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Michoacán journalists under siege with nowhere to turn

David Silva, the husband of abducted reporter María Esther Aguilar Cansimbe, ran his hand roughly across his forehead twice, then held his face, looked down, and said, “Every night it’s the same until 2 or 4 in the morning, waiting for the phone call, listening for the car to stop on the street. Then if one does, I’m sure it’s her coming home. But it never is.”

Aguilar’s sister, María Del Carmen Aguilar Cansimbe, watched Silva with a grimace that showed she felt similarly. She’s been caring for the couple’s two daughters, ages 7 and 9, since their mother was taken on November 11. She said a psychologist told her to tell the girls that their mother is on a trip and can’t phone them for the moment. But the older girl, Frida, is afraid their mother is lost somewhere and wants to write her a letter.

Silva said what keeps him going is the fact that in the rash other kidnappings in this town of Zamora, Mexico, people who have been missing for months sometimes finally come home safe. He’s forgetting something, maybe on purpose: All those other cases have been kidnappings for ransom, in which negotiations led to a release. His wife has been missing for close to a month and no one has contacted him.

A Mexican soldier stands watch over an illegal drug laboratory in Michoacán. (AP)

Many journalists in Zamora and in the state of Michoacán assume someone in government, or the police, or organized crime is responsible for Aguilar’s abduction, because she wouldn’t follow their orders on what to write. They also assume that this is the kind of case that ends tragically and that she is never coming home.

Aguilar worked for the local paper El Diario de Zamora and for Cambio de Michoacán, in Morelia, the state capital.

For the last three years, the whole state has been under an intense assault by two drug trafficking cartels. The cartels have been getting stronger, and through corruption and death threats they have been weakening local governments, local police, the state government, and state police, according to journalists. Journalists told CPJ that federal police and Mexican army units sent in to retake control are now often corrupted, and that often, they too, do what the cartels tell them to do.

The cartels, stronger than ever, have branched out into widespread extortion and kidnapping, a federal law enforcement official told CPJ. For instance, at the moment in Zamora, a city of fewer than 100,000 people, there are 25 active cases of kidnapping for ransom, according to one knowledgeable journalist in the city. The number of extortion cases are incalculable, but greatly exceed kidnapping cases, the journalist said. Last May, the federal government arrested 30 local officials and mayors throughout the state, along with the state attorney general, all accused of protecting one of the two drug cartels. The half-brother of the governor is a fugitive from federal charges related to narcotics trafficking. But days after the arrests, 12 federal agents were rounded up and murdered in a group, and police stations have been attacked.

Silva, the husband of the missing reporter, said the influence of the cartels in Zamora is so strong he can’t rely on the police to find his wife. “With most of the police here you don’t know who you’re talking to—a detective or a representative of organized crime,” he said.

Silva is one to know. He met Aguilar 15 years ago when she was 19, just starting her career on the police beat, and he was then the police chief of Zamora.

Journalists in Zamora and in other cities in Michoacán agreed with Silva’s analysis of the police, but went further. They said that the city government in Zamora, like other cities, not only lets the cartels operate but is so afraid of them that it is paying them monthly protection money. In a climate of lawlessness, local officials in Zamora may be emulating the cartels by also threatening reporters who write stories they don’t like.

Reporter Teresa Chávez leaned over her desk and pointed with a pen to a story in her paper, Z de Zamora, which she said brought the most recent death threat. It’s a fairly minor story about a recurring water leak in the parking garage of the municipal arts center. “Someone called the reporter and told him, ‘Stop these stories or you’ll disappear,’ ” said Chavez. She said it was a familiar reaction to stories critical of local authorities. “We believe the cartels and the authorities are now so linked together that government officials just ask the criminals to make the threats for them,” Chavez said.

But as organized crime may have weakened institutions like local government and the police, many journalists in Michoacán said that responsible journalism is also under similar threat—to the point of being crippled. And, according to many of her colleagues, Aguilar has disappeared because she would not buckle to the threats or bribes of the cartels as many other journalists have. The theory is that this made her vulnerable.

The editor of a statewide paper who asked for anonymity out of fear of retribution said, “Most police reporters get phone calls all the time from organized crime telling them how to handle a particular story, or to not write a story. What’s interesting is that if the reporter changes his phone number, then the cartel gets the new number by the next day. The only way that happens is if the police provide the new number.”

In other words, according to the editor, the cartels and the police work together and reporters are the targets. It leaves journalists with no place to turn for help.

A reporter who covers the state said that recently a conversation he had on one of his cell phones was tapped and recorded, then fed back into the voicemail box of another of his cell phones. The idea, he said, was to frighten him and let him know that either the government or the cartels are close to him at all times. “Actually,” he said, “it makes no difference. Because the cartels and the government end up being the same thing.”

In a city near Zamora, editors of a local paper told CPJ that anyone who reports a kidnapping or extortion to the police is immediately visited by the criminals responsible and badly beaten, or killed. The reason, said the editors, is that the police are working for the criminals. In this environment, many journalists in Michoacán, especially those like Aguilar who cover police—the beat that generates the most stories about the cartels—have agreed to tailor their stories to what the cartels want, many of their colleagues told CPJ. They say they do it out of fear of death, or for payoffs.

That was not Aguilar, journalists said. After all those years as a reporter she was seen as rock-solid honest. And still poor. She was stretched tight making payments on a laptop computer. And the day she was abducted the electricity was turned off for lack of payment at her family’s small rental apartment on a noisy industrial side street.

A senior journalist in the state, close to Aguilar, said she told him of a recent meeting with several other reporters in Zamora. Leading the meeting, he said, was a key police reporter who obviously represented one of the cartels. The reporter pointed to the other reporters and named the monthly amounts they would receive for skewing their coverage. They agreed to go along. Aguilar, said the editor, refused and tried to leave. But the others shouted her down and made her stay; he said she still rejected the offer.

It was brave, said the editor, but considering the moral corrosion in government institutions and now in journalism, it may have been her fatal mistake. It may well be, he said, that the corrupt journalists, and the cartel, couldn’t allow the honest journalist to live.

Adding a little strength to this theory is what may have happened since Aguilar’s disappearance. Though it couldn’t be verified, friends and colleagues said that none of the seven local papers in Zamora has carried a single story about her abduction. Silva, her husband, said the papers are following orders from the people who abducted her to make the story vanish, like they did his wife.

 

The strengthened cartels seem to be expanding their power quickly in the state. No journalist there told CPJ they saw anything but a darkening sky, for the state and for journalism. As if to underline that, on Friday, every member of the government, including the entire police department, of Tancítaro County resigned, citing fear for their lives from the drug cartel that dominates the area. The county officials said the whole population of the county, some 40,000 people, was under threat from the cartel. Even doctors and nurses had fled. The state legislature called an emergency session at 10:45 p.m. for an event legislators said was unprecedented and left them competently confused about how to respond. They said they worried that other counties would now copy what Tancítaro had done. 

Legislators called on the Mexican army to send soldiers to keep order, and then they adjourned, admitting they didn’t know what else to do. Coming off the podium, the president of the legislature, Eduardo Sánchez Martínez, told CPJ the only thing he could think of was to ask the alternate officials of those fleeing to take over the vacant posts. (In Mexico most elected officials have alternates to replace them if necessary.)

But the press reported that, by Sunday evening, none of the alternates had been found by the legislative committee sent to locate them. The alternates were apparently hiding from the committee, according to news reports, and there was still no local authority in the county. Fear, and the cartel, was in control.

Mike O'Connor is CPJ's representative in Mexico.

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