcycle staff. One year ago, a major accident put him in the hospital for two weeks with a broken collarbone and broken bones in his hands that required surgery. Six months later, he was back in the mix, reporting from his Katana. Gonzàlez has had two accidents in his seven years as a motorcycle reporter, one involving a city bus who sandwiched him into a parked car. Two years ago, Cano went down when a summer storm turned the surface of the dusty, gritty pavement into grease. A relatively minor accident in the motorcycle reporter’s world, Cano sees it as hardly worth mentioning.

“I didn’t break anything,” he shrugged. “I was back to work in just three days.”

Fatalities, though rare, sometimes happen. And if that’s not enough to make the average rider put his helmet on the shelf, the dangers aren’t limited to traffic. In some of Mexico City’s tougher barrios, mounted reporters have been known to be assaulted and robbed. It’s “mean streets” like you’ve never seen them before.

Reporte 98.5 motorcycle reporters try to get to the scene as fast as possible  whether it be a political rally or robbery.
Reporte 98.5 motorcycle reporters try to get to the scene as fast as possible, whether it be a political rally or robbery.

But those streets are also the lifelong home of Gonzàlez, Cano and Arguelles, all Mexico City natives who learned to ride in high school when a motorcycle was their only form of transportation (Surprisingly, all three now only have cars as their personal vehicle, each citing the fact that they feel safer in an automobile when cruising in city traffic on their own time).

Of the 30 motorcycle-mounted reporters that 98.5 uses, all are male, their ages ranging from mid-20s to late-40s. Two other radio stations in Mexico City use motorcycles (CBR1000s, Katanas and Sportsters), along with one television station. The stations’ use of motorcycles reflects a growing trend throughout Mexico City.

“With traffic conditions continually getting worse, motorcycles are becoming more of an option,” said Arguelles. “Sales of motorcycles are up all over the country and people are beginning to see them as an option for work.”

During the weekdays, from pizza delivery boys to tourist police, working motorcycles are constantly speeding by on the streets of Mexico City. The Honda Cargo, a 125cc four-stroke masterpiece of urban commuting, is the ride of choice, with Honda’s ever-present Super Cub coming in a close second. The remainder are made up of Yamaha 250 four-stroke singles, two-stroke RDs, and Chinese copies of all of the above. But in the maddening blur of two and four-wheeled traffic, the green and black racing leathers of the 98.5 motorcycle reporters set them apart as the cycling elite.

“They’re so professional and so willing to work,” Fregoso said of her station’s mounted reporters. “The public comes to them with information and trusts them like policemen. In Mexico City, the authorities hardly respect anyone, but they respect these reporters.”

But for these riders it’s not the reputation, the respect or the flashy leathers that get them to stick their neck out every day. Their motivation is simple to understand for anyone who has ever thrown their leg across a motorcycle and thumbed the starter.

“I feel very lucky to be able to work this way, because it’s my life,” Cano said. “I can’t imagine doing anything else.”