MEXICO Authority, impunity and self-censorship: Frontier journalists


MEXICO Authority, impunity and self-censorship: Frontier journalists
Authority, impunity and self-censorship:
Frontier journalists in a pitiless landscape
June 2005
Investigation: Balbina Flores Martinez
and Benoît Hervieu
Reporters Without Borders
international Secretariat
Americas Desk
5, rue Geoffroy Marie
75009 Paris-France
Tél. (33) 1 44 83 84 68
Fax (33) 1 45 23 11 51
E-mail : [email protected]
Web :
Authority, impunity and self-censorship:
Frontier journalists in a pitiless landscape
he election of Vicente Fox as president in
2000 was greeted by the Mexican press as
heralding a positive turning-point. The poll did
indeed put an end to 70 successive years of
rule by the Institutional Revolutionary Party
(PRI) and the “one party democracy” model
that it ended up embodying. This long-awaited
breath of fresh air for free expression activists
was however quickly snuffed out. The insecurity that first made its appearance with the
economic crisis of 1994, worsened alarmingly
mainly in coastal states and those bordering the
United States, where drug cartels impose their
own law. Foremost among these areas mired
in corruption and violence is Sinaloa State in
the north-west, the theatre of almost 300 killings since the beginning of 2005. Regular targets of the gangsters include lawyers, police
officers, federal agents (62 killed since 2000),
politicians, officials, activists in the trade unions or workers of the maquiladoras of Ciudad
Juárez, Chihuahua State. Journalists working
for local newspapers also pay a high price for
government powerlessness in the face
of organised crime.
Sixteen of them
have been killed
since 2000, six in
the north-eastern
Raúl Gibb Guerrero
state of Tamaulipas alone. Almost all of them were working in
general news (locally dubbed “red news”) and
were writing about highly sensitive issues such
as drug-trafficking and police corruption.
The lowest point in a black year for press freedom in Mexico with five journalists killed, was
the murder on 22 June 2004 in Tijuana, Lower
California State in the north-west of Francisco
Javier Ortiz Franco, co-founder and editorialist
on the weekly Zeta. Another editor, Raúl Gibb
Guerrero, of the daily La Opinión in Veracruz
State in the east of the country was gunned
down on 8 April 2005. But the murder of Ortiz
Franco and the outcry it brought triggered the
start of a fight back on the part of the media,
Mexican society and the federal authorities. On
11 October, journalists in sixteen cities across
ten states demonstrated publicly following a
call from the human rights movement Ni Uno
Mas (Not one more). They turned out again on 3
May to mark World Press Freedom Day. It was
above all the Ortiz Franco case that led the federal authorities to take over investigations into
Mexican journalists killed or disappeared since 2000
Name and media
Guadalupe García Escamilla
(Stereo 91 XHNOE)
16 April 2005
Nuevo Laredo (Tamaulipas)
Raúl Gibb Guerrero (La Opinión)
8 April 2005
Poza Rica (Veracruz)
Alfredo Jiménez Mota (El Imparcial)
2 April 2005
Hermosillo (Sonora)
28 November 2004
Escuinapa (Sinaloa)
Gregorio Rodríguez Hernández (El Debate)
Francisco Arratia Saldierna (El Imparcial)
31 August 2004
Matamoros (Tamaulipas)
Francisco Javier Ortíz Franco (Zeta)
22 June 2004
Tijuana (Basse Californie)
Leodegario Aguilera Lucas (Mundo Político)
23 May 2004
Acapulco (Guerrero)
Roberto Javier Mora García (El Mañana)
Gregorio Urieta (El Sur)
Jésus Mejía Lechuga
(Primera Hora – Ms Noticias)
19 March 2004
15 September 2003
10 July 2003
Nuevo Laredo (Tamaulipas)
Acapulco (Guerrero)
Martínez de la Torre (Veracruz)
Félix Alfonso Fernández García
(Nueva Opción)
17 January 2002
Ciudad Alemán (Tamaulipas)
Saúl Antonio Martínez Gutiérrez (El Imparcial)
24 March 2001
Matamoros (Tamaulipas)
José Barbosa Bejarano (Alarma)
9 March 2001
Ciudad Juárez (Chihuahua)
José Luis Ortega Mata (Semanario de Ojinaga)
19 February 2001
José Ramírez Puente (Juárez Hoy de Radio Net)
28 April 2000
Ciudad Juárez (Chihuahua)
Ojinaga (Chihuahua)
Pablo Pineda Gaucin (La Opinión)
9 April 2000
Matamoros (Tamaulipas)
the murders or disappearances of journalists in
a much needed initiative, but which still did not
go far enough to bring an end to the carnage
and impunity.
