Journalists working along the U.S.-Mexico border were under siege
from organized criminals targeting them for coverage of drug trafficking. One reporter was killed for her work and another went missing, making northern Mexico one of the most dangerous spots for journalists in Latin America. Facing intimidation and attack, journalists in the northern states reported greater self-censorship.
Guadalupe García Escamilla, a crime reporter with Stereo 91 XHNOE in Nuevo Laredo, died on April 16 from injuries she suffered in an April 5 shooting in front of her radio station. Alfredo Jiménez Mota, a crime reporter for the Hermosillo-based daily El Imparcial, has been missing since April 2 and is feared dead. CPJ is also investigating the April murder of Raúl Gibb Guerrero, owner and director of La Opinión, a daily newspaper in the eastern state of Veracruz, to determine whether it was directly related to his journalism.
In the wake of these deadly attacks, Mexican President Vicente Fox met with a CPJ delegation at the organization’s Manhattan headquarters on September 15. In response to the violence, Fox announced he would ask Mexico’s attorney general to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate crimes against free expression. Fox also promised to consider the creation of a panel of national experts to evaluate how federal authorities can fight crimes against the press.
Before meeting with Fox, CPJ sent the president’s office a proposal urging greater and more permanent involvement by federal authorities in the investigation of crimes against free expression. Protection of free expression was particularly urgent, CPJ representatives said, in light of presidential elections in July 2006. Fox, whose term ends in 2006, said he recognized the problem of violence against border reporters and pledged his government’s commitment to protecting journalists.
The meeting with the Mexican president culminated months of intensive advocacy and investigation by CPJ. Four Mexican journalists have been killed in direct reprisal for their work during the last five years, and CPJ is investigating the slayings of five other journalists during that same period to determine whether those killings were work-related. State and local authorities, those normally responsible for investigating murders, have failed time and again to solve crimes against the press, CPJ found.
CPJ research shows that state and local authorities are more prone to corruption, have fewer resources, and are subject to less accountability. Their investigative failures, in turn, have created a climate of impunity that leave the media open to continuing attack.
Concerned about the sluggish pace of the investigations, CPJ representatives traveled to Mexico City in June to meet with José Luis Vasconcelos, the top prosecutor in the organized crime division of the federal attorney general’s office. Federal authorities had recently stepped in to take over three of the murder investigations, among them the 2004 slaying of Tijuana editor Francisco Ortiz Franco.
Vasconcelos told CPJ that the Arellano Félix drug cartel was behind the slaying of Ortiz Franco, an editor with the muckraking weekly Zeta. Federal authorities, he said, rounded up more than 100 people as part of a broad crackdown against the gang. Vasconcelos noted that one of the suspected gunmen, Jorge Eduardo Ronquillo Delgado (known as “El Niño”), was executed by fellow members of the Arellano Félix cartel in October 2004.
At large, Vasconcelos said, were the two alleged masterminds: Arturo Villarreal Albarrán (known as “El Nalgón”) and Jorge Briceño (known as “El Cholo”). Authorities had warrants seeking their arrest on drug trafficking charges, he said.
The federal government took other steps in response to the violence. In July, the attorney general’s office launched a telephone hotline for journalists who have been threatened or intimidated. The hotline, which received dozens of calls in its initial weeks, solicited tips and offered advice on responding to threats.
Beginning in August, the attorney general’s office appointed its own representatives in several states—including Baja California, Chihuahua, Durango, Michoacán, Sinaloa, Tabasco, Yucatán, and Oaxaca—to investigate aggression and threats against journalists.
Journalists in Mexico City continued to report freely on crime and political corruption. But as the war between Mexico’s powerful drug cartels intensified in the north, some local newspapers stopped their investigations into organized crime as a way to avoid danger. One northern newspaper, the Nuevo Laredo–based El Mañana, decided to limit its coverage after editor Roberto Javier Mora García was stabbed to death in March 2004. Heriberto Cantú, the editorial director, said the paper’s reporting now excludes context for and analysis of sensitive issues.
After the disappearance of reporter Jiménez in the northern state of Sonora, El Imparcial announced it would no longer investigate drug trafficking and organized crime. Jorge Morales, a top editor of El Imparcial, said the decision came after a meeting with the paper’s reporters. “There are no guarantees for journalists who cover crime and drug-related issues,” Morales told CPJ. “We decided to stop doing our own investigations after Alfredo disappeared. It’s a very dangerous business.”