Politicians say there are no organized crime cartels in the capital’s metropolitan area. Journalists know better, but they are afraid to report it. By Mike O’Connor
If you’re coming into Mexico City’s airport, just before you touch down, you’re really flying over the large city called Neza. As your plane taxis, on the left, for miles, that’s Neza. Though it’s not in what is called the Federal District, the legal term for Mexico’s capital, Neza is part of the metropolis that we think of as Mexico City.
“There are usually four of them in the car,” a police officer in Neza said. “They drive up close to you and show their assault rifles. They say, ‘This territory is ours. Get out.’ You turn around. There is no clearer way to know they have taken over the city.”
There are three important points here.
One, Neza, about 10 miles southeast of the center of Mexico City, which has a little over one million people, is part of metropolitan Mexico City, where the politicians keep saying there are no organized crime cartels. Miguel Ángel Mancera, Mexico City’s mayor, forcefully told an interviewer that in his city, “There is not a single cartel. Nothing like the names of cartels you find in the states.”
Two, the men who told the police officer they have taken over are cartel hit men.
Finally, the press in Neza, local reporters and those who write for national papers, do not cover stories like that because, they say, they are under threat. So the public does not know that the police say hit men run the streets here.
Another officer in Neza said, “If you see a big SUV, you just turn around and don’t go down the street. It’s their street. Or the same for a car with blacked out windows and no license plates.” A third officer told CPJ, “They got me again about 10 days ago and I’m ashamed. They made me leave the area. I’m ashamed because they can make me run away in my own city.”
People call this place Neza because its real name is long and complicated. It was named after Nezahualcóyotl, a pre-Columbian leader. You cannot tell where the capital of the country stops and Neza starts. One is on one side of a street with four stray dogs, and the other is 20 feet of concrete away at a stack of broken and scattered plastic beer cases. Don’t ask which side is Neza, which side is technically Mexico City, because it doesn’t matter.
A mid-level police officer said that about four years ago Neza’s leaders simply “turned over” the city to the Familia Michoacana, one of the country’s top cartels, to let it run wild with drug sales, kidnapping and wholesale extortion of businesses. Interestingly, that’s the same way journalists describe it. They use the same term “turned over,” or sometimes “handed over,” or maybe “sold.” The journalists say they can’t write about that because they would be killed.
“The other reporters and I saw what was happening in other states, like in the north, where the cartels were setting businesses on fire if they didn’t pay extortion. But we thought it could never reach the capital,” said a reporter for a national newspaper. “And we never thought we’d be threatened here. We were wrong about both of those things. They are burning businesses, they have taken over, and we are getting threats.”
Over more than three months, CPJ conducted extensive and repeated interviews with 12 reporters and photographers in Nezahualcóyotl as well as interviews with nine police officers and more than 30 people who run small and medium-size businesses in Neza and in small towns nearby, from a flower shop owner early in the morning to strip bar owners late at night.
Everyone was granted anonymity in exchange for frank interviews. The identities of most people interviewed were kept secret from most of the others interviewed. Protecting the identity of sources was paramount in reseaching this report because of the thick atmosphere of danger in the city. There was remarkable consistency in what people had to say within each group. The focus of the research was on the journalists and on the information they are afraid to share with the public.
A new mayor, Juan Zepeda, took office in January 2013. He said the town had been given over to the cartel, though he’s hoping to correct that. “Once they’re in here I wonder if we can get them out. We’re doing better, I think, but my police are infiltrated. The state and the federal police are infiltrated by the cartel. You have police committing crimes on their own or for the cartel.”
The mayor said he cannot protect the ordinary citizen if he reports a crime to the police because they may well inform the cartel and the cartel will take revenge on the citizen. “If I can’t protect a person who reports one crime how am I going to protect reporters who cover what the cartel does all the time?” he said. “I can’t, and reporters can’t cover what the cartel is doing.”
Mireya Cuellar, the national editor of La Jornada newspaper, said it has been extraordinarily frustrating to see the cartels march through much of Mexico and not be able to report it. “They aren’t knocking on the door of the capital any longer,” she said. “They are in the kitchen now, and we can’t tell anyone they’re here.” La Jornada no longer reports on organized crime in Neza. “The tragedy is that you can’t say what you know is happening. Just like you can’t say in so many of the states,” Cuellar said. “Your correspondent may be at least abducted or beaten or even killed. Apparently there is no government that can protect you.”
“The tendency in Neza,” said Carlos Benavides, assistant managing editor of the national newspaper El Universal, “is the same as in the states where cartels have taken power. Reporters have to step back and not do what we all would like them to be able to do.”
To stay alive in Neza journalists simply stop telling the public what the cartel doesn’t want the public to know. All of the journalists CPJ spoke with who cover Neza said they stay away from organized crime stories or play it very cautiously. For the most part, they don’t investigate or look for the big picture. They crank out today’s limited story and hope the cartel doesn’t get angry.