Authority, impunity and self-censorship:
Frontier journalists in a pitiless landscape
There was a harrowing start to 2005 for
the Mexican press,
particularly in these
same areas. Three
days before the
murder of Raúl Gibb
Guerrero, journalist
Dolores Guadalupe García Dolores Guadalupe
of radio Stereo 91 XHNOE, was attacked in
Nuevo Laredo (Tamaulipas State) and died
of her injuries on 16 April. On 2 April, Alfredo
Jiménez Mota of the daily El Imparcial (See
box) mysteriously disappeared in Hermosillo in
the north-western state of Sonora. Numerous
leads have been followed in all three cases, but
none, has to date led to an arrest of suspects
and even less to the detection of the instigators. Impunity appears to be the rule when a
Mexican journalist dies simply for doing his or
her job.
How do journalists deal with this violent climate in Mexico’s border areas? Do they end up
resorting to self-censorship to protect themselves? Are local and national media exposed
to the same level of risk? How can one explain
the slowness and inefficiency of police and
courts in the face of these attacks?
In the search for answers to all these questions, Reporters Without Borders, carried out
an on-the-spot investigation from 23-31 May
2005, in the border towns of Tijuana Nuevo
Laredo, and Mexico. The organisation’s representatives met local journalists, national media
journalists, human rights and press freedom
activists and representatives of the state and
federal authorities (police and justice) including
José Luis Santiago Vasconcelos, state deputy
prosecutor in charge of the fight against organised crime.
Alfredo Jiménez Mota, an affair of state?
Overnight on 2 April 2005,
the young journalist Alfredo Jiménez Mota, 25,
mysteriously disappeared
in Hermosillo (Sonora).
Starting out as a journalist
on the daily El Debate in
Sinaloa State (which had a
photographer murdered in
2004) in Sinaloa State, spe- Alfredo Jiménez Mota
cialising in drug-trafficking and public security,
Jiménez Mota had been working for a little more
than a year for the daily El Imparcial in Hermosillo. On the night of his disappearance, he was
supposed to meet an informer for a brief meeting
before joining up with a colleague. A US border
correspondent, who has looked into the case, told
Reporters Without Borders that the informer in
question was an official with the federal justice
The case brought a personal reaction from President Vicente Fox, who promised the journalistʼs
family that there were would a top-level investigation. He kept his promise. The case was from 22
April put in the hands of the Subprocuraduría de
investigación especializada contra la delincuencia organizada (SIEDO), the anti-mafia branch
of the federal justice ministry, led by José Luis
Santiago Vasconcelos (see above). But strangely,
on 25 May the ministry ordered the case to be
indefinitely taken away from the federal prosecutor responsible for investigating on the spot. The
reason? “Our investigators were immediately
rumbled by the drug-traffickers. The first judge
was threatened. Witnesses would no longer talk.
The team had to be changed,” explained Santiago
The journalistʼs investigations into the drug cartels or the sordid case of the head of public security in Sonoyta, Sonora, implicated in drug trafficking, are among the 11 leads currently being
followed. One of them relates to the still mysterious federal justice ministry official with whom
Jiménez Mota apparently had an appointment.
An awkward lead for the authorities in charge
of the investigation in view of the fact that the
journalist could found out things that would be
embarrassing for the federal authorities.
The invisible enemy
The drug-traffickers have broken with ‘tradition’”, says Jésus Blancornelas, managing
editor of the weekly Zeta in Tijuana, referring to
the atmosphere in Mexico’s coastal and border
areas. In this huge transit zone for cocaine consignments headed from Southern America to
the United States, drugs are no longer a family
affair but a multi-layered business with numerous networks.
