Mexico: Dread on the Border

By Carlos Lauria and Sauro Gonzalez Rodriguez 

Public relations specialists here, like those around the world, are experts at managing bad news. So when the relative of a client was murdered recently, they made a few phone calls and kept his name out of the papers. The only difference in this city of 300,000 across the Rio Grande from Laredo, Texas, is that “press officers” tend to work for drug kingpins rather than company executives.

And reporters who ignore the advice of this breed of spin doctor tend to end up dead.

A quiet word rather than an explicit threat is usually all that’s needed in a city where law enforcement is crippled and the population terrorized, reporters and editors in Nuevo Laredo told the Committee to Protect Journalists. But every once in a while there’s a physical reminder of just how vulnerable journalists are. On February 6, unidentified gunmen fired assault rifles and tossed a grenade at the offices of El Mañana newspaper, gravely wounding reporter Jaime Orozco and causing heavy damage to the building. After weeks in intensive care, Orozco is slowly recovering.

El Mañana Editor Ramón Cantú immediately said the daily would scale back its already curtailed coverage of drug traffickers and organized crime to protect its staff. It has been censoring news coverage since its previous editor, Roberto Javier Mora García, was stabbed to death in March 2004.

Two days after the attack on El Mañana, the federal government reacted to a wave of national outrage by announcing it would name a special prosecutor to investigate crimes against journalists. President Vicente Fox had pledged in a meeting with CPJ in New York in September that he would seek to create the position. On February 22, Fox made good on the promise by appointing David Vega Vera, a well-known lawyer and human rights advocate. “Whoever attacks freedom of expression, attacks society,” Fox said in announcing the appointment.

The president’s statement acknowledged that attacks on journalists in Nuevo Laredo and elsewhere in the border region have become a national issue, and it recognized that the federal government needs to do more to protect the press. The El Mañana probe is the first task for federal authorities, who have taken over the case from the state investigators.

But the federal government will face an enormous challenge in a city like Nuevo Laredo, where 181 people were killed last year, including the police chief and a city security official.

Already, the culture of fear has had devastating effects on the media. Most journalists interviewed for this article were too afraid for their safety to give their names. They acknowledged that they censored themselves out of fear of retribution. Several journalists said they had stopped going out to cover a story after dark or in the early morning.

“We live a situation of terror and powerlessness. We have been forbidden to investigate, to report in depth. To go beyond what’s permissible is very dangerous,” said one journalist.

Naming the members of the drug cartels battling for control of Nuevo Laredo or of their victims is off-limits for most writers. Editors scrutinize articles in case a name has been inadvertently slipped in. A single mention could be fatal.

Reporters treat every gangland killing in isolation, rarely following up or weaving the murder into the broader fabric of crime that serves as the backdrop to their professional lives. Investigative journalism died a long time ago.

“Sometimes we choose to censor ourselves because we lack guarantees to do our job,” said one journalist, who added she had received threats disguised as “suggestions” or “advice.”

This kind of pervasive self-censorship, which is typical not only of Nuevo Laredo but many other areas in northern Mexico, casts a pall over the upcoming presidential elections in which drug-related violence and the web of official corruption that allows the traffickers to flourish are likely be key issues.

Reporters are reluctant to cross the line because there are no safeguards. They have lost faith in Mexico’s law enforcement agencies and judiciary. “Why should reporters risk their lives to investigate a story if the authorities themselves won’t do it?” asked one journalist. “You should go as far as your safety, your well-being allow.”

Gangsters use a variety of methods, including kidnapping, to intimidate reporters. Several journalists spoke of fellow reporters who had been abducted and held for a few hours. One journalist told CPJ that he had been kidnapped three times. The journalists rarely report such abductions either for fear of retaliation, lack of faith in the police, or the belief that the authorities themselves are behind the crime.

Corruption in Nuevo Laredo is rampant and newsrooms are not spared. Some journalists reported being offered money to work for drug cartels or to buy their silence. In some cases, journalists said, fellow reporters made the offers of money. Some journalists accept the offers from organized crime or work as informants for the police. As a consequence, reporter suspects reporter.

The sheer scale of the lawlessness, which has overwhelmed local law enforcement, is not lost on the federal authorities that are about to step in.

It was in response to an upsurge in violence against journalists, particularly along the U.S.-Mexican border where drug traffickers operate openly and the federal government has been unable to assert authority, that CPJ initially sought a meeting with President Fox. According to CPJ research, nine journalists have been killed since Fox took office in 2000, four of them in direct reprisal for their work. Another journalist is missing and presumed dead. None of the cases has been adequately investigated.

In the September 15 meeting with President Fox, CPJ argued that state authorities, which normally conduct murder investigations, are overwhelmed by the scale of the violence and are prone to corruption. Federal authorities, with more resources and visibility, are in a better position to conduct inquiries, CPJ said. The appointment of a special prosecutor, therefore, sends an important message to Mexico’s vulnerable provincial journalists that the federal government takes seriously its responsibility to uphold the constitution, which guarantees freedom of the press. The new position creates federal accountability.

On a practical level, federal authorities acknowledge that carrying out investigations in cities like Nuevo Laredo and Tijuana, where drug cartels have also infiltrated every aspect of public life, will not be easy. José Luis Vasconcelos, the deputy prosecutor for the organized crime division of the attorney general’s office, told CPJ that the new special prosecutor and the federal government face “an enormous challenge.”

