26 December 2010

Mexican media muzzled by drug war

CIUDAD JUÁREZ, Mexico - After an inexplicable one-day lull that had the feel of a divine intervention, the deadly narco violence that has claimed more than 7,000 lives here in three years resumed Dec. 5 with new ferocity.
CIUDAD JUÁREZ, Mexico - After an inexplicable one-day lull that had the feel of a divine intervention, the deadly narco violence that has claimed more than 7,000 lives here in three years resumed Dec. 5 with new ferocity. In the space of four hours, Lucio Soria, 60, a police beat photographer for the newspaper El Diario, covered four widely separated shootings in which seven people, including four city policemen, were cut down. "There"s a killing, they executed a policeman. It"s at Puerto y Palos and Puerto Santa Maria," he shouted into his cell phone as he raced south along the levee, running red lights and blasting over speed bumps. Always a hard-charger who often arrived first on the scene, Soria once covered 17 killings in a single day. But now he thinks more about staying alive than about scoops. "Years ago, I"d go to a crime scene without telling anyone, trying to get an exclusive. Now we all go together because of the danger," he said of the local news media. Always a dangerous place to be an aggressive reporter, Mexico in 2010 became a killing ground, with 10 reporters slain and several more reported missing. "This year has been the worst in Mexico, as the self-censorship there has increased as dramatically as have the murders of journalists," said Ricardo Trotti of the Miami-based Inter American Press Association, or IAPA. Since President Felipe Calderón took office in 2006, at least 35 Mexican journalists have disappeared or been killed, including two of Soria"s colleagues, according to the New York City-based Committee to Protect Journalists, and none of the cases has been solved. Many more journalists have been threatened, beaten or kidnapped. At least four are seeking political asylum in the United States, citing death threats. Countless others, faced with the devil"s choice of "plata o plomo" (silver or lead), simply have been silenced, choosing self-censorship over death. And there is nothing subtle about the proposition. "I was picked up in 2004 by an armed group and spent an hour with them. They told me to stop publishing certain things, to stop writing about them, which is why the word Zeta has not appeared in our paper since then," said one Mexican editor who did not want to be identified, even by region. "I think it is terrorism against society. And that"s their goal. The press is a voice, and if they can silence it by intimidation, they can dominate society," he added. One result is the withering of reliable local reporting about narco violence in vast areas of the country, undermining an already fragile Mexican democracy and leaving many citizens distrustful of the press and forced to look elsewhere for information. "There is a loss of prestige and credibility with the public because they think we are sellouts. In many occasions it is true, but not in all cases. They don"t understand the danger," said a journalist from Reynosa, where things are worse than in Ciudad Juárez. In March, after the violent split between the Zetas and Gulf Cartel in Tamaulipas, attacks on journalists in Reynosa escalated. Foreign and national reporters were chased out of town. One local reporter was beaten to death, and a half-dozen others were kidnapped, with several never reappearing. "I suppose it was because they were aligned with the Gulf Cartel, and when they divorced, the Zetas killed them, to give us a lesson," the Reynosa journalist remarked. But the work of the Mexican media goes on daily, despite the risks and the obstacles. After a madcap run past public housing projects and huge white maquiladoras bearing the names Bosch and Cummins, Soria arrived at the scene of the Dec. 5 shooting in a bleak colonia of ramshackle block homes and bumpy unpaved streets. Before a crowd of wide-eyed spectators, about 20 city policemen in black ninja suits and ski masks cursed and jostled the photographers and cameramen trying to get shots of four sheet-covered bodies. "You"re putting people in danger. You guys are part of the narco nexus," one burly cop growled to a television reporter. There is no love in Ciudad Juárez between the media and the police, and because the dead were cops, the tension was much higher. "They told the Channel 44 reporter they"d put a bullet in him if he didn"t back off," Soria later remarked. Soria was a colleague at El Diario of Armando "Choco" Rodriguez, a police reporter killed in 2008. He also was a mentor of Luis Carlos Santiago, a rookie photographer killed this fall. And while there are theories about Rodriguez"s death, there is nothing about Santiago. "You can"t find a motive. He was a good clean kid. It"s a complete mystery," Soria said. Suppressing the news As the Mexican drug cartels rapidly morph into broad-based criminal organizations that seek to control everything - including the police and government - in territories they dominate, the dynamic with the press has changed. Where once a Mexican journalist risked reprisals for writing the wrong story or getting too close to a dangerous source, the media in some areas now are completely dominated. In parts of Tamaulipas, the mafias are the de facto operating bosses, dictating what is published and using the papers as propaganda outlets. In mid-October, for example, the afternoon paper La Tarde in Nuevo Laredo published gruesome photos of a decapitated woman on the explicit orders of the Zetas, according to an informed source. The murdered woman allegedly had complained to authorities about one of the Zeta