By: Joseph J. Kolb
When a 9-year-old student in an El Paso, Texas after-school program asked staff member Abril Holguin if he could call his parents to see where they were, Holguin saw the expression of fear on his face and knew what it meant. The child’s mother, a reporter, and father, a photographer, both with El Diario newspaper, were on assignment again across the border in Juarez, Mexico. Even at 9 years old, the little boy knows the risks of reporting in what has been called the “deadliest city in the world” by human rights organizations.
At 21, Holguin personally knows the fear all too well after fleeing the Juarez drug cartel violence, which has claimed more than 30,000 lives, in 2006. As a student at the University of Texas, El Paso, Holguin has expressed her frustration with both the Mexican and American press for what she calls insufficient and inaccurate reporting. A sentiment that is shared by many on both sides of the volatile border.
“There is no more freedom of expression in Mexico,” Holguin said. “Not only the cartels but also the government control the information, and America doesn’t see this.”
The dwindling freedom of press in Mexico is compounded on two fronts by the allegations of widespread government corruption and ties to the cartels as well as the profound self-censorship imposed on the media through intimidation and murder.
According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, Mexico is the ninth most dangerous country in the world for reporters. However, the exact number killed there is subject to interpretation. Since 1992, CPJ reports 24 reporters killed as a direct result of their work and 29 where the motive is unconfirmed. Mike O’Connor, a veteran reporter who now serves as the CPJ representative in Mexico, said that 23 journalists have been killed in Mexico since December 2006 when Felipe Calderon assumed the presidency. Conversely, Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission puts the number of murdered journalists at 66 between 2005 and 2010. An additional 12 reporters have disappeared.
“My job as a witness is to explain why the Mexican government can’t be relied upon to protect journalists,” O’Connor said. Backing his observation is the absence of arrests and convictions for murdered journalists. He said there have been arrests of various people, many of whom were not connected to any case and were allegedly tortured into confessions.
“When you look into cases you usually wind up with more answers than questions,” he said. “The closer you look the more your stomach churns and think maybe the wrong guys are in jail.”
O’Connor concedes that CPJ adheres to strict guidelines when determining who is a journalist. He said the growing number of bloggers and unaffiliated freelance reporters who may or may not be on assignment for a specific media organization has presented problems in tabulating violence against journalists in Mexico.
“The Mexican press is not good with checking details,” he said. “So to say a guy who is a taxi driver who takes a photo in the hopes it gets picked up (is a reporter) may be a stretch.”
He agrees that other organizations may be much more liberal as to who is and isn’t a journalist and whether violence perpetrated against them was directly related to their work. What he will unequivocally affirm is that Mexico is a dangerous place to be a journalist and as such, acquiring the accurate news desired by news outlets may be more of a challenge than editors north of the border realize or want to accept.
“In most of the country most of the important news is not being covered,” O’Connor said. “And the American press isn’t covering Mexico the way it should either.”
Like any war coverage, much of what is reported deals with the daily or monthly body count coming out of cities such as Juarez and Nuevo Laredo where the Gulf, Sinoloa, and Los Zetas gangs have been waging war with no concern over who is caught in the crossfire. There is a sense of dread in Mexico where people walk along the streets with their heads down and avert their gaze to avoid seeing something or someone that may ultimately kill them. Many reporters are no different. Very little is reported about the causative factors and commentaries critical of the Mexican government.
The implications of the lack of critical reporting, O’Connor said, is contributing to the Mexican government losing its grip on the country.
“My strong impression is Mexico is losing its sovereignty over much of its territory to the cartels,” he said. “Every day, Felipe Calderon wakes up and thinks he’s president of Mexico.”
O’Connor has observed very little in the way of investigative reporting or breakthrough stories.
“In the last two years the story has remained the same, and that is because of either government corruption or the drug cartels controlling the news,” he said, more disappointed than accusatory.
O’Connor also didn’t hesitate to hold the American press just as culpable for superficial reporting about current events in Mexico. He sees the reporting of incidents but very little on the causes and consequences of what is happening in “our backyard.”
