Mexico crime reporters face deadly perils


Journalist Bladimir Antuna put up with the death threats. He wasn’t afraid of dying, he told friends, but he really didn’t want to be tortured.

The government assigned bodyguards to the crime reporter for El Tiempo newspaper in Durango, but as time wore on and there were so many other crises, the escorts were withdrawn. A couple of days later, he was snatched by gunmen; his strangled, bruised body was discovered at nightfall.

With the corpse was a hand-scrawled message: “This happened to me for giving information to soldiers and writing too much.”

Antuna, who died last month, was the third journalist killed in Durango since May and one of as many as 12 reporters and media workers slain in Mexico this year -- a chilling trend that has made this country the deadliest in Latin America, and one of the deadliest in the world, for reporters.

Raging drug violence and rampant corruption have posed innumerable perils for journalists. Most insidiously, steady intimidation has caused many to pull their punches and refrain from writing the whole truth.

“It is a disservice to society,” Durango broadcast reporter Ruben Cardenas said of what has become much-practiced self-censorship. “It is disinformation.”

Journalists represent just a tiny fraction of the more than 15,000 people killed since President Felipe Calderon launched a military-led offensive against well-armed drug cartels three years ago. But no other killings cut so deeply at the heart of free expression in this fledgling democracy.

Like most crime in Mexico, virtually none of the slayings of reporters have been solved.

Journalists in Durango, as in much of Mexico, say they are threatened both by narco-traffickers and by the heavy-handed pressure of state government, which controls lucrative publicity contracts and instructs the pliant owners of media companies not to highlight negative news.

Sometimes, the journalists say, it is not clear where one threat begins and the other ends.

The grim distinction that journalists in Durango make is that the government threatens, the narcos act. Are they, in the end, in cahoots? One of the Durango reporters killed this year had just published a story saying that if he turned up dead, the mayor of the town of Santa Maria del Oro was responsible. He was slain the next day.

“We are living in such a situation of impunity that journalists get killed, and nothing happens,” said Gabriela Gallegos, who runs her own small news agency in Durango.

Gallegos said the local press shied away from coverage of Antuna’s kidnap and slaying. Many reporters in Durango are terrified, interpreting the message left with Antuna’s body as a warning that they all had to temper their work.

Gallegos spoke out, however, with pointed criticism of the state governor and other local authorities. Four days after Antuna was killed, Gallegos says, her home was broken into in the middle of the night, her computers and files stolen. She and other reporters tell of being followed and of their phones being tapped.

“I am more afraid than ever, but also more angry,” she said. “They” -- and here the “they” is indistinguishable between traffickers and corrupt officials -- “want us to behave as they want, without thinking with our own minds.”

In Durango, she said somewhat Aesopically, “even the scorpions are afraid.”

“I used to laugh at death threats,” she added. “But now you feel fear in your body that automatically detonates.”

Durango has become especially violent because drug-gang gunmen known as the Zetas have moved into the rugged region to challenge the long-dominant Sinaloa cartel, which controls the so-called Golden Triangle that grafts together parts of Durango, Sinaloa and Chihuahua states. Yet Durango is only the most potent symbol of the dangers confronting journalists in Mexico.

Last month in Michoacan, Calderon’s home state, under siege by a particularly ruthless narco gang that has infiltrated most local government and police forces, Maria Esther Aguilar vanished. A veteran crime reporter and mother of two, Aguilar answered a call, left home and hasn’t been seen since. Her writing helped get a mobbed-up police chief fired. She had also resisted demands from other reporters that she join them in accepting bribes from the traffickers and tailoring her coverage to their needs.

In Chihuahua, Mexico’s deadliest state, where two journalists have been killed in the last year and four forced to flee the country, two federal investigators assigned to one of the cases were killed this summer.

According to the national Human Rights Commission, 57 journalists have been killed in Mexico in the last decade, and eight are missing. Of 320 complaints filed since 2006 with a special prosecutor for crimes against journalists, which include murder, bombings of newspaper offices, threats and other acts of intimidation, only four cases have made it to court.

Often, the traffickers demand coverage glorifying their exploits, or they may want some of their acts concealed, and they make those desires known to journalists as well.

“If you don’t print a narco message from one group, they will punish you. Or the other side will punish you if you do publish it,” said one Durango editor who, like many people interviewed for this story, did not want to be identified. “Or the government will punish you for printing anything. You don’t know where the threat is going to come from.”

International journalist organizations, human rights groups and representatives of the U.N. are all demanding that cases be investigated.

Alberto Brunori, the senior U.N. official in Mexico for human rights, paid a visit to the journalists in Durango to show solidarity and underline the urgency of investigating cases. He was struck by how abandoned and impotent the reporters felt. The state governor was reportedly furious at what he saw as outside interference.

“Impunity creates a vicious circle,” Brunori said in an interview after the visit. “You have to break the circle or we do not get out of this. You can’t just keep having dead journalists turn up.”