Pubdate: Wed, 24 Sep 1997 Source: Houston Chronicle, page 1 Contact: Mexican journalists under siege Police are suspected in increasing attacks By SAM QUINONES Copyright 1997 Special to the Chronicle MEXICO CITY The truth is, it took a lot to break Rene Solorio. Late on Sept. 12, Solorio, a 30yearold crime reporter for the national network Television Azteca, was pulled over by four men armed with large pistols. They bound him, covered his eyes, put him in the car trunk and took off. Over the next eight hours, they told him repeatedly they were going to kill him for what he'd shown on television. A few days earlier, Solorio had filmed a group of armed robbers at work on a busy city street, with police doing nothing. It had aired on the network's news show. Through his ordeal that night, Solorio had managed to keep a grip on his nerves. He had offered up his car and his money for his life until it was clear his attackers were interested in neither. Yet even when several times they fired a gun near his head, even when on other occasions they put a plastic bag over his head and watched as he asphyxiated, even when they put him twice in the trunk of one car or another even through all that, Solorio didn't break down. "But when they told me they'd already killed my family, and gave me their names and described them, I couldn't handle it and just went into shock," he said. "I asked them to kill me. I just thought of God and my family." As the sun came up, though, Solorio was left on a highway leading out of town. His family had not been killed. Because of the way they spoke, their haircuts, their behavior, Solorio believes his attackers are police officers. That incident was one of five recently in which Mexican reporters who cover police and crime were abducted, beaten, tortured and advised to watch how they do their job by people who seem connected to the police. Another Television Azteca reporter was abducted and beaten the same day as Solorio. A reporter for the daily newspaper El Universal was attacked and threatened by three men near the prison she covers. Two reporters for the daily Reforma who had been investigating police ties to drug dealers were tortured and beaten. Television Azteca has offered a reward for information. The Mexico City Legislative Assembly has set up a commission to investigate the attacks. Several media organizations have condemned the assaults and called on President Ernesto Zedillo to step up the investigations into them. "We trust that through his participation there will be a serious investigation," said Ricardo Trotti, a spokesman for the Inter American Press Association in Miami, which earlier this month met with Zedillo over concerns about reporters' safety in Mexico. "These kinds of things can be a form of sending a message to all journalists and to see how authorities and journalists react. If authorities don't clarify the case, we run the risk of seeing this thing again." Zedillo said last week the attacks would not deter his administration from the conviction "that it is urgent to move forward, rigorously fighting criminality." Attacks on journalists in Mexico are nothing new. Since 1984, between 13 and 21 reporters have been murdered for what they've written, depending on which organization you ask. But this year the attacks on reporters have surpassed what is common even for Mexico. The country has the highest rate of slayings of journalists in the world, with three reporters killed in 1997, according to the New Yorkbased Committee to Protect Journalists. Meanwhile, a less reported type of harassment also has gone on. Federal prosecutors have demanded that reporters reveal anonymous sources, and in other instances, government functionaries have brought defamation lawsuits against reporters. In one, Foreign Minister Jose Gurria is suing a reporter for the newsweekly "Ahi" because she printed an interview with a former federal prosecutor who accused the minister of involvement with drug trafficking. The prosecutor is publishing a book where he repeats those allegations, yet the reporter is being sued. Journalists here say one problem is that laws regarding the press have not been modified since about the time of the Mexican Revolution. Reporters have no guarantee of anonymity for their sources. Nor is there a publicrecords law stating what information governmental agencies must make available to the public and the press. All of this means that reporters "are working in an atmosphere of a total lack of protection," said Juan Bautista, president of the Fraternity of Reporters of Mexico. Behind the attacks, in their various forms, is a bittersweet combination of factors. They have to do with Mexico's shredded social fabric, an economic crisis that has caused crime to skyrocket and a justice system that has crumbled under the weight of prolonged incompetence and corruption. Coupled with that are encouraging signs of a new society trying to emerge, in which everything is more open and critical, including journalism. As part of that opening, the press and broadcast media are enjoying greater freedoms and competition for stories has become fiercer. "As the system of controls breaks down, journalists are feeling more at liberty to investigate things that are considered relatively mundane in other countries, like police corruption," said Joel Simon, a spokesman for the Committee to Protect Journalists, who was for a long time a freelance writer in Mexico City. Following the peso devalution of December 1994, crime in Mexico City hit unheardof levels. In 1995, crime rose almost 36 percent, the kind of oneyear increase that one criminologist said this century has recorded only in societies during wartime Tokyo in 1945, for instance. But not only has crime risen here, it has also organized. Now instead of the lone burglar or armed robber, people frequently face organized bands of criminals of every stripe: armed robbers, truck and bus hijackers, kidnappers, bank robbers, car thieves, and drug traffickers. The capital has 710 organized gangs of criminals, Mexico City police announced this week. Many are believed to be made up of ex police officers or have police protection. For now, journalist organizations await a response from the authorities. This week, Bautista's group, the Fraternity of Reporters, met with Attorney General Jorge Madrazo, who promised investigations into the attacks on the five Mexico City reporters, as well as the murder of the three journalists in other parts of the country. Bautista said his organization will send to Congress an initiative that would revamp current media law to include guarantees and protections for reporters and their sources. But for now, journalists remain exposed. And they are left to ponder that the attackers in the recent cases arrogantly did nothing to hide their faces. Television Azteca earlier this week broadcast another crime report, this one showing car thieves during the day dismantling vehicles on a street. "I'll bet a lot of reporters feel, `I'm not going to be scared off.' It's a matter of pride," said Simon of the Committee to Protect Journalists. "There's a real political cost (in these attacks) not just to the police, but also to Mexico City and to Mexico as a whole." Sam Quinones is a freelance journalist based in Mexico City.