Since the cartel came in, according to police officers and reporters, crime has spiked in every category. But not officially. As the mayor said, people run a big risk if they report a crime. A lot of the crimes that are not reported but are often discussed are common burglaries and robberies and the like, which reporters said are below the level of the cartel.
While admitting that a great percentage of crimes go unreported, city officials would not make public details on crimes citizens do report. The city’s chief spokesman, Roberto Perez, repeatedly told CPJ that the mayor and the police chief were working to release crime statistics for the past several years, but after 12 days, and as the deadline for this report passed, all that was released were auto theft figures. Perez could not explain why the city had not released the other information. The car theft data showed a spike of more than 400 percent between 2006 and 2012, putting Neza in third place nationally for that crime, according to the city. Interestingly, the numbers come from car insurance companies, not the victims themselves. We don’t know how many uninsured citizens were brave enough to report a theft.
If you’re afraid to report that you were held up on the bus by a drug addict–an increasing problem, reporters say–you’re really not going to tell police your business is being extorted every month by the cartel. The reporters who spoke to CPJ estimate that perhaps 60 percent of Neza’s businesses are forced to pay the cartel. The mid-level police officer, who also has a city-wide view, thought it was probably under 50 percent of the businesses. But when you’re in the approximate area of half of all the businesses, a difference of several percentage points is not worth quibbling about.
In early 2009, the leader of the association of 300 stall owners at one of the markets in town received a phone call from a man who said he represented the Familia Michoacana. The caller had a deal to offer. He gave the association leader a very good description of details of his closest family members and their habits as well as those of other association leaders, according to one of the six members of the association’s board of directors.
The deal was simple: call the board together, and then the stall owners, and tell them that from now on every owner pays the equivalent of about US$60 to begin with and then about US$8 a month. That way, no one would be killed. Each member now drops off the money in an envelope at the association office on a day announced monthly, and someone picks it up.
Actually, people connected to the market have been killed since that call, according to stall owners. But they don’t know if it’s the common street crime killings that are on the rise anyway, or if the murders are messages from the extortionists.
Market venders estimate there are 70 markets in Neza, each with an average of 300 stalls, and that all except one of the markets pays. No one at that market, the San Juan, wanted to talk about the subject. When you add it all up, it is a lot of money for the cartel.
The payments have gone up by about US$2 a month from a year ago. “I can manage the extortion up to now. That’s not the point,” a stall owner surrounded by the smells of fresh vegetables told CPJ. “First, this money is only the beginning. Of course they will squeeze us. They’re killers and criminals. They will squeeze us tomorrow. And second, we have no protection from the authorities because the police are afraid or they are part of it.”
The member of the association’s board of directors said that already owners of ordinary stores in the city, not market stalls, were being hit with much higher–often unpayable–extortion demands and were closing.
The publisher of a local paper who said he had written in a column that city police officers sometimes collected extortion money, apparently for the cartel, said he received a death threat. Now, he stays away from news like that, he said. Reporters for national papers didn’t touch that story either.
It’s not fair to say there have been no news stories about some of the problems in Neza. For instance, the giant national newspaper El Universal ran an interesting article in June 2012 that covered the cartel, drug sales and extortion and even touched on corruption in the local police. In May 2012, the national paper Reforma had two mid-length stories on extortion, then let the matter drop. But no story went nearly as deeply as the problems seem to go. None mentioned the police or press being too scared to do their jobs, for instance. In addition, they were one-shot efforts. As reporters grow more fearful, coverage since, by any newspaper, has not given readers anything like the whole picture.
This happened in a town near Neza. The name of the town will have to be a secret to protect the identity of the people who shared the details, but those details are important because they are how terror and the control spreads. Two teenagers rolled up on a motorbike with a note and gave it to the dispatcher of a bus cooperative. Each cooperative member owns a small bus or maybe a couple. Each member is also a driver. The note said that some men wanted to meet the president of the co-op. The dispatcher took it as a joke: After all, who listens to two kids on a motorbike?
Then came the phoned threats, with details about people’s families, and there was a meeting with demands that for each bus the men wanted 50 pesos a week. Not so much, about US$4. That would be a start. The bus drivers checked around the whole area and found that all the other bus co-ops were paying extortion. Still, they said, no. So, two drivers were murdered and one was kidnapped. He was released after the rest agreed to the weekly extortion. One lesson hidden behind this is that even in the small community of cooperative bus drivers the fear of the cartel is so great it was not known that wholesale extortion was occurring.
The two murders were covered as news stories by local papers. But just as murders. There was nothing in the stories to connect the deaths to extortion. In fact, the stories were played as armed robberies gone wrong. There was nothing about the abduction. There was nothing to tell the public that a cartel was extorting all the bus companies in the whole area. And, by extension, the authorities were powerless, afraid, or corrupt.