He contends that there may even be a sense of institutional racism or geographic ignorance that keeps the reporting from and about Mexico on a cursory level. There is a sense that covering Mexico is not as glamorous as covering the war on terror.
There are academics and activists in close proximity to both sides of the border who believe this lack of reporting in the U.S. contributes to a poor understanding of the immigration issue as well as the implications the narco violence has on the United States.
But what Moira Murphy, Ph.D., professor of Latin American and Border Studies at UTEP, sees is more of a lack of understanding of the culture and language. She believes that in order for American media outlets to successfully cover the situation in Mexico, they need to have reporters with bilingual training and not rely solely on interpreters. Sometimes things do get lost in the translation. Or unwary reporters may be told what the interpreter wants them to hear.
“This lack of bilingual training and foreign studies training, and not just Spanish, can hamper the international perspective of disseminating information,” Murphy said.
Many reporters are unashamed to say they have backed off their coverage of the violence for their own safety.
The state of Tamaulipas, in northeast Mexico, is controlled by the Los Zetas gang, which has been labeled by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency and Mexican officials as the most vicious of the drug gangs wreaking havoc in Nuevo Laredo and Matamoros. This gang is notorious for brutal tortures, beheadings, and the murder of police officials.
“We just don’t cover the violence anymore; it’s just too dangerous for us,” said one reporter from a Tamaulipas news outlet.
At the tip of the sword of any democracy is a free press, but in Mexico this has been diminished to superficial reporting through self-censorship. The threats and killings have successfully kept a critical Mexican press in check, save for a few stalwarts.
El Diario de Juarez has had two staff members murdered in the past three years. Armando Rodriguez Carreon, 40, was shot point blank in front of his 8-year-old daughter in their driveway as he was preparing to drive her to school on Nov. 13, 2008. The veteran crime reporter had a distinguished career of providing compelling narrative copy of gang-related murders in and around Juarez. He was also among the first reporters to diligently cover the mass murder of the women of Juarez whose bodies were found in shallow graves on the outskirts of the city for years.
While the cartel hitmen – sicarios – act quickly, they are also known to leave warning signs to intimidate their intended targets. Two ominous signs appeared before Rodriguez’s murder. The first was a threatening text message he received the previous February telling him to “tone down” his coverage. The second was the discovery of a severed head on a monument in Juarez’s Journalists Square the week before he was murdered.
Following the murder of Rodriguez, the Center for Journalism and Public Ethics – a Mexico City-based free press advocacy group – said the attacks against journalists “represent attacks against society because they damage the right to be informed.”
For American journalists, being told to “tone down” their coverage is often taken as a direct challenge to push harder, because the crux of the story may be on the verge of being revealed. But in Mexico, reporters often have to think twice whether the pressure exerted on a story is worth their life.
Gerardo Rodriguez, news director for El Diario-El Paso, said it is a delicate dilemma that each reporter has to self-examine. At El Diario, as well as most other Mexican newspapers, the coveted byline sought by so many Americans is regularly bypassed by Mexican reporters who want to do their job but avoid attracting more attention to themselves than necessary. The hotter the story in a Mexican newspaper, the greater likelihood that a “Staff” byline will follow the headline.
“We do not avoid hard news like other Mexican papers have begun to do out of fear, but there are still a few who do,” Rodriguez said. “I try to do the right thing and something that will make me feel good tomorrow.”
Rodriquez knows that doing the right thing in the Mexican press can be costly. He lost another staff member on Sept. 16, 2010, when 21-year-old rookie photographer Luis Carlos Santiago was shot dead by gunmen in a passing vehicle as he was driving out of a Juarez mall.
Neither Rodriguez Carreon’s or Santiago’s killers have been arrested, nor have any other assailants of reporters.
The death of Santiago prompted Rodriguez’s father, Osvaldo Rodriguez, the owner and publisher of El Diario, to respond in a way uncharacteristic of American journalism. In a page one open letter to the cartels, Rodriguez asked how they wanted his reporters to do their job without risking their lives. Some perceived it as a white flag gesture, while others saw it as a newspaper relinquishing control to tyranny.
