Dangerous Reporting: Journalists in Mexico's Drug War (Part III)

Dangerous Reporting: Journalists in Mexico's Drug War (Part III)

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Editor’s Note: Earlier in April, the Inter-American Press Association (IAPA) held its midyear meeting in San Diego, Calif., where the organization presented recent reports on press freedom in various nations. Those reports are the basis for the following article, part of a series examining the state of journalism in Latin America. Part 1 focused on Mexico and Cuba, and Part 2 focused on IAPA findings in Central and South America. The following article is about the threat to press freedom from Mexico’s drug wars.

SAN DIEGO, Calif.--Numbers never give the whole picture, but do help to get some sense of a situation. Since Mexican President Felipe Calderon began his crusade against the drug cartels four-and-a-half years ago, 30 journalists have been killed or disappeared, turning the country into one of the most dangerous for journalists in the world.

Last year alone, attacks against journalists and media outlets spiked 60 percent over previous years, with 10 assassinations, according to journalists speaking at the recent Inter-American Press Association (IAPA) meeting in San Diego, Calif. So far, they said, no perpetrators have faced trial.

Attacks have also hit media installations. Organized crime has even bought out complete daily editions of local newspapers to stop their circulation. The Mexican Commission on Human Rights has filed more than 80 claims from journalists.

Editors and news executives from media outlets have eliminated bylines of authors to protect them. They have also eliminated or reduced investigative reporting, or have downright avoided running stories that might compromise the safety of personnel or installations.

Citizens of many cities in Northern Mexico have resorted to online social networks to alert themselves about organized crime attacks, because no media outlet will dare report them. Many Mexican working journalists now accept “off the record” comments and are more careful about their questions and whom they ask.

Some journalists frankly admit they are falling into self-censorship, which endangers freedom of the press. By default, it also damages the fragile sense of democracy that began in 2000, when former President Vicente Fox defeated seven decades of continuous government control by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (or PRI). National excitement over that victory has now turned into hopelessness, in spite of claims by President Calderon that he is winning a war that has tallied more than 36,000 victims.

“There are very few journalists that do investigative reporting. Most media organizations basically report the official reports (government press releases),’’ declared Adela Navarro Bello, one of the two directors of the weekly Z Magazine. That nationally distinguished magazine has earned a reputation for its in-depth reporting on organized crime and government corruption in the northwestern part of Mexico.
Navarro added that in spite of the Mexican government hoopla about the gains against the drug cartels, executions in the country this year already exceed those of 2010.

She noted that regardless of all the arrests of drug traffickers announced so far, the big shots are still free –especially Joaquin Guzman Loera, known as “El Chapo,” and Ismael Mario Zambada García, called “El Mayo,” leaders of the Sinaloa Cartel, the most powerful in Mexico. A growing number of sources say Loera and García operate under the protection of highly placed officers in the administrations of Fox and Calderon.

A Matter of Trust

The problems of local and national journalists assigned to stories related to the drug cartels increase tenfold when confronted with the fact that almost no one wants to talk and those who do usually ask to be interviewed off the record, with no way to confirm their statements.

Victims usually fear retaliations and often avoid reporting attacks. Government officials usually “pass the buck,” and their best response is that the crime is “under investigation.”

Even in cases in which suspects are arrested there is no reliable way to find out if they are indeed guilty. Suspects quite often confess things under torture while in detention, and more often than not prosecutors are incapable of building their cases, resulting in the fact that more than 90 per cent of suspects are set free for lack of evidence.

“You can’t trust nobody,” said Tracy Wilkinson, Mexico bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times.

Wilkinson said taxi drivers could be informants called "falcons," who alert drug traffickers about law enforcement or unusual activities, and politicians feel they’re better off saying nothing. Also, she said, “Businessmen can have pacts with the drug traffickers." She and her staff had to take numerous precautions when reporting about the cartels, Wilkinson said.

Navarro of Z Magazine says her magazine's ability to lead the way in reporting about the drug cartels and break stories that no other Mexican media dare touch is "a specialty."

"We have created teams of reporters and photographers, but we don’t put bylines," she said. She recalled that before he passed away from complications due to cancer, J. Jesus Blancornelas, one of the magazine’s founders, oversaw all investigative reporting. He could sign articles with his name because he had a security corp of 18 police officers after he survived an attack in November 1997 which nearly killed him and cost the life of his personal security guard.

During Z Magazine’s three decades of publication, two of its journalists have been executed--Hector Felix Miranda, in 1988, co-founder of Z Magazine, and Francisco Javier Ortiz Franco, executive editor, killed in 1994. The Z Magazine offices also were bullet ridden once, and more than one weekly edition has been partially or completely bought by organized crime as soon as it hit the newsstands.

Still, Navarro said, the magazine has managed to cultivate its own reliable sources. She added that the magazine’s strong reputation has enable the staff to get the confidence of honest government officials, law enforcement officers, judges and readers who trust in their editorial integrity. Navarro stressed that Z Magazine only publishes information that has been confirmed, often by several sources.

Cartels Threaten Right to Information

For the most part, Mexican journalists agree that the drug cartels, as well as pressure from the government, have altered the way they report the news. They accept that this situation threatens the right of citizens to vital information.

Along the U.S.-Mexican border and similar regions, reporters feel the most pressure because that’s where the drug cartels dump “goods” destined for the United States. Border areas are also the entry point of cartel proceeds-- money or arms used to guard their markets.

When asked, most Mexican journalists working on border towns say they love and honor their profession but have to keep in mind not only their personal safety, but also the safety of their families. They have little or no protection from authorities.

Executives of mainstream Mexican media claim they are doing their best to protect their staff, as well as the editorial integrity of their organizations. However, they also recognize that the climate of violence harassing the country has put a lid on the way they report the news.

Others believe that the war on drugs has been overplayed and news organizations have fallen into the trap of “highlighting violence,” as a way to attract more readers.

“Organized crime has also sought to highjack the mass media and use it to its advantage,” said Roberto Rock, chief executive editor of El Universal, one of the most influential dailies in Mexico with national circulation, and signatory to a recent accord by more than 50 news organizations that aim to lower the profile of the narco-news now commanding most front pages of the country’s dailies.

“We have to diversify the news coverage agenda and stimulate the debate of ideas,” Rock added.

However, not every news organization subscribed to this accord, and some have derided measures like it as nothing but a government strategy to control the public agenda so close to national elections for a new president. Even so, most journalists recognized that freedom of the press in Mexico has become yet another victim of the impunity and corruption entrenched at the highest level of government--well-oiled by money from the drug cartels.