Preface by Joel Simon
Plomo o plata. Lead or silver. It’s a well-worn phrase in Mexico, one that’s all too familiar to the country’s journalists. It means, simply, we own you. Take our plata (slang for money) and publish what we tell you. Or we kill you.
The plomo is highly visible.
of journalists litter the streets in
has been less visible is the plata. Journalists don’t generally talk
about it, understandably. In this report, we reveal the culture of bribery and
extortion that is producing devastating self-censorship in
Why do criminal organizations care so much about what’s printed in the newspapers or broadcast on radio and TV? It’s not a simple matter of suppressing some damaging stories. Their motives are much more complicated, and much more sinister.
was a reporter in
Reporting on the web of corruption that supported the drug trade was another matter. The cartels made investments in buying the cooperation of corrupt police, mayors, governors, soldiers, and customs agents, all of whom became integral to their operations. If you exposed this network and got some official fired, you were disrupting their business. That was dangerous, although some brave reporters still took the risk.
2004, I traveled to
First, they suppressed stories about their own violence while paying journalists to play up the savagery of their rivals. More important, they used the media to damage competing operations by planting stories about corrupt officials. The impact of these stories was profound; a corrupt police chief in whom one cartel had invested huge sums might be forced to resign. And not all the journalists who played the game were corrupt. They didn’t know that their sources, often in law enforcement, were working as public relations agents for the cartels.
In the ensuing years, competing cartels throughout the country developed aggressive media tactics. They use corrupt journalists as a key component in their all-out battle for control of the “plaza,” as the narcos call the drug market.
traffickers rely on media outlets they control to discredit their rivals,
expose corrupt officials working for competing cartels, defend themselves
against government allegations, and influence public opinion. They use the
media in a manner not that different from that of a traditional political
party—except they are willing to use deadly means to attain their public
relations goals. It is unsurprising then that as the drug war has intensified,
violence against the press has escalated.
criminal organizations are controlling the information agenda in many cities
President Calderón and the Mexican federal government need to do more—much more—to defend the media and create an environment in which journalists can do their jobs with some degree of safety. Calderón needs to take decisive action not only because the federal government has a constitutional responsibility to guarantee free expression. Safeguarding press freedom is in his own strategic interest. He cannot win the drug war if he cedes control of public information to the narcos.
Journalists should be reporting on the carnage wrought by the competing cartels. They should be reporting aggressively and fairly on the underlying corruption that supports the drug traffickers. They should be reporting on government efforts to battle the drug trade, highlighting both the failures and successes.
many cities, they are doing none of these things. The reality is that the
government is being outflanked in the information war, just as it is on the
streets. As this report makes clear, the battle for the free flow of
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