Valdés (Zócalo de Saltillo)
Valdés (Zócalo de Saltillo)

Media self-censors after killing of Mexican reporter

Twenty-nine-year-old reporter Valentín Valdés Espinosa was picked up by gunmen in two SUVs from the streets of downtown Saltillo, Mexico, late at night on January 7. He was tortured, bound by his hands and feet, and dumped at the Motel Marbella, where they shot him dead, according to state investigators, who discovered him early Friday. Another reporter abducted with him was beaten and released.

No reporter in the city has published a story that touches on why their colleague was killed. In fact, Valdés’ newspaper, Zócalo de Saltillo, is going in the other direction. It will stop reporting on anything about organized crime, according to a senior editor who asked to remain anonymous for his own safety. The paper, he said, is not going to investigate the murder of its reporter.

Reporters in Saltillo tell CPJ that the reasons behind Valdes’ murder are common knowledge among journalists, but they are all too afraid to write the story and to tell the public about how the truth reflects a steep escalation in the power of a drug cartel in their city.

If you look closely at how Valdés’ murder is affecting the press in Saltillo you’ll see yet one more place in Mexico where journalists are too terrified to report the truth about the most important issues that confront the public they are supposed to serve.

The word in Spanish for what’s happening is autocensura—self-censorship. It’s heard a lot. Reporters and editors everywhere I go in Mexico where there are powerful criminal groups or abusive state or local governments say they have to practice autocensura to one degree or another. “I am committed to journalism, but first I am committed to survival,” an editor told me.  

Often, it starts this way; the journalist is told how to handle a particular story. Usually it’s a phone call. They’re told that maybe they should ignore the story. Or, maybe they should pump it up to make a person or an opposing criminal or political group look bad, or make another group look especially good. If the journalist doesn’t follow the order they are threatened with death. They know that’s an easy threat to carry out because in Mexico almost no one is ever prosecuted for killing a journalist. Then the self-censorship starts. Soon, the journalist doesn’t even need to be told how to handle the stories. He or she knows already. It becomes automatic. It has to be automatic because that’s the way to stay alive.

And so that’s why the reporters in Saltillo tell me they aren’t informing the public of what they know about why Valdés was killed. No one has told them not to, they just know they can’t. His murder shows them how little room they have to report.

This is why Valentín Valdés was murdered, they say. In a recent story he merely named a high-level leader of the Gulf drug cartel and said the man had been arrested. He quoted what he said was military intelligence report claiming the man ran operations in four northern Mexican states.

The arrest Valdés reported on was supposed to have taken place at the Motel Marbella, the place where he was shot to death—possibly an indication that the cartel was reacting to his story. Valdés was part of a team of reporters that covered a massive raid on the motel by the Mexican army on December 29. The published story carried no byline. Still, somehow his killers found out that Valdés was part of the team, reporters in Saltillo said. The information about the arrest of the cartel leader came from Valdés, according to an editor at the paper, who said few people knew that.

Some reporters say that some of Valdés’ information was wrong. But it’s agreed that the Gulf cartel doesn’t want journalists looking at it, even so superficially as reporting when one of its leaders is allegedly arrested.

Reporters in Saltillo say Valdés was murdered to show journalists that anything the cartel does is off limits. None of the reporters is telling the public about that because self-censorship is in effect.

Until last year, Saltillo, the capital of the state of Coahuila, which borders the U.S., had not felt the intense pressure other cities feel from drug cartels, according to reporters. “But now we see how the police are being corrupted. The city government and the state government show signs they are being influenced by the cartel,” a reporter told CPJ, repeating the concerns of other journalists. But those are exactly the problems that can’t be reported in the press. Instead, reporters said, there is pressure from the cartel to do stories that help it, such as stories that invent or magnify human rights abuses by the army. The army is the government’s main weapon against drug cartels.

Mike O’Connor is CPJ’s representative in Mexico.