Specter Of Death Haunts Mexican Border Journalists p.10

By: Robert Buckman La Prensa staff refuses to let boss' assassination
deter aggressive reporting on drug traffickers
Buckman is a journalism professor at the University of Southwestern Louisiana in Lafayette.
MEXICAN JOURNALISTS WHO work along the U.S. border live in fear for their lives at the hands of the drug traffickers they expose while enduring indifference, even scorn, from journalists in Mexico City.
That was the bleak assessment of Jes?s Barraza Zavala, who succeeded the slain Benjamin Flores last July as publisher of the crusading daily La Prensa in San Luis Rio Colorado in the border state of Sonora, 30 miles from Yuma, Ariz. Barraza made the comments during a recent conference in New Orleans.
"The worst enemies that journalists on the border have are the narcotraffickers and journalists themselves," Barraza said in Spanish during a daylong conference on the transition of Mexican media, sponsored by the Latin American studies center of Tulane University. "To the journalists in Mexico City, we provincial journalists are monsters, hicks, illiterates, troglodytes. They really don't know us because they don't read us. There's an apathy among journalists in Mexico City about the journalists on the northern border, but what they don't recognize is that although we may not be perfect, we're making a good-faith effort to do something positive for society. They think a journalist should be some type of parrot who reports what officials say."
Barraza said he and others at La Prensa have lived under constant threat of death at the hands of drug traffickers since their 29-year-old publisher was gunned down on the street in front of the office last July 15.
"We're afraid, but we have more indignation than fear," he said.
Since that conference, another crusading Sonoran journalist has been slain. On Feb. 13, Luis Mario Garc?a of Diario de la Tarde was gunned down as he left a meeting at a federal attorney general's office in Mexico City. Garc?a survived an attempt on his life last year.
Barraza also complained that when a Mexican journalist is killed or wounded by drug traffickers, other journalists write stories casting aspersions on the victims ? not the perpetrators.
"These narcotraffickers are dangerous, powerful and influential," he said.
"In some ways, the journalists union has accepted some of the rules the narcotraffickers play by. If it is known that a narcotrafficker has a large stash of drugs in a house, the journalists union says we shouldn't report it. But we report it anyway. We even report on their sexual habits. The reporters from the capital condemn us for being unethical."
Barraza explained that Flores had received death threats for a 4-year-old news report identifying local drug traffickers by name, but the police took no action.
Finally, Flores was felled by six shots from an AK-47 when he arrived at the newspaper. Then one of the assassins coolly approached his victim and fired three more shots into his head with a pistol.
"We decided to keep the newspaper alive ? and to keep our editor alive," Barraza said. "I begged the other reporters to stop crying, because the paper had to get out. We finished about midnight. We wept on our keyboards. We wrote about the event that had just happened. It was a most difficult job, because we were aware of the risks. We used to look at our job with a certain romanticism. But when something like this happens in the flesh, you look at it differently."
Five days after Flores' murder, the 10-reporter staff received the first death threat. Next came an offer of a $5,000 bribe to stop reporting on the narcotraffickers believed linked to Flores' murder. Then came more unveiled threats by letter.
"They said, 'We know where you live. We know what car you drive, with whom you associate. Knock it off, or we'll kill you.' The messages were signed 'Don AK-47.' "
Yet, the paper continues its bulldog-like attacks on the narcotraffickers. Four suspects have been arrested.
"They thought that once Benjamin was dead that La Prensa would die, but it didn't happen," he said.
Barraza complained that neither the Mexican government nor Mexico City journalists showed any zeal for solving the brazen execution of Flores.
In fact, he said, fellow journalists "gave us no more than a month to live."
An exception was Jes?s Blancornelas, editor of the feisty weekly magazine Semanario Zeta in Tijuana and a nemesis of the infamous Arellano Felix brothers reputed to control the Tijuana Cartel.
"Blancornelas offered us space to tell our stories," he said.
On Nov. 17, Zeta carried a report blasting the government for failing to arrest anybody in the Flores case. The following day, gunmen opened fire on Blancornelas' car, critically wounding him and killing his bodyguard.
One of the gunmen apparently died in the crossfire. He was identified as a man Blancornelas had accused of involvement in the murders of two federal agents. The shooting remains unsolved.
"The border is the most dangerous zone for Mexican journalists," Barraza reiterated. "We carry pistols, wear bulletproof vests and are flanked by bodyguards. But the narcotraffickers have a lot of time to carry out attempts on our lives."
Also last year, Felipe Buelmo of El Diario Ju?rez in Ciudad Ju?rez, across the border from El Paso, Texas, was murdered, apparently by drug traffickers.
Barraza spread blame to the U.S. government and U.S. journalists for not doing more to investigate "the monster of drug trafficking."
"It's important that journalists, rather than following some idealism in analyzing journalistic ethics, take a look at their role in society," he said.
He advocated the creation of an organization in Mexico similar to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists.
Joel Simon of CPJ attended the conference and was optimistic about the idea. He said the conference brought together Mexican journalists from the border states and Mexico City who rarely meet. "This is how you create safer conditions and better conditions for journalists in Mexico ? by building networks, national and international, to ensure that people understand the danger they face."
Claudia Fern?ndez, an investigative reporter with El Universal, Mexico City's leading newspaper, and a founder of Mexico's branch of Investigative Reporters & Editors, said that Mexican journalists were to meet with Blancornelas on Feb. 13 to show their support and to send a message to drug traffickers who seek to silence journalists.
She also advocated establishing an organization like CPJ that would "unify Mexican journalists and cause assassins to think twice. The message we would send is, you did this to Blancornelas, but there are hundreds more and you would have to kill all of us."
After the conference, Barraza confided that living with death threats "is a permanent stress. You always feel you could be shot. We try not to think about it because it would just frustrate us. If we are killed, we die for an ideal. But if we die with our mouths shut, then we die in shame."
?(Buchman is a journalism professor at the University of Southwestern Louisiana in Lafayette) [Caption]
?(Jesus Barraza, publisher of La Prensa in Sonora, Mexico, shows photo of Benjamin Flores, his predecessor, who died in a hail of bullets last year presumably at the hands of drug traffickers he exposed) [Photo & Caption]

?(Web Site: http://www.mediainfo.com) [Caption]
?(copyright: Editor & Publisher April 4, 1998) [Caption]


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