At Risk in Mexico

Drug violence is silencing the press

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.

The situation is still the worst at the border, where the two leading drug cartels—the Sinaloa and Gulf cartels—are based and where fights over smuggling routes to the United States can be the most intense. But in the past two years, as the cartels and their private armies engage in a high-stakes battle for control of territory and smuggling routes throughout Mexico, the threats to journalists are increasingly being felt in southern states such as Veracruz and Tabasco, the west-central state of Michoacán, and traditionally safe cities like the northern industrial hub of Monterrey. The threats can range from menacing text messages and phone calls to far grislier warnings. In June, the editor of a newspaper in Tabasco that had been publishing stories about drug traffickers, arrived to work to find a severed human head propped in front of the office building. Attached was a note addressed to the editor: “You are next.”

None of the murders or disappearances has been solved, a fact that only adds to the journalists’ sense that the government can’t—or won’t—protect them. This diminution of the press couldn’t come at a worse time. In the past decade, the Mexican cartels have taken advantage of the decline of Colombia’s Medellín and Cali cartels to become some of the world’s most dominant drug smugglers. Their prize: control of a multibillion-dollar-a-year industry that provides drug users—particularly in the U.S.—their fix of cocaine, methamphetamine, heroin, and marijuana. The cartels have also expanded into side businesses—such as kidnapping, smuggling migrants, and arms trafficking—to further pump up their profits. To keep their businesses oiled and efficient, the cartels depend on the cooperation of corrupt government officials, judges, and law-enforcement officers.

In December 2006, soon after taking office, President Calderón launched an anti-cartel crackdown, dispersing more than 25,000 soldiers and more than 5,500 federal police throughout Mexico. Washington has noted Calderón’s challenge and this year approved a three-year, $1.1 billion anti-narcotics package for Mexico. But Calderón’s surge has yet to break the traffickers’ influence, and the federal police and soldiers are far outnumbered by local and state police, whose low wages make them more vulnerable to bribes and threats from the criminal gangs. Since the crackdown began, nearly five thousand people have died in drug-gang-related violence. This year is on pace to be Mexico’s bloodiest, with the number of cartel-connected deaths from January through September 2008 topping 3,200, according to a tally kept by Reforma, a leading Mexican daily.

At the center of this struggle is Ciudad Juárez, just across the river from El Paso, Texas, which has become Mexico’s most violent city. Sprawling across rugged desert in Chihuahua state, it was once known as a party town, a place Americans would flock to for its neon-signed cantinas and restaurants. But hard work also shapes the city’s image. The North American Free Trade Agreement helped turn Ciudad Juárez into a hub for maquiladoras, or assembly factories confecting everything from car parts to wide-screen televisions for U.S. export. Many of the city’s 1.3 million people work at the factories, earning about $60 a week and living in tiny cinderblock homes set off dusty roads.

To narcotrafficantes, Ciudad Juárez is considered a “good plaza,” said Jorge Enrique González Nicolas, who coordinates the city’s public defender’s office. The term refers to a drug-smuggling corridor and, in Ciudad Juárez, it means proximity to prized drug-transfer points off U.S. interstate highways. An ongoing battle to control the plaza involves Mexico’s biggest cartels, including gangs based in neighboring Sinaloa state led by the country’s most-wanted man, Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán. He is one of Mexico’s leading drug barons and fugitives, often likened to Colombia’s infamous Pablo Escobar. Guzman has repeatedly escaped from prison and has avoided extradition to the U.S., where he has a $5 million bounty on his head.

Despite the presence of some 2,500 soldiers and federal police, more than a thousand people have been murdered in Ciudad Juárez so far this year—triple the total for all of 2007. The victims include police and high-ranking government officials, some of whom had been accused of helping the criminals either out of fear or for pay. On August 6, the city’s new police homicide chief was gunned down as he stood barefoot and wearing only shorts in his driveway.

