Attacks on the Press 2010: Mexico

Top Developments
• Amid rampant violence, Calderón backs federalization of anti-press crimes.
• More than 30 journalists killed or disappeared since Calderón’s term began.

Key Statistic
4: Journalists abducted in Durango by gangsters who demand that TV stations air their propaganda.

Organized crime groups exerted fierce pressure on the Mexican press as their control spread across vast regions and nearly every aspect of society. Pervasive self-censorship by news media in areas under drug traffickers’ influence was a devastating consequence of violence and intimidation. Ten journalists were killed, at least three in direct relation to their work, and three other reporters disappeared. In addition, journalists were assaulted, kidnapped, or forced into exile, while media outlets were targeted by bomb attacks, making Mexico one of the world’s deadliest places for the press. After meeting with a CPJ delegation, President Felipe Calderón Hinojosa pledged to push for legislation making attacks on free expression a federal crime, and announced the launch of a security program for at-risk reporters.


Main Index
Regional Analysis:
In Latin America,
A Return of Censorship

Country Summaries
United States
Other nations

The activities of criminal groups burst further into the public’s attention with new cartel warfare in states such as Nuevo León, Nayarit, Durango, and Tamaulipas. Since President Calderón launched a massive military offensive against the powerful drug cartels after taking office in December 2006, almost 30,000 people have died in drug-related crimes, the attorney general’s office said.

One of the worst places was Ciudad Juárez, a major city on the border with Texas, where the federal government had sworn it would set an example in retaking the country. Despite deploying as many as 10,000 soldiers and federal police, the government could not wrest control of the city from organized crime groups. A September editorial in the main local paper, El Diario, which had lost two journalists to drug violence since 2008, put the situation in stark terms when it addressed the two cartels in the city: “You are, at this time, the de facto authorities.” Given that, the editorial asked, what will the cartels allow the paper to publish? The editorial was published a day after El Diario photographer Luis Carlos Santiago, 21, was fatally shot in a shopping mall parking lot. The federal government did not respond to the editorial’s charge that cartels controlled the city, saying instead that the paper was irresponsible in its published offer.

Aside from the continuing slaughter that drew international attention to Ciudad Juárez, furious gun battles between cartels went on for months in cities to the east, in the state of Tamaulipas, also on the Texas border. But the cartels ordered that none of the fighting be covered by the local press, and so it was not, despite the danger of civilians being caught in the crossfire. But that was only one effect of the control over the press. Many reporters in the state’s largest city, Reynosa, told CPJ that organized crime had effectively taken over the police and many municipal functions, but they dared not report it and the public did not know it had lost the city. Unlike Ciudad Juárez, with its dreadful murder rate, most of the state of Tamaulipas had been fairly quiet until 2010 when the cartel war broke out.

In September, CPJ issued a special report, Silence or Death in Mexico’s Press, which revealed how drug violence and corruption had devastated the news media and stripped citizens of their rights to freedom of expression and access to information. The report described how fear and self-censorship had destroyed the ability of the press to report the news while placing Mexico’s future as a democracy at risk.

More than 30 journalists have been killed or have disappeared in Mexico since Calderón’s term began in December 2006, CPJ found, a number that rivals war-wracked countries such as Iraq and Somalia. These crimes remained almost entirely unsolved, not only as a result of negligence and incompetence but of widespread corruption among law enforcement officials, particularly at the state level. The report found that some journalists, too, had become tools of criminal groups by taking money to write cartel propaganda. It blamed a weak, corrupt, and overburdened justice system for failing to investigate crimes against journalists, thus encouraging further crimes. The report concluded that the national crisis demanded a forceful response from the federal government. 

Two weeks after the report was published, a joint delegation from CPJ and the Inter American Press Association (IAPA) met with the Mexican president. After a 90-minute discussion, Calderón pledged to push for legislation that would make attacks on journalists a federal crime, and establish accountability at senior levels of the national government. Calling the right to free expression a priority of his administration, the president said federal authorities would implement a program to provide security to at-risk journalists, modeled after a successful effort in Colombia. He said federal forces were working to improve human rights training, and he pledged receptiveness to journalists’ concerns about human rights violations by law enforcement.

