Staying alive

That's the challenge for reporters covering the ultraviolent drug cartels in Mexico — but at least now they're getting tips from their Colombian colleagues

The 20 Mexican journalists had flown to the border of Guatemala to discuss how to report on drug activities and stay alive, and they listened attentively as the speakers lined up. Nearly everyone at the conference, from both Mexico and other nations, had lost a colleague or received a death threat from drug gangs that target the media. They craved tips on survival.

A computer geek spoke about encryption. Next came a lecture on dodging assailants. Talk followed about coping when the reporter in the adjacent desk works for assassins.

Then Ginna Morelo stood up, and the room went silent. The tiny but steely investigative reporter from El Meridiano de Córdoba of Colombia recounted how journalists in her country had confronted similar drug violence two decades ago. Colleagues formed a national network that eventually won state protection for the media. Competitors collaborated on investigations, coordinated publication, and even staged a news blackout to protest a killing. They convinced authorities to provide bodyguards.

“I couldn’t remain silent anymore,” she explained of her decision six years ago to co-found an investigative network that now spans the country. The organization now has 87 active members and an email list of 6,000. Reporters in the group work together on stories that would be too dangerous or unwieldy to do alone. “What began with two journalists based in Bogotá snowballed into a national movement,” Morelo said. “Forget exclusivity.”

“Wow,” whispered the reporter next to me. “This is inspiring.”

Mexico is one of the most dangerous places to commit journalism, due to the impunity of drug syndicates. More than 80 journalists have been killed and 16 kidnapped over the past dozen years, because they wrote about the activities of warring gangs. Many reporters have gone into hiding, and still more have been silenced by fear.

Desperate for help, a loose network called Journalists On Foot (PDP) began to reach out to Colombia colleagues for tips, and over the past couple of years, seasoned experts like Morelo have flown over to meet with reporters across Mexico. The common language facilitates communication, as does an understanding of what it’s like to deal with the shadowy world of drug gangs. “We believe that we can serve as a useful example for Mexicans,” said Ignacio Gómez, head of Colombia’s leading press freedom group, FLIP. He has lost track of how many seminars FLIP has conducted in Mexico for colleagues facing danger.

The workshops have spawned an informal association, from Juárez to Oaxaca, of reporters who share things—names of affordable psychologists, a couch if someone needs to flee town, photocopies of countersurveillance guides. And they have begun discussing how to lobby as a group, to win the sort of officially sanctioned protection that colleagues in Colombia enjoy. “We need a law like Colombia’s that obligates the state to act,” said Brisa Solis, who heads the National Center of Social Communication (Cencos), an NGO that has spearheaded safety training in Mexico. “We have no organized way to react. We don’t have the money to pay lawyers. There is no telephone number to call when people are threatened.”

This is not to say the cases of Mexico and Colombia are analogous. They are not.

Colombia enjoyed conditions that were more favorable to building solidarity. For starters, the world of journalism in Mexico is alienated from civil society; the general populace often views hacks as irresponsible vultures, which is not the case in Colombia. And until these recent initiatives, media workers in the hinterland lacked contact with colleagues in other towns, let alone in Mexico City, where power lies. In some cases, the bosses of Mexican newspapers live across the border in the US, and have little contact, if any, with reporters. Colombian journalists tend to be better connected.

Also, unlike in Colombia, Mexico’s media giants seem disinterested in lobbying for protection as a group, according to the Center for International Media Assistance. This leaves provincial reporters out on a security limb with no strong advocates in the seat of government. In contrast, the influential national media in Bogotá joined forces with the political elite, which had been similarly targeted by the Medellín drug cartel.

“Almost all of the attacks in Mexico have been far from the capital city, carried out against local targets, and thus drawing little sustained national attention,” noted a recent report by the center. “There is almost no contact among the local and national media in Mexico, no coordinated efforts by publishers and editors to develop a common strategy to protect their journalists.”

