Journalists Under Fire

Mexico is one of the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists. In the last several years, 86 have been murdered by the drug cartels for covering their activities; that is, for doing their job. Among weapons used were knives, rifles, machine guns, grenades and fire. The choice is not the victim’s.

The journalist most recently killed was Miroslava Breach Velducea, a correspondent for La Journada newspaper in Chihuahua. She was shot eight times by a gunman as she was about to leave her home with one of her three children. The child was not shot. Did the hit man have his scruples or maybe just misfired? Breach was the third journalist to be killed in March.

The cartels do not spare newswomen. On the contrary, they may be a preferred target. As Diana Washington Valdez points out in her book “The Killing Fields, Harvest of Women,” the drug masters have a habit of torturing and mutilating the women they seize, a prized addendum to their violence.

One newswoman escaped – barely. Anabel Hernandez, author of “Narcoland,” an account of government and cartel collusion, was investigating corruption in Mexico City when she learned some high-ranking official had put a hit on her. “It’s been hell ever since.” She had to live with 24- hour-a-day bodyguards. “It was draining emotionally, psychologically, professionally. Who wants to sit down to talk with a journalist and give out secret information when there’s a bodyguard behind?”

She wasn’t safe enough. When she and her children were luckily absent, a group of armed men broke into her house in search of her. That did it. She reluctantly fled to the relative safety of the U.S.

Under these circumstances, Mexican reporting on drug crime is fragmentary, a story half told, if that. The recent killings caused Oscar Cantu Murguia to shut down Norte newspaper in Juarez, once called the murder capital of the world and perhaps on the way to recovering its reputation. He explains he’s not willing to risk the lives of his journalists to continue publishing.

To stay in business, you’ve got to give way to the cartels, says Hildebrando Deandar Ayala, editor-in- chief of El Manana newspaper in Reynosa. He tells the Washington Post’s Dana Priest: “Auto censura – self-censorship – that’s our shield.”

For a while, journalists discovered social media and could report the news undetected by their tormentors. In time the cartels caught on, and the decapitated body of a female blogger was left on the street in Nuevo Laredo with a warning sign Z – meaning the Zetas cartel. The Zetas then put Facebook and Twitter to their own use. A dapper media director, who tries to be friendly, tells journalists what stories to run or not to run, even involving birthdays or other cartel occasions. He provides photos and videos. “It’s a common conversation every day,” says a reporter.

If Mexican coverage of the cartels is understandably lacking, U.S. reporting is close to non-existent. Mexican journalists complain that terrorism in the Middle East is exhaustively covered but ignored south of the border. Beheadings are just as common in Mexico without leading to outrage and war.

Why the discrepancy? Mexico is often casually dismissed as if Americans have nothing to do with its ordeal. Who, pray tell, buy the drugs that finance the cartels?  Beyond that, there’s the money – many billions of drug dollars that circulate throughout the U.S. Who benefits, and do they want that known? The media, as tame in its own way as the Mexican, get the picture. Silence is golden.

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