While journalists in the capital, Mexico City, report freely on government, crime, and corruption, reporters in the U.S.-Mexico border region risk grave danger in covering sensitive topics, such as drug trafficking. Two border journalists were killed for their work in 2004.
Francisco Ortiz Franco, 48, an editor and reporter with the tabloid weekly Zeta, was gunned down in front of his children in broad daylight near downtown Tijuana on June 22. Federal authorities took over the investigation in August after evidence linked the killing to organized crime.
Investigators said they believe that members of the powerful Arellano Félix cartel killed Ortiz Franco because of stories he wrote about them, but not enough evidence had been assembled by year’s end to obtain arrest warrants.
CPJ Deputy Director Joel Simon and Americas Program Coordinator Carlos Lauría traveled to Tijuana for a week in September to interview police, prosecutors, analysts, and journalists about the slaying. CPJ later issued a special report, “Free-Fire Zone,” describing how pervasive corruption and feuding between rival cartels had endangered the press.
Just weeks after the Tijuana killing sent shock waves through the Mexican press corps, another border journalist was killed in retaliation for his work. Francisco Arratia Saldierna, 55, a columnist for four newspapers who wrote frequently about organized crime and corruption, died after being brutally beaten in the city of Matamoros, near the Texas border, on August 31.
Mexican authorities said Raúl Castelán Cruz, an alleged drug-ring member, confessed to participating in the Arratia murder. While federal authorities charged Castelán with weapons possession on October 12, state prosecutors formally accused him of murder on December 27.
Outraged by the killings, Mexican journalists in more than 10 states took to the streets in simultaneous national rallies against violence on October 11. They urged authorities to investigate the murders thoroughly and to ensure that reporters can work without fear. In a letter to President Vicente Fox, they also demanded “guarantees for full freedom of expression and exemplary punishment for the crimes and attacks against journalists.” The government proposed a task force to study the issue, an initial step that journalists hope will lead to concrete changes, such as making attacks against journalists a federal crime.
Although the murders were a major setback, many analysts still believe that press freedom has improved since Fox’s election in 2000 ended more than 70 years of one-party rule by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). A landmark federal law guaranteeing access to government information continued to shine a brighter light on public affairs in 2004, a year after it took effect.
For their part, the Mexican media have become more transparent and less corrupt in the last five years, journalists say. But some of the old practices remain: Poorly paid journalists still accept bribes from politicians, and government officials still dole out tax incentives and government advertising in exchange for positive coverage.
In many states, criminal defamation laws are still used to silence criticism—and in the southern state of Chiapas, the situation worsened. The Congress in Chiapas approved changes to the Penal Code that reclassify defamation as a felony and lengthen prison terms to as much as nine years.
A 6-year-old murder case appears to have concluded with a conviction. On April 27, the Jalisco State Supreme Court reinstated the convictions and ordered the rearrests of two Huichol Indians, Juan Chivarra de la Cruz and his brother-in-law Miguel Hernández de la Cruz, in the slaying of San Antonio Express-News correspondent Philip True.
True, Mexico City bureau chief for the Express-News, was killed in December 1998 while working on a story about the Huichol Indians, an indigenous group that lives in a mountainous area stretching across Jalisco, Nayarit, and Durango states. The case had gone through several appeals and reversals before the Supreme Court’s decision. The two men were at large at year’s end.