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Mexican Drug Wars: Press Freedom Is the Latest Victim
email this pageprint this pageemail usDelia Lloyd - Politics Daily
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September 27, 2010

The Mexican drug wars have just claimed their latest victim. Last Sunday, a well-respected Mexican newspaper openly asked drug cartels for guidance on how it could cover them without causing offense.

In a front-page editorial headlined "What Do You Want From Us?," El Diario de Juárez - the leading daily newspaper in the border city of Ciudad Juarez - addressed to the narco-traffickers directly, asking them what news it should and should not publish "in order to stop paying the price with the lives of our colleagues."

The editorial comes on the heels of the murder of one of the paper's photographers earlier this month, the second time one of its journalists has been killed in two years. Prior to Sunday's editorial, the newspaper had chronicled the drug wars in this tumultuous city despite intimidation, even when other media outlets were unwilling to do so.

But now, El Diario too has bowed to reality: the drug cartels - and not the government - are calling the shots in its city. While the editors have stopped short of out and out censorship of the paper's coverage of drug-related crimes, "We want to know what their view is and that will inform our decision-making," one editor told the British daily The Guardian.

drug cartels, drug warsSince 2000, Mexico has recorded 55 murders of journalists and eight disappearances. According to Reporters Without Borders, Mexico is now the most dangerous country in Latin America for the press. In 2009 alone, 13 journalists were killed, according to the National Human Rights Commission. Self-censorship has increased, and many newspapers in high-violence zones no longer publish bylines on stories involving organized crime.

Juarez has been at the epicenter of much of this drug-related violence. Rival drug cartels have openly battled for control of the city and an estimated 5,000 people have been killed there in just the past two years. According to a report in the El Paso Times, some 230,000 people have fled the violence in Ciudad Juarez. That's roughly one-fifth of the city's population.

But it would be a mistake to read this as a narrow, regional problem. Since 2006, when President Felipe Calderón took office and announced his War on Drugs, some 28,000 people have died in drug-gang-related attacks throughout the country. And while there have been some very high-profile arrests, the overall situation seems to be deteriorating.

This summer was marked by a series of incidents suggesting that criminal gangs are increasingly diversifying their illicit activities and targeting more than just rival drug traffickers. In June, a candidate for governor in the northeastern state of Tamaulipas was murdered on the campaign trail. Fighting drug-related violence in Tamaulipas was his central campaign theme. In August, in the single worst mass killing since Calderón took office, 72 migrants were murdered outside Ciudad Victoria, the capital of Tamaulipas. The message seemed to be that future migrants would need to work for the drug gangs . . . or else.

I lived in Mexico City in 1995 just after the peso crisis, which unleashed a torrent of crime, particularly in Mexico City. Back then, the fear was primarily of kidnapping. You had to take extra care when getting into a taxi in the capital to be sure that it was properly licensed, lest you be whisked off to a bank machine and shaken down for all you were worth.

But that all seems small potatoes compared to what's going on now. I recently caught up with some old friends who live in Ciudad Victoria, one of whom works in state government. Their view is that the illegal part of the country is quite well-ordered, while the legal part is completely out of control.

It's difficult to know quite how to solve this problem in a way that is both effective and lasting. Jorge Castañeda - a prominent Mexican academic and former foreign minister under Calderón's predecessor, Vicente Fox - thinks that there are a range of options available to the Mexican government. The most ambitious involves Mexico beginning to lobby for the decriminalization of marijuana in the United States, where pot accounts for about 60 percent of the $40 billion to $60 billion annual drug trade. Within Latin American countries themselves, there is already growing momentum for drug legalization.

Clearly something has to give, and it's increasingly apparently that this isn't just Mexico's problem. One Mexican journalist living in Texas claimed earlier this week that he's been granted asylum by the United States government to protect him from threats of physical harm. This is something that our government can neither confirm nor deny. But assuming it's true, the U.S. certainly can't do that for the many thousands of journalists working in Mexico.

Earlier this summer, President Obama appeared to openly rebuke Secretary of State Hillary Clinton when she likened Mexico's current climate of instability and insecurity to Colombia's 20 years ago. "Mexico is vast and progressive democracy, with a growing economy, and as a result you cannot compare what is happening in Mexico with what happened in Colombia 20 years ago," the president reportedly said.

I've got news for you, Mr. President. You may not want to say it out loud, but Mexico has become Colombia.

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