Gunmen stormed the offices of the Nuevo Laredo daily El Mañana in February, firing assault rifles, tossing a grenade—and setting the tone for another dangerous year for Mexican journalists. The shocking assault, which seriously injured reporter Jaime Orozco, spurred the federal government to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate crimes against the press. The 2006 blotter was long: U.S. documentary filmmaker Bradley Will was murdered during civil unrest in the southern state of Oaxaca in October; Veracruz crime reporter Roberto Marcos García was slain in November; and Monclova journalist Rafael Ortiz Martínez went missing in July after exposing widespread problems related to prostitution. CPJ is investigating five other journalist murders to determine whether they were work-related.
Along with this alarming physical toll was the rising toll taken on news coverage itself. In the northern states, frequent attacks inspired further self-censorship among journalists covering drug trafficking and organized crime. In the crime-ridden border city of Nuevo Laredo, the powerful drug cartels essentially silenced the press on sensitive issues, CPJ found in a special report, “Dread on the Border,” published in February.
In a series of interviews with CPJ’s Sauro González Rodríguez, journalists in Nuevo Laredo said that identifying drug traffickers by name was off-limits, and that editors combed through articles to ensure no name slipped by. Threats were routine, the journalists said, and the danger so immediate that many did not work after dark or in the early morning. The journalists described a climate of widespread corruption in which drug cartel members routinely offered bribes, and some colleagues worked outright for criminal groups.
At El Mañana, Editor Ramón Cantú said he would further curtail the paper’s already meager coverage of organized crime. El Mañana began censoring its pages in March 2004, when Editor Roberto Javier Mora García was stabbed to death.
Violence and fear had a devastating overall affect on Nuevo Laredo, a city of 300,000. A turf battle between competing drug traffickers claimed more than 160 lives in the first 10 months of 2006 alone; abductions over the past three years were said to number in the hundreds, according to press reports. The numbers, though shocking, may be understated because of self-censorship. Gunfights in downtown streets sometimes go unreported, according to the San Antonio Express-News, and even state police and the attorney general’s office stopped making public comments on drug-related crimes.
In a bitterly contested presidential election in July, conservative Felipe Calderón, who enjoyed strong support from incumbent Vicente Fox, narrowly defeated leftist candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the former Mexico City mayor. López Obrador, who unsuccessfully sought a recount, had a contentious relationship with the media. He accused the press of ignoring his campaign, and he alleged that a coalition of business leaders had unlawfully funded negative campaign ads on national television.
Fox ended his six-year term with a mixed record. He was widely criticized for his failure to implement major societal reforms; violence against the press became a grave problem as drug trafficking and crime escalated, especially in the north. But Fox was also willing to confront the violence as a national problem by creating a special prosecutor’s office and by speaking out himself. His press freedom legacy was also burnished by the enactment of a public information law that allowed access to vast amounts of once-secret government records.
The appointment of a special prosecutor had been long anticipated. Fox pledged in a September 2005 meeting with CPJ that he would seek to establish the position in response to a wave of violence against the press in the northern states. CPJ had lobbied vigorously for the appointment after finding that northern Mexico had become one of the most dangerous places for journalists in Latin America. CPJ research showed that six journalists had been murdered in direct reprisal for their work since Fox took office in 2000; CPJ was investigating the circumstances surrounding the slayings of 10 other journalists during that period.
David Vega Vera, a well-known lawyer and human rights advocate, was named special prosecutor in February 2006. His office immediately took over investigations into crimes against journalists in 32 states, assembling data on press attacks and providing legal assistance and counseling to journalists who were assaulted or threatened. Vega, who issued a report every three months, received 108 cases between February and November, including assaults, threats, kidnappings, criminal defamation suits, and abuse of authority complaints. Although the special prosecutor’s office did not produce any breakthrough results, it remained active throughout the year.
Press cases involving drugs and organized crime were handled by José Luis Vasconcelos, deputy prosecutor with the attorney general’s organized crime division. In an interview with CPJ, Vasconcelos said the federal government faced an enormous challenge in breaking “the cycle of impunity” in such cases.
Mexican journalists themselves said they were skeptical of the special prosecutor’s ability to effectively pursue cases, given Mexico’s dysfunctional and overburdened criminal justice system. Yet the appointment signaled that the federal government recognized that attacks on the press had become a national issue—and that national action was needed.
One encouraging sign came via international police action. Arturo Villarreal, one of two alleged masterminds in the June 2004 murder of Tijuana newspaper editor Francisco Ortiz Franco, was arrested on August 14 as part of a sweep by U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agents. Villarreal, known as “El Nalgón,” and the reputed Tijuana drug boss Francisco Javier Arellano Félix were apprehended on a fishing boat off Mexico’s Baja California peninsula and later brought to San Diego. Mexican authorities sought Villarreal’s extradition.
At home, the new prosecutor took action to protect a journalist facing legal harassment in a tangled case that sparked scandal and headlines. Lydia Cacho Ribeiro, a columnist and human rights activist arrested in December 2005, faced criminal charges of defaming Puebla-based clothing manufacturer José Camel Nacif Borge. In her 2005 book Los Demonios del Edén (The Demons of Eden), Cacho alleged that a child prostitution ring operated in Cancún with the complicity of local police and politicians. She accused Nacif of having ties to an accused pedophile, an allegation the businessman denied.
The case took an unusual turn in February, when news outlets reported the contents of taped telephone conversations between local businessmen and Puebla state officials, including Gov. Mario Marín. Based on those leaked tapes, the special prosecutor began investigating whether there was a conspiracy to attack or jail Cacho. A spokesman for Marín denied that the governor was involved in any plot against Cacho and said the recordings violated Mexico’s privacy laws. The origin of the tapes, left anonymously for news organizations, was not clear.
The special prosecutor’s office questioned several people, including Marín. In March, Mexico’s Supreme Court of Justice named a commission to investigate allegations that Marín had violated Cacho’s constitutional rights. And in October, a judge in the state of Quintana Roo moved the defamation case against Cacho to Mexico City. The venue change was important to Cacho’s legal defense because defamation is no longer a criminal matter in the capital city.
In a major advancement for press freedom, the Mexico City assembly unanimously adopted a measure in April that eliminated “honor crimes” such as slander and libel from the municipal penal code and directed such cases to civil court. National legislation to decriminalize defamation stalled in the Senate, but Deputy Carlos Reyes Gámiz, who introduced the federal bill, said that the Mexico City law took precedence in the capital. In the same session, the Mexico City assembly unanimously adopted a measure allowing journalists to withhold information about confidential sources from law enforcement, judicial, and government authorities.
In the south, months of unrest nearly paralyzed Oaxaca, and members of the news media were trapped in the middle. Authorities used tear gas to break up a demonstration by striking teachers in June, which prompted leftist activists to take to the streets in a bid to oust Oaxacan Gov. Ulises Ruiz Ortiz. Government and private radio stations were seized by leftist protesters; the facilities of the daily Noticias, Voz e Imagen de Oaxaca were attacked by masked gunmen; shots were fired at a university radio station that backed efforts to oust Ruiz; and several journalists were beaten and harassed while covering the unrest.
The conflict peaked in October with the killing of Will, an independent documentary filmmaker and reporter for the news Web site Indymedia. Will was shot on October 27 while documenting clashes between activists and government agents. Will had been covering the conflict in Oaxaca for at least six weeks, shooting footage for a documentary. Two local officials were detained in connection with Will’s killing, but they were released within weeks.