Silence or Death in Mexico’s Press

4. Cartel City

In Reynosa, the Gulf criminal group controls the government, the police, even the street vendors. You won’t see that story in the local press. The cartel controls the media, too.

The most important story about the city of Reynosa is the one you won’t learn from the local press: The Gulf cartel controls the local government, from major law enforcement all the way down to street vendor permitting. The cartel’s control is so extensive that cops and cabbies and street vendors are its spies, watching the Mexican army’s patrols, watching for rival drug traffickers, watching for federal investigators, watching, even, their fellow citizens. And the cartel controls the press, too, using a combination of intimidation, violence, and bribery. This is the story that 22 Reynosa journalists told CPJ but can’t tell the public. They can’t even let their names be published in this report, they say, because they might be killed.

It’s a situation that was years in the making, one that government officials, the owners of news organizations, and journalists themselves had a hand in creating. Today in Reynosa—a city of 600,000, the largest on the border in northeast Mexico and home to American-owned assembly plants vital to the economy—everything from horrifying violence to mundane municipal corruption goes uncovered.

Drug smuggling came early to Reynosa. Perhaps 60 years ago or more it was already an important part of the economy. Until recently, drug gangs used the territory they controlled simply to ship product northward. Then, about six years ago, Reynosa became a market for street sales and finally a place to squeeze money from locals through kidnapping and extortion, journalists said. In that shift, Reynosa is on the leading edge of a debilitating pattern occurring in much of Mexico.

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Mari is a part of this historical slide. After being laid off from her job at an assembly plant in early 2010, she began selling tacos from a sidewalk cooking rig that her uncle fashioned from bicycle tires. In doing so, she also became a foot soldier in a system that collects street intelligence for drug traffickers.

As one of the many street vendors who seem to cover the city, Mari said, her assignment is to report anything in her neighborhood that could interest the cartel. At the moment, the Gulf cartel is dominant in Reynosa, and Mari’s orders are to watch for any sign of the Zetas, its opponent in a war terrorizing the people of the state of Tamaulipas. The cartel is interested in what the federal police and the Mexican army are doing, of course, but it’s especially curious about people who may be informing federal intelligence agents. “They want to know about new people, if they have cars, or where they live,” Mari said. “Do they come two or three of them or alone?” To keep her permit to sell tacos Mari has to satisfy city officials who, she said, demand that she pass on the information to the cartel. Knowing the danger of speaking too openly, Mari asked that her last name not be used.

From the standpoint of the public, the arrangement means the city government is supporting a system of espionage against its own citizens. From the standpoint of journalism, it is an example of how the cartels have strangled the press—it’s a crucial story that can’t be covered without risk of death. Drug gangs have long had lookouts, but in Reynosa in the last three or four years, as the Gulf cartel began to penetrate ever deeper into city life and government, almost anyone in Reynosa can be under surveillance from the street.

Or, from a taxi. Pirate taxis, cruising about without even license plates, massively outnumber legal cabs. The police department hasn’t seemed to notice. An officer who would give his name only as López told CPJ he’d merely seen a couple of pirate cabs, and that was back a couple of months. Journalists said the pirate cabs are protected by the cartel, pay it monthly kickbacks, and are required to use their radios to report on any movement by the army. Eight pirate cabbies interviewed individually told CPJ the same thing. All asked for anonymity. “Driving taxis is the way we live, but it’s the way we will die if we talk,” one cabbie said. “We are the mobile information units for them.” “Them” is the word people in Reynosa use instead of naming the cartel. Between cab drivers, street vendors, and others, the number of well-placed, roving spies might range into the thousands, Reynosa journalists estimate. The activities of the pirate taxis are another story that can get you killed, another topic that has gone unreported in the local press, Reynosa journalists said.

The cartels enforce this censorship with a mixture of threats, attacks, and bribery. On specific stories the cartels don’t want covered—such as gunfights between traffickers and the army—they tell the police officers who work for them to tell police reporters that the news is off-limits. Many reporters on the police beat themselves take money to slant coverage in favor of the criminals who pay them, journalists told CPJ. The Gulf cartel also sponsors its own Web site, a sort of public relations outlet, according to a former reporter for the site. If a story is on the site, it is approved for coverage by the press; otherwise, the topic is prohibited, the reporter said. Other stories are prohibited by general threats issued long ago. Reporters know, for example, never to mention the names of cartel members or even the names of the cartels in their stories. They say they are even afraid to report on traffic accidents because it may turn out that one of those involved was a cartel member (or his girlfriend) whose name they did not recognize.

