The kidnap of four journalists in Durango state has made the capital’s elite take notice of the dangers for journalists attempting to work under the shadow of the traffickers. Ana Arana reports
The kidnapping of four Mexican journalists recently brought the drug war home for top news management in the Mexico City media. Drug traffickers held the journalists hostage in an effort to force their news outlets to broadcast selected videos that showed how local government officials were under the control of a competing drug cartel. It was the first time that drug gangs attacked journalists working for the national media.
The response to the attack, which ended with government forces rescuing some of the journalists, and others released by the drug gang, was firm and extensive. Dozens of columns and articles have been written by top journalists in the mainstream press, including journalists who in the past had argued that attacks against the press were no different than the attacks by drug gangs against judges and regular citizens. The murders of journalists as well as the onslaught that has been brought by the government fight against drug gangs, have largely unfolded in provincial cities, or near the US-Mexico border. The streets of Mexico City, except for isolated cases, have not been overtaken by acts of violence. As one journalist told me, “the murders have always affected local journalists who work for poor wages and with little protection.” The kidnapping was a wakeup call which has unleashed a number of proposals to protect journalists from attacks by organised crime.
Similar scenarios to that which unraveled in Durango State with the kidnapped journalists have shackled the local and provincial media for the last several years, creating cities where few journalists venture to cover news related to drug trafficking. At least 52 journalists and media workers have been killed in Mexico since 1992, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Of that number, CPJ acknowledges that 22 were killed because of their work. In the city of Nuevo Laredo, in the state of Tamaulipas, one reporter told me that the press are summoned to regular meetings with one of the local drug gangs, where they are told what stories related to drug trafficking they may cover. “We are not allowed to carry out our work as journalists.” Some of his colleagues mentioned that they only report on common crime, such as car accidents or domestic violence. “But everything is permeated by drug trafficking and one has to be careful not to reveal some information that is related to one of the drug groups,” said another young radio reporter from the same city.
Part of the problem with solving the murders of journalists is that Mexico is a federation, and under Mexican law there are crimes that fall under federal jurisdiction and others that fall under state (provinces) jurisdiction. Murder has always been a crime judged by local provincial judicial systems, which are often vulnerable to local organised crime. For a long time, press freedom groups have requested that the murders of journalists come under the jurisdiction of the federal system. Mexico has created a special unit that investigates attacks against the press. This unit works under the Attorney General’s office, and recently had its mandate extended to cover all forms of freedom of expression. However, the federal government still believes that the murders of journalists should be judged by local state authorities. What the kidnapping of the four journalists revealed is how infiltrated by organised crime local governments are. However, the special prosecutor’s office to investigate crimes against journalists continues to maintain that 80 per cent of the murders of journalists are common crimes and not related to the victim’s profession.
Ana Arana is Director of the Fundación Mexicana de Periodismo de Investigación