Mexico: Where a story becomes deadly

Gang control over Mexico's media is at an all-time high, with many local reporters being bribed, coerced or killed.

    Mexico: Where a story becomes deadly
    According to Reporters Without Borders, 81 journalists were killed from 2000 to 2014 in Mexico [Alejandro S. Chavez/Al Jazeera]

    Mexico City, Mexico - Their deaths come quickly, or so it seems.

    There often isn't even a body left behind for loved ones to mourn over.

    Their cases remain unsolved, the culprits free and their motives unclear. Many wonder aloud whether the Mexican authorities are really doing all that they can to investigate these crimes against journalists.

    According to Reporters without Borders, 81 journalists have been killed in Mexico between January 2000 and September 2014. More than half of those cases remain unresolved. It is one of the most dangerous countries in which to practise the profession, with the states of Michoacan, Veracruz, Tamaulipas and Guerrero proving particularly treacherous.

    Michoacan: Journalists for sale

    "The situation in Michoacan is very simple: [it's about] self-censorship," explains Francisco Castellanos, a reporter with more than 45 years of experience.

    In that state, four hours outside of Mexico City, local drug cartels have turned to public relations strategists to control the press.

    When we arrived at the crime scene there were seven dismembered bodies with a letter Z painted on the forehead and a message that said: 'Greetings to the Familia Michoacana, regards Los Zetas.'

    Francisco Castellanos, reporter

    "When Los Zetas [the most notorious organised crime syndicate in Mexico] fought with the Familia Michoacana, the relationship with the media turned bloody," says Castellanos.

    "Each of them wanted to get out their own version [of the spat]... The federal police called us ... and said there are seven dead... When we arrived at the crime scene there were seven dismembered bodies with a letter Z painted on the forehead and a message that said: 'Greetings to the Familia Michoacana, regards Los Zetas.'"

    "Sometimes, the opposite happened," says Castellanos. "... When the Familia Michoacana caught Los Zetas ... there were corpses with the initials FM [for the Familia Michoacana] on their backs and a message saying: 'Welcome to Michoacan, Zetas motherf***ers.'"

    Local journalists made a decision to band together to cover the violence within the region. But their initiative had little effect. In 2010, around 35 journalists from Michoacan were summoned by the Caballeros Templarios, a Familia Michoacana splinter group, which attempted to bribe them in exchange for more favourable coverage.

    Some journalists negotiated a sum in return for distorting facts in their stories while others were invited to become spokespeople for the criminal group. To those who accepted, periodic payments of anything from $1,000 to $15,000 were made, say several journalists who attended the meeting but have asked to remain anonymous.

    In September 2014, Eliseo Caballero the correspondent for Televisa, the largest television network in the country, and Jose Luis Diaz, the owner of the news agency Esquema, were shown in a video meeting Servando Gomez "La Tuta", the former leader of the Caballeros Templarios. Both men were seen advising Gomez on building a greater presence in the media in return for money.

    On what it is that most troubles the narcotics kingpins about their portrayal in the press, Castellanos explains: "That you write which places they have control over, even though they claim [responsibility for] the executions ... themselves; that you write 'organised crime', beheaded, that you call them gang men.

    [Alejandro S. Chavez/Al Jazeera]

    "They want [it] to be mentioned that the crimes are among civilians and not hit men," he adds. "They want you to publish that they respect the army and that everything in the state is under control, they want you to help convince businessmen to invest in the region, but they don't say that they are the main beneficiaries of those investments."

    Ramon Angeles Zalpa, a correspondent for the newspaper Cambio, disappeared in Michoacan shortly after publishing articles in 2010 that documented the expropriation of fertile lands by drug traffickers. So far, his body has not been found.

    Castellanos says he isn't afraid of death. "Who will keep believing the disappeared are still alive?" he asks, resignedly. "For me they are already dead, I know it's sad, but it is better that way."

    Veracruz: Fleeing Los Zetas

    "They were the longest 10 seconds of my life," says reporter Noe Zavaleta as he recalls an assignment to a narcotics ranch in the northeastern state of Veracruz.

    He has been covering the state for 14 years, but little could prepare him for coming face to face with the men of Los Zetas.