One of the first items on the new prosecutor’s agenda is the attack on El Mañana. Federal authorities have taken up the case but remain tight-lipped about any progress in the investigation. Mexican Attorney General Daniel Cabeza de Vaca said publicly that the attack was related to drug trafficking and those responsible had been identified. Vasconcelos was more circumspect in an interview with CPJ. He said that it was too early to say who was responsible and that the attack was an attempt to intimidate rather than to kill. The reporter wounded in the attack, he noted, was behind a wall when the gunmen stormed the newspaper.

The case of Lydia Cacho, a columnist and human rights activist arrested in December and charged with defaming a Mexican businessman, will also be a priority of the new prosecutor, the Mexican press said. Leaked tapes of telephone conversations in the case pointed to a conspiracy between state officials and local businessmen to jail and assault Cacho.

The battle to protect journalists covering the drug trade cannot be separated from the larger struggle against the trafficking organizations themselves, a war in which the government acknowledges shortcomings. In his meeting with CPJ, Fox said government efforts to dismantle the cartels had sparked the violent backlash.

In his new role as special prosecutor for crimes against journalists, Vega will work under the effective control of the organized crime and human rights division of the attorney general’s office, which is headed by Mario Alvarez Ledesma. Vega’s office will take over investigations into crimes against journalists from 32 state authorities. But cases involving drugs and organized crime, the major components of attacks on the media, will be turned over to Vasconcelos, who has the resources and experience to prosecute major drug traffickers.

“In his capacity, the new prosecutor will oversee all the investigations of crimes against journalists, including those related to organized crime and drug trafficking,” Vasconcelos told CPJ. “Those investigations will be taken over by my office, but that doesn’t mean the special prosecutor will have no jurisdiction. I will be working in coordination with the special prosecutor and he …will have updated information in the cases that we have taken over.”

The new prosecutor’s office will collate all data on investigations into press attacks and provide legal assistance and psychological counseling to journalists and family members who are attacked or threatened.

Vasconcelos said the new position “reflects the interest and serious concern of the federal government in the protection of freedom of expression in Mexico… (It) represents a direct message to organized crime groups and individuals that target journalists for their work. The government has recognized this as a national problem and is committed to provide guarantees for the protection of journalists so they can do their jobs without interference.”

Prominent journalist Jorge Zepeda Patterson told CPJ the new prosecutor would be effective “only if the government decides to assign the resources needed to conduct thorough investigations.” He said that past special prosecutor offices, set up to deal with national emergencies, had been under-funded.

Roberto Rock, editorial director of the daily El Universal, greeted the creation of the special prosecutor’s office with “cautious optimism.” But he said he and other journalists had been urging Fox to change the law to make crimes against journalists a federal offense. CPJ proposed in its meeting with Fox that Mexico set up a panel of freedom of expression experts to weigh greater federal involvement in combating crimes against journalists and issue a public report and recommendations.

Vasconcelos acknowledged that the federal government faced an uphill struggle in tackling violence against journalists. “Our biggest challenge now is to break the cycle of impunity,” he said.

In Nuevo Laredo, that seems to be an understatement. Last year, violence was so bad that the city’s police chief, Alejandro Domínguez, was shot dead just hours after taking office. Two months later, gunmen killed the official who oversaw public security in a daylight attack outside city hall. Few of those responsible for the plague of murders have been brought before the courts.

This year has not gotten off to a promising start; more than 31 homicides were reported in January and early February, according to local news reports. Business has been hit and tourists, for the most part Americans, are staying away in droves.

Vasconcelos said that in order for the special prosecutor to succeed the authorities had to rebuild public trust in government. “Crimes against journalists need to be solved, but they require social solidarity and trust in the local institutions.”

And trust is lacking in the present climate of fear and intimidation. Journalists are deeply skeptical of the state and federal authorities’ ability to reverse the tide of violence. Some reporters said a sense of peace or at least a return to previous lower levels of violence would come only when a winner emerged from the two cartels that are currently fighting for supremacy in the city.

Reporters continue to view the authorities as ineffective, corrupt, fearful, or complicit with drug traffickers. They believe drug traffickers carry out routine surveillance and know where reporters live and what cars they drive. According to one journalist, “there are so many executions here that you don’t know what new angle to give to your story.”

The rifle and grenade attack on El Mañana was not just aimed at that newspaper, journalists said. It was a warning to all journalists not to overstep the mark. In such a climate, journalists said that perhaps the best way to stay alive was to be as accurate and dull as possible in their stories.

“Adding more adjectives, more sensationalism to a news story may make the news story sell more, but it’s also more dangerous,” one journalist said.

The Mexican public will also be watching how the new prosecutor handles the El Mañana investigation and future attacks on media outlets. Vasconcelos acknowledges his office will need to make tangible progress to earn credibility.

“We need to obtain concrete results so we can gain the confidence and trust of Mexican society. That will be decisive for the future success of our work and we are well aware of it,” he said.

Sauro González Rodríguez, CPJ’s Americas program consultant, reported from Nuevo Laredo. Carlos Lauría, Americas program coordinator, reported from New York.