Quitze Fernandez, a columnist for the El Guardian newspaper in this capital of Coahuila state abutting Texas, picked up the phone in his newsroom one day.
“Either you come or we are coming for you,” he heard.
Within minutes, he was in an SUV surrounded by heavily armed gangsters. One held a knife to his throat. Another jabbed a gun barrel into his ribs. They said they didn’t like a headline in the newspaper.
They tossed a copy in his face. He glanced down and saw it wasn’t El Guardian. Thinking quickly, he convinced the gunmen that they had mistaken his newspaper for another. They let him go, deeply shaken but alive.
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Mexico is easily the most dangerous place in the Western Hemisphere for reporters to ply their trade. Dozens of journalists have been killed or disappeared. Nearly every month, a newspaper or a radio or TV station is firebombed, attacked with explosives or raked with gunfire, targeted by the country’s rising criminal gangs who use violence to discourage reporting the gangsters don’t like.
And the violence has worked. In much of Mexico, local news outlets no longer report on organized crime or corruption. Analysts call these areas “zones of silence,” where the lights have gone out on the dark activities within.
The success of the intimidation alarms advocates of both free speech and democracy. With no news reports on Mexico’s drug and crime problems, citizens find it difficult to stay informed about what could be life-threatening situations developing nearby. They also cannot effectively participate in the normal give and take of public discussion that fuels a democracy. The muffling has been so effective that many Mexicans don’t even realize that a near blackout of news on crime exists in swaths of the country.
“If journalists don’t act as a viewfinder to say who is winning the contracts, who will become police chief, if there’s no accountability, they can do whatever they want,” said Andres Solis Alvarez, a former crime reporter and author of a self-protection manual for Mexican journalists.
A television journalist in Veracruz, a Gulf Coast state with an authoritarian tradition, and where nine journalists have been killed in the past two years, said state officials benefit when journalists flee, taking heat off them for corruption.
“When a reporter’s constant criticism makes them uncomfortable, the state communications department calls and says (to one’s boss) that one is at risk, that they have intelligence that something might happen, and thereupon they invite one to leave the state,” said Hugo Gallardo, who once worked for the Televisa network.
Rosental Alves, a journalism professor at the University of Texas and head of its Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas, calls what’s taking place unprecedented. “We have never seen anything like this in the history of Mexico in terms of attacks against journalists,” he said.
Just how many journalists have been murdered is the subject of dispute. The National Commission on Human Rights says that from 2000 to April 30 of this year, 84 journalists were murdered. But some of them had left journalism, or were killed for reasons unrelated to their profession. Since 2005, it says, another 19 journalists have disappeared and presumably were killed. Other watchdog groups have lower tallies.
What is beyond debate is that criminals with guns, grenades and armed convoys have silenced journalists, muted the media and suppressed news reports in numerous “hot” regions of Mexico.
Several newspapers have simply surrendered, telling readers that they no longer will cover the slaughter and beheadings perpetrated by the drug cartels.
“The decision to suspend all information related to organized crime is based on our responsibility to ensure the security of over 1,000 workers,” the Zocalo de Saltillo newspaper said in an editorial March 11.
Pressure on journalists differs from region to region, changing in intensity and focus. Experts say areas most severely affected include Tamaulipas state, parts of Durango, Coahuila, Zacatecas and coastal Veracruz states, and the area known as Tierra Caliente, which encompasses regions near the Pacific coast of Jalisco, Morelos, Michoacan, Colima, Guerrero and the state of Mexico.
Rules for journalists are unwritten and dizzyingly complex.
“In Sinaloa, you can report on what occurs there as long as it’s about one of the cartels and not the other. In Juarez, you can report anything, you just can’t say why it occurred. In Tamaulipas, you can’t report anything,” said Ricardo Raphael, a political scientist who is also a newspaper columnist and television host.
Gunmen kill or “disappear” journalists who defy the cartels, sometimes leaving no explanation for their actions.
Jaime Gonzalez, chief of a community news website in the border city of Ojinaga, across from Presidio, Texas, was eating at a taco stand March 3 when gunmen drove up and fired at him 18 times, then stole his camera. Two months later, there are still no arrests in his murder.
Daniel Alejandro Martínez, a 22-year-old photographer, had worked for the Vanguardia newspaper in Saltillo for only a month. On April 23, he was sent to cover a social event. He never showed up. His body turned up the next day. No one has been captured for that killing, either.
That is the norm in Mexico – impunity for the killing of journalists. Of dozens of homicides, only one person has been convicted, and free press advocates widely condemn that case as a mockery of justice.
Authorities offer many reasons for the impunity, including dysfunction in the judiciary. But one pattern emerges: Officials often argue that the killings had nothing to do with journalism, turning focus away from reprisal for a reporter’s work.
