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A man hangs photos of slain journalists during a protest in Mexico City in May 2007. More than 30 have been killed or disappeared in Mexico since the year 2000. (AP photo)

A reporter describes how drug violence has taken a heavy toll on journalism in Mexico

COMMENTARY | April 09, 2009

Writes Alfredo Corchado: "Media members self-censor themselves to survive. Many reporters, especially along the U.S.-Mexico border, are now limited to reporting on body counts. Investigations are rare. Even reporters in Mexico City now withhold bylines on ‘sensitive stories' for fear of reprisal from members of organized crime."

By Alfredo Corchado

CAMBRIDGE, MA The irony couldn’t be more bittersweet.

Nine years ago, Mexicans ushered the first opposition government in 71 years, a move that was supposed to solidify democracy.

Democracy did come, as proclaimed by Vicente Fox, a former Coca Cola marketing genius-turned president. 

I remember the night of that historic election, as tens of thousands of people danced and partied outside the building where President-elect Fox talked effusively of the challenges ahead. Behind closed doors, Fox told me he believed he had enough political capital to convince the Mexican Congress to pass the necessary legislation to strengthen the rule of law and solidify its weak institutions.

Today those words are a hollow echo as drug violence explodes in Mexico. One the biggest victims: journalism, the cornerstone of any democracy. Since that celebratory night, more than 30 journalists have either been killed or disappeared in this so-called decade of Mexican democracy.

The majority of those murdered have been victims either because of their involvement with criminals or because of their hard-hitting reporting on what some experts call the most powerful organized criminal organizations in the Western Hemisphere. Certainly, the terror they’ve unleashed across Mexico instills fear and sends a chilling message to anyone who gets in their way. More than 10,100 people have been killed since Fox’s successor, Felipe Calderon, took office in Dec. 2006.  

What’s happened to the Mexican press is not unlike the experiences of other countries, including Russia, where transition from either authoritarian, or semi-authoritarian rule leaves a power vacuum..

For decades, the Mexican press was largely controlled by the powerful Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, through intimidation or graft. The PRI had a way of crushing, or, most often, co-opting opposition, everyone from campesinos to politicians, business leaders to drug kingpins, civil society to journalists. The PRI   thrived on peaceful accommodation.

Reporters would routinely receive their bi-monthly, or monthly “chayote,” or “stipend,” courtesy of local, state, or federal government officials. The payment was a form of “appreciation” for reporting what the powerful wanted and allowed, or for looking the other way.

No reporter or editor I know in Mexico today clamors for those days. Many cherish freedom of the press today, especially the freedom of information act passed during the Fox administration which allows them rare access to government documents.

But for many, democracy has been messy and painful. Said one reporter in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, “We didn’t like being controlled, but we hate even more being killed. No one was trying to kill us then, as much as they were trying to bribe us.”

Indeed, with Fox’s victory, the long existing peaceful accommodation between government and shady characters came to a halt. Shortly after Fox took office, drug traffickers filled the power vacuum. In some communities, with the old government middlemen gone, drug kingpins, touting the latest weapons from grenade launchers to 50-caliber machine guns, strategically took over entire cities: local governments, police departments and the media.

In Nuevo Laredo, one radio reporter, Guadalupe Escamilla, became the spokeswoman of a paramilitary group known as the Zetas. Part of her reporter’s job was to call editors, news directors and essentially direct the coverage. The job carried deadly risks. When the reporter allegedly asked for a pay raise, a lone gunman responded by pumping more than 15 bullets into her.

Getting a straight answer about why Escamilla, or for that matter, dozens of her colleagues have died, is no easy feat. Impunity in Mexico thrives. More than 90 percent of all crimes go unsolved and unpunished.

The result? Media members self-censor themselves to survive. Many reporters, especially along the U.S.-Mexico border, are now limited to reporting on body counts. Investigations are rare. Even reporters in Mexico City now withhold bylines on "sensitive stories” for fear of reprisal from members of organized crime.

Some editors now recruit reporters from Colombia, hoping that their past experience will provide valuable expertise in Mexico.

The crisis in Mexican journalism couldn’t have come at a worst time, especially for residents along the border where much of the latest violence is concentrated.

While Mexicans increasingly self-censor themselves, their U.S. colleagues scale back for economic reasons. Gone are the days when U.S. newspapers, especially those in the Southwest, boasted of border bureaus. My newspaper, The Dallas Morning News, once had bureaus in Monterrey, El Paso and San Antonio. Plus, we had the biggest staff of any U.S. newspaper in Mexico, 13. We’re now down to one, me.

Few, if any regional, or national media companies with the exception of say The Los Angeles Times in San Diego-Tijuana and BELO Television in El Paso-Juarez, have offices in border cities. Local U.S. reporters rarely venture into Mexican border cities that often times appear like war zones,

Some newspapers and TV stations cite concern for the safety of their own reporters as reasons why they prefer to cover the stories with the help of Mexican stringers, or by telephone.

The danger to American reporters cannot be dismissed. In the drug violence in Mexico, Americans are not always immune. I remember a couple of years ago following threats to my own life, I sat with a U.S. federal investigator who put things in perspective for me.

On the question of whether or not I was safe to continue covering the story in Mexico, the agent said, “You’re right that drug traffickers wouldn’t want to hurt an American journalist, Doing so would bring too much heat and would threaten their multi-billion dollar industry. But you have a problem: you don’t look American.” 

Today, the border is mostly covered by “parachute” journalists who fly in-and-out and are often times limited by time and resources. 

Therefore it’s not surprising that in some border communities, Norteno musical groups in outdoor cafes, or mercados play for audiences hungry for knowledge, hoping they’ll pick up a few lines about who and what is terrorizing their communities and why. The scenes are reminiscent of the choir news when locals would gather around at a town square to learn the latest happenings, or news.

Problem is, many such musicians are also in the line of fire by criminals who want to control the message belted out in a corrido, to shape the news and rise of drug cartels whose powerful reach touches far too many. 

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