One summer afternoon, arturo chacón castañón, a twenty-seven-year-old reporter, and a photographer named Raymundo Ruiz Morales, worked the crime beat for the daily Norte de Ciudad Juárez. Their morning started at Channel 44, the city’s largest broadcaster, where the mother of a missing young girl gave interviews. After the press conference at the station, Chacón and Ruiz, a stocky thirty-eight-year-old, headed to the airport to cover the police transporting eleven high-level hit men to Mexico City. Sitting in their car after the perp walk, Ruiz and Chacón talked about the narcocorridos, the polka-like ballads that pay homage to drug traffickers and narrate their criminal sagas. The songs, which have a cult following in Mexico, are sometimes broadcast over police scanners after a drug gangster is nabbed. They are meant to both mock and intimidate police and journalists. “It’s pretty chilling when you hear that music come through,” said Ruiz. “It’s like the bad guys are saying, ‘We know exactly what you’re up to. We’re watching you.’ ”

Back at the newsroom, Chacón sat in a worn swivel chair and wrote. His stories are short and bare-boned. A copy of one of his recent front-page stories sat on his small desk. Its lead read like many others here: “Six people, among them a woman, were assassinated yesterday in different parts of the city, bringing the total homicide count in the last 24 hours to 17, according to the local attorney general’s office.” A rundown followed of where and how the victims were found. One man was rolled “in a grey blanket, his face wrapped in gauze and covered with a plastic bag.” The article closely hewed to the police report. There is no analysis or context. No follow-up. “What am I supposed to do, ask the police for more information and look like some snoopy reporter? And what if the cop I ask is mixed up in the crime himself?” said Chacón. “We don’t know who to trust.”

Chacón has attempted investigative work. Early this year, he explored links between the skyrocketing number of stolen cars in Ciudad Juárez, criminal gangs, and the big family-owned, scrap-metal yards that are increasingly shipping metal to Asia and Africa. He began connecting local business moguls to the racket. Then, Chacón said, he got a call from a ranking official at the local attorney general’s office who warned: “I hear you’re gathering some interesting stuff. For your own good, I suggest you leave it alone.” Chacón let the story go.

Ruiz has also backed off stories. Once, he says, he was tipped to a drug-stuffed safe house that had apparently been discovered by the cops. When he got there, an officer put a pistol to his side and told him to back off. “I suddenly realized what I’d walked into,” said Ruiz. The police were protecting the stash. “I got the heck out.”

Mexico’s anti-drug fight has journalists in an even tighter knot. The beefed-up military and police presence has sparked a wave of allegations by citizens of abuse, including torture, unlawful detentions, and looting. In some towns, citizens have organized protests, asking President Calderón to protect them from the troops. During a speech in September, Calderón defended the military surge and reiterated his will to “use all resources within our reach” to keep criminals from overtaking Mexico. Journalists reporting on these issues must contend with stressed-out and ill-trained soldiers, their assault rifles at the ready, and anonymous threats from government officials eager to keep the business community calm while still making good on the federal government’s pledge to nail the drug cartels. “When we report on any abuses, the military lashes out at us, asking which side we are on,” said Rocío Gallegos, the news editor at El Diario, Ciudad Juárez’s largest paper.

In February, the Norte de Ciudad Juárez decided to cut in-depth coverage of organized crime altogether and stick to official sources exclusively in the rest of its crime stories. That move came after one of its crime reporters, Carlos Huerta Muñoz, fled Mexico after getting anonymous death threats on his cell phone. “We can’t be seen taking sides in this war,” said the paper’s editor, Alfredo Quijano. “Neither side wants to be seen as losing.” Other papers have done the same, including the daily El Mañana in Nuevo Laredo, just across the border. In February 2006, unidentified gunmen took machine guns and a grenade to the newspaper’s offices, which are now barricaded by a high concrete wall. A year before, the Sonora-based daily El Imparcial adopted the same self-censorship policy after one of its young crime reporters, Alfredo Jiménez Mota, disappeared after meeting a source in April 2005. Jiménez had written frequently about traffickers and their ties to police and local prosecutors, among other government officials.

