Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Cartels Stifle News Coverage

Cartels use intimidation campaign to stifle news coverage in Mexico.

The Dallas Morning News

Reynosa, Mexico – In the days since a long-simmering dispute erupted into open warfare between the Gulf drug cartel and its former enforcers, the Zetas, censorship of news developments has reached unprecedented dimensions along much of Mexico's border with Texas. A virtual news blackout has been imposed, several sources said, enforced by threats, abductions and attacks against journalists.

In the past 14 days, at least eight Mexican journalists have been abducted in the Reynosa area, which is across the border from McAllen. One died after a severe beating, according to reports that could not be independently verified. Two were released by their captors. The rest are missing.

The truth cannot be killed, by killing reporters.

Even by the vicious standards of Mexico's drug cartels, which have made Mexico one of the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists, the intimidation campaign is more far-reaching – and more effective – than other attempts to squelch media coverage of cartel activities, industry and law enforcement sources say. It is virtually impossible to safely report or verify, or even ask questions.

"We are under a virtual gag order," said Jorge Luís Sierra, a freelance journalist and researcher who lives in McAllen. "We live in silence."

Meanwhile, the unfolding war between the Zetas and the Gulf cartel, reportedly backed by gunmen from other Mexican cartels, has resulted in hundreds of deaths in recent days in the states of Tamaulipas and parts of Nuevo León, according to a U.S. intelligence official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

"More than 200 in just the past 14 days," the official said.

There has been no official estimate of the number of casualties in the recent fighting.

The official also said that cartel members had set up checkpoints on roads into Reynosa and other towns along the border and were checking vehicles.

Self-censorship

For years, the Gulf cartel has used this Mexican border region across from Texas as its smuggling base. But unlike other Mexican border areas coping with drug violence – such as Ciudad Juárez, where news coverage includes daily updates of the death toll – coverage of cartel activity is largely nonexistent in Gulf cartel country.

Media executives lament the self-censorship but insist they have no choice.

Said one high-ranking editor: "We're trying to sell credibility, but where is our credibility? And what choice do we have when no one from the local, state or federal government can protect us?"

A radio reporter, Jorge Rabago, died late last week after a severe beating, journalists said.

Missing journalists

The five missing journalists are a reporter from El Mañana, the largest news organization in the area; a freelance photographer from La Tarde, the afternoon edition of El Mañana; two journalists from an online service, and a TV cameraman, according to editors and reporters who spoke on condition of anonymity, citing daily threats.

One television reporter, Miguel Turriza of Cablecom TV, was doing an on-camera standup report when a gunbattle erupted several weeks ago, sending the reporter to his knees and crawling on the ground, looking for cover.

Some state and local government officials – possibly with an eye toward self-protection – have downplayed the situation. Tamaulipas Gov. Eugenio Hernández blamed fears on "collective paranoia."

The result has been an angry response from residents and the rise of "citizen journalism."

A woman in the nearby border town of Camargo used her phone camera to record about six minutes of video, which was posted on YouTube. The video showed bullet-riddled SUVs and what appeared to be the bodies of two men, the casings of hundreds of high-powered bullets on the ground, as well as an abandoned gas station, an empty convenience store, and soldiers at the scene of the shooting. The video also showed nearly deserted streets and what the woman describes as cut telephone and television lines.

'Look for yourself'

"The government says it is paranoia, a lie?" asked the woman, who didn't identify herself in the video. "Look for yourself, look at the empty streets. ... We don't even have garbage pickup."

She said that about 20 grenades had exploded overnight recently and that residents are fearful with "dry lips. No one even goes out to buy a kilo of tortillas anymore."

Other residents are filling the media void through an avalanche of messages on social networking sites like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. One online posting contains about two minutes of recorded audio of high-powered gunfire and grenades exploding.

"We're not crazy; we're not paranoid," said Pilar Ramírez, who was waiting outside a school for her son. "Not when you can witness bullets, gunbattles in our city."

Like many other parents, Ramírez kept her son home from school for several days because she was afraid of the possibility of crossfire near the Miguel Hidalgo elementary school in downtown Reynosa. Some schools reported absenteeism at 80 percent. The principal at Miguel Hidalgo said it was 30 percent there, to which Ramírez shook her head incredulously.

Thousands of people, including Patrícia Bocanegra, have sought temporary shelter on the U.S. side, according to the U.S. intelligence official.

"No one wants to admit a thing," Bocanegra said. "They act like we're imagining things."

Safety evaporating

In recent days, Reynosa's municipal government opened a Twitter account to inform residents of what streets are safe.

Even for those in the national and international media trying to report, the task is daunting. A reporter and cameraman from Milenio TV in Mexico City had been reporting for four days when suspected members of a drug cartel abducted them, beat them up, interrogated them and let them go with a warning. The crew took the first flight back to Mexico City.

News director Ciro Gómez Leyva, who sent the crew to Reynosa, wrote in a column: "Every day in more regions in Mexico it is impossible to do reporting. Journalism is dead in Reynosa, etcetera. I have nothing else to say."

Last week, a crew from Belo Television and a reporter for The Dallas Morning News were working in Reynosa. A stranger in jeans and a white and blue shirt approached the reporter and said: "You have no permission to report here. It's best you leave now."

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