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Violence Against Journalists Grows in Mexico's Drug War

Ciudad Juarez, a major border crossing crowded with Burger Kings and rough cantinas, is a gritty industrial city of 1.5 million people across the Rio Grande from El Paso. There have been 1,300 homicides in Juarez this year, including the deaths of more than 60 police officers. Thirty people were slain in Juarez just last week, many in daylight hours, in gangland-style executions. On Friday, 10 people were killed, including a triple homicide. On Saturday, an intensive-care nurse from El Paso was killed with a friend while traveling to Juarez to attend the funeral of her sister, who was also slain last week.

The killings can be spectacularly gruesome. A week ago in Juarez, a bullet-riddled body was found stuffed upside down in a large pot used to cook pork, with the legs sticking out. Recently another body appeared in front of a central police station, tied to a fence. The body was put there as children arrived for school across the street.

Several reporters have fled Juarez. Jorge Luis Aguirre, the owner of a popular Juarez news Web site called La Polaka, told reporters he was threatened by phone while on his way to Rodríguez's funeral. He gathered his family and raced to the United States. A correspondent for the Mexico City-based Reforma newspaper also left the city. A reporter for El Diario crossed the border after being threatened and is seeking political asylum in El Paso after repeated threats.

In Juarez, where a journalist might earn about $200 a week, the newspapers have removed bylines as a security measure. Photographers wear Kevlar vests. Reporters have been ordered by their editors not to arrive at crime scenes before the police, and when they do go, they are told to arrive in groups, along with their competitors. Police routinely tell reporters to stay away entirely from certain crime scenes.

"Right now we have no permanent police reporters," said Alfredo Quijano, editor of El Norte. Because of threats, his two crime reporters have been reassigned to other duties, he said. "We're in a tough spot. We're trapped between the police and the mafia -- and they are making a sandwich of the journalists," he said.

Quijano said he is limiting stories to the facts of a killing -- the who, what, where, when -- and forgoing questions about the why. "We print the basic news. What the government says. So we are not publishing everything we know, which is not good. But we are trying to survive," Quijano said.

Pedro Torres, editor at El Diario, was a close friend of Rodríguez's, who was a godfather to his young son. As Torres was being interviewed, his cellphone rang with the news that a dentist down the street had just been kidnapped from his clinic by a gang of armed men. The information did not faze him.

"No longer do they just threaten us," Torres said. "Now they act."

Torres said he does not know who killed his ace reporter. "Many people assume he was killed by the narcos, but I am not so sure," he said. "He was killed by organized crime, I will say that. In Mexico, organized crime can mean the traffickers, the police, the government or the people in the office buildings."

Some of the last stories Rodríguez wrote include reports about relatives of a top prosecutor in Chihuahua state, where Juarez is located. Rodríguez tied the relatives to the drug trade. The prosecutor is the same Patricia González who vowed to find Rodríguez's killer.

In the dark world of drugs and corruption in Juarez, speculation about Rodríguez's death is rampant. Some of his fellow journalists wonder why he would have been killed by the drug traffickers, since he had covered them for so long. Why now?

"Perhaps it was not even personal," said Jesús Meza, president of the Association of Journalists in Ciudad Juarez. "Maybe it wasn't anything he wrote. He was a prominent journalist. He was known. So he was killed as a symbol. He was killed to create panic and paranoia. This is a technique of terrorism. They want everyone to be afraid, because that will destabilize the society."

The slain reporter's wife, Blanca Martínez, is preparing to leave Juarez with her children, perhaps to seek asylum in the United States. "When he wrote, he was an aggressive man. He wrote strong and hard," she said in an interview a week after her husband's death. She sat quietly in their study, dark circles of grief bruising her eyes, as her children played in the living room.

The two met when they both worked at a local TV station. She does not know who killed her husband. The couple recently spent several months in El Paso after previous threats by cellphone in January. She agreed, "Yes, maybe he was a symbol."

After a while Martínez said, "I just want to get out of this house."

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