Attacks on the Press   |   Mexico

Attacks on the Press 2007: Mexico

MEXICO

Mexican authorities failed again to vigorously pursue the perpetrators of violence against journalists, leaving reporters vulnerable to attacks and the news media resorting to self-censorship. Mexico is one of the most dangerous countries for the press, CPJ research shows, with 13 journalists slain in direct relation to their work and another 14 killed under unclear circumstances in the last 15 years. Three journalists and three media workers were murdered in 2007, and three reporters went missing.

The vicious battle between the powerful Gulf and Sinaloa drug cartels, which had been particularly severe in the northern states since 2004, stretched to almost every Mexican state in 2007. With key shipment routes to the United States at stake, the war between well-financed criminal organizations raised violence to unprecedented levels. The toll was devastating: News reports said that at least 2,000 people were killed in the first 10 months of the year as a result of drug-related violence.

As the violence spread throughout Mexico, journalists covering drug trafficking and crime were increasingly targeted. Rodolfo Rincón Taracena, a reporter for the daily Tabasco Hoy in the southern Gulf state of Tabasco, went missing in January after he published an investigative article on local drug trafficking. In late May, the severed head of a local official, wrapped in newspaper, was left outside the daily’s offices in an apparent attempt at intimidating reporters.

Danger extended to the central states of Michoacán and Guerrero, and to the southern states of Veracruz and Quintana Roo. In Michoacán, where the administration of President Felipe Calderón deployed thousands of troops to combat drug violence, at least 20 journalists were “picked up” and threatened by rogue police or criminal gangs in 2007, CPJ found in a November special report, “A New Front in Mexico.”

The situation in Michoacán diverted attention from the conflict in southern Oaxaca. Although Gov. Ulises Ruiz Ortiz regained control of the state after violent unrest in 2006, journalists continued to be attacked. In October, the reporting staff of the daily El Imparcial del Istmo resigned a day after three of the paper’s delivery workers were murdered while driving a truck marked with the paper’s logo. On October 18, the Mexican army arrested a member of the Gulf cartel in the city of Salina Cruz for his alleged involvement in the crime.

The 2006 murder of U.S. documentary filmmaker Bradley Roland Will remained unpunished. Will was killed in Oaxaca during a street battle between antigovernment protesters and armed civilians, many identified by witnesses as working for the local government. On the anniversary of Will’s slaying, October 27, CPJ sent a letter to Calderón urging him to ensure a rigorous investigation that examined witness accounts and forensic evidence, as well as photographs from the day of the shooting.

The alleged involvement of government agents in the Will slaying was the most egregious example of press attacks believed to be committed by police or military officers. CPJ documented several such cases in 2007. In August, four crime reporters were detained by troops while covering a routine military convoy in Monclova in the state of Coahuila near the U.S. border. One reporter told CPJ that he had been beaten and aggressively questioned by soldiers before being turned over to the state attorney general’s office. The journalists, who were initially charged with possession of firearms and drug-related crimes, were exonerated by a federal judge a month later.

Hostility and fear had a disturbing effect on the media, as scores of reporters and many news outlets resorted to self-censorship out of fear of retaliation. In May, the Hermosillo-based daily Cambio de Sonora suspended publication after two bomb attacks and repeated threats within a one-month period. In the violent border city of Nuevo Laredo, reports on crime were often published without photographs, analysis, or the names of the criminals, journalists told CPJ. Sensitive topics such as drug trafficking, corruption, human rights abuses, and other problems went uncovered. Journalists expressed concern that the wave of violence was inhibiting citizens’ ability to grasp the issues that affect their lives.

Impunity continued to be the norm. Although the Calderón administration pledged to protect journalists who work under the threat of violence, failings in Mexico’s judicial system left the media open to attacks. The federal government recognized violence against the press as a national problem by creating a special prosecutor’s office in early 2006 to investigate such crimes. But the office has produced no successful prosecutions, in part because of jurisdictional limitations. Murder and assault are state crimes, and the federal government has no automatic jurisdiction to intervene.

In an encouraging sign in September, the attorney general’s office promoted legislation that would federalize crimes against the press. The measure would criminalize any attempt to harm, through violence or other means, the right of Mexicans to free expression—a fundamental right enshrined in Articles 6 and 7 of the Mexican Constitution. The bill was pending in late year. CPJ has vigorously advocated in favor of federal legislation giving Mexicans a better legal framework for the protection of free expression.

In a crucial step toward safeguarding journalists, Calderón signed legislation that effectively repealed criminal defamation, libel, and slander at the federal level. All three charges remained civil offenses, subject to monetary damages. The reform did not offer journalists complete protection from criminal defamation complaints, however, since many Mexican states continued to carry criminal libel laws, with penalties of up to four years in prison.

Pressure to repeal criminal defamation provisions had grown after prominent columnist and human rights activist Lydia Cacho was detained in December 2005 and accused of defaming Puebla-based businessman José Camel Nacif Borge. In her book Los Demonios del Edén (The Demons of Eden), published earlier that year, Cacho alleged that a child prostitution ring operated in Cancún with the complicity of local police and politicians. She accused Nacif of having ties to an accused pedophile, an allegation the businessman denied.

In early 2006, the Mexican press exposed the contents of taped telephone conversations detailing a plot by Nacif and Mexican state officials, including Puebla Gov. Mario Marín, to imprison and assault Cacho. All defamation charges against Cacho were ultimately dismissed in January. The Supreme Court of Justice, which had undertaken a lengthy probe into possible violations of Cacho’s human rights, decided in November that there was insufficient evidence to pursue criminal charges against the government officials.

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