“Before, every city had its cartel, now it’s war.
Three cartels are currently slugging it out for
Apart from posing a serious threat to press freedom in Mexico, violence against the Mexican
media is also revealing of major failings of the
public authorities at all three levels: municipal,
state and federal. These failings will not ease
the volatile campaign building to decide who
will succeed Vicente Fox in July 2006.
Authority, impunity and self-censorship:
Frontier journalists in a pitiless landscape
Jésus Blancornelas
in front of photos of his murdered colleagues
control of Tijuana, major transit point for the
United States: The Arellano Felix clan cartel
- otherwise known as the Tijuana cartel -, the
Sinaloa cartel run by Joaquín “El Chapo” Gúzman, and the Gulf cartel, based on the east
coast. Constant population increases in the city
have only fuelled the problems. It now boasts
nearly five million inhabitants, with 50,000 newcomers yearly, whose objective is obviously to
reach the promised land of America. Very few
of these “desdocumentados” (‘illegals’) reach
their destination and according to René Gardner, local correspondent for the daily El Norte,
sister paper of the daily Reforma of the northern
states, “This population provides about 50% of
common-law crime and small-time drug trafficking. “A new generation of drug-traffickers
is emerging,” says Blancornelas. A generation
that doesn’t want to bargain, but to kill, that
no long tries to buy off journalists but murders
them instead.”
jecting financial blackmail by the specialised
“Los Chupaductos” gang that cost the life of
Raúl Gibb Guerrero, editor of regional daily La
Opinión, who was murdered on 8 April 2005 in
the state of Veracruz. It is highly likely also that
violence against the press would never have
reached such proportions without the help of
a corrupt local police force, sometimes accomplices and at times rivals to organised crime.
“The traffickers do perhaps have their reasons
to attack journalists but police officers have
just as much reason”, Salinas explains. “Everyone knows who runs the cartels. Police officers who trade in illegal immigrants, go in for
extortion or organise death squads, also have
an interest in keeping hidden and eliminating
awkward witnesses.” Salinas himself received
phoned death threats in 2000. “I was investigating a police death squad,” he said. “Who
else apart from those involved, if they were police officers, would have been able to obtain my
address and telephone number?”
A report released by the Mexican Network for
the Protection of Journalists and the Media (1)
confirmed it. Nearly one quarter of the 92 cases of assaults, threats or murders against the
press in 2004 (against 76 in 2003, out of a total
of 421 attacks since 2000), were carried out by
the security forces. Salinas drives home his argument: the impunity enjoyed by the killers of
journalists is the very proof of the implication
of the authorities. “Otherwise the investigations
would get somewhere”.
Legal cases bogged down
The same picture is apparent in Nuevo Laredo
(population 400,000), at the other end of the
border with the United States, in Tamaulipas
State. “Here the well established Gulf cartel
has been battling it out for the past three years
with the Sinaloa cartel”, explains Ramon Dario
Cantú Deandar, editor of the regional daily El
Mañana. “Talking about a cartel means bad
publicity for them to the advantage of another
one. Naming a drug-trafficker exposes you to
reprisals, but always through an intermediary
or a hit-man.” Deputy editor of Frontera in Tijuana, Raúl Ruiz Castillo explains: “For us journalists, the enemy has become invisible.”
The enemy is all the more invisible since the
danger comes not just from the world of drugtrafficking. This point is made by Juan Arturo
Salinas, of the national weekly Proceso and
Associated Press in Tijuana. On one hand, trafficking is not limited to drugs. Stolen car parts
or petrol-smuggling are also lucrative areas
of the market. It is highly likely that it was his
investigations into petrol-smuggling and re-
And, in fact, the investigations do get stalled.
