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MEXICO UNDER SIEGE

Four journalists who covered Mexico prison riot missing

The kidnappings appeared to have been aimed at manipulating news coverage of drug gangs battling in violence-plagued northern states.

July 28, 2010|By Ken Ellingwood, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Mexico City — Four journalists with Mexican news organizations remained missing Wednesday, two days after they were kidnapped in northern Mexico after covering disturbances at a troubled prison.

The seizure of the journalists, representing two broadcasters and a newspaper, appeared to have been aimed at manipulating media coverage of drug gangs that are battling in the violence-plagued states of Durango and Coahuila.

It was not immediately clear who carried out the kidnappings, though journalists said it probably was a trafficking group based in the state of Sinaloa that is said to hold sway at the Durango prison. By late Wednesday afternoon, there had been no word on the fate of the journalists.

The case underscores the risks journalists face in Mexico, now among the most dangerous places in the world to cover news. Drug gangs have firebombed newsrooms and killed or beaten reporters to silence coverage or tilt it their way.

At least 30 journalists have been killed or have disappeared since President Felipe Calderon launched his war on drug cartels in late 2006, according to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists. Attacks rarely result in prosecution.

The Durango kidnapping case raises delicate questions about the risks of reporting news of the kidnappings. Mexican news agencies kept silent for the first 24 hours to avoid hurting attempts to win their release.

On Tuesday, Mexico's human rights ombudsman issued a bulletin publicizing the disappearances, angering the captives' employers. The websites of national newspapers then reported the news. Local news organizations have avoided the case out of fear of retribution.

The captors' demands suggest that they wanted to draw public attention to rivals known as the Zetas and away from the scandal surrounding the Durango prison, in the city of Gomez Palacio.

On Sunday, federal authorities said inmates had been allowed to leave with weapons borrowed from guards to commit killings across the state line in Torreon, Coahuila. The allegations included a July 18 attack that killed 17 people.

In an apparent counteroffensive, the kidnappers demanded that the broadcasters air three videos in which police officers and go-betweens describe ties between the Zetas and corrupt authorities.

In one of the amateur videos, first posted on a blog about the narco world, three officers in Torreon name officials who they said take payoffs from the Zetas.

Milenio Television complied Tuesday, airing the 15 minutes of videos on its Torreon affiliate. One of the abducted journalists is a cameraman there.

Durango and Coahuila have seen months of violence as drug gangs fight over a crucial smuggling corridor to the United States. More than 500 people have been killed this year in Durango.

Rioting broke out at the prison Monday after the director and three other prison officials were detained in the case of the released inmates.

The journalists — from Milenio, a Torreon affiliate of the Televisa network and a Gomez Palacio newspaper —went missing after covering the disturbance. Two of their cars were later found burned.

Milenio reported Wednesday that the captives were allowed to phone their employers to convey the kidnappers' demands.

ken.ellingwood@latimes.com

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