New York Times
Reynosa, Mexico — The big philosophical question in this gritty border town does not concern trees falling in the forest but bodies falling on the concrete: Does a shootout actually happen if the newspapers print nothing about it, the radio and TV broadcast nothing, and the authorities never confirm that it occurred?
As two powerful groups of drug traffickers engaged in fierce urban combat in Reynosa in recent weeks, the reality that many residents were living and the one that the increasingly timid news media and the image-conscious politicians portrayed were difficult to reconcile.
“You begin to wonder what the truth is,’’ said one of Reynosa’s frustrated and fearful residents, Eunice Pena, a professor of communications. “Is it what you saw, or what the media and the officials say? You even wonder if you were imagining it.’’
Angry residents who witnessed the carnage began to fill the void, posting raw videos and photographs taken with their cellphones.
“The pictures do not lie,’’ said a journalist in McAllen, Texas, who monitors what is happening south of the border online but has stopped venturing there himself.
The Mexican government’s drug offensive, employing tens of thousands of soldiers and federal police officers, has unleashed ever increasing levels of violence over the last three years as traffickers have fought to protect their lucrative smuggling routes.
Yesterday, shootings killed 24 people in Guerrero, a Mexican state on the Pacific that has been plagued by drug gang violence, the Associated Press reported. The gunbattle erupted when attackers opened fire on soldiers patrolling the town of Ajuchitlan del Progreso. Ten gunmen and one soldier were killed, police said. Thirteen other people were killed in several other incidents.
Journalists have long been among the victims of drug cartel murders, but the attacks on members of the media underway in Reynosa and elsewhere along a long stretch of border from Nuevo Laredo to Matamoros are at their worst.
Traffickers have gone after the media with a vengeance in these strategic border towns where drugs are smuggled across by the ton. They have shot up newsrooms, kidnapped and killed staff members, and called up the media regularly with threats. Back off, the thugs said. Do not dare print our names. We will kill you the next time you publish a photograph like that.
“They mean what they say,’’ said one of the many terrified journalists who used to cover the police beat in Reynosa. “I’m censoring myself. There’s no other way to put it. But so is everybody else.’’
When they are not issuing threats, journalists say, the drug runners are buying off reporters with everything from cash to romps with prostitutes. The traffickers are not always so press shy. When they post banners on bridges expounding on their twisted view of the world or commit some particularly gory crime, they often seek out media coverage. But not now. And the virtual news blackout along the border has amplified fears, as false rumors of impending shootouts circulate, prompting many parents to pull their children from school and businesses to close.
It means that a mother can huddle on the floor of a closet with her daughter for what seems like an eternity as gunfire is exchanged outside their home, as occurred here recently, and then find not a word of it in the next day’s paper.
Even some authorities acknowledge that without news reports, it is harder for them to get a full picture of how much blood is spilled overnight.