To start with the case of the death of Francisco
Javier Ortiz Franco: Around midday on 22 June
2004, the co-founder and editorial-writer of
Zeta, left a doctor’s surgery in the north-east of
Tijuana and returned to his car to go home. As
he got in a black jeep drove up and a masked
armed man got out and shot the journalist before fIeeing. Ortiz Franco, who was hit by four
bullets, to the head, body and left shoulder
died on the spot. It was the third murder involving Zeta staff. Another founder of the newspaper, Hector Félix Miranda, was gunned down
on 20 April 1988. The weekly’s editor Jésus
1. The Mexican Network for the Protection of Journalists
is made up of the Mexican Academy of Human Rights,
the Fray Francisco de Vitoria Centre for Human Rights,
the Miguel Agustín Pro Juárez Human Rights Centre, the
National Centre of Social Communication, the Centre for
Journalism and Public Ethics (CEPET), the Fraternity of
Reporters in Mexico, the Manuel Buendía Foundation, the
Mexican Communication Review and the National Union
of Newspaper Editors.
Authority, impunity and self-censorship:
Frontier journalists in a pitiless landscape
Blancornelas survived a murder attempt on 27
November 1997 that cost his bodyguard his
life. Same circumstances, same routine by the
killers, probably the same motive… and even
the same inertia on the part of the authorities.
The murder of Francisco Javier Ortiz Franco
was wrenching, “because he was killed in front
of his two children, aged 8 and 10, who were
waiting for him in the car” says Blancornelas.
The weekly, mistrustful of the judicial system,
decided to carry out its own investigation. “In
two weeks we found out who Pancho’s killers
were”, he continued. Zeta published the photos of two men in the first pages of its 9-15
July edition: Heriberto Lazcano “El Lazca” and
Jorge Eduardo Ronquillo Delgado “El Niño”
or “El 6-2”. The career path of these two men
demonstrates very effectively the concept of
the “invisible enemy”, perpetual mercenaries,
henchmen to a cartel one day, renegades the
next, with no loyalty other than to the highest
paying employer. “El Lazca”, suspected of firing the shots that killed Ortiz Franco, was first
a soldier, then a paramilitary with the sinister “Los Zetas” group. He was then linked to
Osiel Cardenas Guillén, one of the godfathers
of the Gulf Cartel in Tamaulipas State. A little
later he turned up in Tijuana and put himself at
the service of the Arellano Felix clan. Next to
“El Lazca” and “El Niño”, Zeta produced the
name of a third killer: Artemio Villareal Albarrán
“El Nalgón” or “El Maistro”. Among the brains
and logisticians behind the murder, the weekly points the finger at Jorge Alberto Briceño
Lopez, the Tijuana cartel’s representative in
Mexicali, capital of Lower California State,
the former police officer Jésus Manuel Molina
Hernández and former local official José Luis
Molina Hernández.
There is worse. Zeta’s journalists made a connection between the murders of their two
editors. Ortiz Franco had after all been investigating the death of Hector Félix Miranda. In
following this trail, one name kept coming up.
That of Jorge Hank Rhon, PRI politician in Lower California State, detested by the Fox administration and elected mayor of Tijuana on 1st
August 2004. Would the new councillor have
wanted to sub-contract to drug-traffickers a
personal score-settling against the weekly,
which was a little too curious about his particular style of wielding power? Would the cartel,
frequently angered by Zeta’s articles on its activities, have seized the chance offered by this
identity of interests? The hypothesis cannot be
ruled out and could explain the extreme slowness, if not complete breakdown, of the official
investigation. “No progress has been made
since then”, Blancornelas bitterly notes. “The
Justice Ministry headed the investigation in the
two months following the death of “Pancho”.
Then the general prosecutor’s office (PGR, federal justice ministry) took over the file. But there
was no follow-up. Police did not question anyone. Why not? If nothing is done in the first 48
hours after an investigation is opened then it’s
all washed up.”
The rare arrests that do occur involve the killers
or suspected intermediaries, never those who
ordered the murders. The investigation into
the murder on 28 November 2004, of Gregorio Rodríguez Hernández, photographer on the
daily El Debate in Escuinapa, Sinaloa State in
the north-west, led to two brothers - Abraham
Ernesto and Ulíses Sedano - being taken into
custody but without any supporting evidence.
In the absence of charges and testimony, the responsibility for the murder attributed to Fausto
Ocampo and Ismael Zambada García “El Mayo
Zambada”, two members of the Sinaloa cartel,
remains just a “line of investigation”. “You need
to know that drug-traffickers purchase the support of the people, by financing works, schools
and infrastructure,” says the republic’s deputyprosecutor José Luis Santiago Vasconcelos, in
an attempt at justification. “So it’s tough getting citizens to cooperate with investigators in
those circumstances.”