leaders, and she quickly became a very public example of what happens to those who speak out. The narcos also encourage critical reporting of the military and suppress whatever they don"t want aired. This creates surreal situations in some locales where violent and spectacular events are exploding in the streets, but according to the local media, never occurred. Citizens thus are forced to look elsewhere, the most famous of alternative sources being "Blog del Narco." The mysterious online site posts stories, video of gunbattles and explicit photographs of victims, drawn from many sources, including the mafias, and ranks as the primary source for anyone interested in narco news. The violence has caused some American media outlets to stop covering Mexico. Other journalists, including longtime Mexico reporter Alfredo Corchado of the Dallas Morning News, are taking extraordinary security measures. "For too long we"ve tried telling ourselves that as foreign correspondents we"re afforded a measure of protection. We"re fooling ourselves," he said at a panel discussion this fall, and then went on to describe how he now operates. "Trust no one. Whether the reporter you once trusted, the fixer, the cabdriver, the shoeshine boy, the cop, the mayor, the federal investigator, the guy who greets you at the hotel, or even the pretty waitress - they can be working ashalcones (lookouts)," he said. The silencing of the regional Mexican media has created vast "black holes," according to a recent study by Fundación MEPI, an independent investigative entity based in Mexico City. "We"re saying close to half the country is suffering news blackouts or under-reporting of any stories related to the drug violence, and it could be greater," said Ana Arana, director of the project. "I think it"s a calculated strategy by the criminal organizations to create a psychological crisis. I think there is a war going on in Mexico, and in war, the first casualty is the truth," she said. The study compared the incidence of violent deaths to the rate of crime reporting in 11 regional newspapers, as well as the national edition of Milenio, to determine the extent of self-censorship at each paper. "In Nuevo Laredo, we found the press publishing 5 (percent) or 6 percent of the stories, and about 99 percent of those originated in Laredo, Texas. They were not covering executions. The number was zero," she said. The pervasive self-censorship at some papers leaves the citizens at a loss. "For the citizens, it"s panic. They have no way of knowing what is real or what is not. They depend on rumors, on Twitter or Facebook or on blogs, and these things are worse than the worst reporter," she said. Where an American reporter has many layers of protection, from police to company libel lawyers, Mexican reporters have few reliable allies, because the police, military and government officials often are as hostile as the criminals. This summer, representatives of the United Nations and the Organization of American States conducted a rare joint inquiry into the crisis. In a preliminary report, they noted that while the Mexican Constitution explicitly protects freedom of expression, journalists and others are facing murder and "other serious acts of aggression." "According to the information received, 64 journalists have been murdered in the last 10 years and 11 have been disappeared, making Mexico the most dangerous country in the Americas in which to practice journalism," the report noted. "In some cases, there are communities that have been completely silenced by the chilling effect of the climate of violence and impunity," it added. International media organizations also are scrambling to aid their Mexican colleagues, chief among them the IAPA, pushing Mexican leaders to support a law making attacks on reporters a federal crime. As part of its broad effort to protect Mexican journalists, IAPA representatives met twice this year with Calderón, as well as with members of the Mexican Supreme Court and other federal officials. "This was the year in which the government has shown more political will and implemented some new measures to protect the press, even though so far there have been few concrete results," said Trotti of the IAPA. "But at least now, the murders of journalists are on the country"s political agenda." But given the unreliability of a judicial system in which only a small percent of all crimes are solved, few Mexican journalists think any new legislation would help. "I"m very pessimistic. I don"t think there is a lot that can be done to protect journalists in Mexico. There is a lot of impunity. They don"t arrest anyone," said Sandra Rodriguez, an investigative reporter for El Diario. "If someone tries to do harm to us, they will do it," she said. Jorge Luis Aguirre was the first Mexican journalist to be granted political asylum in the U.S. Aguirre, who fled across the border in 2008 after receiving death threats, now publishes "La Polaka," his provocative online political report, from El Paso. "Journalism in Mexico is hell. You can"t investigate anything. You can"t criticize anyone. It"s impossible. You get threatened. You can get killed," he said. "And you are all alone. The police are your worst enemy, more than the mafia because they work for both sides, the politicians and the mafia," he said. Bribing reporters When the Mexican military killed Gulf Cartel leader Antonio Ezequiel Cardenas, better known as "Tony Tormenta," in a spectacular shootout Nov. 5 in Matamoros, it was front-page news in numerous papers in both Mexico and the U.S. But none of the four large Matamoros dailies even mentioned Cardenas, much less told their long-oppressed readers that the local crime boss was dead. And in Matamoros, where