Arrests in Torreón press crimes; will it make difference?

Twenty-one people have been arrested for a wave of crimes that included 11 murders (six of which were committed against police officers), the abduction for hours of five employees of El Siglo de Torreón newspaper, the murder of a mayoral candidate, and attempted murder of a current mayor in a large metropolitan area in central Mexico, according a senior federal official. 

The question is, will the arrests have any effect on the larger climate of fear among the area’s press and public?

The arrests took place Wednesday, for the most part in and around Torreón, Coahuila, an area where journalists and citizens have been terrorized for well over three years as two large organized crime cartels fight for control. The mayor who was allegedly the subject of the attempted murder is Rocío Rebollo Mendoza, of the city of Gómez Palacio. The suspects are members of what could be new breakaway groups from these larger cartels, according to federal officials.

El Siglo de Torreón is the largest newspaper in the region and has been under pressure by the cartels to slant coverage in their favor, either diminishing their crimes or playing up the crimes of their opponents, reporters have long told CPJ. The paper carried only the briefest story on the arrests in order not to antagonize the cartel to which the suspects are alleged to belong, according to a senior editor. He said the paper was fairly confident that those under arrest are responsible. It was not clear if there were still others at large that are a threat to the paper’s staff.

Local reporters said the long-running campaign by the crime groups is working well because the media–from street reporters to top editors to the owners of all news organizations–are all afraid to cover stories that touch on organized crime. The fear has spread to many on the non-news side of the organizations because of six recent abductions of administrative employees. Five workers of El Siglo de Torreón were taken on February 8 and held for several hours, according to the paper. On December 19 an administrative worker for the local newspaper of the Milenio national chain was also abducted and held for several hours, local reporters told CPJ. Milenio would not comment. The same day a columnist and administrator for the paper Sol de la Laguna was nearly abducted, but escaped, according to reporters. Neither the columnist nor his paper would comment, citing safety fears. La Laguna is the general term for the area comprising the major city of Torreón and the smaller city of Gómez Palacio, as well as several other cities, towns and rural areas. 

Two correspondents who cover the La Laguna area for national news organizations were abducted for several hours in October, they told CPJ. They said they were beaten when an organized crime group told them it was not satisfied with their handling of a news story. 

Beatings and killings of journalists are not unusual in Mexico, but what is happening in Torreon is changing the picture in two ways. First, because the local press has already so completely stopped covering news that would seem to offend organized crime groups in a major population center, reporters and editors said. Self-censorship seems to dominate coverage at El Siglo de Torreón, the most recent target. Journalists in the area are quick to say the paper does not touch stories that affect the interests of crime cartels.

Secondly, and more ominously, the crime cartel has found the newspaper’s most vulnerable area. A top editor told CPJ that while the paper may…however unlikely… be able to somehow provide some kind of protection for its most exposed reporters, it cannot possibly protect the whole staff of some 400 employees, from clerks to printers. “Then what do we do if they start to abduct from the children of our secretaries from their schools?,” one editor asked.