Elsewhere it has been procedural errors or
competition between state and federal judicial
authorities that have put a break on the already
minimal progress in the investigations. The
case of Francisco Arratia Saldierna, of the daily
El Imparcial in Matamoros, Tamaulipas State,
who was tortured and killed on 31 August 2004,
is illuminating in this regard. On 1st October,
the PGR officially took over the case, until then
handled by the Tamaulipas justice ministry. The
same day the federal prosecutor announced it
has started legal proceedings against the suspected killer Raúl Castelán Cruz, who works
for Ramiro Hernández García Hernández, a cell
leader of the Gulf cartel. But local judicial officials only agreed to hand over part of the case,
relating to organised crime and illegal weapons, thus leaving the actual murder investigation in the hands of Tamaulipas justice officials,
but against the will of the federal authorities.
Who is in charge of the case? By the time that
question is decided the suspects will have had
the time to escape. The constitutional prerogative 20-1, that regulates cooperation between
the three levels - municipal, state and federal
-, worked better in the handling of the Dolores
Guadalupe García Escamilla case.
Authority, impunity and self-censorship:
Frontier journalists in a pitiless landscape
The local radio journalist on Stereo 91 XHNOE in
Nuevo Laredo was shot 15 times in the station’s
parking lot on 5 April 2005 and died 11 days
later on the 16 April. A former communications
chief with the municipal police, the journalist
and columnist had become famous through
presenting the programme “Punto Rojo” devoted to general news. Given the number of
criminal cases she covered during her career, it
is impossible to say which one could have been
behind her murder. “”We have investigated for
two weeks and we have started 72 separate
procedures,” said Roberto Maldonado Siller,
an official at the Tamaulipas justice ministry in
Nuevo Laredo, who knew the victim personally.
The magistrate stressed that he had not had
enough time to pinpoint the main lead to follow
but he was sure of one thing: “The murder of
‘Lupita’ was linked to her professional work”.
This point of view was not however backed by
the federal justice system which took over the
case on 26 April. The prosecutor Fidel Gauna
Urbina also outlined the procedural details to
explain the difficulties of the case. “I have summoned 45 people to give evidence and 28 have
done so. We had to start the investigation again
from scratch and guarantee the anonymity of
witnesses because people refuse to speak
otherwise. Three federal investigation units are
working on the case. Criminal cases are generally regulated by agreements between federal
authorities and some cities, but in this case
everything comes under the federal authorities,
including the police, all this to make absolutely
sure of the confidentiality of the investigation.”
This explanation is revealing about how little trust exists between the different levels of
power, despite Article 20-1 of the federal constitution. Police in Tamaulipas have had to pass
it over to their federal colleagues. With what results? Two extra “lines of investigation” as well
as the professional lead, favoured at the outset
by the state justice system.
“None of the elements we have permits us at
present to give more weight to one lead than
to another”, said
Gauna Urbina. The
professional connection is a possibility, but there is
also the personal
angle and organised crime”. The
prosecutor would
not elaborate on
how the professional,
Radio station Stereo 91 XHNO
crime leads could be differentiated one from
The “personal lead” finished by becoming the
official line in the case of Roberto Javier Mora
García, editor of the daily El Mañana, also in
Nuevo Laredo although a number of grey areas
remained in connection with his murder, on 19
March 2004. This rigorous journalist had carried
out several investigations into the Gulf cartel
and its suspected links with the local administration. Deputy editor Daniel Rosas and staff on
the paper still believe that this was the reason
for his murder and that this lead was deliberately ignored by the authorities “who want to
minimise the reality of drug-trafficking”. Shortly
before his death drug-traffickers offered him
$40,000 not to publish an investigation. He refused. Could there be a clearer motive?