CPJ and IAPA have long advocated federal intervention to address the crisis. The meeting, in the presidential office in Los Pinos, included Attorney General Arturo Chávez Chávez and Minister of Interior José Francisco Blake Mora. The CPJ delegation was led by Executive Director Joel Simon, and included board member María Teresa Ronderos, Senior Program Coordinator Carlos Lauría, and Mexico representative Mike O’Connor. The IAPA delegation, led by Vice President Gonzalo Marroquín, included Executive Director Julio Muñoz and Press Institute Director Ricardo Trotti.

Calderón also announced the arrest of a suspect in the 2008 murder of prominent Ciudad Juárez reporter Armando Rodríguez Carreón. A veteran crime reporter for El Diario, Rodríguez was shot in front of his young daughter in November 2008. Since then, the investigation has stalled and his newspaper has campaigned intensively for justice. Attorney General Chávez said that the suspect and his accomplices had been motivated by Rodriguez’s coverage of drug trafficking. But a day after the president’s announcement, El Diario reported that the suspect, Juan Soto Arias, had been tortured and coerced to confess to the journalist’s slaying. Mexican authorities did not comment on the El Diario report, which was based on unnamed sources.

By late year, the administration moved forward on its broad pledges to protect the press. In November, the Ministry of Interior announced details of a program to provide at-risk journalists with a range of protective measures, including bodyguards, armored cars, and relocation assistance. Yet some journalists and press groups were dissatisfied with the announcement, saying the plan was designed entirely by government officials without sufficient understanding of front-line journalism. The government, these journalists said, will have to overcome deep mistrust among the press corps as it moves ahead with the protection program. In October, the Justice Committee of the Chamber of Deputies backed a constitutional amendment to give federal authorities broad authority to investigate and prosecute crimes against free expression. The proposal, similar to a 2008 plan that ultimately died, was moved to the chamber’s floor for a vote.

Earlier in the year, the federal government had taken some other steps to fight impunity. In July, the office of the federal special prosecutor for crimes against journalists was given broader authority and new responsibilities. Under the new mandate, the prosecutor reported directly to the attorney general and was responsible for investigating crimes against freedom of expression. The administration also named Gustavo Salas Chávez, a former Mexico City prosecutor, as the special prosecutor, replacing Octavio Orellana Wiarco, whose tenure was marked by a decided lack of progress in addressing anti-press violence. The office is potentially important because it can take on cases that have languished in the hands of state officials, CPJ research shows.

Amid a war between the Gulf cartel and the Zetas criminal group in the city of Reynosa, reporters Miguel Angel Domínguez, Pedro Argüello, and David Silva, all of the El Mañana newspaper group, went missing in early March. Silva reappeared months later, according to reports from several journalists, although the circumstances of his disappearance remained unclear. The other journalists remained missing in late year. Ramón Ángeles Zalpa, a stringer for Cambio de Michoacán, in the state of Michoacán, was reported missing on April 6. His son told CPJ that he left for work at the local university, where he was an instructor, but never arrived. Another stringer for the same paper, María Esther Casimbe, vanished in November 2009.

Drug traffickers took new and unprecedented steps in their battle to control information and influence news coverage. For years, they had enforced censorship on news organizations, bribed or threatened individual reporters to write stories favorable to them, and, in some cases, threatened media into slanting coverage. But in 2010, they went further: They forced the press to give the public pure propaganda.