“They say, ‘Oh, it was a crime of passion,’ the classic way to divert attention, the false lead,” said Perla Gomez Gallardo, a media law professor at the Metropolitan Autonomous University in Mexico City. “Or, ‘They caught him with a homosexual lover in a hotel,’ or ‘Someone was after him,’ or ‘It was a personal matter.’
“Well, it might be the case. But how could we be sure if not all avenues linked to freedom of expression are looked into in the investigation?”
The slayings of journalists have hit hard at provincial print media, but television and radio journalists also have been killed and their newsrooms or transmission towers attacked.
“The installations of Televisa in the north of the country have been hit by bombings, and their television reporters have been kidnapped or disappeared,” said Carlos Lauria, the senior Americas program coordinator for the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists.
With his rimless glasses and thoughtful manner, Javier Garza Ramos fits the image of an editor of any major daily in the Spanish-speaking world. His newspaper, El Siglo de Torreon, in Coahuila state, is under siege. On Feb. 5, gunmen kidnapped five employees and held them for several hours in what Garza called “a message of intimidation.”
Later the same month, assailants fired at a police patrol posted outside the newspaper. They did so again two days later.
While Garza’s newspaper largely publishes crime news only on inside pages, he thinks gangsters blame El Siglo for detailing criminal mayhem in such a fashion as to win the attention of authorities in Mexico City. Using a peculiar logic, they blame the media rather than their own actions, he said.
“Those who draw attention or who in our lingo ‘heat up the plaza’ are not the criminals with their gunfights, killings and kidnappings. Rather it is the news media that report on the gunfights and killings,” Garza said.
In other areas of Mexico, media outlets struggle with how to cover rampant crime, sometimes practicing self-censorship or choosing words and selecting photographs carefully.
The publisher of Saltillo’s Vanguardia newspaper, Armando Castilla, said his paper no longer mentions names of criminal groups.
“We’re not interested in serving as a scoreboard for them,” Castilla said.
Nor does the paper print details of the banners that rival crime groups hang, lambasting their rivals. “If we publish for one side, the other side will want us to publish theirs, too.”
If gangsters don’t kill journalists, they take them for a terrifying ride.
On Jan. 26, assailants intercepted the director of El Mundo, a newspaper in Cordoba in Veracruz state, shoved him into an SUV, tied him up and harassed him for five hours, threatening his family. After he was let go, he remained incapacitated for three weeks, a nervous wreck.
Most such abductions are kept secret. Fernandez, the El Guardian columnist who was summoned from his newsroom, said his abduction occurred in 2011, but he only worked up the courage to discuss it this year.
Some flee their jobs and their states – or leave Mexico altogether.
“Thirty journalists have gone into internal exile,” said Balbina Flores, Mexico representative for Reporters without Borders, an advocacy group based in Paris. Separately, 15 journalists have left the country, she added, three of them since Mexico’s current president, Enrique Pena Nieto, assumed office Dec. 1.
None of Mexico’s 31 states suffers from a news blackout quite like Tamaulipas, which shares a border with Texas. Organized crime dominates the state’s politics and its media.
An editor at a newspaper there said gangsters of the Gulf Cartel, one of many major criminal syndicates in Mexico, have confederates in nearly every newsroom.
The editor, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of losing his life, said a U.S. journalist once queried why he would avoid writing about the mobsters’ grip.
“He said, ‘Why do you cover up drug trafficking?’ I said, ‘Look amigo, do you think I don’t want to write about where the narco women buy their jewelry? They know where you live, how you move about. If they want to get you, they’ll do it in seconds,’” the editor said.
A television journalist who left Tamaulipas to live in Texas – and who asked to remain anonymous because she still returns to Mexico to work and fears for her life – was asked how many journalists in the state take money from drug gangs: “I’d say 80 to 85 percent.”
“The narcos don’t ask if you want money. They just throw it at you,” the editor said of the Gulf Cartel.
Journalists there succumb to fear but also calculate how to stay alive.
“They prefer to stay quiet than die,” said Flores, of Reporters without Borders.
As traditional media have fallen silent in some Mexican states, citizens have embraced social media, with a few prolific Twitter users becoming what a Microsoft Research report called “the new war correspondents” in their troubled states.
“In this digital age, information is unstoppable,” said Alves, the Texas journalism professor.
But organized crime also has acted to silence them. In the autumn of 2011, gangsters hung at least three people from bridges along the border, claiming they had posted about public security issues on the Internet. They also decapitated a woman who anonymously moderated an Internet news site about Nuevo Laredo.
Just last month, a Facebook page titled “Valor por Tamaulipas,” or Courage for Tamaulipas, shut down weeks after fliers appeared around the state offering a reward of about $50,000 to make the page’s owner “shut his mouth.”
In a final posting, the page’s anonymous owner wrote that organized crime “won a battle over me,” but not over the page’s 200,000 followers or “the thousands who posted to the page despite their fear.”
Danger in Mexico for journalists