On November 13, Mexican crime reporter Armando Rodriguez was killed outside his Juarez home by an unknown attacker. Rodriguez covered the crime beat for the national daily El Diario for fourteen years, and had briefly been transferred to the paper’s El Paso office after receiving death threats this past February. Rodriguez was not that week’s only gang victim in Juarez: four law enforcement officers were killed over the past few days, and a police inspector was killed just a few hours after the Rodriguez’s murder, continuing a disturbing trend of gang violence.
Mexico’s gang wars are a miniature guerilla war: more than five thousand people were killed despite the crackdown on drug cartels that President Felix Calderon launched shortly after taking office in December 2006. More than thirty-six thousand federal troops were dispatched to some of the country’s trouble spots, but the killings continue unabated in the border city of Juarez, which had more than twelve-hundred gang-related homicides in 2008.
Rodriguez is the fifth journalist to be murdered in Mexico this year, and the 25th this decade, making Mexico one of the most dangerous countries for reporters. While the crime remains unsolved, the likelihood that Rodriguez was murdered in response to his reporting on Juarez’s drug gangs highlights the dangers of covering one of the continent’s most important ongoing stories. In her magazine piece for the current issue of CJR, Monica Campbell explores the impact of Mexico’s drug war on the country’s working journalists.—Armin Rosen
Emilio Gutiérrez Soto, a longtime reporter in the small desert town of Ascensión, in Mexico’s northern border state of Chihuahua, was determined to own the story of the government’s military surge in the state, an effort to crush the spiraling violence fueled by the drug cartels. Writing for El Diario del Noroeste, a sister publication of a larger paper based in the border city of Ciudad Juárez, Gutiérrez spent the last several years chronicling the cases of citizens who told him that military personnel had burst into their homes and conducted searches without permits. He reported on business owners who complained that soldiers had robbed them.
Then came the threats. An army major told Gutiérrez that he “should be afraid of us” and ordered him to stop reporting on military operations in Chihuahua. In May of this year, some fifty hooded and armed military personnel ransacked Gutiérrez’s home. They said they were searching for weapons or drugs, but found nothing and left. In June, a trusted contact called Gutiérrez after overhearing a military official mention a kill order that was out on him. Gutiérrez, a forty-five-year-old single father, took his fifteen-year-old son, a change of clothes, and his press pass and went “like hell” for the United States border, where he pleaded for political asylum. He was taken to an immigration detention center in El Paso and separated from his son, who was placed in a juvenile center and then released in August (he is still in the U.S., but Gutiérrez declined to say where). At press time, Gutiérrez remained in detention, awaiting a decision on his case.
Gutiérrez said returning to Mexico wasn’t an option. “They’ll have my head,” he said in a phone interview from the detention center.
For years, journalists in Mexico have worked in a climate plagued by violent drug traffickers and the official corruption that lets them operate with impunity. But the violence is now reaching record levels, despite attempts by Mexico’s president, Felipe Calderón, to curtail it. Today, Mexico is considered the most dangerous place for journalists in Latin America, with more than twenty reporters killed there since 2000, according to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists. Another seven have gone missing since 2005 and are presumed dead. Not surprisingly, the rising violence—and the sense that the government not only offers little protection but in some cases is just as threatening as the gangsters—is having a chilling effect on Mexican journalism. A few, like Gutiérrez, have fled the country, but for those still at work, the story of the drug traffickers is becoming increasingly off limits, even as it spreads and intensifies throughout the country. Self-censorship has become now a matter of self-preservation, and news outlets are avoiding publishing or broadcasting anything that could trigger a reprisal. For many, that means no cartel names, no witness identities, no revealing photographs. Some newspapers have dropped bylines, and others have abandoned crime stories altogether. Intimidation is a factor for every journalist, from community radio reporters to top editors at the most influential outlets.