By William Booth
Washington Post Staff Writer
Nuevo Laredo, Mexico - Two weeks ago, Mexican soldiers clashed here with drug cartel gangsters in running gun battles that lasted five hours. The outlaws hijacked vehicles, including a bus, for use as barricades and battering rams. Terrified residents scrambled for safety. At least a dozen people were killed, including bystanders. Children were wounded in the crossfire.
Not a single word about it appeared in the local news media.
Nuevo Laredo has three television news channels, four daily newspapers and at least five radio stations that broadcast news, but every outlet ignored the biggest story of the year. Nuevo Laredo is not an isolated village but the busiest city along the U.S.-Mexico border, a vital U.S. trade partner with a population of 360,000, professional sports teams, universities and an international airport.
Fearing for their lives and the safety of their families, journalists are adhering to a near-complete news blackout, under strict orders of drug smuggling organizations and their enforcers, who dictate -- via daily telephone calls, e-mails and news releases -- what can and cannot be printed or aired.
"We are under their complete control," said a veteran reporter, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. Editors and managers of news organizations who agreed to speak with The Washington Post insisted that the interviews take place away from their offices, at back tables in empty bars. "The cartels have eyes and ears inside our company," one editor said.
On Friday night, assailants tossed a grenade at the front door of the Televisa affiliate in Nuevo Laredo. The blast shattered windows but caused no injuries. The television station did not report on the attack, and neither did its competitors.
In the 400-mile arc along the South Texas border, millions of Mexicans live without news of the spectacular violence swirling around them.
"The chaos, the disintegration we are seeing in the Mexican media as the drug war continues is without precedent," said Rosental Alves, director of the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas at the University of Texas at Austin.
Mexican soldiers clashed in Nuevo Laredo with drug cartel gangsters in running gun battles that lasted five hours.
The news blackout extends to government officials. In Nuevo Laredo, the mayor mysteriously disappears for days and refuses to discuss drug violence. The military general who presides over the soldiers patrolling the city does not hold news conferences, issue statements or answer questions from the media. Neither do local representatives of the federal police and prosecutors.
"Intimidation and coercion have been taken to an extreme level. This drug war is also a war of information. The cartels are now telling reporters what they can and cannot print, and the drug organizations themselves are the content providers," said Carlos Lauria, the Latin America director of the Committee to Protect Journalists. "The Mexican government cannot lose this fight over information. It is at the very center of democracy."
Lauria said Mexico is one of the most dangerous countries for a reporter to work in. More than 30 journalists have been killed or have disappeared since President Felipe Calderón launched his U.S.-backed offensive against organized crime in December 2006. More than 25,000 Mexicans have died.
Last Monday, four journalists were kidnapped after they covered a protest at a penitentiary where the warden allegedly armed inmates and allowed them to leave the prison at night to carry out assassinations, including a massacre last month of 17 young people attending a party in a nearby town.
In its newspaper Wednesday, the Milenio news organization reported that its abducted cameraman contacted his editor Monday evening and said the lives of the kidnapped journalists depended on the television station broadcasting raw video posted on a Web site called Blog del Narco, which showed masked gunmen interrogating local police officers. The national news network broadcast the three unedited videos.
Milenio said the kidnappers "were unhappy with our coverage" about the prison. The federal police chief said Saturday that the journalists were snatched under orders of Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán, leader of the Sinaloa cartel. The four have been released.
After the gun battles two weeks ago, the U.S. Consulate in Nuevo Laredo warned Americans in the city to remain indoors. Authorities at the Interior Ministry in faraway Mexico City later issued a statement saying 12 people were killed: nine suspects, two civilians and one soldier. Twenty-one people, including three children, were wounded, authorities said.
But journalists in Nuevo Laredo who went to the scene of the street battles said that 20 or 30, possibly more, people might have been killed but that they had no way to check. The ordinary work of reporters in conflict zones -- going to the hospital and morgue, attending funerals, talking with widows -- is impossible in Nuevo Laredo. Witnesses told reporters that Mexican soldiers shot gang members lying wounded on the ground, but this could not be confirmed.
"We live in a world of rumors now," said Emilio Girón Fernández Jáuregui, president of the Nuevo Laredo Chamber of Commerce. His wife and daughter sort through Facebook and Twitter feeds for information about which routes are safe and where gunfire is occurring, but Fernández said many of the postings are pranks, or worse, "designed to increase the fear, the panic."
Insiders in the media
After ignoring the story about the gun battles, the newspaper La Tarde printed gruesome photographs on its front page of four bodies left at the city's bull ring July 25. Alongside the corpses were their executed pets, a small brown dog draped on one man's bloody chest, a white cat in the hand of another.
Rambling placards, called "narco-messages," left with the bodies tied one of the dead to a grenade attack that killed one and injured more than a dozen at a soccer field.
Journalists in Nuevo Laredo and other cities under siege say crime reporters typically receive word from colleagues and intermediaries, who they suspect are employed by the cartels, about what is safe to publish and what is not. Until recently, Nuevo Laredo and surrounding cities were relatively calm compared with other parts of Mexico, but war has broken out here between the Gulf cartel and its former enforcers, the Zetas, as they vie for the billion-dollar smuggling routes into the United States, the world's largest consumer of illegal drugs.
"They are very vicious, these Zetas, and there are times when there's an official Zeta press release, an e-mail or a sheet of paper, that they want published," said Diana Fuentes, editor of the Laredo Morning Times in Texas, whose reporters work in Mexico. "The criminal organizations have their representatives in the press."
In the absence of professional news gathering, citizens post on Twitter and Facebook, but these efforts have quickly become corrupted, as users spread rumors and lies, along with solid information. "Please confirm!" begs a tweeter about news of a gunfight that turned out to be the grenade attack at the Televisa station. "Is it safe or not?!?!"