Mora García was
outside his home at
2am on 19 March
2004 with some 20
knife wounds. The
investigation immeRoberto Javier Mora García
diately led to Mario
Medina Vázquez and Hiram Oliveros Ortiz, a
homosexual couple who were neighbours. Police arrested both men on 28 March. They said
that Medina Vázquez, a US national, had admitted killing the journalist because he suspected
he was having a relationship with his partner. A
crime of passion, then. However, Mario Medina
said that his confession had been extracted
under torture. He added that he had been arrested on 28 March at around 7pm and not at
11pm as police claimed. It was during this fourhour interval that he was tortured and threatened with death. Also the weapon described
by the pathologist - a double bladed knife – did
not match the one found at the home of the
suspects. These aspects were reported by the
independent commission In Memoriam – made
up of Reporters Without Borders and five other
organisations (2) – which investigated the case
in April 2004. On 13 May, Medina Vázquez was
killed in prison, stabbed in his cell by a fellow
prisoner, Roberto Herrera González, who was
trying to sexually abuse him, according to
the Tamaulipas justice ministry. This development brought protests from the US Consulate
2. Apart from Reporters Without Borders, organisations
involved in the In Memoriam Committee are: Freedom of
Information Mexico (LIMAC), Centre for Border Studies
and Promotion of Human Rights (CEFPDH) and the Centre for Journalism and Public Ethics (CEPET) and international organisations PEN Club and Journalists Against
which had called for its national to be held in
a high security area. The Tamaulipas prosecutor resigned over the incident on 17 May. Since
then a new investigation has been opened at
federal level, but with no results to date. “We
welcome the fact that the PGR has taken over
the case but we don’t think anything will come
of it,” said Ninfa Deandar, chair of the publishers of El Mañana. In fact there is no rule of law
in this country. With Vicente Fox, we have said
goodbye to a federal authority that was for a
long time sacred. The federal authorities have
indeed strengthened their presence in Tamaulipas State where crime levels are very high, but
criminality has not been reduced and there are
no genuine investigations. And the federal police are as exposed as the others.”
Authority, impunity and self-censorship:
Frontier journalists in a pitiless landscape
Protection or life in a bunker?
“Journalists who have been threatened can negotiate for a permit to carry a gun”. This remark
from Tamaulipas public security minister, Luis
Roberto Gutiérrez Flores, the day after the murder of García Escamilla, would perhaps have
raised a smile in any other circumstances. The
question has to be put. How can journalists,
coming under so much pressure and exposed
to such serious risk, carry out their jobs without
protection? Shortly before the murder attempt
that nearly cost him his life in 1997, Jésus
Blancornelas had police protection provided
by Lower California State. The murder attempt
came at a time when his protection had been
reduced. It was also during a holiday period
when he had no police escort that his colleague
Ortiz Franco was killed. Since 1997, Zeta’s editor has been physically protected by the army.
His close guard “which I neither sought nor refused”, as he says – went from nine to 14 people after the murder of Ortiz Franco. The editorial office of Zeta has all the appearance of a
bunker. One soldier armed with a pump action
gun and a pistol stands permanently guard at
the entrance. Outside, four men watch the road
from an unmarked car. Inside the building, visitors have to file through a double-entrance security door, “decorated” with the photos of the
newspaper’s three murder victims. How can it
be possible to do one‘s job impartially in such
conditions, a job that calls for independence
and freedom of movement?
Raúl Ruiz Castillo, editor of the daily Frontera
in Tijuana, sums up the dilemma. “Either we
have no escort and we are at serious risk, or we
have one and as such we break the principle
of professional discretion and the protection of
sources, which is a fundamental basis of our
The main offices of Frontera, situated along one
of the major road corridors that cut through the
city, came under attack twice in 2004. In April,
shots were fired at its door. On 7 June, someone
parked a truck filled with 800 kilos of marijuana
at the entry to the newspaper’s parking lot. In
September, three shots were fired from a passing car again damaging the entrance door. “All
these incidents were linked to articles that we
have carried on the Arellano Félix cartel, said
the Frontera editor. “Since then we have had
to get in a new security firm and install, reluctantly, surveillance cameras inside the editorial
office. Journalists met on 20 May to decide on
whether to have personal escorts. The majority
said no. Journalists really don’t like escorts.”