Reporters know they are forbidden to write stories on the widespread kidnappings in the city or the pervasive practice of extortion, which began with large companies and has worked its way down to taco stands. A senior editor who met with CPJ only under conditions of great secrecy said the cartel has made its wishes known in regard to kidnappings and extortions. “Common kidnappings—kidnappings by common criminals—they would tell us about and tell us we could cover them. Otherwise, no coverage of kidnappings. The same for extortion.” It’s gotten worse of late, he said. “Now they have it all. Their competition is gone, so everything is untouchable.”

The editor said journalists also know what it means to go against the cartel. “They will abduct you; they will torture you for hours; they will kill you, and then dismember you. And your family will always be waiting for you to come home.” In a chilling illustration of the traffickers’ brutal enforcement methods, three Reynosa journalists disappeared in March and are now feared dead. Colleagues said the three could have done something to anger either the Gulf cartel or the Zetas, or have gotten caught up in the warfare by doing favors for one of the groups.

It’s hard to be sure when the Gulf cartel gained the power over the city that it has now; it didn’t happen in a single blow, reporters said. Most traced the change to three or four years ago. Before then, the cartel ran a kind of parallel government from which it strongly influenced institutions such as the police and the city government. Reynosa Mayor Oscar Luebbert Gutiérrez did not respond to written questions submitted by CPJ, but journalists say the cartel is fully embedded in the government and gets nearly whatever it wants.

For goods crossing the border, the federal government is supposed to set customs duties, and agents are to ensure the payments go to the federal treasury, reporters said. But several journalists say that the cartel, to a significant extent, both sets the fees and receives the revenue. The Treasury Ministry, which oversees customs officials, did not respond to CPJ’s request for comment. Within the city government, cartel influence began with areas such as zoning rules and alcohol licensing, journalists said. Now, they said, the control has extended to lower-level officials in many city departments. This, for example, is how the cartel is able to deny Mari a street vendor’s license if she refuses to inform for them. Its vast influence over municipal police means that cartel crimes are ignored while street vendor licenses are closely scrutinized, journalists said. Speaking of the police, Mari told CPJ: “Oh, they are always interested in me here and the others, too.”

Reporters and editors said part of the cartel’s takeover was through straight financing of political campaigns, but much is enforced through death threats. After a union official was abducted and later released, they noted, cartel members suddenly appeared as ghost workers on the city payroll and on the payrolls of private companies. City officials who don’t carry out cartel orders are afraid for their lives, reporters said. These stories, too, are not for the people of Reynosa to read or hear. As the people lost their city, journalists acknowledge, reporters could not share what they knew.

When the Gulf cartel came to the region with payoffs and threats targeting journalists, the gangsters were imposing their own vicious twist on a system already in place, one created in part by the government and the press themselves. Owners of news organizations and local government leaders have long had a shared interest in controlling what the press tells the public, according to many journalists in Reynosa. And over many years, they said, journalists have gotten used to being told to stay away from many topics—being bribed for complying and fired for refusing.

As in most parts of Mexico, the state and local governments have historically been major advertisers in the local press. “Without government contracts maybe most of the media here would have to close,” said the senior editor who met with CPJ. Some of the ads are typical public service announcements, but others are virtual campaign ads. This advertising stream effectively gives government officials veto over stories they don’t like, journalists claim, to the point that reporters hardly even think about writing one. A reporter for Reynosa’s largest newspaper, El Mañana, gave an example. He said that several years ago when he proposed a story on what seemed to be a previous mayor’s unexplained wealth, his editor told him: “We have an agreement with the mayor. If you have something bad to say about him, start your own newspaper.”

Helping to enforce the scheme is a dual system of unlivable low wages for reporters and open public payoffs, or chayo, from city hall. Even at the large news outlets, reporters make the equivalent of about US$350 a month. Accepting the bribes seems necessary, but once journalists take payoffs, they are expected to treat city government favorably. Honest coverage will cost them. The president of the statewide Democratic Union of Journalists, Oscar Alvizo Olmeda, estimated that 90 percent of Reynosa’s journalists are on the public payroll, a figure with which local journalists agreed. Reporters say the system is so organized that they sign receipts at city hall when they get their money.

