Pubdate: Tue, 29 Dec 2009
Source: Los Angeles Times (CA)
Page: A17
Copyright: 2009 Los Angeles Times
Author: Tracy Wilkinson, Reporting from Durango, Mexico
Bookmark: (Mexico Under Siege (Series))

Mexico Under Siege


As Slayings Climb, Some Refrain From Writing As Much About Drugs and 

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many other crises, the escorts were withdrawn.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." 
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MAP posted-by: Richard Lake