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In Mexico, a New Breed of Crusading Reporter Faces Physical Assault

Press: Moves toward democracy have made journalists bolder. Recent attacks may have been carried out by police.

September 29, 1997|MARY BETH SHERIDAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MEXICO CITY — At first, Rene Solorio thought it was just another one of the robberies that have become as common as smog alerts in Mexico City. Driving home from dinner on a recent Friday, the TV reporter was forced off the highway by four men in a beat-up Dodge.

"I said, 'Take my car, no problem,' " Solorio recalls with the kind of urban aplomb an Angeleno might recognize. "But they said, 'This isn't a robbery.' "

The story of what followed has unnerved Mexicans. Over a seven-hour period, the assailants shot pistols near Solorio's ears, nearly suffocated him with a plastic bag and threatened him and the network's anchorman for airing a report on police corruption.

"They said that if we didn't stop broadcasting this information, they were going to kill him too," Solorio says. Finally, the assailants locked the 30-year-old reporter in his car trunk and fled.

Solorio is one of the best-known victims of what worried Mexicans are calling an unprecedented wave of violence against the country's increasingly aggressive media.

Five reporters have been kidnapped or beaten in the capital in little more than a month. What has particularly alarmed journalists, politicians and human rights groups is the suspected involvement of the capital's notoriously corrupt police in the latest attacks. The assaults appear to be a response to journalists' scrutiny of soaring crime--and the officials involved in it.

"The truth is that police investigations have become so inefficient . . . or, if you'd like to put it another way, journalistic investigations have become so efficient that those who really are doing police investigations in this country are reporters," said Felipe Calderon, leader of the conservative opposition National Action Party.

"This evidently affects big shots in the police, who are hurt by serious investigations."

Only a few years ago, the idea of aggressive Mexican media was nearly unthinkable. Mexican publishers grew rich on plentiful government advertising; reporters padded their slim paychecks with the embute--an envelope stuffed with cash given out by officials to ensure positive coverage.

This pro-government journalism was a pillar of the one-party system credited with making Mexico one of the most stable countries in the hemisphere.

But as the country has become more democratic, the public has begun to seek more independent media. Newspapers are depending less on the government and more on the growing private sector for advertising. And, while there are still cases of collusion between the government and media, younger reporters are increasingly college-educated and critical.

"In the past, the reporters looked at the chests of the bureaucrats. There was a sense of inferiority," said Raymundo Riva Palacio, a newspaper columnist. "Today, they look them straight in the eye." Journalists, he said, are "more belligerent, more likely to argue. This is a generation that's profoundly anti-system."

The result has been increasing conflicts between the media and those they cover. The civic group Causa Ciudadana (Citizen's Cause) said in a recent report that journalists were attacked 125 times in the first half of President Ernesto Zedillo's term, compared with 181 such attacks in the entire six-year term of his predecessor, Carlos Salinas de Gortari.

In one case, the report said, a court official in southern Mexico responded to two reporters' work by chasing them with a machete.

"Since you can no longer control the media with money, and [people] don't know how to persuade them any other way, we're seeing new levels of desperation," Riva Palacio said. "This is causing more aggression."

*

The latest wave of assaults in the capital began with attacks on two reporters from the daily Reforma in late August and early September. They were kidnapped from taxis by armed men and beaten and interrogated about their work before being released. Both journalists were looking into allegations of police involvement with drug traffickers. The attackers had detailed information about the journalists' families and investigations that their newspapers had not yet published.

"What does this mean? These criminal groups are in collusion with high-level people, in order to be able to bug telephone lines, review internal communications, to have the sophistication to know what hasn't been published yet," speculated Ramon Alberto Garza, the editor of Reforma.

Then, on Sept. 12, Solorio and another reporter at Television Azteca, Mexico's No. 2 network, were assaulted in separate cases.

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