Americans Covering Mexico Drug Trade Face Assassination Threat

By Manuel Roig-Franzia
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, July 14, 2007

MEXICO CITY, July 13 -- The San Antonio Express-News, a 230,000-circulation daily, this week withdrew its U.S.-Mexico border reporter after learning of what appears to be an unprecedented plan to assassinate American journalists who frequently write about drug cartels in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico.

Sources have told several Texas newspapers that hit men from Los Zetas, a group of former Mexican military officers who operate as the Gulf cartel's assassins, may have been hired to cross into the United States and execute American reporters. Word of the threat shattered the widely held perception here that foreign journalists are somehow shielded from violent retribution in a nation that is now second only to Iraq in deaths of journalists.

"We are not immune," wrote Eloy Aguilar and Dolly Mascareñas in a statement sent Friday to fellow members of the Foreign Correspondents Association in Mexico. "We have a very confused and violent situation in Mexico, with the government fighting drug cartels on one side and suspected guerrilla groups on the other. . . . An incident involving a U.S. or other foreign journalist could be used by all groups to create more confusion."

More than 30 journalists have been killed in Mexico in the past six years, but only one -- freelancer and activist Brad Will, who was shot to death during teacher protests last year in Oaxaca -- was American. Most of the killings are believed to be related to coverage of an ongoing war between drug cartels. Last year, drug gangs were suspected of firing automatic weapons and throwing a grenade into the newsroom of Nuevo Laredo's El Mañana newspaper, seriously injuring one reporter.

Express-News Editor Robert Rivard, a former Central America bureau chief for Newsweek magazine, said in an interview Friday that steps have been taken to conceal the location of his former border correspondent, Mariano Castillo.

Castillo wrote nearly 100 stories about cartels, crisscrossing the border from the newspaper's bureau in Laredo, Tex., for the past 4 1/2 years as drug violence escalated. His first piece about cartels, in late 2003, was headlined "Mexico town erupts into a battle zone; Grenades, machine guns roar south of the border." In his last front-page article, which ran in May, Castillo exposed the existence of a "shadowy and violent group that calls itself the 'Gente Nueva,' or New People -- and authorities don't want to talk about it."

For now the paper's border bureau, which is a 2 1/2-hour drive from San Antonio, sits vacant. Rivard is grappling with a challenge faced every day by his counterparts south of border -- how to cover a region where his reporters are targets.

"It's a dilemma," Rivard said. "On the one side, no story is worth a reporter's life; on the other side, you don't want to back down from telling readers about an important story."

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