In Mexico's Nuevo Laredo, drug cartels dictate media coverage

Drawing on firepower, savage intimidation, and cash, drug cartels have come to control key parts of the U.S.-Mexico border, as Mexican troops wage a multi-front war with the private armies of rival drug lords.
By William Booth
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 2, 2010

NUEVO LAREDO, MEXICO -- Two weeks ago, Mexican soldiers clashed here with drug cartel gangsters in running gun battles that lasted five hours. The outlaws hijacked vehicles, including a bus, for use as barricades and battering rams. Terrified residents scrambled for safety. At least a dozen people were killed, including bystanders. Children were wounded in the crossfire.

Not a single word about it appeared in the local news media.

Nuevo Laredo has three television news channels, four daily newspapers and at least five radio stations that broadcast news, but every outlet ignored the biggest story of the year. Nuevo Laredo is not an isolated village but the busiest city along the U.S.-Mexico border, a vital U.S. trade partner with a population of 360,000, professional sports teams, universities and an international airport.

Fearing for their lives and the safety of their families, journalists are adhering to a near-complete news blackout, under strict orders of drug smuggling organizations and their enforcers, who dictate -- via daily telephone calls, e-mails and news releases -- what can and cannot be printed or aired.

"We are under their complete control," said a veteran reporter, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. Editors and managers of news organizations who agreed to speak with The Washington Post insisted that the interviews take place away from their offices, at back tables in empty bars. "The cartels have eyes and ears inside our company," one editor said.

On Friday night, assailants tossed a grenade at the front door of the Televisa affiliate in Nuevo Laredo. The blast shattered windows but caused no injuries. The television station did not report on the attack, and neither did its competitors.

In the 400-mile arc along the South Texas border, millions of Mexicans live without news of the spectacular violence swirling around them.

"The chaos, the disintegration we are seeing in the Mexican media as the drug war continues is without precedent," said Rosental Alves, director of the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas at the University of Texas at Austin.

Information war

The news blackout extends to government officials. In Nuevo Laredo, the mayor mysteriously disappears for days and refuses to discuss drug violence. The military general who presides over the soldiers patrolling the city does not hold news conferences, issue statements or answer questions from the media. Neither do local representatives of the federal police and prosecutors.

"Intimidation and coercion have been taken to an extreme level. This drug war is also a war of information. The cartels are now telling reporters what they can and cannot print, and the drug organizations themselves are the content providers," said Carlos Lauria, the Latin America director of the Committee to Protect Journalists. "The Mexican government cannot lose this fight over information. It is at the very center of democracy."

Lauria said Mexico is one of the most dangerous countries for a reporter to work in. More than 30 journalists have been killed or have disappeared since President Felipe Calderón launched his U.S.-backed offensive against organized crime in December 2006. More than 25,000 Mexicans have died.

Last Monday, four journalists were kidnapped after they covered a protest at a penitentiary where the warden allegedly armed inmates and allowed them to leave the prison at night to carry out assassinations, including a massacre last month of 17 young people attending a party in a nearby town.

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