Attacks on the Press 1999: Mexico

While the Mexican press started covering local politics with greater confidence and independence, the drug trade was still an extremely dangerous assignment. As in past years, the government made little progress investigating attacks when they did occur.

1999 saw the first-ever primary election within the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which has dominated Mexican politics since its creation, in 1929. On November 7, former interior minister Francisco Labastida defeated upstart Tabasco State governor Roberto Madrazo in a highly competitive race. For the most part, the press covered the primary without incident, but there were some reports of harassment. For example, the Centro Nacional de Comunicación Social (CENCOS) reported that José Luis Hernández Salas, former editor of the daily El Independiente of Hermosillo, in Sonora State, fled to the United States after the state governor, Armando López Nogales, pressured him to cover Labastida favorably. After Hernández Salas rejected the governor’s offer of an infusion of government advertising, CENCOS said, he faced systematic harassment, culminating in a September 7 police raid on his home and office.

CENCOS is part of a growing community of local press freedom organizations that includes the Fundación Manuel Buendía, the Sociedad de Periodistas, and the Academia Mexicana de Derechos Humanos (AMDH). In November, the Sociedad de Periodistas and the AMDH, along with the U.S.-based Freedom Forum, hosted a conference on the ethics and dangers of covering the 2000 presidential elections.

Earlier in the year, the AMDH launched the Comisión de Protección a Periodistas, charged with investigating attacks on the press. Three of its first five cases involved journalists covering the drug trade: La Prensa editor Benjamín Flores González, who was murdered in San Luis Río Colorado, Sonora State, in 1997; Jesús Barraza, who received numerous threats after he took over the editorship of La Prensa and later founded a new weekly, called Pulso in the same city; and Sergio Haro, editor of the Mexicali weekly Sietedías, who was threatened after he reported on the release from prison of Jaime González Gutiérrez, the man accused of killing Flores González. González Gutiérrez was freed suddenly and without explanation on March 5, despite strong evidence of his involvement in the murder.

Although the federal government created a journalist protection unit within the National Human Rights Commission and has made some effort to investigate attacks on the press, the bungled release of González Gutiérrez raised doubts about the government’s commitment to the securing safety of Mexican journalists.

Journalists who investigate high-level corruption often find that the government responds to their efforts with official statements that seemed to have been designed to undermine the credibility of their reporting and expose them to threats and intimidation. In June, for example, Mexican journalists reported on a U.S. intelligence report implicating PRI politician Carlos Hank González and his sons Carlos and Jorge Hank Rhon in a major cocainetrafficking and money-laundering operation. Mexican officials immediately argued that the allegations were politically motivated and intended to embarrass the government of president Ernesto Zedillo.

The Hank family is already well known to the Mexican press. Jorge Hank Rhon was a prime suspect in the 1988 murder of Félix Miranda, a columnist for the Tijuana weekly Zeta. Every week since the murder, Zeta has run a full page with Miranda’s picture and a caption reading, “Jorge Hank Rhon: Why did your bodyguard Antonio Vera Palestina kill me?”

According to a study commissioned by The Dallas Morning News and published in August, most Mexican reporters view government agencies as obstacles rather than sources. Reporting on military affairs is particularly difficult, but government press offices routinely hinder the flow of information.

While the state no longer relies on bribery to control the press, media outlets are still beholden to the government for advertising, broadcast concessions, and information. But even if the press has not yet assumed the mantle of independent watchdog, a new, better-educated generation of journalists is emerging and has started discussing the necessity for a code of ethics.

Publications are becoming more commercially oriented and have started competing for readers. Guadalajara, for example, was the midst of a heated newspaper war last year, with the well-regarded Público going head-to-head with Mural, the newest addition to Alejandro Junco de la Vega’s national newspaper chain. In Mexico City, Junco’s Reforma competes with the resurgent El Universal and the left-leaning La Jornada. A new full-color newspaper, Milenio, entered the crowded field on January 1, 2000.

February 7
Gastón Monge, El Mañana ATTACKED, THREATENED

Ten armed individuals broke into the home of Monge, a veteran journalist with the daily El Mañana in the northern Mexican city of Nuevo Laredo. They opened fire on the reporter and his family, shooting Monge in the hand, his wife in the leg, and one of his sons in the foot.

Monge recognized two of his attackers as the son and brother-in-law of city councilman Luis Eduardo Martínez. Monge has often criticized Martínez in print, accusing him of illicit activities that included protecting drug traffickers.

Monge appealed to local authorities for help, but received no response. He then began a hunger strike. Three days later, the Nuevo Laredo district attorney agreed to investigate the case.

At year’s end, the investigation was still in progress, and Monge and his family continued to receive threats. The journalist estimated that he was being threatened about twice a month. At about 9 p.m. on November 6, some 15 people came to Monge’s house. The journalist was not at home, but his wife and sons were subjected to hearing crude epithets and told that Monge’s life was still in danger.

April 15
Sergio Haro Cordero, Sietedías THREATENED

Haro, editor of the weekly Sietedías in the northern border town of Mexicali, received repeated death threats after he covered the unexpected release from prison of known drug trafficker Jaime González Gutiérrez, also known as “El Jaimillo.”

On April 11, Sietedías ran a story criticizing the release of González Gutiérrez. The following Thursday, Haro received an anonymous telephone call in his office at Sietedías. The caller said, “I’m going to kill you, fool,” before hanging up.

Haro had been investigating González Gutiérrez since the July 15, 1997, assassination of Benjamín Flores González, the cofounder of Sietedías. Flores González was editor of the independent daily La Prensa in San Luis Río Colorado, a city located about 30 miles from Mexicali. González Gutiérrez is commonly believed to have ordered his assassination.