    It is necessary to write, someone has to do it, there will always be someone with things to say and media willing to transmit it.

    Noe Zavaleta, reporter

    "I went to the narco-ranch of Los Zetas, located in the Acultzingo municipality, in the Maltrata hilltops," he remembers. "We [me and the photographer] were all the time watched ... by [men working for the narcotics dealers], even inside the municipal headquarters. As we entered [the narcotics ranch] ... a watchman came out with coarse language [and tried] to kick us out. We avoided running away in order not to demonstrate fear."

    Since 2010, 11 reporters have been killed and another four remain missing in Veracruz. Of the 11 confirmed dead, Zavaleta met frequently with four of them.

    But does the constant threat of death make him think twice about his writing?

    "It is necessary to write, someone has to do it, there will always be someone with things to say and media willing to transmit it," says Zavaleta.

    Some of his colleagues have received direct threats. "[They've had] phone calls from 'spokesmen' of the organised crime [gangs] who don't want some information or some pictures to be published; or on the contrary, because they want to see a confrontation, execution or some fact featured on the newspaper's cover. Threats also from politicians, saying they will give them a bashing if they don't stop 'pissing them off' with such or such an issue."

    "To write about an imprisoned or dead drug dealer, [to write] about a fugitive at large, without ministerial investigation means signing a death sentence," Zavaleta continues.

    In Mexico, the line between the government and the drug cartels is sometimes thin. When a reporter investigates a government official and finds complicity with organised crime, it's better to keep silent, lest they make an enemy of both.

    Tamaulipas: A zone of silence

    The year 2010 was the deadliest for the press in Mexico. That was a result of what journalist Alfredo Corchado revealed to be a campaign of intimidation waged by the cartels against reporters who covered the murders being committed in the border region between Tamaulipas in Mexico and Texas in the US.

    "In the past 14 days, at least eight Mexican journalists have been abducted in the Reynosa area, which is across the border from McAllen. One died after a severe beating, according to reports that could not be independently verified. Two were released by their captors. The rest are missing," he wrote in his column in the Dallas Morning News on March 8, 2010. 

    The local media refused to report on the murders then and continues to ignore any act of violence unless it is first reported by the national or international press.

    Balbina Flores, a correspondent for Reporters Without Borders, says journalists have gone from self-censorship to absolute silence. She even knows cases where corrupt reporters, including those who have been infiltrated, bribed and coerced, have handed over their peers to criminal groups.

    Flores says she has also been threatened. In March 2014, she received a telephone warning from a hit man who said he'd been paid to kill her. The message, she says, was: "I am the commander Omar Trevino. I'm nearby, in the state of Mexico. I came from Michoacan and I bring a message. I was paid to hurt you, I know who you are, where and how you work, I've been following you for 15 days."

    Remnants of the dirty war

    In March 2010, at a closed-door meeting of journalists in Mexico City, Jorge Luis Sierra, an investigative reporter and security analyst, said that attacks against journalists were a continuation of tactics employed by the government and rebel groups during the Guerra Sucia or the dirty war of the 1960s and 1970s.

    During the meeting, many of those in attendance agreed that media companies take no responsibility for the safety of their reporters and demanded more involvement from media owners. What is a journalist to do when the drug cartels set the editorial line, they wondered.

    Some local newspapers responded with specific measures: No reporter would work alone on a drug-related story, the language used in reference to armed groups would be carefully selected, and agencies, newspapers and television would avoid using the term hit man, instead labelling them individuals or organisations.

    But these measures, originally intended to safeguard against the cartels, have led some editors to speculate that organised crime syndicates control the newsrooms, effectively acting as their editorial directors.

    Even writing without a byline doesn't serve as a safety net, one reporter who asked not to be named, says, explaining: "Organised crime [syndicates] know who the correspondents are."

    The result is that, in Mexico, freedom of expression, the right to inform and be informed and the rule of law, can appear illusory, existing only in presidential speeches and at political events. What feels more certain is that the first and most difficult task of being a journalist here is simply to stay alive.

    Follow Alejandro Saldivar Chavez on Twitter: @alsaldivar

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera


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