The recent kidnapping of five journalists in the northern Mexican city of Torreon highlights the city’s deteriorating security, and reflects an all-too-common pattern of media intimidation.
Five reporters from El Siglo de Torreon, whose hometown was recently named the fifth bloodiest city in the world by a Mexican violence monitoring NGO, were kidnapped on February 7. They were released the next day, with four of the five having been beaten by their captors. While the group did not work in the editorial section of the paper, the kidnapping was widely seen as an act of intimidation against El Siglo’s reporting, and a warning not to investigate issues related to organized crime too deeply.
This is not the first time either El Siglo or reporters from Torreon have been targeted. In 2009, a group of assailants riddled the paper’s main facilities with bullet holes in the middle of the night; no one was hurt. Two years later, in November of 2011, there was a similar incident, again harming no one. In May 2010, Eliseo Barron, a crime reporter from La Opinion, El Siglo’s primary local competition, was kidnapped from his house and murdered in Gomez Palacio, Durango, which neighbors Torreon. Weeks later, a reporting crew from Televisa was kidnapped in Torreon.
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Such a tactic is common in many of Mexico’s most violent cities. A reporter with the newspaper Novedades en Acapulco, the world’s second most violent city according to the aforementioned list compiled by the NGO, was murdered in December. Such attacks in Acapulco predate its recent descent into violence, which began in earnest only last year: for instance, a TV reporter was murdered in the port city in 2007, and Guerrero, Acapulco’s home state, was ranked fourth in the nation in total number of murdered journalists during the Calderon administration.
In Tamaulipas, home to the world’s ninth most violent city, Nuevo Laredo, the situation is largely similar. A group of gunmen fired on Nuevo Laredo’s El Mañana with assault rifles and grenades last May, marking the seventh act of aggression against the publication in the past six years. Zetas working in Tamaulipas have also targeted informants writing on supposedly anonymous message boards.
Juarez, which prior to 2012 was long considered Mexico’s most violent city, has also witnessed periodic acts of violence against local journalists. The most famous incident came in 2010, when the shooting of two cameramen precipitated a pleading editorial from El Diario, directed at the local criminals, titled: “What do you want from us?”
This string of attacks concentrated in Mexico’s most violent cities leads to a de facto media blackout, or, at the very least, a significant decline in what local reporters are willing to cover. In cities like Torreon and Nuevo Laredo, reporters on the crime beat typically report no more than the bare essentials provided by the relevant government officials. Journalistic investigations into many different aspects of organized crime — from official protection to ties to the legitimate economy — are simply not conducted. The result is that one of the principal checks against criminal impunity — an aggressive press corps — is an impossibility in precisely the cities where organized crime does most of its harm. As the Committee to Protect Journalists recently highlighted in a report from Zacatecas state, many local reporters see self-censorship as the only means to protect themselves.
While the problem is most pronounced in notoriously violent cities like Acapulco, a lack of press freedom afflicts even areas of Mexico that have been largely spared of long bouts of bloodshed. Veracruz, which has had a handful of atrocities but has never figured among the most violent Mexican states, has been the site of some of the most notorious incidents, including a quadruple murder of journalists in May 2012. Indeed, according to a conference of local legislatures, Veracruz had the largest number of threats and acts of violence last year of any state in the country. In second place was Oaxaca, which has an even lesser reputation for violence.
What many (though not all) of these states have in common is not merely a reputation for violence, but the presence of the Zetas as one of the principal gangs. Veracruz, Coahuila (Torreon’s home state), and Tamaulipas are all Zetas strongholds, and the group has been blamed for many of the most prominent attacks in recent years. More generally, the rising tide of aggressiveness toward members of the press has risen largely in tandem with the influence of the Zetas, as the gang’s network has grown and their rivals have increasingly imitated their methods.
That is, press blackouts have become an all-too-common objective for Mexican gangs.
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