“It was a rhetorical question,” Gerardo Rodriguez said. “My father was crying out for peace, not an act of surrendering our journalistic principles.”
He said the letter accomplished its intended purpose of garnering international attention to the plight of journalists in Mexico. The coverage of the commentary was worldwide, but to a large extent was met with ambivalence as a news piece and not the indictment of free speech under siege it was intended to be.
“My father talked to the news staff, who are all very courageous, and said if we stop our reporting the cartels have won,” Rodriguez said.
But while reporters attempt to fight the good fight and provide accurate news, the consequences are overwhelming. Rather than stay and face certain death, some reporters have opted to cross the border, seeking asylum for their own safety. An option some are finding is not yet a viable alternative.
In light of the mounting violence, many Mexicans crossing the border consider themselves to be refugees rather than immigrants. U.S. immigration officials estimate an average of 3,000 Mexicans per year seek asylum; however, the chances to obtain it are quite slim because of stringent federal guidelines. Only 252 Mexicans between 2005 and 2009 were granted such rights.
In June 2008, Emilio Gutierrez Soto fled his home after it was raided by Mexican soldiers. Gutierrez Soto had written stories critical of the military. Getting the message, he crossed the border with this son and was placed in an immigration detention center in El Paso for seven months. He has been heralded as an example of what journalists in the embattled country endure. He had an initial hearing in El Paso for asylum consideration on Jan. 21, but the U.S. attorney fought tooth and nail to oppose it. The case is continued until May 9, 2012 when a decision is hoped to be rendered.
“I feel like a man without a country,” Gutierrez Soto said through an interpreter. “I don’t have a Plan B.”
Interestingly enough, another Mexican journalist, Jorge Luis Aguirre, editor of La Polaka, an online news site, was granted asylum in September 2010, just through a written petition without a hearing being required.
The final decision in Gutierrez Soto’s hearing may give reporters in Mexico some hope of doing their job more effectively if they now have the prospect of sanctuary in the U.S. for adhering to the democratic principle of a free press.
Joseph J. Kolb is editor of The Gallup Herald in Gallup, N.M.
Mike O’Connor, a veteran war correspondent and representative in Mexico for the Committee to Protect Journalists, compiled a brief list of survival suggestions for reporters going into Mexico, especially the more dangerous border areas.
• Use a reporter’s cynicism – not so much of the story, but the location and subjects. Don’t take things for granted.
• Be sure someone on the U.S. side knows what you are doing, where you are going, and a general time frame for contact.
• Reporters are not respected in Mexico; they are targets for murder and kidnappings. Don’t go around boasting you are a journalist.
• Be as inconspicuous as possible, almost chameleon-like. Nothing says reporter like a polo shirt, baseball cap, khaki pants, and a press pass dangling from a lanyard around your neck. Try to blend in with the population.
• If driving in Mexico, rent a car with a license plate from that particular state. Avoid driving around the country with a U.S. license plate.
• Vet the area and the subject of an interview before going to the location.
• Tell as few people as possible where you are staying and what your plans are.
• Have a plan for how you will be getting out of the area if something goes wrong, and review it hourly. Know the roads in and out of the places you go to.
• Know at every moment where you are.
• Avoid getting into a vehicle, even with a subject you think you trust.
• Know how to get back to the border-crossing bridges. “If someone gets between you and the bridge, even a police officer or soldier, have the guts to decide what you will do,” O’Connor stressed. Sometimes you won’t have time to decide what to do, and not everyone in uniform is a good guy.
• Even be cautious of local journalists. If they are not already connected to a cartel they may be threatened, and an American journalist is worth a lot more if turned over.
• You must be extraordinarily deceptive. Arrive early for appointments to see if there are suspicious people lurking about the location.
• Never tell anyone exactly what you are doing and where you plan to go.
• Never agree to meet someone in a secluded place, especially at night.
• Police have a legal right to stop and question you, but you do not have to tell the truth if it compromises your safety.