Two years after the historic election of Vicente Fox, which ended 75 years of one-party rule in Mexico, the country is being governed somewhat more democratically. But in 2002, the president still faced urgent demands to break with the government’s corrupt and secretive past in favor of transparency and public accountability.
On April 30, in response to pressure from civil society groups and the public, Congress unanimously passed the Federal Law on Transparency and Access to Public Information, which Fox signed in June. The law defines all government information as public and requires agencies to publish all information concerning their daily functions, including budgets, operations, staff, salaries, internal reports, and the awarding of contracts. The legislation grants citizens the right to request information that is not already public and allows them to appeal to the Federal Institute for the Access to Public Information an agency’s decision to deny information. If that appeal is lost, citizens can take the case to court. The law also prohibits the government from withholding information regarding crimes against humanity or human rights violations under any circumstances.
Criminal libel laws still plague Mexico’s journalists. In October, a judge filed arrest warrants against Oscar Cantú Murguía, owner and editor of the Juárez-based daily Norte, and seven of his journalists. Several months earlier, former mayor Manuel Quevedo Reyes, who now heads a real estate firm, had filed criminal libel charges against Murguía and his colleagues after a series of articles in the paper suggested that government officials had deliberately overvalued land that Reyes sold to the government. The warrants remained pending in a state court at year’s end.
Although Fox promised to eliminate “all practices that get in the way of informing the public openly and truthfully,” federal investigators still pressured journalists to reveal the sources of their stories. Since March, six reporters from the Mexico City daily La Jornada, as well as the news director of the daily El Universal, have been ordered to testify before investigators about sources for articles on a corruption scandal involving the public petroleum company Pemex. On December 3, the attorney general justified the investigation, saying it was not designed to attack journalists but rather to punish officials who leak classified information to the media.
Meanwhile, reporters covering high-crime areas, especially near the U.S.-Mexico border, which is rife with drug traffickers, still face danger. For example, in January, J. Jesús Blancornelas, co-editor of the Tijuana weekly Zeta, received an e-mail saying that a gunman based in the border city of Mexicali, in the northern state of Baja California, had orders to execute him. For years, Blancornelas has covered corruption and drug trafficking there and has received frequent threats because of his award-winning reports. The January threat was attributed to the Tijuana drug cartel, then headed by brothers Ramón and Benjamín Arellano Félix. In November 1997, the Arellano Félix brothers wounded Blancornelas in an attack. The journalist is currently under permanent protection by bodyguards from an army Special Forces unit.
Some Mexican politicians have tried to harass journalists by using the U.S. court system. On January 9, Dolía Estévez, the Washington, D.C., correspondent for the Mexican daily El Financiero, was ordered by a subpoena issued by the plaintiff’s lawyer to hand over material related to a 1999 news article about the Hank family of Mexico, which has been linked to drug trafficking. The subpoena asked for all research materials used to prepare her article, including e-mail correspondence, tape recordings, calendar and appointment books, draft articles, and lists of U.S. government contacts. On March 19, a U.S. district judge granted Estévez’s motion to quash the subpoena, noting that “the information sought by Plaintiffs appears to be nothing more than a fishing expedition.” The plaintiffs appealed the ruling, and a hearing was scheduled for February 21, 2003.
In May, a three-judge appeals panel sentenced two men to 13-year prison terms for the 1998 murder of Philip True, a San Antonio Express-News (Texas) journalist who was killed while working on a story about the Huichols, an indigenous population that lives in a mountainous area stretching across Jalisco, Nayarit, and Durango states. The unanimous ruling overturned an August 2001 verdict that had acquitted the two men. The defendants’ lawyers appealed the latest convictions, which remained pending at year’s end.
J. Jesús Blancornelas, Zeta
Blancornelas, co-editor of the Tijuana weekly Zeta, received an anonymous, threatening e-mail, apparently in connection to his reports on drug trafficking.
He publicized the threats on January 15 in his weekly column “Conversaciones Privadas” (Private Conversations), which is carried by Zeta as well as more than 20 other Mexican dailies. According to Blancornelas, the message said that a gunman based in the border city of Mexicali, in the northern state of Baja California, had orders to execute him.
For years, Blancornelas has covered corruption and drug trafficking there and has received frequent threats because of his award-winning reports. These latest threats were attributed to the Tijuana drug cartel, headed by the brothers Ramón and Benjamín Arellano Félix. On February 10, Ramón Arellano Félix was shot dead by Mexican law enforcement officials, while Benjamín Arellano Félix was apprehended on March 9 and sent to a maximum-security prison.
The journalist told CPJ that he did not file a complaint about the threat because he does not trust the local authorities, who he believes may have ties to drug traffickers. In November 1997, the Arellano Félix brothers wounded Blancornelas in an attack, and Luis Valero Elizaldi, his friend and bodyguard, was killed. The journalist is currently under permanent protection by bodyguards from an army Special Forces unit.
Isabel Arvide, free-lance
Arvide, a journalist and author, was charged with criminal defamation by Osvaldo Rodríguez Borunda, owner of Editora Paso del Norte, a publishing company that owns the dailies El Diario de Chihuahua and El Diario de Juárez, both based in the northern state of Chihuahua. Rodríguez Borunda also requested 50 million pesos (US$5,000,000) in “moral damages.”
Judge Armando Rodríguez Gaytán of the Second Penal Court in the district of Morales, Chihuahua, in north central Mexico, confirmed to CPJ that Arvide was charged with criminal defamation. According to Mexico’s Criminal Code, Arvide faces six months to two years in prison if convicted.
Chihuahua State police arrested Arvide on Friday, August 19, at the airport in Chihuahua City as she was boarding a flight for Mexico City. She was released more than 24 hours later, after paying a bail of 100,000 Mexican pesos (US$10,000).
The charges stemmed from a June 2, 2001, article by Arvide that appeared on the journalist’s own Web site, www.isabelarvide.com, and in the Mexico City-based daily Milenio. In the article, Arvide accused Rodríguez Borunda of being involved in drug trafficking and money laundering.
Arvide has written many exposés about drug traffickers, corruption, and violence. She also wrote the book Muerte en Juárez (Death in Juarez). She was in Chihuahua covering a tour of the region by the national director of the Institutional Revolutionary Party when she was arrested at the Chihuahua airport.
Arvide maintains that the arresting authorities failed to properly identify themselves or to clarify the charges against her at the time of arrest. Judge Rodríguez had issued the warrant for her arrest on June 16. A court rejected an injunction she filed challenging the arrest warrant and the imprisonment order, and at year’s end, her case was ongoing.
Arvide, who lives in Mexico City, is currently free on bail but must appear before a Chihuahua court every 15 days and sign a court record, she told CPJ. She also needs authorization to leave the country.