Reporting on the Mexican Cartel Drug War

In Mexico's Nuevo Laredo, Drug Cartels Dictate Media Coverage

Wednesday, August 4, 2010 |

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.

Information war

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?!?!"

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10 Borderland Beat Comments:

Anonymous said...

I'm pretty sure the Mayor of N. Laredo was in his home in Laredo, Texas. I have heard that he owns and lives in Laredo, Texas. That is why theycan't find him.

matt said...

I was curious, what blogs are posting about what is going on that you guys follow? Borderland Beat is doing an awesome job, but are there any other voices out there that are reputable?

Anonymous said...

This is a literal war zone, albeit an undeclared narco-war zone, there is is absolutely no law and order and very much a threat to the frontera Americana; Mexico has become a fail state like Haiti, and Somalia where those with the biggest gang with the biggest guns rule the day, what sane person would want to invest in such zest pool? no one in their right mind. Mexico needs a strong man like former President Fujimori of Peru as he defeated and swept "Sendero Luminozo guerilla" in humilliation as he paraded leaders in their underware in Lima Peru. I think this is where it will eventually gravitate to, a strong man ruler.
There you have it - reason why this narco-terror is treated like petty crime, Mexican politicians are feeding off of this monster.

Valentina said...

Matt: Nope, I get a lot more information from the Borderland Beat than I do from other websites or blogs. They update everything on a daily basis and they mostly cover everything that generates directly from Mexico. So, instead of having to look for a million articles in different Mexican news papers (in Spanish), I get it all here and it's always translated and thorough. Any other source would be a waste of my time.

Anonymous said...

The last thing in the world that Mexico needs is a Fujimori, He messed up Peru and didn't save that country at all. And Uribe is not saving Colombia either.

US Right Wingers, of which many are now reading Borderland Beat, seem to only get nuttier and nuttier with the information about Mexico's crisis they are now picking up. It's very sad to read their backward and idiotic opinions. Very sad... Their thuggish support of American imperialism rubs off in all that they ever say.

Ernest1

Anonymous said...

Matt...there are dozens that I link on to at one time or another, BB has the links to those they have used info from (see right bottom column). I speak spanish but find that the google auto translation tool works best for those who do not, it automatically translates to english. Therefore you are not limited to english sites...some I would recommend; Elblognarco;narconews; narcotraficoenmexico;narcomexico;tribunaregional;blogdelnarco...there are so many and also excellent referernce articles written for various pubs (google search). as for books Murder City is the best..my friends say all the info has messed with my mind and I suppose it has and they do not want to talk about it, I feel as though I am the only one seeing the emperor is without clothes...

Anonymous said...

This has been the practice for as many years I have been in mexico, apx 6. The cartels control the media. And because few homes have the internet they rely on word of mouth and the media. about 7 weeks ago letra assisinated our 38 yr old police commander, displayed his dead body in the parking lot of one of the buildings they firebombed that weekend, this one was a huge candy warehouse. On his chest was a narco message held to his body with ice picks. That weekend 7 torches businesses and homes, 4 kidnappings and not sure how many murdered, but for sure the commander, the photo of his dead body was posted on the blogs (including BB) before the local press, that took 4 days. The body was dumped 3 blks from my offices.

Anonymous said...

blogdelnarco.com updates throughout the day; it's in spanish however. They also have a live chat and some people update on events that are happening (not always true).

Zacatecano

Anonymous said...

BB doesn't provide for anyone to go to chatroom on this blog? no?

Anonymous said...

Another helpful site is
http://el-blog-del-terror.blogspot.com/

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