(Reuters) – After a news report detailing the capture of several members of Mexico’s ruthless Zetas drug gang ran on television in the northern city of Monterrey, the reporter’s phone rang.
For the last two years, northeastern Mexico’s Nuevo Leon and Tamaulipas states have been ravaged by bloody battles between rival drug gangs and horrific massacres of migrants. But don’t expect to read much about it in the local media.
Reporters in large swathes of the country now censor their own coverage, fearful of reprisals by ruthless drug gangs and corrupt police on their payroll.
They say they are also intimidated by military units that were deployed to fight the drug gangs and have been accused of human rights abuses against drug suspects.
A tally kept by the Committee to Protect Journalists shows attacks on reporters have intensified since President Felipe Calderon launched an army-led crackdown against drug gangs at the end of 2006. More than 40,000 people across Latin America’s second-biggest economy have died in the conflict.
At least Mexican 42 journalists have been murdered over the past five years, according to the CPJ, making it more deadly than Afghanistan.
Mexico’s human rights commission puts the number at 50.
Attacks and threats against the media are not new in Mexico but they are spreading to new areas, sparking fears that press freedom is in jeopardy.
“We’re doing survival journalism, walking a fine line,” said Ismael Bojorquez, director of the weekly Rio Doce, a newspaper in the northwestern state of Sinaloa, the heartland of Mexican drug trafficking and home to a cartel of the same name.
Bojorquez was the only one of several journalists interviewed by Reuters who consented to give his name.
Some reporters fear danger within their own ranks. Cartels have enticed journalists onto their payrolls to publish favorable stories or be their eyes and ears inside newsrooms.
Experts say some of the journalists killed may have been involved with the cartels and either upset the local bosses or were targeted by a rival gang.
NO SEARCH WARRANT
The drugs war raging along the border with the United States has become Mexico’s biggest news story.
But the gangs in Tamaulipas, south of Texas, where the Gulf cartel and Zetas are fighting a bloody turf war, are so powerful that media outlets there have drastically curbed their crime coverage to avoid reprisals.
“The Zetas and Gulf cartel are the most important thing happening in Tamaulipas today, but (the media) don’t touch it,” said Michael O’Connor, the CPJ’s spokesman in Mexico.
“Organized crime is in control of the state’s politics, police and the justice system,” he said, explaining the penetrating reach of the cartels.
As they hunker down to work, reporters face an increasingly impossible task.
They often receive threats to hush up the capture of drug suspects because it makes the cartels look weak.
At the same time, gangs regularly alert the media to spectacular killings carried out by their hitmen. They often leave messages for their rivals on the bodies of their victims and then pressure local journalists to transmit those threats.
There is virtually no local news coverage of the violence in Tamaulipas, even when rival cartels go at each other in fierce street battles.
Reporters say the intimidation from soldiers is escalating and in some areas is as bad as, or even worse than, the pressure from gang leaders.
“With no search warrant and in a car with its plates blacked out, soldiers arrived at my office … and tried to take cameras and everything,” said a journalist from Nuevo Laredo, just over the Rio Grande from Texas in Tamaulipas.
News reports that do surface about violence in the state are frequently sourced to U.S. media across the border, in Texan towns like McAllen and Brownsville.
The Mexican government has set up a special prosecutor’s office to investigate the attacks against journalists but it has been largely ineffective with most of the killings still unsolved. The prosecutor’s office declined requests for an interview.
The most recent victim was Yolanda Ordaz, a crime reporter of some 20 years experience at Notiver, a daily from the coastal state of Veracruz, east of Mexico City.
Her decapitated body was dumped in front of the offices of another local paper. In June, another Notiver journalist, Miguel Angel Lopez, was murdered along with his wife and younger son.
As the attacks on the media spread, journalists in areas previously untouched by violence have begun changing their routines and censoring their own copy — an ominous sign of shrinking press freedoms.
“You’re watching out that nothing happens to you when you work,” said a radio reporter based in Cuernavaca, a city some 50 km (30 miles) south of Mexico City, who moved house after he was kidnapped by drug gangs and later ransomed for $10,000.
“You make mention of a certain instance of violence, but without interpreting it or going into detail,” he said.