Mexico’s media outlets have not been immune to the infiltration of drug cartels, which have reporters on their payrolls to control what gets published.
“We live under constant threats, like if a guy was pointing an AK-47 at you all the time,” Javier Valdez, a reporter with the investigative weekly Rio Doce, said.
Rio Doce is published in the northwestern state of Sinaloa, the birthplace of Mexico’s most powerful drug traffickers and a place where journalists have to tread carefully.
Valdez and several colleagues used to living amid the violence that has claimed the lives of more than 60 journalists in Mexico in the past decade shared their stories over the weekend at the International Journalists Gathering organized by the Guadalajara International Book Fair.
Even stories published without a byline can be dangerous if a co-worker tips off criminals about the identity of the reporter, Valdez said.
The war between the cartels is being waged not just with assault rifles but with censorship of the press, preventing media outlets from reporting adverse stories or victories over rivals.
The threats sometimes come via cops on the cartels’ payrolls, journalists said, adding that crooked police intervene to get reporters to scrap a story.
“We only publish about 10 percent of the information, a lot of it ends up in the files,” Valdez said, adding that it was dangerous to let a drug capo know what you know when he rides around the city in a convoy with 40 armed men.
“We wait until they kill him or arrest him,” Valdez said.
Writing small bits is better, however, than the alternative, which is to “be a hero” and get the deadly visit from the hitmen, the reporter said.
The stories that are published should be “strong, forceful and well managed,” Valdez said.
Voluntarily working with the drug traffickers, like some reporters do, often because they have no choice, can become a sword pointed at your neck, the journalist said.
“If the narco seeks you out and you publish according to his instructions, you can appear to the public to be a mouthpiece for the cartel, and then the other gang will go looking for you,” Valdez said.
In some places, like Sinaloa, “all the roads lead to the narcos,” the journalist said.
A reporter goes to do a story about farmworkers and drug money is there, and an investigation of the killings of the poor brings you up against “narcojuniors,” the sons of drug capos and their lieutenants, Valdez said.
Journalist and writer Diego Osorno, author of “El cartel de Sinaloa” (The Sinaloa Cartel), the story of the most powerful drug trafficking organization in Mexico, said reporters have to go beyond official sources, such as police, politicians and prosecutors, in covering the illegal drug trade.
“You have to have the official source, but it should not be the only one that tells us what is going on, you have to look at the narco from other viewpoints,” Osorno said.
Those viewpoints include civil society and, despite the fact that they are criminals, the drug traffickers themselves, “but without giving up control to them,” Osorno said.
“The struggle we have is to talk about the narcos beyond good guys and bad guys,” the journalist said.
A number of police officers and public officials, including former drug czar Noe Ramirez Mandujano, have been arrested and convicted in recent years for working with Mexico’s drug cartels.
Alejandro Almazan, author of “Entre perros” (Between Dogs) and one of the members of the so-called “narcoliterature” movement, discussed the literary aspects of the illegal drug trade.
“We try, in every story, to get the reader to understand that it is not just about bullet casings on the ground, or about the white lines around the bodies,” Almazan said.