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In a border town, a newspaper forced to be silent

After violent attacks on its offices, El Manana backs off from reporting on drug cartels. 'There's no freedom of speech in Nuevo Laredo,' says a reader.

May 18, 2013|By Molly Hennessy-Fiske, Los Angeles Times
  • Ninfa Cantú Deándar, right, is part of the family that founded the El Mañana newspaper in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, and Laredo, Texas.
Ninfa Cantú Deándar, right, is part of the family that founded… (Molly Hennessy-Fiske,…)

LAREDO, Texas -- A recent wave of kidnappings in Nuevo Laredo was prominently featured in a recent Sunday edition of El Mañana, one of the largest and most long-standing Spanish-language newspapers on the border.

But the story carried no byline, and no residents were quoted or pictured. "People don't want to go out for interviews — they say, 'No, we may get kidnapped,'" said Ninfa Cantú Deándar, who runs the paper with her siblings.

Because of threats from Mexican cartels, the paper — published in the twin cities of Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, and Laredo, Texas — is operating very differently these days.

"What were we going to do? If we wrote it they would attack us, kill us, kidnap us. There isn't freedom of expression in Nuevo Laredo," she said.

Newspapers all along the border face a similar challenge in reporting cartel violence. A dozen Mexican journalists disappeared from 2006 to 2012 and an additional 14 were killed, according to a report earlier this year by the Committee to Protect Journalists. Mexico's human rights commission says 81 journalists have been killed since 2000. Last month, some journalists created an interactive map to track such attacks.

At El Mañana, the decision to self-censor went against family tradition. Cantú's grandfather started the newspaper about 90 years ago as the people's paper, calling it El Mañana — literally "tomorrow," or metaphorically, "the future." Over the years, El Mañana's slogan became "La verdad sin fronteras," or "The truth without borders." The paper has a staff of 20 in Laredo and 200 across the border, with a total circulation of 16,000, and 40,000 daily visitors online. For decades it had covered the rise of Mexican drug cartels.

That began to change in 2004, when editor Roberto Mora García, 42, was killed on his way home from work in Nuevo Laredo, stabbed more than two dozen times.

Two years later, armed men shot up the Nuevo Laredo office, leaving a reporter paralyzed. Afterward, the paper installed bulletproof glass and fortified walls.

A year ago this month, men again shot into the office with assault rifles and tossed a homemade grenade into the building. No one was injured.

Cantú's brother, Ramon Cantú Deándar, the paper's director general, said, "We won't allow ourselves to be intimidated." Soon afterward, El Mañana backed down, announcing plans in an editorial to "abstain, for as long as necessary, from publishing any information that is related to violent conflicts which our city and other regions of the country suffer from," citing "lack of conditions to freely exercise journalism."

The next month, the Nuevo Laredo office again suffered a grenade attack. No one was injured, and the policy of self-censorship remained.

Readers noticed the change. "It's a mystery. We don't know who is who, what is omitted," said an evangelical minister reading the paper with colleagues at a Danny's local Mexican chain restaurant in Laredo one morning last month.

The three ministers asked not to be quoted by name, citing fear of cartel retaliation. "There's no freedom of speech in Nuevo Laredo — if they write the truth, they kill them," one of the men said of the cartels.

"It's very difficult to find out anything about the violence," another said, and sighed. "People don't want to ask questions."

Heriberto Cantú Deándar, the paper's editorial director and also a brother of Cantú, defended the policy of self-censorship, noting that after the most recent attacks, "We concentrated on publishing analyses of the situation with the violence."

He was sitting with his mother, Ninfa Deándar Martínez, at his home in the U.S. They asked that their location not be disclosed. "There are some liberties that you lose for a little while but that return later," he said.

Cantú said the approach was intended to avoid additional attacks, just like fortifying the newsroom.

"It's like a bunker in a war," he said.

And who's winning?

"Them," said his mother.

"No, no," Cantú insisted, "The strategy of terrorism and violence of these criminals is going to fail. Eventually, society is going to rise up and do something to stop them."

El Mañana still publishes stories about cartel violence from larger Mexican papers, he noted.

Ninfa Deándar Martínez, still president of the paper, is frustrated by the new policy of self-censorship, although she understands it has become necessary.

Born above the newspaper, she grew up setting type and remembers watching her father, Heriberto Deándar Amador, report about criminals who threatened him with machine guns.

"He was a fighter," she said.

He tried to steer her toward creative writing, but she wanted to be a reporter for the family business, which had expanded to include several border newspapers. After braving attacks to cover crime, she eventually took over El Mañana in Nuevo Laredo and watched her children grow into the business.

"The people believe in El Mañana — they trust our opinion," she said. "It's frustrating not to be able to tell your town what's happening. This is the soul, the spirit, of Mexico we're losing.... A newspaper without a soul isn't a newspaper."

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