Mexico's War On Journalists


Jose* orders coffee and sits down in a corner of the café at the famous intersection "information corner", where several major newspapers have offices in Mexico City. He feels safe here, and smiles when he says that he can go out on the street without feeling scared.

In his hometown Mazatlán, in the state of Sinaloa, Jose felt like he became a prisoner. As the Editor in Chief of a daily newspaper, he was constantly afraid of being attacked.

Sinaloa is one of the most dangerous states to be a journalist. The two largest drug cartels — the Sinaloa cartel and Los Zetas — are fighting a dirty war in the state. According to the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression, Frank La Rue, Mexico has over the last decade been the most dangerous country in Latin America for practising journalism.

At a recent visit to the country La Rue expressed concern over the situation. Last year was the bloodiest year so far with 27 journalists killed, four disappeared and 24 armed attacks on media establishments, according to fresh data from the Mexican freedom of speech organisation, Article 19.

Attacks on newsrooms have become increasingly common and today the majority have security guards and surveillance cameras. Jose’s editorial office had a security guard around the clock. But then there were the phone calls, including one caller who said if Jose did not publish the cartel’s "narco-banners", there would be an explosion at his office.

Narco-banners are announcements from the drug cartels written on a piece of fabric and usually hung in a public place like a bridge, so that passersby can easily read the message.

The voice on the end of the line said he was from Los Zetas. Jose knew he could be attacked at any time. He called his bosses who urged him to do as the cartel wanted and they published a small picture of the message that Los Zetas wanted to convey.

"We are prisoners and they are in power. There is no one to protect us so we have no choice", Jose told New Matilda.

While Los Zetas have expanded into the Sinaloa cartel’s territory, the dirty war between them has shattered thousands of innocent lives. Los Zetas claim that President Felipe Calderón protects the Sinaloa cartel, and they want to be equal in the fight for power.

Jose was offered a bodyguard, but he declined. He did not want to draw more attention to himself or to show that he was afraid.

"Reality in Sinaloa is that the police are working with one of the cartels, so why would I want them to know how I live?" he said.

Every night Jose went through his house thinking of different escape routes if someone broke into his home. He started having nightmares and waking up at night and eventually moved to a different location.

Early in the morning on 3 November 2010, two vans of masked men armed with AK47s arrived at the newsroom. The gunmen rampaged through the offices before quickly driving off again. The day before, Jose had parked his car in front of the newspaper’s offices, but was working in another location.

"Luckily nobody was injured, but I was really scared," Jose said. His offices weren’t so lucky: the masked men damaged the building’s facade and smashed all its windows. They also destroyed his car.

As Editor in Chief, Jose was responsible for answering the endless questions from police, military and government agencies. After this attack Jose and a photographer decided to leave the city.

"I had to get out of there, it was too dangerous for me to stay", says Jose. He is uncertain how long he will have to remain in hiding.

Journalists have been murdered in 13 of the country’s 31 states, not just Sinaloa.

According to Daniela Pastrana, Vice President of the National Journalist Association "Periodistas de a Pie", journalists often have no other choice than to report news from official wires and channels, which is often false. Further, the state police in Mexico are often corrupt. Many get their salaries from the drug cartels.

"We should remember that people who work for the state commit half of the attacks against journalists", says Pastrana. She believes that Mexico turns a blind eye to aggression against the media, and that the government does nothing to punish those guilty of crimes.

"Its clear that under the Calderón government we have seen a new type of aggression emerge towards the media, something that is not seen anywhere else in the world. Like attacks on female journalists or the brutal killing of bloggers."

Oscar, who works at one of the nation’s largest newspapers based in Mexico City, says that he was subjected to harassment when he reported incidents in other cities.

"When I was in the city of Monterrey last autumn to report on the mortar attack on Casino Royale in which more than 50 people died, I received strange phone calls in the middle of the night. When I answered all I heard was someone breathing."

Oscar hung up, but the phone kept ringing several times before it stopped completely. His colleagues had received similar phone calls.

"I felt it was directed against us and I was scared. It could have been the police, or any drug cartel. At the same time, there were rumours that those who killed belonged to a drug cartel, and that the police tried to quiet down the incident," he told NM.

"A state that cannot keep its citizens safe is essentially a failed state", says Oscar.

Journalists who feel threatened, isolated and without protection will self-censor as a consequence. It’s a constant balancing act to inform the public without irritating anyone powerful. Illegal forces that have become the de facto law — both drug cartels and corrupt police are forcing journalists into silence. This has created an information vacuum in Mexico.

If most journalists report only when they have an official version, afraid of asking questions about drug trafficking, organised crime or the police, then there little journalism left, says Jose.

"We do not have any freedom of speech in Mexico when it comes to drug related topics", he says.

Pastrana urges the government to stop attacks on freedom of speech immediately, otherwise they will see the areas of forced silence and censorship grow until they cover the whole country.

"It would mean the death of democracy in Mexico."

*Names have been changed.

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