Violence Against Journalists Grows in Mexico's Drug War

By William Booth
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, November 25, 2008

CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mexico -- Armando Rodríguez, at El Diario newspaper, was the top crime reporter in the deadliest city in Mexico. He had seen it all. But this was different. This was personal. Earlier this month, someone had hung the decapitated body of a local drug thug from a bridge on the airport road. Later the head appeared downtown at the Plaza of Journalists, wrapped in a plastic bag, carefully placed at the foot of a statue of a newsboy hawking papers.

Arturo Chacón, a reporter at El Norte, a competing daily in this tough border city, said the message was unmistakable: Journalists beware. "We knew it was bad, but we didn't know how bad," he said. "A week later I heard the shots, and then I heard they got Armando."

Rodríguez, 40, was killed Nov. 13 in front of his home by a single gunman. He was shot 10 times while warming up his car, directly in front of his 8-year-old daughter, as he was about to drive her to school in the morning. The slaying highlighted the growing danger to Mexican journalists reporting on the drug war, which has claimed more than 4,500 lives since President Felipe Calderón unleashed the army and police against the cartels and corrupt officials in early 2007. Most journalists continue to do their jobs but concede they are limiting their coverage of the carnage.

The attacks against journalists, which run from threats hissed on their cellphones to grenades lobbed into their newsrooms, form a new front in the larger war the drug cartels are waging against Mexico's social and government institutions. The resulting damage is undermining Mexican civil society as the rich, powerful cartels compete for control of smuggling routes into the United States, which is consuming all the cocaine, methamphetamine and marijuana the cartels can deliver.

Mexican journalists say the threats may serve to muzzle their investigations and stop them from naming names. They also suggest that the cartels are attacking them to demonstrate their own power. For years, Mexican journalists often served as stenographers to the government. Now an increasingly independent press is being weakened by the drug war, just when society may need it most.

Since 2000, 28 journalists have been slain and eight others have disappeared and are assumed dead, according to Ricardo González of the group Article 19, which works to protect freedom of expression in Mexico, now the most dangerous country in Latin America in which to be a journalist. González said, "Journalists are now included among the casualties of this war."

Five reporters have been killed this year. "The border is now a terrifying place to be a journalist, and Juarez is ground zero," said Joel Simon, executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists.

The extreme violence is fueled by the crackdown on traffickers by the Calderón administration and by a power struggle between two competing cartels, one based in Juarez, the other in Culiacan, bitter enemies engaged in a mafia bloodbath. The United States has pledged $400 million to help Calderón fight the cartels.

A week ago, two grenades exploded outside the offices of El Debate newspaper in Culiacan. No one was injured. "I don't know if they were narcos or if this was an act of revenge or just some jokers. But we think it was a message, a message for all media and the government," said Lucía Mimiaga, editorial director at El Debate. Several newspapers have been attacked by men spraying bullets from machine guns in the past two years.

Editors at many newspapers and television stations now say they no longer deeply investigate the cartels or attempt to plot the intersecting lines of corruption and cash between the drug traffickers and their partners in government, business and law enforcement. News directors insist that organized crime in Mexico now employs all the tools of terrorism -- violence, threats, sophisticated use of media -- to create an atmosphere of fear and impunity.

"I am the first to recognize that this situation is intolerable," Chihuahua state Attorney General Patricia González said in a statement promising to find Rodríguez's killer. Yet the police have arrested no suspects, and none of the journalists interviewed here expect the case to be solved. Rodríguez was not robbed. His editor calls the killing "an assassination."

Reporters along the border say they are routinely threatened in phone calls, e-mails and on Internet comment boards. Many times, the journalists say, they know who is calling but dare not report the warnings to authorities for fear their complaints will be passed to cartel enforcers, who include former and current military and police officers. Many say their families beg them to find other work, or cover sports, business or society news.

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