Mexican drug cartels: Can journalists escape their violence?

Mexican drug cartels are assaulting the press, and so journalists are banding together to ask the Mexican government for protection.

Marco Ugarte/AP/File
Members of the press protest violence against journalists in Mexico City, on Aug. 7.

The Mexican press has been subject to assault and attack at the hands of suspected drug traffickers – including grenades launched into high-tech broadcast stations and dingy newspaper offices – for years.

Even as media watchdogs have declared Mexico one of the world's most dangerous places to report from, each outlet has had to act individually to protect its staff. Mostly they omit writer bylines and leave out crucial details of shootouts and kidnappings – if they cover the mayhem at all.

But now the Mexican media is demanding more protection, working together to draw attention to the threats the job is generating.

IN PICTURES: Mexico's drug war

The plight of journalists was forced into the national consciousness last Sunday, after the daily El Diario, based in murder hot spot Ciudad Juárez across the border from El Paso, Texas, pleaded to drug traffickers: "Tell us what you want."

The front-page editorial told drug traffickers they are essentially the de facto authorities and asked them what the paper can do to keep its staff off Mexico's growing casualties list. The editorial came days after the paper´s young photographer, Luis Carlos Santiago, was gunned down in a car at a mall in Juárez, the paper´s second reporter to be killed in two years.

Tragic as they may be, El Diario's woes are far from isolated. Mexico's National Commission on Human Rights says that 65 media workers have been killed in the past decade. The Committee to Protect Journalists says more than 30 reporters have been killed or have disappeared since December 2006, when Mexican President Felipe Calderón took office and dispatched the military to tackle organized crime. In that time, more than 28,000 people have been killed in drug-related violence.

Four journalists were briefly kidnapped in July, when they were inquiring about a mass murder in Torreon. In January 2009, gunmen launched a grenade at a popular television station during its nightly broadcast.

Newspaper editors at a meeting Thursday in Mexico City sponsored by the Committee to Protect Journalists and the Inter American Press Association detailed the threats they receive and the self-censorship they undertake to stay alive.

Some of them have been showing up in the US asking for help. Jorge Luis Aguirre, the editor of an online news site in Ciudad Juárez, was granted asylum just days ago, after fleeing to the US in the face of a death threat. He is the first journalist believed to be granted asylum by the US in the past four years, and it could have repercussions for other journalists seeking haven on American soil.

Since the majority of the cases against journalists are unsolved – as is crime in general in Mexico – it is sometimes hard to distinguish between cases in which journalists are killed for personal reasons, including for being on the payroll a certain group and killed off by a rival, and when it is their reporting that puts them in danger.

The Mexican government has been criticized for suggesting the former in some cases. But this week President Calderón also said he would unveil a plan to protect journalists in the country. Similar to a plan that helped Colombian journalists report on incidents in the height of its armed struggle, it includes greater links to authorities to report threats, greater scrutiny of why journalists are being attacked, and legal reforms to ensure safety.

IN PICTURES: Mexico's drug war

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