A friend of mine is an investigative reporter with a national Mexican newspaper. He has been covering crime and corruption for decades. But the last time I saw him, he was not at ease.
We met recently for coffee at a busy Mexico City restaurant, and while we talked his eyes darted to the next table, where a man with a military crew cut sat alone in a puffy black jacket, conspicuously not eating. Was the guy scoping out my friend, who had covered the December 2009 marine operation that killed Arturo Beltrán Leyva, one of Mexico’s most powerful drug kingpins? In apparent reprisal, a marine’s family was slaughtered at home, and my friend worried the wrong people had figured out his role in reporting the takedown. He didn’t relax until the guy left the café.
Such paranoia among the Mexican press is pervasive, and with good reason. Mexico is now the most dangerous country for journalists in the Western hemisphere. According to a recent report issued by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), at least 30 Mexican journalists have been killed or have disappeared since President Felipe Calderón began his assault on the illegal drug trade in 2006. Investigations into the murder of journalists are consistently “negligent,” according to the CPJ report; 90 percent of such deaths remain unsolved.
This culture of virtual impunity has resulted in widespread self-censorship among the Mexican media: some news outlets stick to vague details and mundane facts; some skip author bylines; others forego drug-related coverage all together. One Reuters photographer recently described how his attempt to cover the murder of 72 people in Tamaulipas State unraveled. Even writers like my friend, based in the relative safety of the capital, watch their words.
“What are we supposed to do? We have to take these measures; we have to censor ourselves,” says Don Teodoro Rentería, vice president of the Mexico-based advocacy group Federation of Latin American Journalists. “We have been silenced,” echoes Hilda Luisa Valdemar, president of the Federation of Associations of Mexican Journalists, which has endeavored, with admittedly little success, to push the federal government to formalize protections for reporters.
For now, journalists who risk covering drug-related violence have few places to turn for protection. “The reality is that criminal organizations have penetrated every level of government, and filing a complaint with the Attorney General’s office exposes you,” says Francisco Gómez, a crime reporter who has been directly menaced as a result of his reporting. In one instance, Gómez saw his partner threatened at gunpoint. But neither saw the point in going to the police.
So what can the press do? In September, El Diario, a newspaper based in Ciudad Juárez, tried to draw the world’s attention to the problem with a front-page editorial pleading for guidance from drug lords, whom it addressed as “the de facto leaders in this city.” The editorial asked them “to explain to us what you want from us, what you intend for us to publish or not publish, so we know what to expect.” The semi-serious deferential gesture was a reaction to the September 16 murder of El Diario’s 21-year-old photographer, Luis Carlos Santiago; it was the second killing of a staffer since 2008. The paper’s director, Pedro Torres, said he “wanted to provoke a reaction that would call attention to what’s happening in Juárez.”
As the op-ed became international news, President Felipe Calderón met with the CPJ and the Inter American Press Association (IAPA), promising to institute a slate of protections for journalists. He also pledged support for legal reforms to stiffen penalties for the escalating number of crimes against the press. But details are still in the works, and, given the government’s record, it is unlikely that Calderón’s plans will have much of an impact. Mexico already has a special prosecutor devoted to solving crimes against the press, but the office has a tiny budget and a barebones staff and has been largely ineffective since it was created in 2006. Its 2009 report says the office has reviewed 108 cases and accepted 99, but fails to mention how many of those have been solved. According to Valdemar, that number is zero. Likewise, a government initiative to federalize anti-press crimes has been gridlocked in Congress since October 2008.
But if government inaction is a main culprit, the nature of the news itself has also made life hard for the Mexican media. Even newspapers used to covering the issues of a blighted city like Juárez—crime, a spate of female homicides in the ’90s, NAFTA, immigration—now find themselves facing the demands of coverage that more closely resemble those of war reporting. Border towns like Reynosa and Monterrey have watched the rule of law vanish as criminal groups seize control—erecting sophisticated roadblocks, cruising the streets in vehicles brandished with gang logos, stringing headless bodies from bridges. Since 2006, 28,000 people have died in Mexico as a result of the drug wars, kidnappings have skyrocketed, and gory headlines have become de rigueur.
In many respects, Mexican journalists are ill-prepared for these conditions. And while foreign correspondents assigned to Mexico often go to boot camps with ex-soldiers, who carry out mock kidnappings and teach them to duck and cover from explosions in the wilderness, local journalists, who would benefit from such training, rarely get it. “You see reporters in conflict situations and all they’ve got is a notebook and a pen, and I’ll ask them, ‘Is your phone charged? Does anyone know you’re here?’” says Gómez. “You’d be surprised how many say no.”
Lately, a few blogs, like the anonymous El Blog del Narco and La Parada Digital, have picked up where the mainstream media have left off. But these are no substitute for the sort of established, accountable press that is being diminished by fear and violence.
Last month, the United States granted asylum to an editor from Juárez who crossed into El Paso after receiving a death threat in 2008. “I live in exile in a foreign country in order to avoid being murdered for my work as a journalist. I left my office, my house, my friends,” he testified before the U.S. Senate. “Sometimes, I look at the mountains of Juárez and, like many people, dream of a city that is no longer a paradise for drug cartels, but a safe and dignified place where I can live with my family.”
Maybe, at that point, dignity will extend to the press, as well.
Mary Cuddehe is a writer in Mexico City.