Edited by Drug Lords

Mexican journalists navigate threats and censorship by cartels
By Elisabeth Malkin

Adrián López Ortiz, the general director of Grupo Noroeste, a media group that owns the newspaper Noroeste in the northwestern Mexican city of Culiacán, was driving home from the airport in April 2014 when an SUV intercepted him. Two armed men got out and grabbed him, and he feared that he was going to be kidnapped. But they had other plans. One of them drove off in his car and the other stayed behind, kicked López and then shot him in both legs.

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Attacks on the Press book cover
Attacks on the Press book cover

What followed was a variation on what has become the theme of many attacks on the Mexican media.

Two young men were quickly arrested and charged with aggravated auto theft. The governor of the state of Sinaloa described the crime as “bad luck” and congratulated the authorities for their quick work. Case closed.

López is not convinced. “There is no evidence to say that it came from the government,” he said. “But I have elements to say that it wasn’t a common crime.” To begin with, he said, “The modus operandi didn’t fit.” He had been followed from the airport and his stolen car was recovered within three hours. And he was shot while he was down, when he no longer posed a threat to the assailants. Later, when he asked to review the footage from official security cameras, the authorities refused. “There are many inconsistencies,” he said.

The entrance to Noroeste is covered with bullet holes after gunmen opened fire on the newspaper's regional office in the Pacific resort city of Mazatlán, Mexico, on September 1, 2010. (AP/Christiann Davis)
The entrance to Noroeste is covered with bullet holes after gunmen opened fire on the newspaper’s regional office in the Pacific resort city of Mazatlán, Mexico, on September 1, 2010. (AP/Christiann Davis)

In September 2016, a judge released one of two suspects, citing insufficient evidence and a violation of due process.

The assault on López followed a string of attacks on Noroeste, which has long had a reputation for independence in Sinaloa, the home state of some of Mexico’s most powerful drug lords.

Among the attacks, the motorcycles the newspaper’s deliverymen used were stolen. Its photographers were beaten by police when they covered a march by supporters of the jailed drug kingpin known as “El Chapo,” or Joaquín Guzmán Loera. Armed men attacked the lobby of the newspaper’s building and an armed group burst into the home of its sales director and stole his cell phones and laptop.

Threats came over the phone and the internet, and the newspaper’s website was hacked. López estimates that the newspaper has filed some 100 complaints with the Sinaloa state prosecutor over the attacks and yet there remains “100 percent impunity.”

That impunity is the common thread running through many of the efforts to censor the media in Mexico. Whether the source of the attacks is organized crime or the government, or some combination of the two, the purpose is always the same: to intimidate and silence journalists. “Killing journalists is free in Mexico,” López said. The formal structure to investigate the crime exists, he added, but it is merely a simulation.

Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission said in November 2016 that 119 journalists have been killed since the beginning of 2000 and 20 more disappeared between 2005 and 2015. There have been 50 attacks on newsrooms in the past decade. In 90 percent of the cases, the crimes have gone unpunished, the commission said. The threat is strongest against independent media in Mexico’s provinces, where a number of independent family-owned newspapers must play a careful balancing act as they seek to cover the news in a way that holds government to account.

Those newspapers were among the most important players in the more assertive media that contributed to Mexico’s long democratic transition, according to Javier Garza, the former editor of El Siglo de Torreón. That transition seemed complete with the election in 2000 of a president from an opposition party after more than seven decades of rule by the Institutional Revolutionary Party, known as the PRI. But Mexican politics have also become messier. Freed from the old structures of one-party rule, governors became all-powerful, regardless of whether they were from the PRI or the opposition.

At the same time, conflicts among drug trafficking organizations grew more violent as the federal government cracked down. State and local governments often sat on the sidelines and organized crime burrowed its way into power, buying, co-opting and threatening officials and the police.

“If the government is infiltrated by organized crime, then you have whole networks of complicity,” said Mariclaire Acosta, a human rights activist and the director of Freedom House in Mexico. “Everything has to do with the action or the omission of the authorities.”

The nexus between organized crime and the authorities means that any effort to silence newspapers by one actor may work to the benefit of others. If a newspaper stops covering drug trafficking violence, for example, the silence removes one source of pressure for the local government to stop the attacks. If the government dismisses an attack on a journalist as a common crime, it sends a message to the gangs that they are free to act.

