Mexico's Journalists Feel Heavy Hand of Violence

By Manuel Roig-Franzia
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, May 30, 2007

MONTERREY, Mexico -- Gamaliel López Candanosa seemed an unlikely candidate to join the ranks of disappeared or murdered reporters in Mexico, now the second deadliest country in the world for journalists after Iraq.

Known for his rascal's smile and laughing eyes, López distinguished himself not as a hard-nosed investigative reporter, but as the clown prince of television news in this prosperous industrial city about 130 miles southwest of McAllen, Tex. He slipped into tights, a mask and a cape for his on-air reports, morphing into "Super Pothole Man," a comic book-style hero who joked about poorly maintained streets.

But on the afternoon of May 10 -- after taping a piece that featured him singing with a one-eyed mariachi and reporting live on the birth of conjoined twins -- López and his cameraman, Gerardo Paredes Pérez, vanished. Colleagues at the TV Azteca affiliate where they have worked for 12 years fear the veteran journalists are dead. They suspect drug cartels, which have been blamed for 3,000 murders in Mexico in the past year and a half, and which have turned this once mostly peaceful city into a shooting gallery.

More than 30 journalists have been killed in the past six years in Mexico, including a television reporter in Acapulco and a print journalist in the northern state of Sonora in the month before López and Paredes disappeared. Countless others have been kidnapped in a campaign of intimidation largely attributed to the drug cartels.

As more reporters die, journalism itself is suffering. A newspaper in Sonora said last week that it was temporarily shutting down because of attacks and threats by criminal gangs. Top editors at the two largest newspapers here in Monterrey, Milenio and El Norte, said in interviews that they no longer ask crime reporters to dig deeply on their stories.

"I don't know how to do investigations without getting people killed," Roberta Gomez, Milenio's executive editor, said during an interview at a Monterrey seafood restaurant where gunmen opened fire during the lunch rush not long ago.

At risk is the vibrancy of the free press in Mexico's still developing democracy. President Felipe Calderón has called the intimidation of journalists "an unacceptable situation," promised to protect journalists and discussed possible legislation to achieve that goal. But reporters keep dying and news media offices keep getting attacked.

In the past 15 months, grenades have been thrown into newspaper offices in Cancun, Hermosillo and Nuevo Laredo, and gunmen have attacked a radio station and newspaper in Oaxaca. On Saturday, the decapitated head of a city councilman was left in the doorway of the newspaper Tabasco Hoy in the eastern state of Tabasco.

The threats and violence have sown fear across the journalistic spectrum. While crime reporters are common targets, sportswriters have been kidnapped by drug cartel hit men upset over coverage of their favorite soccer teams. Feature reporters have been kidnapped, too, though the reasons are more mysterious. In the case of TV Azteca, colleagues suggested López might have been targeted because he had boasted about knowing the locations of executions and proudly told a colleague that he had twice been kidnapped -- for him it was a badge of honor.

Monterrey, a city of 4 million at the foot of the soaring, rocky Sierra Madre, once seemed immune to the drug violence roiling Mexico. The nation's third-largest city is routinely ranked as one of the safest places to do business in Latin America and is home to some of the nation's most exclusive residential neighborhoods.

But 2007 has marked a startling reversal. In Monterrey and the surrounding state of Nuevo Leon, more than 100 police officers have been arrested on corruption charges and more than 70 killings have been recorded in the first five months of the year. Calderón has sent federal troops in armored personnel carriers to patrol some streets. Almost all of the murders are attributed to drug cartels, which residents say are attracted to Monterrey for the same reasons others flock here: clean streets, nice neighborhoods, good schools.

"We know which kids belong to the narcos," a former educator said on condition of anonymity. "They're the ones who show up with all the bodyguards and the fancy cars."

CONTINUED     1           >

© 2007 The Washington Post Company