A Mexican soldier carries blocks of cocaine for incineration in Matamoros. (Reuters)
A Mexican soldier carries blocks of cocaine for incineration in Matamoros. (Reuters)

Mexican cartels blow the whistle on news coverage

On Thursday, I wrote about the murder of reporter Valentín Valdés Espinosa on January 7 and how the Mexican media has silenced its own coverage of the killing. Today, I will get into how journalists and drug cartels have entered into a dangerous, symbiotic relationship.

In the north of Mexico, along the border, drug cartels took hold years ago, and journalism there may be the future for many in the Mexican media. The Gulf cartel is dominant in much of the territory from the Gulf coast of Texas to the west, along with an allied group of gunmen called the Zetas. Matamoros is a principal city in the region. It’s across from Brownsville, on the tip of Texas. According to two editors of news organizations there, the cartel gets whatever it wants from the press, and more. Authorities in Saltillo said the Zetas likely murdered Valdés.

On September 4, 2009, there was major gun battle between the Mexican army and the cartel in Matamoros that lasted an hour. Bullets sprayed across the border to the University of Texas campus, which closed for three days. Texas sheriff’s deputies mobilized on the border in case the fighting spilled over, the Cameron County sheriff told the U.S. press. Some of the fighting was in front of the offices of the newspaper El Bravo. But, according to a Matamoros editor, in his town, “No one covered that story. No one. It closed the center of the city, but we got the order to close our eyes.”

The order came from the cartel, he said. The editors insist that every news organization in the city, printed press, TV, and radio has to follow the orders or members of their staffs will be murdered. The editors were interviewed by telephone and agreed to be frank only if their identities were withheld for safety reasons.

The machinery to control the press is well organized, said the editors, and works any day the cartel has an order to give. An editor explained: “Of course, the police are completely infiltrated by the cartel. The cartel has representatives in the police. The representatives only have to tell the reporters who cover the police beat what the orders are, and then the reporters tell their editors.”  The orders even have a name: pitazos, which means blasts from a police officer’s whistle. The editor said in November there were four or five lesser gun fights with the army and each one brought a pitazo that it could not be covered.

But for the people of Matamoros, the control of the cartel over the press may be more extensive and much more dangerous than telling it to ignore gun battles. According to the editors and reports in the U.S. press, the cartel and the Zetas, which together now call themselves “The Company” in Matamoros, have penetrated deeply into business and politics in the city. The editors said they are now told how handle stories about businesses owned by the cartel and political figures the cartel is supporting. In other words, they say, as the cartel’s power grows to control more of the city’s life, the press is told there are more areas of news coverage the cartel will also control.

They don’t have to be told every day, one of the editors said. They get general guidelines relayed to them by their police reporters, after that it’s self-censorship.

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