By William Booth
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, January 8, 2009
MEXICO CITY, Jan. 7 -- When news director Francisco Cobo heard the explosion outside his television studio, as his two on-air anchors were presenting the evening news, he thought it might be a story. Then, Cobo said, he realized: We are the story.
The Televisa network news offices in the northern city of Monterrey were attacked Tuesday night in a commando-style raid by hooded gunmen who fired on the front doors of the building and then lobbed a hand grenade into the parking lot near a reporter and her cameraman. No one was hurt in the attack, which occurred at 8:40 p.m. in the prosperous manufacturing metropolis, which many executives consider one of the safer cities in Mexico.
The assailants drove a red Pontiac with Texas plates. They left a threatening message, a now-common tactic used by the heavily armed enforcers for drug-trafficking cartels and organized crime. The message read: "Stop reporting only about us, also report about the narco-officials. This is a warning."
The car, thought to be stolen, was later found abandoned with a .40-caliber handgun and a ski mask inside.
"We've had death threats before, by phone," Cobo said. "But we haven't had any threats for several months. And we haven't aired any big news about the narcos, just some smaller stories about some arrests."
As the station was under attack, the two news anchors asked the police for help while on the air.
This is the latest in a series of attacks on journalists in Mexico, where drug cartels have been battling one another and the police in a vicious struggle for control of billion-dollar smuggling routes to the U.S. drug market.
"It is easy and cheap to commit such attacks," said Darío Ramírez, a director of Article 19, an organization based in Mexico that defends freedom of expression and reports that 28 journalists have been killed and eight have disappeared in the country since 2000. "What we are saying is that the government, in its silence, has demonstrated a complete lack of responsibility."
In November, a veteran police reporter for El Diario newspaper in Ciudad Juarez, on the U.S. border, was gunned down in his driveway in front of his young daughter. The killing has not been solved. Five journalists were killed last year in Mexico, and although the deaths are sensational, many journalists reporting on the ongoing drug war say they are routinely harassed and threatened not only by criminals but also by law enforcement officers.
"The attack in Monterrey is another example of how bad the situation has become in Mexico, which we consider the most dangerous place to be a reporter in the hemisphere and one of the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists," said Carlos Lauría, the Americas program coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists. "This is clearly affecting not just journalists, but democracy in Mexico. It is not only the level of violence, but the type of violence, and the impunity of the attacks. The drug cartels seek to challenge the basic human right to free expression."
Howard Campbell, an expert on drug trafficking and a professor at the University of Texas at El Paso, said, "I believe the narcos are no longer just interested in killing their enemies and the cops. What they want is to control whole regions of the country. They want to display power and to claim that they are the legitimate rulers. It is a kind of defiance. They are saying that no one has the power, or the ability, or the right, to deny them."
Said Cobo: "We will, of course, take all the precautions. But we will continue to practice our profession in a country where every day it is more dangerous to be a journalist."