Head of the preventive police of Lower California
State, Julián Leyzaola Pérez believes in striking
a balance between a total absence of escort
and security that is too restricting. “There are
other systems of protection apart from a traditional escort. We suggest, for example, that we
can follow the journalist if he gives us information about his route and his plans. We can also
organise an alarm system that does not get in
the way of work.” The police officer accepted
however that there was not much demand for
this system. And the reasons are obvious. They
are badly understaffed. The preventive police in
Lower California State, set up thee years ago,
only boasts 350 men (against 1,500 municipal
police officers in Mexicali and 2,000 in Tijuana),
the oldest of whom is 28 years old. “Considering the conflicts that a journalist’s work can
cause, we take the time to evaluate the real
human risk”, the Lt.-Col attempted to explain
to justify his limited room for manoeuvre. “And
look, with this calibre, the drug-traffickers can
just laugh at me” he said, brandishing his service gun.
The official voice
Paradoxically, the media which have no confidence in the authorities are often obliged to
go to the same authorities to get information.
The last wave of murders of journalists – “The
black April of the Mexican press” changed the
way sensitive issues were handled by newspapers, to the detriment of investigative journalism which the weekly Zeta is one of the very
few to still practise. This self-protection reflex is
particularly evident in the local media, more exposed to risk even though they reach a smaller
readership. “I remember covering an incident
at the same time as a local journalist but it was
him who suffered reprisals afterwards and not
me,” recalls Martha Casares, correspondent for
El Norte in Nuevo Laredo.
house style.” The programme ‘Punto Rojo’ that
she presented was taken off air after her murder. Her successor, Vicente Rangel on general
news, provides a minimum service. “I go to police press conferences and that’s all.”
Authority, impunity and self-censorship:
Frontier journalists in a pitiless landscape
Roberto Galvéz Martínez, news editor of Stereo 91 XHNOE
shows bullets impacts of the attempt against
Dolores Guadalupe García Escamilla
In Tijuana, the daily Frontera has stopped publishing photos of drug-traffickers
and even
more so of their henchmen. Articles on them
are spread out over a period. The journalist
concerned is supposed to previously notify the
editorial committee made up of the publisher
and the editors, under what Frontera calls its
’action handbook’. “We try to evaluate as far
as possible the likely impact any article might
have. We carry out a sort of counter-investigation,” explains Raúl Ruiz Castillo. “We ban unnamed sources. We make sure that the article
contributes new elements compared to what
we are getting from official sources, that is the
police and judicial authorities. If there are no
new elements and identified sources, we don’t
publish. Recently for example, the PGR delegation in Tijuana told us that two former mayoral
candidates were implicated in drug-trafficking.
We tried to check it out but we couldn’t find
out anything more. So we didn’t publish.” One
newspaper editor, who here asked for anonymity, suggested another way of protecting staff
while continuing to inform the public. “The journalists investigate but I put all the articles under
my by-line, because I have a large number of
Unfortunately, most often, the extreme caution
takes the form of swallowing official information wholesale and self-censorship. In Nuevo
Laredo, Roberto Gálvez Martínez, news editor of Stereo 91 XHNOE – the radio for which
Dolores Guadalupe García Escamilla worked
– talked about a “change of line” since the
murder of his colleague. “’Lupita’ went in for an
aggressive, daring fundamental journalism. Her
death showed us that this type of journalism
had become too dangerous. We had to stop
it,” he admitted, his tension showing. “Now
we take the information the authorities give us
and we confine ourselves to one angle, that is
the ‘how’. We avoid the ’who’ and ‘why’. You
have to go easy on general news events. Every
day, here, there are murders and investigations
that go nowhere. We don’t want to worsen the
climate. We don’t want to annoy anyone. “Lupita’s journalism was perhaps not really the
The same attitude prevails at El Mañana. Investigative journalism is no longer flavour of the
month at Nuevo Laredo’s oldest publication,
founded 75 years ago. “Yes we are hostages
to self-censorship and its worse than censorship,” admits editor Ramón Dario Cantú Deandar. “Everyone of our journalists who work on
sensitive subjects, in particular drug-trafficking,
has been threatened or attacked. Now we only
publish information that comes from the authorities.” No newspaper appears to be spared.