After abducting four journalists in the state of Durango, drug traffickers said the men would not be released unless certain videos were aired by a local television station owned by Televisa and a local affiliate for Milenio. The videos, which the stations agreed to broadcast, seemed to contain confessions of people in captivity accusing rival gangsters of corrupting local police and officials. Two captives were released. The government said federal police rescued the two other hostages, but one captive said the traffickers simply allowed them to go free, sparking speculation that the rescue was staged. This was the first documented case in Mexico in which journalists were taken hostage to force news organizations to broadcast a criminal group’s propaganda, CPJ research found. In September, one of the abducted reporters, Televisa cameraman Alejandro Hernández Pacheco, requested political asylum in the United States. The reporter said he felt vulnerable in Mexico, particularly after officials presented the captives at a news conference and declared the Sinaloa drug cartel responsible. 

Also in September, a judge in El Paso, Texas, granted political asylum to Mexican journalist Jorge Luis Aguirre, editor of the news website La Polaka. Aguirre had fled Ciudad Juárez in November 2008 after receiving a death threat on the same day that local crime reporter Armando Rodríguez Carreón was murdered. It was the first time in recent years that the United States granted political asylum to a reporter, local and international news accounts said, a tacit acknowledgment that Mexico has become an extremely dangerous place for the press.

The Canadian government granted political asylum in June to Luis Horacio Nájera, former Ciudad Juárez correspondent for the Reforma Group. Nájera and his family relocated to Vancouver after receiving death threats in 2008 from drug traffickers, military officials, and police. “Threats came from all sides,” Nájera wrote in a first-person piece published as part of CPJ’s special report, Silence or Death in Mexico’s Press. “In the crossfire, I had no one to turn to for help. Having seen the pervasive climate of violent crime and impunity, I could not trust the government and I could not simply let myself be killed under some lonely streetlight.”

In Ciudad Victoria, state capital of Tamaulipas, the Zetas criminal group formed a public relations arm that e-mailed press releases, complete with photos, to local newspapers, which ran the propaganda out of fear, according to local editors. The press releases were cast as “stories” that showed the army in a bad light. Other press releases praised the local police, which some journalists said were in collusion with the cartel.

In regions where drug traffickers battled for territorial control, media outlets were targets of bomb attacks. In late August, a car bomb exploded at Televisa’s headquarters in Ciudad Victoria. There were no injuries, the network said, but its transmission was knocked out for several hours and there was damage to neighboring buildings. Earlier that month, a hand grenade was thrown at the Televisa offices in Monterrey in northern Mexico, while unidentified assailants fired a homemade explosive device at the Televisa offices in Matamoros, Tamaulipas state, news reports said. No injuries were reported.

Journalists reported numerous instances of harassment and assault by federal police and military forces, who often insisted that their actions should not be covered. Reporters and photographers in the states of Michoacán, Sinaloa, and Chihuahua, where the army was widely deployed, said they were often threatened by soldiers during news events. Sometimes, they said, soldiers detained or hit them, and damaged their gear or erased their photographs. Statements from the army often ascribed this treatment to new recruits not yet properly trained. Still, at least five journalists said they were detained and beaten by members of President Calderón’s personal military guard outside of the hotel where he was to speak in Ciudad Juárez in February, according to news reports. In its meeting with the president in September, the CPJ-IAPA delegation expressed concern that military forces and federal police officers were abusing the press.

In May, a video camera operator, a still photographer, and a driver for the online newsmagazine Reporte Indigo were detained while working in front of the home of Genaro García Luna, head of the national Secretariat of Public Security. The magazine had been publishing a series of stories questioning how García could afford to buy the house. The three journalists were held for 20 hours, then released without charge, according to the Center for Journalism and Public Ethics, a Mexican press freedom group. In a June letter to President Calderón, CPJ called on the government to develop new procedures and training to ensure that soldiers and federal police did not obstruct the press.

In February, the only man charged in the killing of U.S. freelance journalist Bradley Will was exonerated by a judge. Will was killed in 2006 while covering protests in the southern state of Oaxaca. The man, Juan Manuel Martinez, was said to be a scapegoat by Will’s family and human rights groups, which pointed to gunmen working for the state governor as being responsible for the murder.