Mexico cartel attacks on press take toll on drug war coverage

Soldiers guard the entrance to the offices of El Norte newspaper in Monterrey, Mexico, after a grenade explosion this month. El Norte belongs to the Reforma newspaper group that came under attack.
(Julio Cesar Aguilar / AFP/Getty Images)

MEXICO CITY — The nearly simultaneous attacks on the offices of the two newspapers were disturbingly similar: Gunmen armed with automatic rifles and grenade launchers opened fire, shattering glass and terrifying those inside.

But the responses by the two news outlets that came under siege, leaving staffers shaken but unhurt, have been markedly different.

El Mañana newspaper in the border city of Nuevo Laredo, the northeastern region’s dominant daily, announced in an editorial a day later that it would no longer report on “violent disputes,” an allusion to the battle between rival drug-trafficking networks fighting over a vast network of criminal activities.

Reforma, a national paper whose offices in the northern city of Monterrey were attacked, made no public pronouncement but has not backed down from coverage.

Mexico has become one of the most dangerous places in the world for journalists, especially those covering issues involving corruption, the drug war and political misconduct. Yet authorities rarely, if ever, carry out serious investigations of the slayings or kidnappings of journalists, according to several human rights organizations.

Consequently, the besieged Mexican press is constantly having to make decisions about how — and whether — to cover the narco war in ways that won’t jeopardize reporters, installations and publishers’ families.

Many regional journalists who work and live, literally, on the front lines have chosen to censor themselves and not report on organized crime. Big national dailies continue to do the reporting but are often circumspect about their decision to do so.

El Mañana operates in Tamaulipas state, which borders Texas, a region where violent cartels hold enormous sway and where the fight to control access to U.S. drug markets is brutal.

Without saying who it thought was responsible for the gun-and-grenade barrage, El Mañana, which suffered its second attack in two months, said it had taken the “regrettable decision” to stop covering violence, citing the “lack of adequate conditions for freely exercising professional journalism.”

The other attacks that day this month targeted offices of the Reforma chain of newspapers. Grenades blasted through the storefront windows in Monterrey before dawn, and then again 12 hours later. No one was injured, although one editor had to duck under his desk to save himself.

Senior executives at Reforma, one of the country’s most important newspaper groups, are convinced the attack came in response to an investigation it published involving a vast scheme to buy and resell stolen automobiles, using a government agency to “launder” the cars with fake license plates — nearly 200,000 of them.

The first attack came the morning after the story appeared. Someone identifying himself as a leader of the notoriously vicious criminal gang the Zetas (which easily could have been involved in the stolen-car scheme) later telephoned the newspaper and threatened to send another “message.” Minutes after the call, a second barrage of grenades and automatic gunfire struck.

Initially, Reforma planned a rare front-page editorial that, in contrast to that of El Mañana, would pledge to continue coverage of organized crime. But, at the last minute and acting on what paper executives said was advice from security officials, they pulled the editorial. (Publication would have been huge: Reforma, unlike most papers, studiously avoids publishing editorials on any score.)

Paper executives said they wanted to avoid a personalized debate with the bad guys and instead sought to draw attention to the broader range of criminal activity besieging much of Mexico.

Publisher Alejandro Junco said in an interview in Reforma’s massive, ornate headquarters in Mexico City that the nation faced a whole series of “cartels,” of which the drug-trafficking ones are only a minority.

“Unless we recognize the depth and scope of the problems we are facing,” he said, “… the corrosion will just keep on taking us deeper and deeper into illegality.”