Some journalists say shutting up isn’t an option. “We must report aggressively,” said Ricardo Ravelo, an investigative reporter at the national weekly Proceso who has written books on the cartels. “If not, we risk becoming an instrument for anybody who wants to corrupt us along the way.” But when drug lords can kill with impunity, many reporters aren’t willing to test their safety. “There’s a lot of fear among reporters,” said Carlos Lauría, who coordinates CPJ’s Americas program. “They are frozen and don’t feel capable of doing their jobs.”

In Mexico, chayote (Spanish for a type of “squash”) is slang for bribe. It’s a term every journalist here knows and reflects a tradition that became standard practice during the seventy-one years of authoritarian rule by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), when politicians paid the press for favorable coverage or to remain silent. Despite promises to end it when Vicente Fox was elected president in 2000, breaking the PRI’s stranglehold on Mexican politics, the practice continues and can now involve criminal groups coercing reporters to spy and inform. “We have to talk more about our own corruption,” said Jorge Luís Aguirre, a fifty-year-old veteran journalist in Ciudad Juárez who runs La Polaka, a small online news site. Some journalists are just greedy. Others can slip once and become beholden to criminal factions. “I think some reporters cave in and just want to feed their families,” said Aguirre. At Norte de Ciudad Juárez, a staff photographer can make $150 a week, a bit more than double a factory worker’s weekly wages in the city. That rate plummets in poorer parts of Mexico, where journalists are among the worst paid in Latin America. In parts of Oaxaca, for instance, some freelance journalists get $10 for a story.

Press-freedom groups are trying to raise awareness about the disintegrating situation of journalism in Mexico. Advocates say that as long as crimes go unsolved and the perpetrators remain free, a culture of impunity will persist and test Mexico’s young democracy. “This goes beyond the press,” said CPJ’s Lauría. “It’s about the ability of Mexicans to communicate freely.” Steps taken by the Mexican government to protect press freedom have fallen short. In 2006, the Fox government created a special prosecutor’s office for crimes against journalists. But it can’t investigate cases linked to organized crime or actively prosecute cases. The office is widely considered ineffective—and even designed to fail. Some groups are now pushing for legislation that would make freedom-of-speech abuses federal crimes. State officials handle most crimes against the press, including murder. But press-freedom groups claim that local officials are often too intimidated by criminals to push investigations, or that they themselves are mixed up in the crime. Federalization isn’t a “magic solution,” said Lauría, but he argues that there must be political accountability at the highest level. In June, after meeting with CPJ board members in Mexico City, Calderón and Attorney General Eduardo Medina Mora pledged to federalize press crimes. Calderón is expected to propose legislation to do this before the end of this year.

Meanwhile, Gutiérrez, the reporter in detention in El Paso, hopes that a U.S. judge will side with his political asylum plea. The odds are against him. Violence is not necessarily grounds for asylum. Also, granting him asylum might open “a political can of worms in the U.S. and encourage other people fleeing crime in Mexico to come in,” said Carlos Spector, Gutiérrez’s lawyer.

Despite the diminishment of the press, people in Ciudad Juárez have a strong sense of what’s going on. On a sweltering August afternoon, Javier Paliria, a twenty-one-year-old taco seller waited for customers near a bridge that connects Ciudad Juárez to El Paso. In front of it stood a large wooden cross covered with nails, each memorializing the murdered and missing young women whose stories have drawn international attention and hardened the city’s violent image. Near the cross, federal police sat in black pickups and drank liter-sized Cokes. “They showed up here a few months ago,” said Paliria, nodding toward the police. “But everybody knows it’s the gangs and narcos controlling the place.” He has seen armed men rob small businesses in his neighborhood and leave their victims on the streets. “You don’t need to read the papers to know what’s going on here,” said Paliria.

“It’s right in front of you.” 

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Monica Campbell is a freelance journalist based in Mexico City. She is the Mexico consultant for the Committee to Protect Journalists.