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Under threat from Mexican drug cartels, reporters go silent

MEXICO UNDER SIEGE

Journalists know drug traffickers can easily kidnap or kill them — and get away with it.

August 16, 2010|By Tracy Wilkinson, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Reynosa, Mexico — A new word has been written into the lexicon of Mexico's drug war: narco-censorship.

It's when reporters and editors, out of fear or caution, are forced to write what the traffickers want them to write, or to simply refrain from publishing the whole truth in a country where members of the press have been intimidated, kidnapped and killed.

That big shootout the other day near a Reynosa shopping mall? Convoys of gunmen whizzed through the streets and fired on each other for hours, paralyzing the city. But you won't read about it here in this border city.

Those recent battles between the army and cartel henchmen in Ciudad Juarez? Soldiers engaged "armed civilians," newspapers told their readers.

As the drug war scales new heights of savagery, one of the devastating byproducts of the carnage is the drug traffickers' chilling ability to co-opt underpaid and under-protected journalists — who are haunted by the knowledge that they are failing in their journalistic mission of informing society.

"You love journalism, you love the pursuit of truth, you love to perform a civic service and inform your community. But you love your life more," said an editor here in Reynosa, in Tamaulipas state, who, like most journalists interviewed, did not want to be named for fear of antagonizing the cartels.

"We don't like the silence. But it's survival."

An estimated 30 reporters have been killed or have disappeared since President Felipe Calderon launched a military-led offensive against powerful drug cartels in December 2006, making Mexico one of the deadliest countries for journalists in the world.

But a ferocious increase in violence, including the July 26 kidnapping of four reporters, has pushed the profession into a crisis never before seen, drawn renewed international attention and spurred fresh activism on the part of Mexican newsmen and women.

The United Nations sent its first such mission to Mexico last week to examine dangers to freedom of expression. On Aug. 7, in an unprecedented display of unity from a normally fractious, competitive bunch, hundreds of Mexican reporters demonstrated throughout the country to demand an end to the killings of their colleagues, and more secure working conditions.

Few killings are ever investigated, and the climate of impunity leads to more bloodshed, says an upcoming report from the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists.

"It is not a lack of valor on the part of the journalists. It is a lack of backing," said broadcaster Jaime Aguirre. "If they kill me, nothing happens."

On the popular radio talk show he hosts in Reynosa, Aguirre chooses his words carefully. He often finds himself issuing warnings to the public on which areas of the city to avoid. Listeners don't have to be told why.

It is in Mexico's far-flung states where narco-censorship is most severe.

From the border states of Tamaulipas and Chihuahua and into the central and southern states of Durango and Guerrero, reporters say they are acutely aware that traffickers do not want the local news to "heat the plaza" — to draw attention to their drug production and smuggling and efforts to subjugate the population. Such attention would invite the government to send troops and curtail their business.

And so the journalists pull their punches.

When convoys of narco hit men brazenly turned their guns on army garrisons in Reynosa, trapping soldiers inside, it was front- page news in the Los Angeles Times in April. It went unreported in Reynosa.

After two of his reporters were briefly detained by Zetas paramilitaries later that month in the same region, Ciro Gomez Leyva, head of Milenio television, announced he was imposing a blackout on events in Tamaulipas. "Journalism is dead" in the region, he wrote. The bruised, strangled body of Durango reporter Bladimir Antuna was recovered late last year with a scrawled note attached: "This happened to me for … writing too much."

Contacting reporters in the region can seem a scene out of "The Third Man," with meetings in discreet locations and discussions that involve code: The Zetas are referred to as "the last letter" (of the alphabet), while the Gulf cartel is the "three letters" (CDG — Cartel del Golfo).

Reporters and editors in Tamaulipas and Durango say they routinely receive telephoned warnings when they publish something the traffickers don't like. More often, knowing their publications are being watched and their newsrooms infiltrated, they avoid publishing anything that risks falling into a questionable category.

Or they stick to just-the-facts government bulletins that may confirm an incident but won't offer details.

"If there's nothing official, we don't print it," said an editor from a northern newspaper. "It makes me very angry. How can I bend to the demands of those people? But I have to calculate the risk."

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