“The government and the crime groups benefit from each other,” said Daniel Rosas, a longtime reporter and editor of the online edition at El Mañana, a newspaper in the city of Nuevo Laredo, on the border with Texas. “There is a symbiosis.” El Mañana is on the frontlines of the drug war; editor Roberto Mora was murdered in 2004 after he criticized the government’s inaction in the face of drug gangs that were beginning to take over communities.

The murder sent an unmistakable message that organized crime would not tolerate certain kinds of coverage. Two years later, an armed group burst into the newsroom, shot at the staff and threw a fragmentation grenade, leaving one reporter paralyzed.

In 2012, armed men threw a grenade and shot at the façade of El Mañana‘s building, though no one was hurt. Like Noroeste, El Mañana has suffered other attacks as well, including on its motorcycle deliverymen, and on its internet servers. Sometimes, reporters and editors get messages in advance warning them not to publish a particular story.

The violence – and the authorities’ failure to investigate and prosecute it — forced

the newspaper to make a difficult choice: El Mañana no longer publishes stories about organized crime in Nuevo Laredo.

“There is no rule of law to guarantee that I will be protected for what I tell you,” said Ninfa Cantú, El Mañana’s publisher and the granddaughter of the newspaper’s founder.

The silence can seem puzzling to readers. “It’s absurd not to publish what everybody knows is happening, what’s on social media,” Rosas said.

It seems even stranger because El Mañana does cover drug violence in the rest of its state, Tamaulipas, and across Mexico. At the same time, other Tamaulipas media cover violence in Nuevo Laredo, including the newspapers that are also called El Mañana in the border cities of Reynosa and Matamoros to the east. They were founded by Cantú’s grandfather but broke away decades ago.

All of this information is available online, which makes it even harder to understand why the local drug gang in Nuevo Laredo is so concerned with what the local newspapers print.

“It’s more a situation of control,” Rosas said. “When we have our editorial meetings, we ask what we can write about and what we can’t write about.”

But if El Mañana cannot write directly about violence in Nuevo Laredo, its journalists have found many other ways to cover the story of their city.

The newspaper has not shied away from covering official corruption, and was very critical of the past state governor for his failure to fight organized crime. It has reported on the cases of two previous state governors who have been indicted in the United States on drug charges.

What also matters to readers is the effect of violence on investment in the city, which is a major border crossing hub and an assembly manufacturing center. Rosas has begun a new investigative team that will take on issues such as pollution and track the activities of legislators.

“The only thing we cannot write about is violence and local drug trafficking,” said Mauricio Flores, the newspaper’s adjunct director.

The connection between local government and organized crime in Tamaulipas leads to a long list of subjects that are “hands off” for reporters in the state, said Garza, including drug trafficking. That includes migrant smuggling and corruption among migration authorities; the customs agency; and prostitution and extortion in local nightclubs.    

At Noroeste in Sinaloa, the threats have not stopped the newspaper from covering drug trafficking, but it has taken a more careful approach, including keeping violence off the front pages unless the news is part of a larger context. “Noroeste cannot be part of narco communication,” López said.

And it continues to publish investigative stories, like its coverage of the torture of suspects by police, the planned construction of a fertilizer plant on protected wetlands by a former governor, and the opacity surrounding lucrative construction bids for two hospitals.

“There are conditions to practice good journalism,” López said. But he added, “Our journalism has to criticize with very precise investigations.” Many of those reports are reproduced by the national press, and the visibility provides a measure of protection for the newspaper.

Noroeste has also focused its coverage on other issues – such as entrepreneurship or soft news — that matter to readers in Sinaloa, which has a vibrant business community and a strong sense of community centered around sports, music, and food.

The high-quality journalism of both newspapers ensures loyal readerships, strong circulation, and steady advertising. That, in turn, provides a commercial buffer at a time when Mexican newspapers, like newspapers everywhere, face the challenge of making up for declining print advertising.

