Pubdate: 23 - 28 Feb 2000
Source: Village Voice (NY)
Copyright: 2000 VV Publishing Corporation
Contact:  36 Cooper Square, New York, NY 10003
Author: Cynthia Cotts


He's the Voice of the Mexican People


In Mexico, untouchables are people who are protected by the power they 
wield. Two such men are Sam Dillon, who runs The New York Times's bureau in 
Mexico City, and Roberto Hernandez, who owns Banco Nacional de Mexico 
(Banamex), the country's biggest bank. But this is the story of another 
untouchable: Mario Menendez, the 63-year-old editor and publisher of Por 
Esto!, a newspaper chain that might be called the Village Voice of the 
Yucatan Peninsula.

Menendez's only weapon is calling it as he sees it: He believes, for 
example, that Hernandez is a "narcotics trafficker," Dillon is in the 
pocket of government officials, and U.S. "authorities" are managing the 
illegal drug trade in Mexico. He advocates legalization as the only 
solution to the drug war. Yet his papers flourish in a country best known 
for repression, and in March, he will travel to the U.S. at the invitation 
of Columbia Law School. His friends fear that by speaking his mind, he is 
risking his life.

When Menendez launched Por Esto! in Merida in 1991, he says, his aim was to 
start a newspaper "that was open to all beliefs. The only condition I 
insisted on was to tell the truth. It was very radical." El Diario de 
Yucatan, the paper of record, still displays the conservative, Catholic 
outlook that has dominated the region for years.

Por Esto! is a daily tabloid, designed a bit like USA Today with lots of 
short articles and color photos. The three-paper franchise is privately 
owned and boasts a paid circulation of 46,000 in the Yucatan state, 21,000 
in Quintana Roo, and 4000 in Campeche. Some critics say Menendez's 
one-sided and anti-establishment tone hurts his credibility, but then 
again, he publishes a variety of viewpoints and rare coverage of rural 
areas such as the Mayan villages of Chiapas.

Menendez says, "I'm the only editor in chief of any paper in southeastern 
Mexico who does not own a yacht, an airplane, and several houses." Every 
two weeks he stages public assemblies in small towns, where thousands flock 
to complain about their papers and politicians. Por Esto! then publishes 
full transcripts, asserting what Menendez calls "the voice of the people 
who do not have a voice in civil society."

Al Giordano, a former political reporter for The Boston Phoenix who now 
writes about Mexico, calls Menendez's writing style "hyperbolic" yet 
"irresistible." "It's a very personal kind of class warfare . . . against 
the historically powerful of the region."

Allen Wells, an expert on Latin American history at Bowdoin College, says, 
"To be an advocacy journalist in Mexico is not a growth industry. For a 
gadfly like Menendez to survive in that kind of climate, he must have his 
own powerful friends as well--because you don't print the kind of stuff 
that he does for long and survive."

But Menendez seems fated to be a recording angel. In October 1968, after he 
and Oriana Fallaci saw student protesters gunned down in Mexico City, he 
published photos and reports of the massacre in Por Que?, his now defunct 
magazine. In response, the Mexican police closed the magazine and threw him 
in jail. Upon his release, he was exiled to Cuba for 10 years.

Cut to December 16, 1996, the day Por Esto! published the first in a long 
series denouncing Roberto Hernandez as a "narco-trafficker." After Menendez 
got a complaint from a fishing collective whose members felt they were 
victims of a land grab by Hernandez, Por Esto! reporters found packages of 
cocaine washed up on the banker's beaches.

Hernandez is a former stockbroker who won Banamex at auction when it was 
privatized in 1991. In the last election cycle, he held a million-dollar 
fundraiser for the dominant political party, the PRI, and his company is 
now worth $2.5 billion. One thing he has done with his money is to scoop up 
property on the Caribbean coast of Quintana Roo, turning assorted pockets 
of environmental paradise into luxury hotels. As the Times has reported, 
the so-called Mexican Riviera is a convenient transfer point for the 
Colombia-to-U.S. drug trade.

But that doesn't make Hernandez a drug trafficker. In 1997, even as Por 
Esto! filed criminal complaints against Hernandez for drug trafficking and 
other counts, Hernandez asked the government to file a criminal libel 
action against Menendez. (In Mexico, such actions are regularly used to 
silence journalists.) Por Esto! continued to investigate, and the 
allegations reached Sam Dillon in September 1998, when he traveled to the 
Yucatan to pursue alleged ties between Mario Villanueva, then governor of 
Quintana Roo, and the ever present drug trade.

Dillon recalls talking to Por Esto! reporters. "We gave him the material 
and said go verify it for yourself," reports Menendez. But Dillon was too 
busy to pursue the story. According to one source, "He talked to the sister 
of Roberto Hernandez, a member of the divine caste of Merida, but couldn't 
find the time to talk to the fishermen."

Dillon was unmoved. "As far as I could determine," he says, "the only 
evidence Por Esto! had for their claims was that people were landing 
cocaine along [Hernandez's] properties along the coast of Quintana Roo. 
That's the stupidest thing I've ever heard. Cocaine lands all along that 
coastline, and no one suggests that the people who own those beaches are 
running the drug.

"You rarely encounter an allegation about someone's involvement in the drug 
trade in Mexico that doesn't have some political vendetta behind it," 
Dillon continues. And indeed, everyone seems to agree that Hernandez and 
Villanueva had some kind of . . . business dispute. Aside from the sources, 
the Hernandez allegations sound eerily similar to the Villanueva 
allegations reported in an A-1 Times story by Dillon and Tim Golden on 
November 26, 1998.

One of the Times's sources was a senior Mexican official, who declared the 
odds better than even that Villanueva would be indicted after his term 
ended in April 1999, under the suspicion that his state police were 
involved in the drug trade. Sure enough, on March 28, Villanueva went on 
the lam, shortly before a warrant was issued for his arrest. He called the 
charges politically motivated, telling the Mexican magazine Proceso, 
"Behind this smear campaign . . . I see the hand of Roberto Hernandez."

One big difference between the Hernandez and Villanueva accusations is that 
the latter were backed up by authorities. As Dillon points out, "One of the 
problems in covering the drug trade . . . is that the intelligence agencies 
of the U.S. and Mexican governments have a near monopoly on reliable 
information." He calls Por Esto!'s allegations "so silly that no one's ever 
paid any attention to them." Indeed, Dillon found it unremarkable that when 
President Clinton met his Mexican counterpart last year, the setting was 
Merida's Hacienda Temozon, a fancy hotel owned by Hernandez.

And yet, the Hernandez controversy burns on. Al Giordano reported on it in 
the Phoenix last May, and in September 1999, the Associated Press's Mark 
Stevenson published his investigation, calling the drug charges 
inconclusive but finding convincing evidence that Hernandez was a land 
grabber. Two days later, on September 6, a Mexican judge threw out 
Hernandez's libel suit because, according to the judge's order, "all the 
accusations formed by [Menendez] were based on facts." Hernandez did not 
return calls for comment.

"Every newspaper kept silent about the October 1968 massacre," says 
Menendez. "That doesn't mean it didn't happen." The publisher's trip to the 
U.S. coincides with Congress's annual March debate over Mexico's progress 
in the drug war, and drug czar Barry McCaffrey's visit to Mexico earlier 
this month. The drug czar also has corruption on his mind, according to a 
news brief filed by Dillon on February 11. Noting that Mexican officials 
had "documented a $60 million bribe from the drug lords," McCaffrey said, 
"That's getting close to my price." 
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