Still in Nuevo Laredo, the small editorial team of
the daily Primera Hora / Ultima Hora (founded
four years ago and selling 1,500 copies) has
begun to fear for its freedom of speech after a
crude bomb wrecked editor Pedro Natividad’s
car. He has not been seen since. “We are more
cautious since the attack. We are a lot more
careful about what we publish. We no longer
dig very deeply into sensitive issues,” admit
Jaime Vivas and Miguel Montenegro, the two
acting editors. Their anxiety has been notched
up still further since their colleague Carlos
Figueroa who covers general news on Primera
Hora received death threats that were picked
up on police radio frequencies, as were those
against García Escamilla before her murder.
American frontier journalists are also suffering. Jesse Bogan, correspondent on the San
Antonio Express News in Laredo Texas points
out that the US press has paid the price of violence in Mexico. One of his predecessors Philip
True was murdered in 1998 in Jalisco state in
western Mexico. Even though he has not been
threatened or attacked himself, the Texan journalist complains of “news that is often truncated or manipulated, helped by a finicky and
formalist bureaucracy” on the Mexican side of
the Rio Bravo and the “dissimulation once a
case turns serious”. “Over the last two years
36 Americans have disappeared in Nuevo Lare-
Primera Hora / Ultima Hora redaction
do. Police keep quiet about these cases. The
problem in Mexico is that you sometimes have
to cosy up to the authorities to obtain information. The local press is very exposed to corruption, whether ‘it’s to publish something or not
to publish it.”
Authority, impunity and self-censorship:
Frontier journalists in a pitiless landscape
This view of things is confirmed by Victor Ronquillo, roving reporter on the weekly Milenio
and a veteran of major investigations at the
border. “Once in Nuevo Laredo, I saw the drugtraffickers issue an “invitation” to the press. In
Culiacán in Sinaloa State, a local journalist who
was working on a murder investigation was
getting exclusive information from the police. I
found out later that he had made an “arrangement” with them.
Is the national press in a better position? It is
less targeted, even the reporters on the major
publications say so, if only because of the space
given to regional news. “Obviously the reading
public wants to know about drug trafficking,
but we are also caught in the dilemma between
giving the public information and protecting
ourselves”, says Julieta Martínez, correspondent for the national daily El Universal in Tijuana
for three years. She has taken the decision to
only cover this type of story when people are
imprisoned or sentenced and not before. Her
colleague, René Gardner, correspondent for
the daily El Norte in the same city for seven
years, covered sensitive investigations for two
years. “I stopped because of the threats and
harassment. I thought about my safety. The
management tried to get me started on it again
but I ended up by convincing them that in my
position as correspondent who was alone and
without many resources, I was becoming dependent on the authorities, which was damaging to the quality of the information.”
ers. Some of them even complain of not getting enough support from their superiors. Often forced to take a second job to make ends
meet, they all complain of the lack of an established professional community underpinned by
a genuine trade union or collective organisation
that would allow them to “join forces.”
The fight for press freedom is set to be a long
one and even more so where organised crime
has got the upper hand over the rule of law.
Can journalists still confront it? Victor Ronquillo
of the weekly Milenio is pessimistic: “How can
you talk about press freedom when journalists
can no longer use words on air like “drug-trafficking”, “los Zetas“ or pronounce the names
of crime bosses who are known worldwide? In
addition, we are entering an election campaign
that will last for one year, until the presidential
poll in July 2006. The media, whether local or
national will have to completely focus on this
campaign and cover the political jousting, at
the risk of hiding the desperate situation in this
country and ignoring collusion between some
authorities and the gangsters.”
Finally, on 14 April 2005, the federal government promised to set up a specialist prosecutor’s office to handle murders of journalists.
However this undertaking was shelved after the
appointment of a new state prosecutor-general. The new incumbent, Francisco Daniel Cabeza de Vaca, now only talks about the initiative in the conditional. “The prosecutor’s office
could be instituted if needed”, he was quoted
as saying by the daily La Jornada, on 28 May.
In the meantime journalists who are still alive
can phone the free hotline set up for them by
the federal justice ministry. The line will open
on 1st July.
Monument dedicated to journalists in Mexico
Forbidden words
“Alone”. This word crops up often in conversation with Mexican border journalists, whether
local or national, working in a team or as string-