SAN FERNANDO, MEXICO—In an effort to better connect with the men and women murdered by the Zetas drug cartel, Josh Sullivan, an investigative reporter for The Onion, eschewed modern conveniences and the comforts of home for a month, going undercover and posing as a corpse in a mass grave to gain an intimate understanding of the victims’ plight.
Ignoring numerous warnings, Sullivan, who earned a masters degree from the Columbia Journalism School in 1998, selflessly risked his own life by immersing himself in the unsanitary pit of human corpses to share, firsthand, the heartrending experiences of the 154 inhabitants within.
“I knew the dangers going in, but I felt bound by my employer’s sterling history of journalistic excellence to really throw myself into this story headfirst,” Sullivan, 38, said. “It would be irresponsible to simply walk up to the edge of a mass grave and peer in. To really comprehend the conditions in this area, you need to get into the thick of it, at least four or five people deep.”
“I wanted a fresh perspective,” Sullivan added. “And to thoroughly probe this problem, I had to be embedded at the bottom of the body pile. That’s where you’ll find the true horrors.”
Sullivan, who in order to gain access to the mass grave faked his death by closing his eyes and wearing the bloody clothes of a deceased resident, never revealed his true status as a living person. The investigative reporter said it took several weeks to earn the trust of the grave’s inhabitants, but he eventually started to blend in with the locals after much diligent effort.
“I really felt like I was an essential part of the community,” Sullivan said. “The way of life down there—the behavior, the traditions, the customs—it all became like second nature to me.”
According to Sullivan, he spent his days quietly observing his surroundings from beneath the heap of cadavers, but also worked tirelessly at night. His movement restricted, he managed to type away on his laptop and provide readers of his live blog with instant access to anecdotes about waking up to the sound of drug cartel members dumping freshly killed bodies into the mass grave.
Sullivan stated that while he was fully aware of the perils of his assignment, he realized he had to expose the gruesome conditions rather than worrying about his own safety or well-being.
“You can’t imagine how cramped and filthy it was—a truly forgotten corner of the world,” said Sullivan, adding that many of the locals had few possessions and were often dressed in rags or simply naked. “It was utterly inhumane. I saw entire families packed into a space that wasn’t much larger than a refrigerator.”
Acknowledging his commitment to outstanding journalism, Sullivan said it was vital to steep himself in the world of the mass grave completely, and he stressed the importance of actually touching the rotting occupants, smelling the various stages of decay, seeing the decomposing elderly and infants, hearing the maggots consuming flesh, and tasting the soil beneath which he was buried.
While Sullivan can finally admit he suffered greatly during the harrowing experience, the journalist takes pride in the fact that his investigative report has helped to improve conditions for the dead bodies, which now have cleaner and more spacious mass graves.
Colleagues in the journalistic community said Sullivan’s work was historic and worthy of recognition for its excellence in Breaking News Reporting, International Reporting, Investigative Reporting, and Public Service.