matamoros drugs.jpg
A Mexican soldier carried blocks of cocaine for incineration in Matamoros. (Reuters)

Mexican cartels blow the whistle on news coverage

By Mike O'Connor on January 15, 2010 10:56 AM ET

On Thursday, I wrote about the murder of reporter Valentín Valdés Espinosa on January 7 and how the Mexican media has silenced its own coverage of the killing. Today, I will get into how journalists and drug cartels have entered into a dangerous, symbiotic relationship.

In the north of Mexico, along the border, drug cartels took hold years ago, and journalism there may be the future for many in the Mexican media. The Gulf cartel is dominant in much of the territory from the Gulf coast of Texas to the west, along with an allied group of gunmen called the Zetas. Matamoros is a principal city in the region. It’s across from Brownsville, on the tip of Texas. According to two editors of news organizations there, the cartel gets whatever it wants from the press, and more. Authorities in Saltillo said the Zetas likely murdered Valdés.

On September 4, 2009, there was major gun battle between the Mexican army and the cartel in Matamoros that lasted an hour. Bullets sprayed across the border to the University of Texas campus, which closed for three days. Texas sheriff’s deputies mobilized on the border in case the fighting spilled over, the Cameron County sheriff told the U.S. press. Some of the fighting was in front of the offices of the newspaper El Bravo. But, according to a Matamoros editor, in his town, “No one covered that story. No one. It closed the center of the city, but we got the order to close our eyes.”

The order came from the cartel, he said. The editors insist that every news organization in the city, printed press, TV, and radio has to follow the orders or members of their staffs will be murdered. The editors were interviewed by telephone and agreed to be frank only if their identities were withheld for safety reasons.

The machinery to control the press is well organized, said the editors, and works any day the cartel has an order to give. An editor explained: “Of course, the police are completely infiltrated by the cartel. The cartel has representatives in the police. The representatives only have to tell the reporters who cover the police beat what the orders are, and then the reporters tell their editors.”  The orders even have a name: pitazos, which means blasts from a police officer’s whistle. The editor said in November there were four or five lesser gun fights with the army and each one brought a pitazo that it could not be covered.

But for the people of Matamoros, the control of the cartel over the press may be more extensive and much more dangerous than telling it to ignore gun battles. According to the editors and reports in the U.S. press, the cartel and the Zetas, which together now call themselves “The Company” in Matamoros, have penetrated deeply into business and politics in the city. The editors said they are now told how handle stories about businesses owned by the cartel and political figures the cartel is supporting. In other words, they say, as the cartel’s power grows to control more of the city’s life, the press is told there are more areas of news coverage the cartel will also control.

They don’t have to be told every day, one of the editors said. They get general guidelines relayed to them by their police reporters, after that it’s self-censorship.

Mike O'Connor is CPJ's representative in Mexico.


Hi Mike,

I'm doing a piece on the dangers for Mexican journalists, and I'd like to talk with you about the subject. If you're interested in commenting, please email me at corcoran25 at Thanks.

Hi Mike,
I too am working on a story for PBS about the dangers for Mexican journalists. I was wondering if I could talk to you about your experiences. Please email me with information about how I can contact you directly.
Thanks much.
Mary Jo

Here there Mike,

Im writing a report for my Spanish 4NS class on mexican cartels and how they affect our society today.My professonr asked me to try and get a chance to interveiw you or just ask you a few questions regarding this topic if you have time.


Pedro Rios

I am in independent media journalist interested in discussing with you unofficially regarding the rising power and authority of the cartels within Mexico and the US. If you are interested in speaking please e-mail me at [email protected]
Thank You
Marcus Wright

Hi Mike

I was reading your CPJ story above about Mexican journalists and the cartels. My name's Mike Kirsch. I'm a freelance one man band based in California. (I wrote a piece on reporting as a unilateral in Iraq in 2003 for CPJs Dangerous Assignments.)

I've just arrived to Mexico City from the Sierra Madre in Sinaloa, up around Santiago de los Caballeros, where I filmed clandestine marijuana farm operations in El Chapo's own backyard under the nose of the Mexican army, hearing from locals there, among them the mayor of Badiraguato, the head priest of the Catholic church, and other citizens justifying the need for impoverished farmers to grow marijuana to feed their families as long as there is a demand for pot in the U.S. and other countries. Locals talk on camera about El Chapo as their Robin Hood who they say they'll protect from being captured.

Have you come across prior television reports on this subject with these types of images and can you recommend a spokesperson from the Mexican government I could speak with about my findings?

Thank you.

Best regards,


Mike Kirsch

Freelance Journalist

Hi Mike,
I am a high school senior working on my senior presentation and I chose to write about the Mexican cartels. If you have any resources I can use that would be very helpful to me, Thanks.

Michelle Ramirez June 24, 2010 1:03:30 PM ET

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