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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.

In its newspaper Wednesday, the Milenio news organization reported that its abducted cameraman contacted his editor Monday evening and said the lives of the kidnapped journalists depended on the television station broadcasting raw video posted on a Web site called Blog del Narco, which showed masked gunmen interrogating local police officers. The national news network broadcast the three unedited videos.

Milenio said the kidnappers "were unhappy with our coverage" about the prison. The federal police chief said Saturday that the journalists were snatched under orders of Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán, leader of the Sinaloa cartel. The four have been released.

After the gun battles two weeks ago, the U.S. Consulate in Nuevo Laredo warned Americans in the city to remain indoors. Authorities at the Interior Ministry in faraway Mexico City later issued a statement saying 12 people were killed: nine suspects, two civilians and one soldier. Twenty-one people, including three children, were wounded, authorities said.

But journalists in Nuevo Laredo who went to the scene of the street battles said that 20 or 30, possibly more, people might have been killed but that they had no way to check. The ordinary work of reporters in conflict zones -- going to the hospital and morgue, attending funerals, talking with widows -- is impossible in Nuevo Laredo. Witnesses told reporters that Mexican soldiers shot gang members lying wounded on the ground, but this could not be confirmed.

"We live in a world of rumors now," said Emilio Girón Fernández Jáuregui, president of the Nuevo Laredo Chamber of Commerce. His wife and daughter sort through Facebook and Twitter feeds for information about which routes are safe and where gunfire is occurring, but Fernández said many of the postings are pranks, or worse, "designed to increase the fear, the panic."

Insiders in the media

After ignoring the story about the gun battles, the newspaper La Tarde printed gruesome photographs on its front page of four bodies left at the city's bull ring July 25. Alongside the corpses were their executed pets, a small brown dog draped on one man's bloody chest, a white cat in the hand of another.

Rambling placards, called "narco-messages," left with the bodies tied one of the dead to a grenade attack that killed one and injured more than a dozen at a soccer field.

Journalists in Nuevo Laredo and other cities under siege say crime reporters typically receive word from colleagues and intermediaries, who they suspect are employed by the cartels, about what is safe to publish and what is not. Until recently, Nuevo Laredo and surrounding cities were relatively calm compared with other parts of Mexico, but war has broken out here between the Gulf cartel and its former enforcers, the Zetas, as they vie for the billion-dollar smuggling routes into the United States, the world's largest consumer of illegal drugs.

"They are very vicious, these Zetas, and there are times when there's an official Zeta press release, an e-mail or a sheet of paper, that they want published," said Diana Fuentes, editor of the Laredo Morning Times in Texas, whose reporters work in Mexico. "The criminal organizations have their representatives in the press."

In the absence of professional news gathering, citizens post on Twitter and Facebook, but these efforts have quickly become corrupted, as users spread rumors and lies, along with solid information. "Please confirm!" begs a tweeter about news of a gunfight that turned out to be the grenade attack at the Televisa station. "Is it safe or not?!?!"

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