Attacks leave border journalists self-censored by ‘culture of fear’

James Pinkerton
Houston Chronicle
Feb. 27, 2006

HARLINGEN – Three weeks after gunmen shot him five times, Jaime Orozco tells friends he’s itching to get out of his hospital bed and back to his true passion – newspapers.

“He has a lot of spirit,” said Cecilia Zavala, one of Orozco’s co-workers at the El Mañana newspaper in the border city of Nuevo Laredo. “He talks about wanting to come back to work.”

But Orozco’s recovery will take some time, his friends say. He was critically wounded on Feb. 6 when hooded gunmen armed with assault rifles sprayed the entrance to the newspaper with more than 60 bullets and hurled a grenade.

Because of such attacks, many reporters in Nuevo Laredo are afraid to write about crime and drug traffickers and do not trust the police, the New York-based Committee for the Protection of Journalists said in a five-page report released Friday.

“Already, the culture of fear has had devastating effects on the media,” said the report, entitled “Dread on the Border.”

“Most journalists interviewed for this article were too afraid for their safety to give their names,” the report said. ”They acknowledged they censored themselves out of fear of retribution.”

Mexican President Vicente Fox on Feb. 21 appointed a special federal prosecutor to investigate crimes against journalists, saying “whoever attacks freedom of expression, attacks society.” The prosecutor, Mexico City law professor and human rights expert David Vega, will work under the attorney general’s organized crime unit.

Carlos Lauría, head of the CPJ’s Americas program, called the Fox appointment “a positive sign.” ”It gives this problem a national dimension,” Lauría said Now federal authorities, not state police, who are often criticized as corrupt and inefficient, will investigate attacks on journalists, he said.

“It will send a message, we hope, to these reporters working in these dangerous areas, that the national government is taking their responsibilities more seriously,” Lauría said.

Since Fox took office in 2000, nine journalists have been killed in Mexico; four of the slayings were believed to be in direct reprisal for their work, the committee said.

Journalists in Nuevo Laredo said they doubted the new prosecutor – or any other federal official – would stop the killings.

“In general, they say they are interested, but I see it as a delay tactic, so that time will go by and people will forget about it,” said Marco Villarreal, director general of El Diaro newspaper. Villarreal said federal authorities promise all the time to help stop the violence in Nuevo Laredo, but little happens.

“Hopefully, something will be done,” Villarreal said. “But I am disenchanted. Because when they name a special prosecutor or a special commission, nothing happens. Hopefully, I am mistaken, and in this case they are able to make some progress.”

Leaders of churches across Nuevo Laredo, meanwhile, have asked parishioners to pray for Orozco, who has spinal and internal injuries and faces a long, difficult recovery.

But many co-workers are upbeat.

Said Zavala: “He has a lot of strength, not just physical but moral, and that is why we think he will recover.”

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Copyright 2006 Houston Chronicle