Mexican reporters decry gagging in brutal drug war
After his newspaper printed a series of reports about a drug gang with ties extending from the Mexican state of Chihuahua to Los Angeles, California, the editor of El Diario in Ciudad Juarez, Pedro Torres, received a chilling phone call. “If you publish other news about this … we will kill your people,” said the voice on the other end of the line.
Threatened and intimidated by drug cartels and seemingly abandoned by authorities, journalists covering Mexico’s violent drug war are increasingly self-censoring in order to stay alive. Patricia Mercado of Imagen de Zacatecas put it simply: “We’re not doing investigations because we’re being threatened and we can’t say anything about the drug gangs.” Mexico today is considered one of the world’s most dangerous places for reporters since President Felipe Calderon launched a war in 2006 on violent cartels fighting for dominance in the lucrative drug trade. Robberies, extortions, kidnapping, threats — and worse — are part of the daily landscape for many living in Mexican border towns today.
The violence has so far claimed the lives of over 29,000 people, undermining the global image of Mexico. More than 30 media workers have been killed or disappeared since late 2006, according to U.S.-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). A recent report by the CPJ on “Silence or Death in Mexico’s Press” can be found here. Reporters covering Mexico’s escalating drug war not only are forced to contend with the drug traffickers, but corrupt local and state authorities who operate with impunity, said participants at a full-day conference on Sept. 23 sponsored by the Interamerican Press Society (SIP) and the CPJ. “We’re in the middle of two forces that are trying to limit our ability to do journalism,” said Torres. “What they’ve managed to do is to pressure us to report only the most basic news.”
Mercado said local authorities are “washing their hands of it all.” “They’re not imposing the law, their police have infiltrated the narcs. Unfortunately the federal government isn’t doing anything either,” said Mercado. “I don’t feel protected.” Last week, a photographer from El Diario, which publishes across the border from El Paso, Texas, was killed by drug gang hitmen, the second journalist from that paper to be killed in the last two years. The newspaper published an editorial on Sunday addressed to the cartels, asking them to tell the newspaper what was wanted of them, in order to avoid more deaths. That controversial stance spurred a sharp rebuke from the federal government, which vowed never to make a truce with the cartels. Members of the CPJ and SIP say they’re encouraged by recent assurances by Calderon that he will push for legislation that would make attacks on the press a federal crime. Similar legislation stalled in Congress two years ago. “It pains me that Mexico is seen as one of the most dangerous places for the profession,” the CPJ said Calderon told them in a meeting this week at the presidential palace.
But journalists on the front lines are increasingly skeptical of the ability of any authority — local, state or federal — to control the bloodshed. The United States granted asylum this week to Ciudad Juarez-based journalist Jorge Luis Aguirre, who had received a threatening phone call in November 2008, minutes after the murder of a fellow reporter, in which he was told he was the next reporter to die.
Drug violence has now spread from the border region to the northern business center of Monterrey, and has even cropped up in previously sheltered tourist havens like Puerto Vallarta and Cuernavaca, outside Mexico City. Another challenge to press freedom and safety is coming from inside the media organizations themselves. Some reporters and editors working for border area newspapers are paid off by the cartels, who pressure them not to publish certain stories.
The Pacific state of Sinaloa has a big problem with corrupt journalists, said Ismael Bojorquez of Sinaloa’s Rio Doce. Papers, he said, need to “clean house.” “You can’t do your job as a journalist if you’re on the payroll of an organized crime group,” said CPJ executive director Joel Simon. “It’s happening on a large scale.” Given the risks, reporters have drastically scaled back coverage of the drug wars and violence in their cities. Specific incidents of violence mostly go unreported now, with papers publishing broader analyses, or statistical reports to keep their readers informed — and the cartels at bay.