Mexico's Drug Cartels Use Force To Silence Media Covering the drug beat is dangerous. In some parts of the country, reports about drug-related crime simply do not appear in newspapers or on news broadcasts. Reporters have been abducted and killed and their families threatened.
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Mexico's Drug Cartels Use Force To Silence Media

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Mexico's Drug Cartels Use Force To Silence Media

Mexico's Drug Cartels Use Force To Silence Media

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Here's more evidence that a real war is going on in Mexico: Journalists trying to cover the government's fight with drug cartels are in as much danger as those covering the hottest wars in the world. In some parts of Mexico reporters have stopped even trying to get the story after watching their colleagues get kidnapped or killed. Others says they're now limiting their reporting on crime to official government news releases, and some say they report whatever the local drug cartels order them to print.

Here's NPR's Jason Beaubien with the latest in his series on Mexico's drug war.

JASON BEAUBIEN: Hugo Alfredo Olivera Cartas was the editor of El Diem, a small newspaper in the western state of Michoac´┐Żn. On the night of July 5th he left work between 9:00 and 10:00 p.m., telling colleagues he was heading home. The next morning his body was found in his pickup truck with three gunshots to the head. Olivera was 27 years old and the eighth journalist to be assassinated in Mexico since January.

Mr. CARLOS LAURIA (Committee to Protect Journalists): This record level of violence is really unprecedented.

BEAUBIEN: Carlos Lauria is the head of the Americas program at the Committee to Protect Journalists. By his tally, more than 30 Mexican reporters have been killed or disappeared since President Felipe Calderon declared war on the drug cartels in December of 2006.

Mr. LAURIA: We only see these numbers in conflict-ridden countries like Iraq and Somalia.

BEAUBIEN: Lauria says the drug cartels in Mexico have intimidated or corrupted the media to the point where in some parts of the country crime coverage has disappeared entirely. As an example, he points to a wave of violence that occurred around the border city of Reynosa in late February. The Zetas were battling their former bosses, the Gulf cartel, for control of the northeastern state of Tamaulipas.

Running street battles between gunmen with heavy weapons went on for days and Lauria says caused...

Mr. LAURIA: Probably hundreds of deaths, according to international press reports, and there was not a single line about this wave of violence, not a single report in radio, television that accounted for this, all these execution-style murders.

BEAUBIEN: One of the first media reports of the carnage appeared outside of Mexico in The Dallas Morning News. The Texas paper said more than 200 people had been killed in a 14-day period.

An editor at a daily newspaper in Tamaulipas says it's true that the Zetas control the press in the state.

Unidentified Woman (Newspaper Editor): (Spanish spoken)

BEAUBIEN: They have a connection with the reporters who cover the police beat. And through them, she says, the Zetas send word on what they want and don't want to be published. She says the Zetas have a chief of press and even a sub-chief of press who keep tabs on what the local media is reporting.

The Zetas are one of the most brutal drug gangs in Mexico. They were founded in the late 1990s by a group of Mexican special forces soldiers who defected to work for the Gulf cartel. They served as the enforcers for the Gulf organization until recently, when they broke loose on their own.

Unidentified Woman: (Spanish spoken)

BEAUBIEN: We live in fear, the editor says. Some very small thing can be misinterpreted by the Zetas, she says. You can have a strong story with a strong source where all the facts are verified, but they don't care. And in the end they go after the messengers, after the media, after the reporters.

Unidentified Woman: (Spanish spoken)

BEAUBIEN: She says little things can anger the drug cartels. For instance, they get very upset when the papers use the words organized crime. At times, the editor says, you simply can't print the truth.

Unidentified Woman: (Spanish spoken)

BEAUBIEN: We are threatened. It's sad, she says. All we can do is look after our family and the people we know and tell them to be careful. Don't go out. Don't do this. Don't do that.

Unidentified Man (Journalist): I have never been in a situation like we are in right now.

BEAUBIEN: Another journalist in northern Mexico says it's incredibly dangerous to be a reporter here at the moment. What you write can get you killed. The criminals told him this directly to his face inside a police station where he he'd taken in handcuffs.

Unidentified Man #1: I was working. I was filming an accident, automotive accident.

BEAUBIEN: He speaks in English in an effort to make his voice less recognizable. He says two men in plain clothes told him to stop filming. When he refused he was arrested. At the police station, a man who introduced himself as the chief of press for a local gang told him that if you wrote about the accident they would kill him.

Unidentified Man #1: They tried to intimidate and say me, do you don't love your family? I say I love my family. OK. So think about your family when you are going to write this, because we know where your family, where you - they know all about us.

BEAUBIEN: They told him that he had been warned and there would be no second warning. Many Mexican journalists haven't been so lucky.

Valentin Valdes Espinosa, a reporter at the Zocalo de Saltillo, was found shot to death outside a motel in the state of Coahuila in January. A note dumped with his tortured body said: This will happen to anybody who doesn't understand.

Others have been killed in Acapulco, Sinaloa, Juarez, Durango and Michoac´┐Żn.

Gerardo Albarran, a reporter at the weekly national news magazine Proceso, says the press in Mexico is facing a situation that's completely new.

Mr. GERARDO ALBARRAN (Reporter, Proceso): (Spanish spoken)

BEAUBIEN: Never have we seen threats at such an extreme level from organized crime, he says, as we have seen in the last two or three years.

Albarran is also with the Center for Journalism and Public Ethics, a media advocacy group in Mexico City that tracks threats and violence against reporters. He says that the cartels have come to completely dominate the press in some parts of Mexico. When crime stories do appear, particularly in the north of the country, they tend to stick to just the facts lifted from police reports and are routinely published without bylines.

Every day in Mexico, Albarran says, reporters and editors wrestle with what they can and can't write. And, he says, one of the worse things about this situation is that there's no protection for journalists.

Mr. ALBARRAN: (Spanish spoken)

BEAUBIEN: Not only are they assassinating journalists, he says, the immense majority of these killings are left unsolved. Like most murders in Mexico, they go uninvestigated, thus granting impunity to the killers.

Albarran says that in some parts of Mexico residents have a war raging around them, complete with grenades and cartel members setting up their own road blocks in the streets, yet the local media are reporting on weddings, quinceaneras and fender benders.

Jason Beaubien, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: The drug violence has also hurt businesses in Mexico. Tomorrow we hear about one that's booming thanks to the drug war: the armored car business.

Unidentified Man #2: The main thing about having a bulletproof car is when you look at the car, you can't tell it's bulletproofed. First, we try to strive for zero ballistic apps(ph) and then from there we try to strive to make the car look as original as possible inside and outside.

MONTAGNE: That's tomorrow - armored cars - on MORNING EDITION.

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