Warnings issued for U.S. reporters working along Mexican border

New York, July 13, 2007—A San Antonio Express-News reporter has been temporarily reassigned from his posting in the border city of Laredo after a U.S. law enforcement source warned that an unspecified American journalist is on the hit list of a Mexican criminal group, the newspaper’s editor said today. The Association of Foreign Correspondents in Mexico also issued a warning today to journalists working on the U.S.-Mexican border to use extreme caution in their work.

Express-News Editor Robert Rivard told CPJ that Mariano Castillo, the daily’s correspondent in Laredo, has left the border city as a precaution. Rivard said the paper received information that the Zetas criminal group has placed a U.S. journalist on a hit list. Rivard said the source’s information was not an official warning; the information did not include the name of the U.S. journalist.

“We don’t know if the report is credible, but we want to be cautious and we will keep Castillo out of the border region until we find out more,” Rivard said. The Zetas are aligned with the Gulf drug-trafficking cartel. The group was born in the late 1990s when the Gulf cartel began recruiting Mexican Army deserters.

Also today, the Association of Foreign Correspondents issued a warning to reporters traveling to the Mexican city of Nuevo Laredo to be “extremely cautious and security conscious,” especially if they are working on drug trafficking stories. “We have information from reliable sources that any U.S. or other foreign journalist in the area could become a target for assassination by killers hired by the local drug cartel,” an association statement said.

Bob Mong, the editor of The Dallas Morning News, said he is taking the threat seriously. He said The Morning News does not disclose reporters’ assignment plans but would not alter its coverage of the border region. “We will continue to report on important issues in this region. Our readers expect that and want and need that kind of information. This kind of barbarism simply can’t affect a free press,” Mong said.

The reports drew reaction today from the U.S. embassy in Mexico City. “Threats against journalists, in an attempt to intimidate them from reporting the truth, must be condemned by all of us who understand the important role of a free press in a democratic society,” said Antonio Garza, U.S. ambassador to Mexico, in a statement today. “We will work with authorities in the U.S. and Mexico to do everything possible to ensure the safety of American reporters working along both sides of our common border.”

Mexican journalists working on the border routinely face threats and violent attacks, leading to pervasive self-censorship. In a recent meeting with the Mexican ambassador to the United States, Arturo Sarukhan, CPJ urged the federal government to take immediate steps to guarantee the safety of the press.