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THE WORLD : E-MAIL FROM ABROAD

In Mexico, reporters have learned not to name names

January 14, 2008|Hector Tobar | Times Staff Writer

MEXICO CITY — The writer was one of the legion of underpaid beat reporters in Mexico, the kind who churn out four or five stories a day, for low pay and little recognition. They know all about the corrupt and violent dealings going on around them, even though they can't always pass on this knowledge to their readers.

He was going to brief me on the local situation, which involved some high-profile killings, various bands of criminals with colorful nicknames and the transport of large quantities of cocaine and marijuana into the United States.

But when I walked into his office, the reporter looked upset. He bit his lower lip and glanced down at the floor, seemingly trying to fight off tears. "I'm quitting," he said.

"What?" I said. "Why?"

In the 2 1/2 years I've been covering the so-called drug wars in Mexico and Central America, I've traveled to small-town police stations, government ministries and newsrooms where journalists require military protection.

Along the way, I've met many courageous people, and many people whose proximity to the drug traffickers' machinery of death has frightened them into silence. This reporter, the lone staffer in his bureau, was a little bit of both. I cannot mention his name, or the town he works in.

After announcing his resignation, he was silent for a time.

"Is there anything I can do to help you?" I asked. He shook his head. We sat like this for a few minutes, until he finally stood up and directed me to his desk.

He pointed to his computer screen and the window of an instant-messaging program, where a flashing missive declared: "You are bothering a lot of people."

It was a death threat: In the local idiom, to be told you are "bothering" someone is an unambiguous warning.

"They've been following me," he said. An hour and half a pack of cigarettes later, he had told me about a car with no license plates that appeared wherever he did, cruising slowly.

"But that's not the reason I'm quitting," he said. It was the low pay and the unfulfilled promises from his bosses (including a company car) that really had him angry. There was something wrong about having to take a bus to cover stories that could get you killed, he said. The threats were just the final straw.

In the end, the reporter stayed on his beat a bit longer and was transferred to a safer place, where he didn't have to cover so many funerals and drug busts -- and where he wouldn't "bother" people who didn't want to be bothered.

That's how it goes when you write about the drug trade: You get close to the story, and then you step away.

"I don't want to know any names," one prominent Mexico City drug expert told me over coffee one day, explaining how he had managed to write about organized crime for years without "bothering" anyone. "When people in the government offer to show me confidential reports, I say, 'Please, don't! I don't want to see them!' "

The expert writes about the drug war's "big picture," and thus avoids the most dangerous thing a writer can do here: reveal a name or a fact that directly affects a trafficker's operations.

The violence tied to the drug-trafficking business has grown more cruel and irrational as the mad scramble for easy money has grown more mad.

In recent years, the attacks have progressed from ambushes with automatic weapons to grenade assaults and grotesque beheadings. When a ton of cocaine falls from the sky, people barely take notice.

In March, police found 2 tons of $100 bills (more than $205 million) in a mansion four blocks from my house here. I've often walked past that now-abandoned house, fantasizing about discovering dollar bills floating in the nearby gutters like so much trash.

Not long ago, my aunt returned to her home in Guatemala City to discover her humble colonia sealed off with police tape. One of her neighbors, a small-time drug dealer, had been shot to death in his doorway. He had been extorting money from the local grocers and was friends with a police officer. All the neighbors knew this, but could do nothing.

My mother lives in Guatemala City too. Less than a mile from her home in the city center, one neighborhood is so infested with drug gangs that the army has set up a base, complete with sandbag parapets, in the local market.

And it was in Guatemala City in November that I came face to face with the drug dead, a body that had been wrapped up in plastic and dumped onto the street from an overpass.

I don't know who the victim was. The Guatemalan news media were too busy covering a presidential election that night (as was I), and the killing wasn't reported in the newspapers.

Nearly all of the drug-related crimes The Times reported on in the region last year remain unsolved, including the killing of several Mexican musicians and the slaying in Guatemala of three Salvadoran legislators.

The Guatemalan police officers arrested in the legislators' killings -- anti-narcotics officers said to be in the hire of drug traffickers -- were themselves killed a few days later in their jail cells. The masterminds of these crimes remain free.

When I traveled to Guatemala to write about the killings, I met several people with theories as to who might be responsible. I learned the names of families and businesses believed linked to the transshipment of drugs. Officials have leaked this information to local journalists, but no one will publish it.

"It's too dangerous," a journalist said. "There's no one here to protect us. And if we're killed, no one will be prosecuted."

Knowing that the piece of unverified information I'd been given could get someone killed, I wondered whether I should even write it down in my notebook.

--

hector.tobar@latimes.com

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