Mexico’s Version Of ‘The Arizona Project’

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By: Mark Fitzgerald

Arizona Republic reporter Don Bolles was deep into an investigation into land fraud by organized crime in 1976 when a source summoned him to a downtown Phoenix hotel, promising information. The source never showed. Bolles returned to his car parked outside, turned the key–and was mortally injured by a powerful bomb. He died 10 days later at age 47.

The assassination of a U.S. journalist shocked the nation, and inspired more than three dozen of his Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE) colleagues from 28 newspapers and broadcast stations to converge on Phoenix, and finish Bolles’ work in an unprecedented, and never repeated, joint reporting project.

“The Arizona Project,” under the direction of Bob Greene, then an investigative reporter with Newsday, ultimately produced a 23-part expose of the state’s underworld that was published in a dozen big-city papers–but only one in Arizona, the Arizona Daily Star in Tucson.

Thirty years later, Mexico’s newspapers are joining forces for a similar campaign, coincidentally called the Phoenix Project, under the leadership of the Inter American Press Association (IAPA).

More than 100 Mexican newspapers have pledged to carry the stories produced by a team of investigative reporters digging into the killing or disappearance of journalists at the hands of organized crime.

In Mexico these days, the assassination of a journalist can no longer be considered shocking. It’s a numbing fact of life, especially along the U.S. border, where warring drug cartels — frequently abetted by corrupt police and mercenary ex-soldiers from elite Army units — seek to silence investigative reporting.

At least 10 Mexican journalists have been murdered in the past five years. The most recent was Jaime Arturo Olvera Bravo, a freelance photographer and former correspondent for La Voz de Michoac?n who was shot to death March 9 in front of his five-year-old son while they waited at a bus stop in La Piedad in the central state of Michoac?n.

Earlier this month, newspapers across Mexico published the first of the Phoenix Projects investigations, this one into the unsolved disappearance on April 2, 2005 of Alfredo Jim?nez Mota, who reported on drug traffickers and organized crime for the daily El Imparcial in Hermosillo, Sonora.

“We are confident that the joint publication of this initial report of the Phoenix Project, which the IAPA is sponsoring, will be the first step in a concerted battle against organized crime and that other enemy of the press, self-censorship,” declared Enrique Santos Calder?n, director of the Bogota, Colombia, daily “El Tiempo,” and chairman of IAPA’s Impunity Committee.

The Phoenix Project came about from a meeting of 40 newspaper editors and publishers along the border last August. The so-called Declaration of Hermosillo “pledged that the IAPA would support (Mexican newspapers) in this battle to confront organized crime in the press in order to underscore the public’s right to know,” said Gonzalo Marroqu?n, editor of the Guatemala City, Guatemala, daily Prensa Libre, and chairman of IAPA’s Committee on Freedom of the Press and Information.

Any newspaper can download material on unpunished crimes against journalists at IAPA’s Web site www.impunidad.com.

IAPA’s campaign to end impunity surrounding crimes against journalists is funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

PAN-AM HIGHWAY

An occasional journal of the working conditions for Latin American journalists:

COLOMBIA

The Prosecutor General’s Office, with support from the
national police’s Criminal Intelligence Investigations Unit has captured three of the alleged murderers of radio journalist Gustavo
Rojas Gabalo, the Bogota-based Foundation for Press Freedom (FLIP) reported April 10. Two of the suspects are demobilized members of paramilitary groups, FLIP said. The accused shooter was identified as Ramiro Antonio Berr?o Beltr?n, known as “El Guajiro.” Witnesses to the Feb. 4, 2006, murder said “El Guajiro” approached the journalist, argued with him for a few
minutes, then took out a gun and shot him twice. He fled on a motorcycle driven by another man. Two other men were seen fleeing at the same time. Local media outlets and journalists have believe Rojas’s reports about local corruption on his radio program motivated the attack, FLIP reported.

Jenny Manrique, a reporter for the Vanguardia Liberal newspaper fled the city of Bucaramanga, in the eastern province of Santander, after receiving death threats for reporting on abuses by right-wing paramilitary forces, the New York City-based Committee for the Protection of Journalists (CPJ) reported. Her paper published allegations that agents of the national intelligence service had tapped the telephones and tailed the newspaper’s president, manager, director and their families.

CUBA

Independent journalist Lamasiel Guti?rrez Romero, a correspondent for the Miami-based Nueva Prensa Cubana Web site, was released from prison March 22 after completing a seven-month sentence for “civil disobedience,” and continuing to practice journalism, Paris-based Reporters Without Borders (RSF) reported. “We welcome her release and we hope the 23 other journalists held in Cuban prisons, some without trial, will also soon be freed,” RSF said. “But we know her release was not an act of clemency and we note that, bizarrely, she was freed on probation despite completing her sentence. There is no justification for this restriction and we urge the Cuban authorities to lift it.” Guti?rrez told RSF she would continue to work as a journalist and for press freedom in Cuba.

PERU

An arrest warrant has been issued against Pucallapa Mayor Luis Valdez Villacorta and a former court official Solio Ramirez Garay, charging them with being the “intellectual authors” of the April 2004 murder of journalist Alberto Rivera Fern?ndez, the Lima-based Institute for Press and Society (IPYS) reported April 7. The man accused of actually shooting Rivera, Lito Fasabi Pizango, told the court in the eastern part of Peru that he had been hired by the two to murder Rivera. The journalist had criticized Valdez’s administration and accused him of being linked to drug traffickers, IPYS reported.

VENEZUELA

Jorge Aguirre, a photographer for the daily El Mundo, was shot dead by a man on a motorcycle dressed as a police office while covering an anti-crime demonstration in Caracas April 5. Aguirre, 60, was a passenger in an automobile driving on the campus of the Central University of Venezuela, where a student demonstration was under way in protest at the outbreaks of recent violence, IAPA reported. “The motorcyclist ordered Aguirre’s driver to stop and after a brief argument the driver decided to continue driving, as the man who stopped him was not wearing a uniform or showing any identification,” IAPA said. The man then opened fire, hitting Aguirre in the armpit. He was rushed to hospital, where he died shortly afterwards. IAPA said it had formally requested meetings with senior Venezuelan officials, and wants to send a mission to investigate the shooting.

Two journalists being held on separate criminal defamation charges were released from arrest pending trial, RSF reported. Ib&233;yise Pacheco of the daily El Nacional daily was released from house arrest on March 21, RSF said, while Gustavo Az?car Alcal?, a correspondent for the newspaper El Universal and the anchor of a local TV news show, was released from a prison on March 22.

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