In Mexico, Cartels Target Journalists

The spiraling drug violence is increasingly affecting journalists, in a country considered one of the most dangerous for reporters. Host Michel Martin speaks with Jose de Cordoba of The Wall Street Journal, and Carlos Lauria of the Committee to Protect Journalists. Advisory: This segment may not be comfortable for some listeners.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, a woman talks about her 10 year journey to fulfill her mother's last wish. That's our Washington Post Magazine story and we'll have that in just a few minutes. But first, there is grim news out of Mexico, and this is probably a good place to point out that the details are gruesome and so might not be appropriate for all listeners.

With that being said, on Sunday, authorities found nearly 50 decapitated and dismembered bodies along a highway about 80 miles southwest of the U.S. border. Officials say the murders appear to be related to an ongoing war between Mexican drug cartels. Back in 2006, Mexican President Felipe Calderon announced a crackdown on the cartels. Since then, more than 47,000 people have been killed in drug-related violence throughout Mexico.

But we want to focus today on one particular target and that is journalists. An alarming number of journalists have been killed recently in just one area: Vera Cruz, Mexico. Earlier this month Mexican military police recovered the dismembered bodies of three press photographers from a canal in the Mexican port city. All had shown signs of torture.

The body of the girlfriend of one of the men was found alongside them. These deaths come soon after the death of another Vera Cruz journalist, Regina Martinez. She was a crime and investigative reporter for the national news magazine Proceso. In all, seven Vera Cruz journalists have been killed in the past 14 months along with some members of their families.

We wanted to know more about this, so earlier we called Jose de Cordoba. He is a correspondent for the Wall Street Journal. He's based in Mexico City and he's been reporting on these attacks on journalists. Also joining us was Carlos Lauria. He is a senior program coordinator at the Committee to Protect Journalists. Gentlemen, welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.

JOSE DE CORDOBA: Happy to be here.

CARLOS LAURIA: Nice to be here, Michel.

MARTIN: Now, Jose, you've been in Mexico for some time and Mexico has long been known as a dangerous place for reporters to work. So I think a lot of people understand that. But why Vera Cruz? Why now? Why these people?

CORDOBA: Well, Vera Cruz has become a battleground for two of Mexico's most dangerous and most violent drug cartels in the last year and a half, I would say. It's a seaport, the city of Vera Cruz, and it's a strategic place on the routes taking drugs north. It's been controlled by the Zetas and now the Sinaloa cartel is fighting the Zetas for control of Vera Cruz.

MARTIN: And Jose, how is this being reported in Mexico? Or does it fall to the international press to report on this?

CORDOBA: Well, Mexico has gotten to the point where unless there's a lot of, you know, there's a massacre with a lot of people being killed, it doesn't make much news. Where the country's been caught in this spiraling - (Spanish spoken) - cycle of violence since 2007, where just incredibly hideous things don't shock as much as they used to.

In Vera Cruz, for example, I mean the worse incident was last September, when 35 - the bodies of 35 people were thrown out in the middle of the city center right next to a convention hotel that was going to be the site of a convention for the states' - Mexican states' attorney generals the next day. But the result of all this has been an enormous amount of self-censorship among Mexican regional newspapers.

It's still reported in Mexican national papers, in Mexican national media, but local papers really do censor themselves almost out of the business.

MARTIN: Carlos Lauria, what kind of context would you put this in? I think people understand that, you know, Iraq and Afghanistan, those are war zones, are dangerous places for journalists, but can you compare - and also maybe by extension Pakistan - but how does the situation in Mexico compare to those, if you don't mind putting it in those terms?

LAURIA: Sure. I mean, since President Calderon took office in the summer of 2006, more than 45 journalists have been killed or disappeared in Mexico. Media outlets have been bombed. Journalists have gone into exile or abandoned their profession. But I will say that perhaps the most devastating consequences of this wave of unprecedented violence in Mexico is a climate of fear and intimidation in which journalists work.

Which is leading to, as Jose pointed out, widespread censorship. Many of the issues that affect the daily lives of thousands of Mexicans, including journalists, are being unreported. So this is a problem that's gone way beyond the press. It's a problem that is affecting fundamental human rights of Mexicans - freedom of expression and access to information - and it's inhibiting the (unintelligible) of public interest - the impact of violence, the collusion between organized crime and authorities.

All these issues are not covered. Journalists are terrified. I think that democratic stability is at risk. Mexico has become one of the most dangerous places for journalists around the world.

MARTIN: We mentioned that Regina Martinez, who was a correspondent for Proceso magazine, she was reporting on the crime cartels, or at least attempting to, but Jose, were the other journalists who were killed, were they in fact doing this kind of reporting? It's our understanding that one of the people who was killed wasn't even working in journalism anymore.

