Not content with owning much of the police, armed forces and government, Mexico’s narcotraficantes are quickly moving to tighten their grasp on yet another of the country’s institutions: the media.
Newspapers in northern Mexico, near the country’s notoriously porous border with the United States, are increasingly under the thumb of violent drug cartels, according to several prominent Mexican journalists.
“Border newsrooms are being taken over by the drug traffickers,” said Jorge Luis Serra, an investigative reporter from Mexico who now lives and works in McAllen, Texas.
“The way they operate is they take over the police department, they take over city hall, and then they take over the newspapers,” added Alfredo Corchado, Mexico bureau chief for the Dallas Morning News.
Corchado and Serra each have decades of experience covering drug trafficking and organized crime along the U.S.-Mexico border. Their comments came at a panel discussion called “Mexico’s Pitfalls for Journalists” on April 27 at the Overseas Press Club in New York.
For more than two years, drug related violence has terrorized Mexico, especially in the north where drug cartels vie for lucrative supply routes to the United States. In the past, violence was largely limited to feuds between rival cartels. But the conflict broadened when Mexico’s current president, Felipe Calderón, began an offensive against the cartels shortly after his election in 2006. The resulting war has shaken the country and left few regions untouched. Until the outbreak of the A/H1N1 influenza in April, drug violence dominated the headlines, obscuring even the upcoming legislative election on July 5.
But the violence is itself a symptom of a broader disease. Only a decade free of what was effectively one-party rule, Mexican institutions remain extremely weak. On Saturday, armed men disguised as police officers broke into a jail in the northern state of Zacatecas. More than fifty members of the Gulf Cartel escaped in the audacious jailbreak, and federal officials suspect the narcotraficantes received help from prison guards and local officials.
It may come as no surprise, then, that in a country where jails can be broken open like piggybanks, newspapers are not free of the drug cartels’ influence. But cartel control over border newspapers could signal a deepening of the country’s troubles, already grave enough that President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have had to explicitly deny that Mexico is at risk of becoming a “failed state.”
In Mexico, journalists have long been a target of both the drug cartels and corrupt government officials.
“Mexico has become the Americas’ most dangerous country for journalists,” said Peter Price, from Reporters Without Borders, who moderated the panel discussion. Forty-six journalists have been killed and eight have disappeared in Mexico since 2000, he said. Corchado has himself been the target of a death threat for his reporting, likely from a cartel.
But cartel influence over newspaper editors, reporters and their coverage is relatively new. It threatens to plunge the battle between government forces and the cartels into the dark just as the conflict reaches fever pitch. Already, the cartels have begun using the media to maximize the efficacy of their attacks.
“When [the cartels] come into the city, they will give media leaders money to give coverage to the narcomantas,” Corchado said, referring to the billboard-sized warnings put up along highways or in plazas. Some times, newspapers are notified ahead of time by the cartels of an upcoming “major news event” that they must cover, only for a decapitated body to be dumped in a public square. “If you don’t run that, you’re in trouble,” he said.
“There are some [journalists] who are on the take,” Corchado added.
As with much of the news coming from Mexico these days, the rise of the narcomedia leaves little room for optimism. But Serra said he saw hope in a recent trend of journalists trained not in Mexico but at the University of Texas – El Paso.
“They’re beginning to write a new story,” Serra said. “A new generation of journalists with more knowledge of the ethics and more commitment to why journalism is important. There is some light at the end of the tunnel.”
There was a brief pause when an audience member asked the two reporters: What keeps you going, despite the danger you face from the cartels?
“We believe in journalism,” Serra answered. “We believe that journalism has a function in society, and that function is to hold leaders accountable.”
“I try not to look at it as a narco story, it’s really a democracy story,” echoed Corchado.
“If you’re a foreign correspondent in Mexico, to be quite honest, it’s hard to ignore narcotrafficking,” he said, reaching for a glass of cold water next to his microphone.
“We don’t want to continue covering drug trafficking, but we have no choice. The narco story is one that people are interested in.”