at least five journalists have been killed since 1986, this was neither a mystery nor a surprise. "The Matamoros press lost its independence a long time ago. There has been total control by the cartels for the past six or seven years," said one journalist there, who, like others interviewed, asked not to be identified. "We can"t publish anything without explicit instructions from them. There are direct contacts with the cartels," the journalist explained. Also killed in that outburst of violence in November was Carlos Alberto Guajardo, 38, a veteran police reporter for Expreso. Initial reports said Guajardo was an accidental casualty of a fierce gunbattle. Other accounts, however, link his killing to his peculiar role in press affairs. According to three Matamoros journalists who were interviewed separately, as well as three other sources, Guajardo had a close relationship with the Gulf Cartel for years. "The mafias had a chief of relations with the press. It was Carlos, but they killed him. Now they have another," a second Matamoros journalist said. A third journalist said, "It was well known that Carlos was the link. It appears it wasn"t an accident." One of the three, who had direct dealings with Guajardo, described how he operated. "Say there is a fight in Tampico, a long way off, between the cartel and the military. Carlos would call and say "This one no," so we wouldn"t publish it. Why? Who knows?" he said. Contacted in Matamoros, Ricardo Guajardo said his brother had been killed accidentally and was not linked to the cartel. Besides intimidating the press, the powers that be also influence what is written by paying the "chayo." "The reporters are getting money from the authorities, the narcos. They get it every month. Is it a payment or a gift? It"s normal," said one journalist, who acknowledged taking the chayo. "They say, "You"re going to do what we tell you anyway, so you might as well get paid." It"s cynical, but it"s the reality," the journalist said. Another Matamoros journalist described the climate in which reporters there work. "We have no one to protect us. You can"t go to an authority because you don"t know if they are involved with the mafia," the journalist said. "We don"t know if one day a vehicle will come to our house and sit there for a couple of hours. We have this fear they are there because of what we published," the journalist said. After talking with an American reporter, the Mexican said wistfully: "Yours is a beautiful world in which to be a journalist. You can tell things how they are, without the fear that something will happen to you or your family. It is a world I don"t know." Another tried to explain why he was taking the serious risk of talking to an American journalist. "I"m talking to you to rescue the reporter that is still within me, to reclaim the little bit of the dignity I have left. I"m doing this so it will be published, even though no one is going to fix the situation," he said. Explicit threats For the editors of Norte and El Diario, the two largest newspapers in Ciudad Juárez, covering the most complicated and dangerous story in town while also keeping the staff safe is an ever-changing puzzle. In 2008, Norte, the smaller of the two, basically dropped the narco story because of explicit death threats to employees, one of whom left town for months. It"s now resuming coverage, while trying to stay within the undefined lines of safety, said editor Alfredo Quijano. Pointing to a Dec. 3, front-page report about the discovery of 20 corpses in an outlying area, Quijano said: "We"re being somewhat cunning here. I"m not saying the Sinaloa Cartel is using the army to kidnap people. I"m saying 20 people appeared in a grave and their families say they were last seen at an army checkpoint." He added: "I can"t say it outright, but by us publishing this, maybe someone will look into it." Quijano, 50, said that despite the danger, reporters must not be silenced. "Someone has to do it. I believe we are the defenders of the city. It"s a bit idealistic, but I believe we are a social force to resist aggression," he said. But the nuances and rules of covering the story vary from city to city. What can get you killed in Reynosa or Nuevo Laredo is not a problem in Ciudad Juárez or Monterrey. And, since the game is ever changing, a sixth sense is required to know what can be safely published, according to one editor. As a memo posted in El Diario"s newsroom made clear, it sometimes borders on the absurd. The memo from Editor Pedro Torres sternly prohibits the use of the terms "criminals, criminal groups or capos" to refer to the violent drug cartels that are destroying the city. "These people are quite sensitive. I"ve gotten calls from them saying, "Don"t call us criminals." They don"t think they are criminals," said Torres, who issued the directive in October, a few weeks after Santiago was killed. "So if we write stories and refer to them as "La Linea or Los Aztecas." They don"t get upset and everyone knows they are criminals anyway," he added. It"s just another element of the surreal world in which Mexican journalists must work. "Everything that is happening here is absurd. How is it possible that so many people have died? Or you can get killed for 200 pesos ($18) or that someone will become a hit man knowing he will be dead within 18 months? All of this is absurd, but we have to adapt," he said. Torres said his paper is trying to cover all aspects of the story - the narcos, the police, the military and the government - every day, however it can, by constantly adapting to changing circumstances. "Journalism is like flowing water. We are always trying to see where we can go. And if there is a reaction, we back up a little."