Under threat from Mexican drug cartels, reporters go silent
Journalists know drug traffickers can easily kidnap or kill them — and get away with it.
By Tracy Wilkinson
Los Angeles Times
A new word has been written into the lexicon of Mexico's drug war: narco-censorship.
It's when reporters and editors, out of fear or caution, are forced to write what the traffickers want them to write, or to simply refrain from publishing the whole truth in a country where members of the press have been intimidated, kidnapped and killed.
That big shootout the other day near a Reynosa shopping mall? Convoys of gunmen whizzed through the streets and fired on each other for hours, paralyzing the city. But you won't read about it here in this border city.
Those recent battles between the army and cartel henchmen in Ciudad Juarez? Soldiers engaged "armed civilians," newspapers told their readers.
As the drug war scales new heights of savagery, one of the devastating byproducts of the carnage is the drug traffickers' chilling ability to co-opt underpaid and under-protected journalists — who are haunted by the knowledge that they are failing in their journalistic mission of informing society.
"You love journalism, you love the pursuit of truth, you love to perform a civic service and inform your community. But you love your life more," said an editor here in Reynosa, in Tamaulipas state, who, like most journalists interviewed, did not want to be named for fear of antagonizing the cartels.
"We don't like the silence. But it's survival."
An estimated 30 reporters have been killed or have disappeared since President Felipe Calderon launched a military-led offensive against powerful drug cartels in December 2006, making Mexico one of the deadliest countries for journalists in the world.
But a ferocious increase in violence, including the July 26 kidnapping of four reporters, has pushed the profession into a crisis never before seen, drawn renewed international attention and spurred fresh activism on the part of Mexican newsmen and women.
The United Nations sent its first such mission to Mexico last week to examine dangers to freedom of expression. On Aug. 7, in an unprecedented display of unity from a normally fractious, competitive bunch, hundreds of Mexican reporters demonstrated throughout the country to demand an end to the killings of their colleagues, and more secure working conditions.
Few killings are ever investigated, and the climate of impunity leads to more bloodshed, says an upcoming report from the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists.
"It is not a lack of valor on the part of the journalists. It is a lack of backing," said broadcaster Jaime Aguirre. "If they kill me, nothing happens."
On the popular radio talk show he hosts in Reynosa, Aguirre chooses his words carefully. He often finds himself issuing warnings to the public on which areas of the city to avoid. Listeners don't have to be told why.
It is in Mexico's far-flung states where narco-censorship is most severe.
From the border states of Tamaulipas and Chihuahua and into the central and southern states of Durango and Guerrero, reporters say they are acutely aware that traffickers do not want the local news to "heat the plaza" — to draw attention to their drug production and smuggling and efforts to subjugate the population. Such attention would invite the government to send troops and curtail their business.
And so the journalists pull their punches.
When convoys of narco hit men brazenly turned their guns on army garrisons in Reynosa, trapping soldiers inside, it was front- page news in the Los Angeles Times in April. It went unreported in Reynosa.
After two of his reporters were briefly detained by Zetas paramilitaries later that month in the same region, Ciro Gomez Leyva, head of Milenio television, announced he was imposing a blackout on events in Tamaulipas. "Journalism is dead" in the region, he wrote. The bruised, strangled body of Durango reporter Bladimir Antuna was recovered late last year with a scrawled note attached: "This happened to me for … writing too much."
Contacting reporters in the region can seem a scene out of "The Third Man," with meetings in discreet locations and discussions that involve code: The Zetas are referred to as "the last letter" (of the alphabet), while the Gulf cartel is the "three letters" (CDG — Cartel del Golfo).
Reporters and editors in Tamaulipas and Durango say they routinely receive telephoned warnings when they publish something the traffickers don't like. More often, knowing their publications are being watched and their newsrooms infiltrated, they avoid publishing anything that risks falling into a questionable category.
Or they stick to just-the-facts government bulletins that may confirm an incident but won't offer details.
"If there's nothing official, we don't print it," said an editor from a northern newspaper. "It makes me very angry. How can I bend to the demands of those people? But I have to calculate the risk."
The journalists also keep an eye on certain websites known to have affiliation with drug cartels: If they see that a shootout or a grenade attack is being reported, they know it's OK to publish the same information.
That's why the Reynosa shootout two weeks ago wasn't reported. But a car bomb at police headquarters in the Tamaulipas state capital, Ciudad Victoria, two days later got front-page play because, editors say, the dominant Gulf wanted the rival Zetas paramilitaries (presumed authors of the bomb) to look bad.
Not that regional Mexican papers are squeamish. They will publish any number of grisly photographs of severed heads and battered corpses dangling from bridges. But not information that will offend the cartel in charge.
Social media networks such as Twitter have filled some of the breach, with residents frantically sending danger alerts. And a secretive "narco blog" has started posting numerous videos of henchmen and their victims, no matter how gruesome. But, residents say, the social media too have been usurped by traffickers, who use the system to spread rumors and stoke panic.
In Durango, where more newsmen were killed in 2009 than in any other state, broadcast reporter Ruben Cardenas said journalists could no longer do their job. "It is disinformation. It is a disservice to society," Cardenas told The Times late last year.
A few weeks later, when The Times ventured into the Durango city of Gomez Palacio to report on the kidnapping and slaying of Los Angeles civic leader Bobby Salcedo, local Mexican reporters initially shared enthusiasm for the story. But after a couple of days of publishing reports, employees at one newspaper said they were ordered, presumably by Salcedo's killers, to cease. The news, attracting attention in Los Angeles and Washington, was "heating the plaza."
Durango was also the scenario of the July 26 abductions. Four journalists were covering disturbances at a Gomez Palacio prison where it had just been revealed that the warden was allowing inmates to go out at night on killing rampages.
The reporters' employers received instructions to broadcast homemade videos from one cartel that linked its rival to corrupt cops. The videos showed police who had apparently been abducted and were "confessing" at gunpoint.
Journalists around Mexico mobilized like never before, spreading the word, demanding action from authorities and staging demonstrations. Eventually the reporters were freed. Blood still seeping from his scalp, a bruised Alejandro Hernandez spoke of the ordeal: five days of torture, beatings with a plank, threats of an ugly death.
A happy ending? The men were rescued or released only after their news outlets met the traffickers' demands and aired the cartel videos. It was the latest twist: news coverage as ransom.