Economic stress means that many newspapers – and broadcast media — are easy prey for another kind of censorship, the effort by the government to simply buy the media off by pouring money into advertising. Research by Fundar, a government watchdog group in Mexico City, and international free expression group Article 19 has documented the spending of the equivalent of hundreds of millions of U.S. dollars for advertising each year by the federal and state governments — a form of “soft censorship” that involves pouring money into dozens of newspapers in the provinces that seem to exist merely to run thinly disguised press releases recounting the actions of officials as they supervise handouts in poor neighborhoods or open public works projects.

Official advertising can account for up to 30 percent of ad revenue for national media and 80 percent for regional newspapers and broadcasters, said Ana Cristina Ruelas, the director of Article 19 for Mexico and Central America. “The amount is overwhelming,” she said. But politicians behave as though “it is cheaper to buy off the media than practice good government,” she added.

Amid declining advertising revenue, government revenue becomes even more important for newspapers. But both Noroeste and La Mañana can afford to do with little or no government advertising. At the federal level, this flow of advertising has increased under the presidency of Enrique Peña Nieto, who returned the PRI to power in 2012. Although the national media was less acquiescent than local outlets, coverage of the federal government was more muffled than it had been under the earlier opposition governments. That changed in 2014, after an investigative team working with the broadcast journalist Carmen Aristegui revealed that Peña Nieto’s wife had bought a luxury mansion on favorable terms from a government contractor. The news contributed to a collapse in the president’s popularity.

Aristegui was fired by her employer, MVS Communications, four months later over a whistleblowing website she helped set up. MVS said she used the company’s name without its permission, but many saw her firing as retribution for her investigation. Despite the high ratings and visibility she could bring, no other broadcaster has hired her (although she continues with an interview show on CNN en Español and writes a column for the Mexico City daily Reforma). MVS owner Joaquín Vargas filed a lawsuit against Aristegui in May 2016, accusing her of “moral damage” for suggesting in a prologue she wrote for a book about the investigation that he had caved in to government pressure when he fired her.

Other public figures are beginning to use “moral damage” lawsuits to try to stifle coverage. Humberto Moreira, a former governor who multiplied the debt of the state of Coahuila by 100 times, is suing the newspaper Vanguardia and reporter Roxana Romero for documenting that he was receiving a teacher’s pension without meeting the requirements for it.

The paper, which is based in the Coahuila state capital of Saltillo, was also subject to a denial-of-service cyberattack on its servers, and Romero was followed home one night, according to a Vanguardia editorial.

Moreira has filed two more lawsuits against a well-known radio host, Pedro Ferriz de Con, and a prominent human rights activist and columnist, Sergio Aguayo.

For every visible case, though, there are many more subtle forms of censorship that throw up constant hurdles to reporters. Mayors or governors call owners asking to delay or halt a story. “A publisher has to make a decision,” Garza said. “It’s done discreetly, it’s done very quietly.” Many reporters are paid by the story and cannot afford to see an article spiked, which pushes them to cover news that does not challenge anyone, like official events. Andrés Resillas, who runs a website in the state of Michoacán, faces down all these threats on his own.

He begins by rejecting government advertising that comes with strings attached. When he does an investigation and asks for the government’s version, he said, “they always raise the issue of advertising and I tell them, if you want to take it away, then go ahead.” Instead, he works other jobs to help support his site, Revista Búsqueda, including giving courses to journalists.

There is another cost to his independence; his site has been hacked four times in the last 18 months, perhaps a response to his reports on corruption at the state electoral authority. “Digital security is where we have to put a lot of emphasis because it’s where we are vulnerable,” he said. An electoral official threatened to sue and Resillas posted all the supporting documents for his investigation on his Facebook page in defense.

Michoacán is a center for organized crime and there, too, Resillas has been forced to tread carefully. For a year, he did not publish anything about drug trafficking. Now, he reproduces stories about organized crime and local resistance in the state that are published by the national newspaper Reforma, even though local newspapers remain silent.

There might be a risk in giving visibility to the issues on his site. “It’s like stretching a rubber band and when you see it’s going to snap, you loosen it a bit,” he said.

He might as well have been describing the tension that pulls at many Mexican reporters and the response they must gauge every day.

Elisabeth Malkin is a reporter for The New York Times in Mexico City and has lived in Mexico since 1992.