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Violence in Mexico Takes Rising Toll on Press
email this pageprint this pageemail usJosé de Córdoba & Nicholas Casey - WSJ.com
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September 16, 2010



Mexico City - When unknown assailants recently lobbed grenades at the offices of Mexico's powerful broadcaster Televisa in Monterrey and Matamoros, the blasts were seen as a message to the country's media: Beware covering the drug war.

In the past five years, 56 journalists have been killed in Mexico, most by drug gangs, according to the Inter-American Press Association, which covers some 1,300 publishers.

Just this year, 12 journalists have been killed and another eight have disappeared.

The grenade attacks have focused attention on a particularly dangerous summer for the media in Mexico. In July, the owner of a daily paper in the central state of Michoacán was found dead in his truck with bullet wounds. A few days later, a radio reporter from the border in the state of Nuevo León was found shot after being abducted. No arrests have been made in either case.

In late July, four journalists were kidnapped in the city of Gómez Palacio, a crime authorities allege was orchestrated by the powerful Sinaloa Cartel. Two were released and two freed by police, who say they later captured several captors.

"Mexico is the most dangerous country in the Americas for journalists right now," says Ricardo Trotti, the IAPA's director for freedom of the press. In global terms, Mexico compares with countries that are at war or experiencing civil conflict, such as Iraq, Afghanistan and the Philippines, Mr. Trotti says.

In parts of Mexico, local media have largely stopped reporting on drug violence. In a newscast from the safety of Mexico City last Friday, Televisa anchor Carlos Loret de Mola recounted events from two days earlier in the Gulf Coast city of Tampico. On that day, he said, police and drug gangs engaged in shootouts on the city's main boulevard, a top local business leader was kidnapped, and the governor-elect canceled a trip to the city due to safety fears.

"No media or reporter [in Tampico] wrote about any of this," said Mr. Loret de Mola, who cited social-networking sites for the information. The reason, he said: Local reporters are accustomed to getting phone calls every day from drug gangs "telling them how to proceed." If they don't follow orders, then they "pay with their lives or that of their families," he said.

Last week, the United Nations sent a mission to Mexico to examine threats to freedom of the press—the first such visit it has made to Mexico. Meanwhile, the IAPA has been pressing the Mexican government to make violence against journalists a federal instead of state crime, and to increase penalties. Hundreds of journalists and other members of the public demonstrated in Mexico City earlier this month to protest violence and ask for the government's protection.

"We are also fighting to create more solidarity and unity, especially with provincial newspapers, which work under the most difficult conditions," Mr. Trotti said.

A spokesman for the Mexican presidency declined to comment.

As violence rises, Mexican journalists are increasingly looking to Colombia for lessons from colleagues who lived through years of terror.

Colombia, where drug turmoil has fallen sharply in recent years, went through a decade of bombings and assassinations in the 1980s and 1990s as drug lords waged war against the country's institutions. Journalists who reported on Pablo Escobar, the now-deceased drug lord, among other topics risked being a target.

Veterans of Colombia's violence say Mexican journalists and the country's elite are only slowly waking up to the seriousness of the situation, and the risks to freedom of expression.

"I would tell the Mexicans in journalism conferences to look at the mirror of Colombia—that they didn't know what is coming," says Enrique Santos, a former top editor and columnist at El Tiempo, Colombia's largest daily newspaper. "But my warning fell on deaf ears."

Another problem, says Mr. Santos, a former president of the IAPA, is that some Mexican newsrooms have been penetrated by drug-trafficking groups. Cartels have paid reporters for favorable coverage, making them targets for rival cartels, he says. "Reporters don't know who is who, who has been infiltrated, and who has not."

Some say Mexico has been slow to respond because the targets have principally been reporters in Mexico's smaller towns and cities. "There are two realities in Mexico: Reporting in the capital, which is relatively secure, and reporting in the provinces where it is absolutely not," says Lucía Lagunes, a reporter for Mexico City-based news agency Cimac Noticias.

In Colombia, cartels also targeted prominent journalists and media owners. In 1986, killers in the pay of Mr. Escobar shot down Guillermo Cano, managing editor and part owner of Bogotá newspaper El Espectador.

It wasn't until 1996 that Colombian journalists, with the help of the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, Nobel Prize winner Gabriel García Márquez and others, formed the Foundation for Liberty of the Press, creating system to alert journalists of threats. The government set up a committee to offer reporters protection ranging from bullet-proof vests and bodyguards, to help if they needed to be whisked into temporary protection.



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