The senior editor said owners of news organizations encouraged the arrangement because it saved them money in salaries and kept them out of trouble with the government. The editor said, “We all know the reporter gets his chayo and then he becomes the government’s very good friend.” Reynosa, and its state of Tamaulipas, may be Mexico’s most extreme example of government payoffs to reporters, according to Mexican organizations that monitor the press.

The very scheme by which reporters and editors ignored local government weaknesses effectively enabled powerful drug traffickers to challenge a city hall too feeble and corrupt to resist. The need for honest reporting on local government was suddenly clear, but the time was past. Now, journalists say, the cartel thugs are giving orders to city authorities; the cartel is the power telling the press what the people of Reynosa can and cannot know. Censorship is enforced with a gun.

In controlling the press, the cartel wants to avoid “heating up the plaza,” a phrase that means drawing too much attention to the drug marketplace, according to journalists. They said the cartel easily controls the local government but wants the federal government to stay away from Reynosa and the state of Tamaulipas, the area the Gulf cartel dominates. “Don’t think the federal government doesn’t know what we are suffering,” said the senior editor. “But if the plaza is not hot, if there is no news coverage, then the federal government can pretend it doesn’t know. If the citizens are kept ignorant, then the pressure for federal intervention is less.”

The situation was appalling enough as the cartel penetrated the government while the press stayed silent. But then in late February vicious combat broke out between the Gulf cartel and the Zetas. In Reynosa and communities nearby, gunfights erupted in the streets. Reports in the U.S. press put the deaths among gangsters in the dozens. But average people were in mortal danger, too, and the reporters knew, usually without being told, that they risked death if they reported the fighting. There was essentially no coverage of the war in the local press, journalists said. The owners of press outlets were threatened directly, according to Gildardo López, president of the local Chamber of Commerce. “I know them,” López said. “Two of them are close friends. Those two went to Texas and took their families for a while.”

There were dozens of shootouts, some running for more than an hour, and nearby towns were shot up. But you wouldn’t know there was open warfare on the streets from reading the local papers, watching TV, or listening to the radio those days. Only U.S. newspapers and wire services gave it wide coverage. The situation deteriorated to the point that on March 14, the U.S. State Department authorized dependents of Foreign Service workers in the two American consulates closest to Reynosa—Nuevo Laredo and Matamoros—to leave the country.

Then, on April 1, in a spectacular daylight move against the army, one of the two warring cartels drove a convoy of SUVs to the front of a military base in Reynosa and opened fire with assault rifles and hand grenades. While the soldiers tried to react, the gangsters blocked the exits to the base with stolen trucks. The tactic seems to have been to box the soldiers inside their base to give cartel hit men freedom to kill their adversaries without interference. The military issued a press release, but there was virtually no independent information on the success of the assault or the extent of shootings citywide that followed. The local press simply did not cover the story. The main story the next day across the front page of El Mañana, the region’s main paper, was on an unexplained lack of interest in people picking up their voter credentials on the last day they were available.

A radio talk show host spoke of the dilemma of trying to warn the audience during the worst of the warfare without being killed for doing so. “What do I say? I can’t tell them the truth. No, not that. But how can I let them die in a gun battle? So I might say something like, ‘In such a place it’s dangerous for now.’ Or, ‘I hear these are some good streets to stay away from.’ Or, ‘A caller said she heard the director at school X said some of the parents were taking their children home.’”

The senior editor had similar reflections about the danger of telling the public the truth to help save their lives. “We can’t report that the situation is serious because that is considered heating up the plaza—much less that there are convoys of SUVs driven by killers of the Gulf cartel driving wildly through our towns shooting .50-caliber heavy machine guns down the streets. Forget that.”

But then he added something new. “Can we publish that people are hiding in their homes? Is panic good for business? So, no, we cannot.” In other words, reporting the truth about an area being shot up by gangsters is not good for advertisers, either.

López, the head of the Chamber of Commerce, said much the same. “We thought it was a good idea to censor coverage of the fighting because as a business group it’s against our interest to publish it.” He claimed there was no pressure from his group on the owners of local news organizations. It was, he said, a matter of shared interests.

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