I spoke to dozens of Mexican journalists across the country, and nearly all said appeals for transfers to safer beats or hiring armed sentries were laughed off. Salaries are low—the average monthly wage is $650—and employment so scarce that reporters are often scared to push for their rights. Forget about strong unions. “My editor expected me to return to work right after being beaten,” one reporter from a border town told me.

At least at this stage, it is hard to imagine Mexico adopting a mechanism akin to the Colombian Regulation and Risk Assessment Committee. That body, set up a decade ago, comprises representatives from FLIP, other NGOs, and the government. They review protection requests of 16 vulnerable groups—including journalists—and provide bodyguards and bulletproof cars for those in need.

Mexico also lacks a robust judicial system to bring killers to justice. Earlier this year, Mexican lawmakers approved an amendment to the Constitution that made attacks on journalists a federal crime, and gave federal authorities the power to prosecute in geographic areas that normally fall under local or state jurisdiction. But the legislature must still pass follow-up laws to define the process.

Two years ago, frustrated by the lack of federal muscle, the Human Rights Commission in the border state of Chihuahua drew up its own list of procedures for journalists at risk, based loosely on the Colombian model. These include rotating crime reporters so they don’t fall victim to corrupt sources, and instructing police to respond immediately to threats against the media. The commission says it has also helped 20 journalists by financing armed guards or plane tickets so they can fly to other cities. Still, independent reporters say the beneficiaries are largely aligned with state authorities, and that most journalists must rely on themselves—communicating in code to avoid eavesdropping by complicit officials, for example, or traveling in large groups to crime scenes.

One local leader is Rocio Gallegos, a feisty editor of El Diario de Juárez, from the border town that long held the dubious distinction of being the world’s homicide capital. She is reminded of the dangers every day, as she sets her briefcase down across from the empty cubicle of Armando Rodríguez, a crime reporter gunned down in 2008. His work station has served as a memorial, with wilted orange flowers and a dusty portrait. The colleague on the other side of Gallegos has festooned her desk with police cordons and bullet cartridges found at drug-crime scenes.

Things got so bad in Juárez two years ago that El Diario begged drug lords to define the rules so that its journalists knew what was off-limits. WHAT DO YOU WANT FROM US? asked the editorial, which ran on the front page.

Editors never got an answer, so Gallegos took matters into her own hands. Last year, she formed an informal association of independent-minded reporters fed up with self censorship. They team up on stories and invite experts to explain such things as password protection and altering routines. They regularly check on each other’s emotional state. It’s sort of a combination support group and professional development union. “We established alliances between individual journalists so that we can watch each other’s backs,” explained Gallegos. “Scoops take second place.”

The word is spreading. A reporter from Chihuahua city who attended one session left so fired up that she formed her own chapter back home. Members are vetted to ensure they are not serving as informants of drug dealers as distrust in the newsroom is a common complaint. “We had to take the initiative,” said Patricia Mayorga, of the online publication Omnia. “No one else is looking after us.”

Yet such measures remain elusive for reporters in places like the border city of Nuevo Laredo, where the Zetas cartel commands such terror that many people don’t utter its name out loud. In July, El Mañana newspaper announced that it would stop covering violent disputes among rival groups after a second grenade attack against its offices in two months. Residents of the town rely on Facebook to learn about shootouts, which are often referred to by the euphemism “parties.” This leaves journalists wondering how they can do their job properly again.

“Collaboration wouldn’t work, because we don’t cover news any more,” dryly noted Daniel Rosas, the online editor of El Mañana. “I like the idea, though.”

So has he given up completely?

“Not at all,” Rosas said. “The decision by Ginna Morelo of Colombia to break her silence really impressed me. We have to find a way to do it here.”

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Judith Matloff teaches at Columbia School of Journalism. She is a veteran foreign correspondent. Her third book, No Friends But the Mountains, about impoverished mountain people, will be published next March. She is also the author of Fragments of a Forgotten War and Home Girl.