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.
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."