Drug wars endanger Mexican press

Mexico is now considered the most dangerous country for journalists, after Iraq.

By , Staff writer

When gunmen hurled a grenade into a tiny newspaper office in this town on the US-Mexican border – an attack that left one reporter paralyzed for life – the daily El Manana quickly put up a bulletproof wall outside the entrance. From then on they sent teams covering crime out in threes – a reporter, a photographer, and an extra pair of eyes.

But the most significant change at the paper in Nuevo Laredo, the traditional epicenter of Mexico's increasingly violent drug wars, was a decision about how to cover the news itself: all local, drug-related news came off the front page and names of suspects came out altogether.

Since the grenade attack last February, the drug wars have continued to spread across the country – and attacks and threats to the press have multiplied in their wake.

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Last month a local councilman's head was left outside a newspaper office in Tabasco State, in what's become a common intimidation tactic. A prominent journalist in Acapulco was shot dead in April after leaving his radio show. Two television reporters in the northern city of Monterrey have been missing since May.

The situation is so grave here that the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders dubbed Mexico the most dangerous country in which to work as a journalism, after Iraq.

But, for many, the impact on freedom of speech is the greatest threat. Last month, after two grenade attacks, the Cambio Sonora became the first paper to preemptively shut down – and many fear more will follow.

"Over the last 20 years, the free press has been one of the most valuable tools to consolidate the democratic transition," says Gerardo Priego Tapia, president of the Special Commission to Address Aggression Against the Media in the Mexican legislature. "If we don't have information on what is happening in Mexico, we won't know how to pressure our local, state, and federal authorities," he says.

The number of journalists killed last year in Mexico varies between half a dozen and a dozen, depending on which group is counting. Mr. Priego Tapia says that his commission's numbers show that over 30 media members have been killed since 2000. But all agree that the kidnappings, death threats, and self-censorship now marring Mexico may have surpassed even what took place during Colombia's notorious, drug-fueled civil war.

ATTACKS ON PRESS MIRROR DRUG VIOLENCE

In many ways the attacks against the press mirror the increasing audacity of the drug wars, as cartels battle for lucrative drug routes into the US. The nation has been stunned in the past year by beheadings and daylight shootouts that have left innocent bystanders dead.

In December, President Felipe Calderón sent thousands of troops and police throughout the troubled areas of the country, but so far the violence has increased.

Jorge Zepeda Patterson, a prominent columnist and founder of two newspapers in Guadalajara, says that attacks by drug traffickers on the press are also defensive. "For a trafficker, it's not a big deal if the media talks about a cartel leader; what they care about is investigations of corruption among the police and politicians," he says. "Because they've invested a lot in maintaining their networks of protection, and have a lot to lose."

MEDIA RECEIVES LITTLE PROTECTION

Many outlets say they receive no protection from the local, state, or federal authorities.

While Ricardo Garza, the editorial director of El Mañana, declines to give interviews, he points to a recent edition's quote of the day from Mahatma Gandhi: "The most atrocious thing that bad people do is silence the good people." It might be ironic – given their decision to bury their local drug coverage deep into the paper – but in the absence of more support from authorities, their editorial decision to limit coverage is their only choice, he explains.

Some reporters have already quit his staff. Across the country many journalists are only skimming the surface of the news, regurgitating the official police reports from authorities without any independent investigation. Many reporters refuse to attach their names to their stories.

The federal government has moved to address the issue. Last year, in the wake of the Nuevo Laredo case, it opened the Office of the Special Prosecutor for Crimes Against Journalists.

So far they have not solved a single case, says Carlos Lauria, the Americas director at the Committee to Protect Journalists. "The Mexican justice system has not been able to solve any of these murders and attacks. Impunity is 100 percent," says Mr. Lauria, who helped push for the creation of the special prosecutor's office. "It gives a green light to the perpetrators of these crimes."

Octavio Orellana, the special prosecutor, was not available for comment.

In the meantime Priego Tapia says that his group will focus on prevention, by holding seminars to teach journalists how to protect themselves and what to do if they have already received threats or been followed. They carried out their first in Michoacán last month, and plan to reach every state capital by year's end.

One teenager, sitting in his garage in Nuevo Laredo, mocks the newspapers' decisions. "They are afraid," he says, scoffing. But when asked for his name, he declines. "I don't want to get mixed up in that."

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