Drug-related violence endangers media in Reynosa

New York, March 11, 2010—The Committee to Protect Journalists is alarmed by a wave of drug-related violence in the Mexican city of Reynosa, near the Texas border, which is endangering the news media and causing widespread self-censorship. In the past two weeks, several journalists have been abducted and one reporter has died in unclear circumstances, according to press reports and CPJ interviews.

“We call on Mexican authorities to fully investigate the abduction of reporters in Reynosa and ensure that these crimes do not remain unpunished,” said Carlos Lauría, CPJ senior program coordinator for the Americas. “We urge the government of President Felipe Calderón to provide safety guarantees for the press, and to make the protection of free expression a top priority.”

The Dallas Morning News reported on Monday that eight Mexican journalists were abducted in separate episodes in the Reynosa area, near McAllen, Texas. One reporter died, two were released, and the rest were missing, the Morning News reported.

The Morning News and CPJ sources identified the deceased man as Jorge Rábago Valdez, a well-known Reynosa journalist. Rábago, a journalist with the Reynosa-based daily La Prensa and local broadcasters Radio Rey and Reporteros en la Red, died on March 2 at Christus Muguerza Hospital in circumstances that are not yet clear. The state prosecutor’s office ruled the death was by natural causes after Rábago had suffered an embolism and lapsed into diabetic coma. But several reporters told CPJ that Rábago had been badly beaten.

The reporters, who didn’t want their names published for fear of reprisal, said they visited the unconscious Rábago in the hospital and it appeared clear that he had been beaten. The journalists told CPJ that they also retraced Rábago’s most recent activities; in doing so, they said, they were told that police officers had seized Rábago shortly before his death.

The state prosecutor’s office denied that Rábago was beaten. The hospital declined CPJ requests for information about Rábago’s condition. CPJ is investigating whether Rábago’s death was related to his work as a journalist.

Only one of the other reported disappearances has been confirmed by authorities. On Tuesday, the Tamaulipas state prosecutor’s office said Miguel Angel Domínguez Zamora, a reporter for the daily Reynosa-based El Mañana, has been missing since March 1. A Domínguez family member had filed a formal complaint with the Tamaulipas prosecutor’s office.

But news reports and CPJ interviews point to several other abductions. Two reporters for the Milenio media group, assigned to cover a wave of drug-related violence in Reynosa, were seized on March 3 and released the next day, the Mexico City-based daily Milenio reported. A reporter and a cameraman for Milenio Television, whose names were not disclosed because of safety concerns, were kidnapped by gunmen and told to leave immediately, Milenio said. “Journalism is dead in Reynosa,” Ciro Gómez Leyva, a top editor, wrote in a Milenio column.

A CPJ source said Wednesday that four other reporters in Reynosa are believed to have been abducted. One works for the newspaper El Mañana, a second for sister publication La Tarde, a third for the news Web site MetroNoticias, and a fourth for the daily La Prensa, according to the source, who spoke only on condition of anonymity. MetroNoticias employees said their reporter was now safe but would not elaborate or make the reporter available for comment. The other media employers would not comment publicly.

The reported abductions come amid a series of extremely violent confrontations between two drug cartels in the Reynosa border area, press reports said. For the most part, local reporters said, the press has been intimidated into not covering the violence.

The abductions have sown even great fear in the local press corps. Authorities have provided very little information, and local news organizations are fearful of reporting anything about the cases. Journalists in Reynosa and in nearby border communities told CPJ that speaking to outsiders about the disappearances could bring retaliation from drug cartels or police. Journalists told CPJ that they assume the cartels are behind the kidnappings, and that corrupt police are protecting the traffickers.

“As drug trafficking, violence, and lawlessness take hold,” CPJ’s Lauría said, “the Mexican media are forced into silence. This pervasive self-censorship is causing severe damage to Mexican democracy.”

Mexico is one of the most dangerous countries for the press, CPJ research shows. Since 1992, a total of 44 journalists have been killed in Mexico. At least 19 of them were slain in direct reprisal for their work, CPJ investigations have found. Another eight journalists have disappeared since 2005. Most covered organized crime or government corruption.