CORDOBA: Yeah. There were two photojournalists who were still working as photographers. One had given up and become a welder. But the thing is that all these guys work the police beat, and that's a very, very dangerous profession to do in Mexico, especially in the states that have become battlegrounds between warring cartels.

We don't know specifically what Guillermo Luna or Gabriel Huge were working on before their deaths, but the mere fact that you're taking pictures of any crime scene in Mexico has become dangerous in these areas, because you don't know who might not want you to take that photograph. Or sometimes you do know who doesn't want you to take that photograph or report that story.

MARTIN: We're talking about a string of brutal attacks on journalists in Mexico. Seven journalists have been murdered just in Vera Cruz in the last 14 months. I am joined by Jose de Cordoba. He's a Wall Street Journal reporter based in Mexico City who's been reporting on this. Also with us, Carlos Lauria of the Committee to Protect Journalists. That's an organization that keeps track of attacks on journalists around the world.

And Jose, you cannot help but note that there just seems to be no boundaries here at all. I mean, we noted that the photojournalists - there were clear signs that they had been tortured when their bodies were discovered. They were dismembered. I apologize for the fact that this is gruesome but it's a fact. And in addition to that, in one case a journalist's family was killed along with him. Is that - is the level of brutality here intended to send a message or has that just become the new normal as well?

CORDOBA: I think it's intended to send a message, and unfortunately it's become the new normal. I think obviously there are terror tactics meant to send a message, because many of the times, you know, groups, they will leave a sign saying, you know, we're the Zetas and we're here or whatever. So that they're signs meant to terrorize the citizens, the local law enforcement, everybody, that the real powers are whatever drug gang has done the killings.

MARTIN: Carlos Lauria, has there been any governmental response to this? I understand that the Mexican Senate approved a constitutional amendment to federalize anti-press crimes. Is that perceived as important? And are there other steps that your organization is advocating that would address this?

LAURIA: Right. Well, I think that one of the problems that aggravates this free expression crisis in Mexico is the fact that over 90 percent of the cases are not prosecuted. Those responsible for these horrendous crimes are not going to jail. So impunity is a huge problem. In part, this is a responsibility of the federal government because, you know, these are fundamental human rights that are enshrined in the constitution and in international treaties that have been ratified by Mexico.

I think that reforms need to happen and this, you know, federalization of crimes against free expression, which will give federal authorities broader jurisdiction to prosecute and investigate these crimes is a positive step forward because most of these crimes now rely on the hands of state authorities, and the penetration of organized crime in the states is huge.

So I think this is a step forward, But we have to understand that there's no magic solutions, no silver bullet that will stop the violence of the cartels, and that this will take time. There are other mechanisms that the state can put in place, like protection for journalists who are in imminent risk, which, you know, the federal government has tried to put in place, but has been very ineffective.

I think this new law will provide a better framework, but it will take time and there is an urgent need for successful prosecution.

MARTIN: And finally, this is an election year in Mexico. A new president will be selected at some point. Is this an issue?

LAURIA: Well, I think, you know, this should be an issue. You know, it's a grave press freedom crisis, which is inhibiting the debate on very important issues and I haven't seen any of the candidates take on these issues. And, you know, the federal government - Calderon government - has said that this is a priority in his national agenda. Unfortunately, you know, the government has been overwhelmed. The drug traffickers have become the de facto authorities in many places in Mexico and journalists, you know, can not do their work. They have no guarantees and they are terrified.

But it would be very important for the candidates to debate on these issues and to take a position to know what will the candidates do when they come to the presidency.

MARTIN: Jose, did you want to get a final thought, give a final thought there?

CORDOBA: Oh, yes. I was going to say, you know, you know, this is the underlying issue. It's a basic issue that Mexico will have to deal with in the following years and it has to do - has an enormous amount to do with the enormous corruption that afflicts a lot of Mexico's - you know, the judicial institution, the Mexican police force and Mexican prisons.

And, until Mexico solves all that, you know, it will not really be able to progress as much as it should.

MARTIN: Jose de Cordoba is a correspondent for The Wall Street Journal based in Mexico City. He's been reporting on the brutal attacks on journalists in Mexico, most recently in Veracruz. He was with us on the phone from Mexico City. Also with us, Carlos Lauria. He's with the Committee to Protect Journalists and focuses on Latin America.

Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

LAURIA: Thank you.

CORDOBA: You're welcome. Happy to be here.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: Coming up, just before Danielle Seiss' mother died of cancer, she asked her daughter to spread her ashes at a special place she remembered from her childhood. That was 10 years ago and Danielle's still trying to find the spot, but it's not all sad. We'll hear about what that quest taught her about her mother and herself. That's ahead on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

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