It’s not only the cartel that keeps crime stories down, reporters say, there’s a city police policy to keep crime out of the press because it makes them look incompetent or corrupt. With cartel lookouts now lurking at the locations of cartel murders, reporters and photographers usually don’t go there in person anymore, they say. They try to cover the story by telephone. But that’s when, they say, they can run into a news blackout.
A reporter described it this way: “We get a call from citizens that there’s been a murder on let’s say street corner X. If we call the police, they say there’s nothing. The ambulance service says there’s nothing. The citizens are watching the police at the scene examining the body or they see the body go into the coroner’s vehicle. The coroner says they have no information. So, there is no story. There was no murder at street corner X.”
Neza was a problem for Mexico City for centuries. It was a lake until the early 20th century, Lake Texcoco, but that flooded a lot, even under the Aztecs, so it was gradually drained. Most of the land went to extremely poor migrants from the rest of the country who became Mexico City’s worst-paid workers. Some of the land became the city’s vast garbage dump, though that’s almost all landfill now.
In the late 1990s a homegrown cartel took over, according to Neza police officers and Zepeda, Neza’s mayor, who was a city official then. But only in a limited way. Just marijuana and cocaine sales. Still, even that made it very unusual for Mexico, because relatively few Mexicans used drugs of any kind in those days. Drugs went north, to Americans.
The gang had a complete lock on drug sales in Neza, and it controlled the city, state, and federal police, when it came to its business, so in that way it was similar to the cartel that controls the city today, say old-time journalists and Rafael Macedo de la Concha, the federal attorney general at the time. The cartel also had a middle-aged woman in charge with the romantic name of Ma Baker. That’s right, in English, Ma Baker. No one knows why. Or rather, everyone who was active then has different explanations for why. Her real name was Delia Buendía Gutiérrez.
Ma Baker’s cartel ran perhaps 400 retail outlets in Neza’s 25 square miles, tightly squashed together with misery and customers. The city is one of the most densely populated in Mexico. Her cartel did well enough that in 2002, Rafael Macedo, the federal attorney general, said in a speech in Mexico City at the National Anthropological Museum that she was staying out of jail by paying off public officials, including judges.
Then, somehow, things went crazy. In seven months in 2002, two senior federal prosecutors and two senior federal police officers, all working on Neza narcotics investigations, were assassinated. The federal investigations led to Ma Baker and her gang. The federal attorney general’s office went after her, and soon she and those at the very top of the cartel were in jail, except for a few who were fugitives.
The cartel was broken. But not the vast number of people who ran it, or were corrupted by it, or who murdered police officers and competitors for it. According to newspapers archives, there were only moderate sentences for a few. The police chief of Neza did get a 25-year sentence, but almost the entire city government and police force were either on the cartel’s payroll or at least looking the other way. The same for a number of state police and federal authorities, according to journalists and federal investigators from those days. Both the journalists and the investigators asked not to be named, out of fear.
For several years, reporters say, no one owned the drug game in Neza. There were lots of drugs, but there wasn’t a dominant cartel. Then a new group came in shooting. The murders picked up in 2008 or 2009, according to reporters. First, the cartel took over the drug sales as a monopoly, like Ma Baker. But then, crucially, it began to make the change to what we have now, the new Mexican way of cartels, the way they work in the rest of the country, a fight for territory. In Neza, too, where retail drug sales are important, but only part of the business, the cartel ballooned to include control of the streets–not always, to be sure, but it seems they have control when they want it. Then, kidnapping, and massive extortion across the city.
An organized crime cartel was never supposed to operate in metropolitan Mexico City. Middle and upper classes in the capital, where political, cultural, and intellectual power is concentrated, tend to look down on the rest of the country. The drug war was supposed to be taking place out there, in the “provinces.”
But news coverage of the states where cartels are gaining influence or control has been badly hurt by the same problem that keeps Mexico City uninformed about what’s happening in Neza: reporters in the states often can’t report the real story because they are under threat from organized crime. So, few people are aware of the cartels’ spread, state by state, let alone that they have reached Mexico City.
To a great extent, the Mexican public thinks that this fight, this “Drug War,” is exclusively about drugs, and that the customers are almost exclusively Americans.
The Familia Michoacana sells drugs in Neza only to Mexicans. The rest of its pursuits involve kidnapping and extortion and prostitution, according to reporters who cover the city.The deep problem for Mexican journalism and for Mexicans is that while those reporters can tell CPJ that, they can’t tell their readers in the rest of the country. But if they could, then the readers and policy makers might take another look at some of their assumptions about what’s called the “Drug War,” and what it may take to win it.
CPJ Mexico Representative Mike O’Connor was a veteran journalist who reported for news organizations including CBS News, National Public Radio, and The New York Times. He authored the 2013 Attacks on the Press essay, “The Zacatecas Rules: Cartel’s Reign Cannot Be Covered.” He died in December 2013. This was the last piece he wrote for CPJ.