Before his death, Flores González frequently denounced González Gutiérrez as a drug trafficker and a murderer (González Gutiérrez was charged in the 1993 killing of a police officer). Flores González also reported that González Gutiérrez was given preferential treatment in the town jail, even after being convicted of drug trafficking.

In 1998, a judge in the state capital, Hermosillo, ruled that there was insufficient evidence to charge González Gutiérrez with the murder of Flores González. Later that year, a federal appeals court in Mexicali cleared González Gutiérrez of drug-trafficking charges. And on March 5, he was released from prison after an appellate court in Hermosillo ruled that he had killed the police officer in self-defense.

On April 18, following the April 15 telephone threat against Haro, Sietedías published a detailed description of the threat. Two days later, members of the Unión de Periodistas Democráticos of Mexicali gathered in the office of Sietedías to discuss the matter. The threat was subsequently covered in a number of daily newspapers and television broadcasts.

On April 21, Haro received a second telephone call threatening his life. The caller said he would be killed no matter how much public attention he drew to the case. He received a third and similar threat the following day. Haro has set up a Web site ( that details the history of Flores González’s assassination, along with the death threats he himself has received. The State Judicial Police has provided Haro with 24-hour protection since he received his first threat, but the journalist still fears for his life.

May 4
Jesús Barraza Zavala, Pulso THREATENED

Barraza, editor of the San Luis Río Colorado-based weekly Pulso, was threatened after reporting on reputed drug trafficker Albino Quintero Meraz.

At 9 p.m., as Barraza was leaving the newspaper’s offices, a well-dressed man walked up to him and said that Quintero was disturbed about two articles Pulso had recently published. The man offered Barraza money to stop publishing stories on Quintero; if Barraza refused the offer, the man said, he or another Pulso reporter would end up floating dead in one of San Luis Río Colorado’s irrigation canals. When Barraza replied that he would never accept money from Quintero, the man warned him to be careful.

The articles in question concerned alleged cooperation between Quintero and former Quintana Roo State governor Mario Villanueva, who is wanted for links with drug traffickers. Based on information made public by the federal attorney general’s office, the articles reported that a 1989 police search of Quintero’s house in the northern border town of Mexicali had turned up drugs and rifles and that in 1992 two men had accused Quintero of assaulting them with the aid of the Federal Judicial Police in San Luis Río Colorado.

On May 10, the government granted Barraza and his family police protection after the Sociedad de Periodistas, a Mexican press freedom organization, intervened on his behalf.

In a May 13 letter to President Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de León, CPJ urged the Mexican government to ensure the safety of Barraza and his family, to conduct a complete investigation into the threats against the journalist, and to see to it that the perpetrators were punished.

June 5
Jesús Barraza Zavala, Pulso HARASSED

Officers of the Federal Judicial Police (PJF) beat up the bodyguard of Barraza, editor of the weekly Pulso in San Luis Río Colorado, in Sonora State. One week before the attack, Barraza had published a story alleging links between the PJF and local drug traffickers and calling for an investigation.

On May 10, the San Luis Río Colorado municipal police assigned Raúl Ramos to protect Barraza after the journalist was threatened in relation to stories he had published on drug traffickers. (See May 4 case.)

The PJF officers attacked Ramos at 7:10 p.m. outside the Pulso offices. Barraza, who was leaving the building at the time of the attack, observed two men and a woman beating Ramos and confiscating his handgun and assault rifle. Ramos escaped into the Pulso offices. The PJF officers tried to follow him inside the building, but they got into their vehicle and fled when they heard over their radios that municipal police were on their way the scene.

Two Pulso reporters followed the PJF officers. The reporters noted that the PJF’s vehicle bore California license plates and later determined that the car had been reported stolen. The officers drove toward PJF headquarters and eventually sought refuge within the building. After the attack, the municipal police withdrew Barraza’s bodyguard.

In a June 14 letter to President Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de León, CPJ expressed its growing concern for the safety of Barraza. On July 8, Barraza informed CPJ that the state attorney general’s office had declined to provide him with police protection on the grounds that they lacked the necessary human and financial resources to provide protection.

“I am extremely concerned by this answer,” Barraza wrote, “for it seems to indicate that in this state, journalists who report on corruption and drug trafficking are at the mercy of gunmen and may be killed at any time.” That same day, CPJ issued a news alert expressing its concern for Barraza’s safety.

August 18
Damián Zavala Acevedo, Pulso ATTACKED, HARASSED
Heriberto Orduño Siqueiros, Pulso HARASSED
Jesús Barraza Zavala, Pulso HARASSED

Police officers attacked Zavala, a reporter with the San Luis Río Colorado weekly Pulso, and harassed his colleagues Orduño, also a Pulso reporter, and Barrazza, the paper’s editor, when the three journalists attempted to cover a raucous police party.

In the afternoon, the Pulso offices received a call saying that several armed police officers were creating a public disturbance on a local street corner. Zavala, Orduño, and Barraza headed over in Barraza’s car. At the scene they found members of the federal, state, and municipal police celebrating their recent induction into the Federal Preventive Police, a task force that had been launched that day in response to public clamor for more protection against crime.

When Zavala started taking pictures of the officers carousing, a federal police officer attacked him. Barraza contacted the municipal police station, using a two-way radio that he carried for security reasons. Then another federal police officer started hitting Zavala in the neck, while a third officer pistol-whipped him. Zavala suffered bruises, scratches, and a bloody mouth. Some 20 neighbors witnessed the attack.

When the municipal police arrived in patrol cars, the other officers sped off in their own vehicles. Before leaving, they snatched a tape recorder, containing a recording of the skirmish, from Barraza’s car. Barraza ran a report of the incident in the August 20 edition of Pulso. That same day, federal police officers were spotted near Zavala’s residence.