Journalists on front line of Mexico drug war: 'Fear is terrible and well founded'

A woman attends the opening of a memorial to victims of violence in Mexico City last week.
Gun battles lasting for hours, seven decapitated bodies theatrically seated on a row of garden chairs, a video communique promising peace and tranquility read out against a backdrop of 70 armed, uniformed and masked men – Mexico's drug wars go on. But four months into the new government of President Enrique Peña Nieto, finding out about them is getting more difficult than ever.

"There is less information all the time," says Ricardo González of the freedom of expression group Article 19. "It is alarming."

The most obvious problem is the pressure from organized criminal groups that limits coverage of the violence in the local media outlets closest to the conflict zones. This took root during the previous administration of Felipe Calderón, the president whose crackdown on the cartels triggered the initial killing spiral. There is nothing to indicate the trend is changing.

"The attacks have continued despite the change of federal government and the measures being taken are insufficient and can be counterproductive" says González. "To really protect journalists they need to tackle the impunity that surrounds the attacks."

González cites the official response to the recent kidnapping of five workers from the Siglo de Torreón newspaper from the northern state of Coahuila – it boiled down to a police guard at the paper's offices that attracted more attacks directed against the officers.

The degree of pressure varies from state to state, with the total silencing of the media in Tamaulipas in Mexico's northeastern corner looming terrifyingly large at the end of the spectrum.

"The fear is terrible and well founded," says one former reporter from the state. She recalls going to her boss after receiving a death threat linked to a straight forward news report and being advised to seek out a cartel representative and apologize. "The heroes are in the cemetery," she says, adding that the media and official silence in the face of a recent spate of gun battles in the border city of Reynosa proved nothing has changed.

Journalists on Mexico's drug war front lines say the information vacuum is further bolstered by complicit colleagues who act as messengers for both the cartels and also political bosses who share an interest in keeping the bloodletting quiet.

Last week a national association of newspaper editors presented the governor of the coastal state of Veracruz, Javier Duarte, with a prize for his "commitment to freedom of expression". There was no mention of the nine journalists from the state killed and three missing since he took office in 2010. On the day of the prize, according to Article 19, three murders related to the drug war went unreported in Veracruz.

All this fuels the popularity of websites and social media networks dedicated to the drug wars, such as the blog del narco whose unnamed young female editor was interviewed for the first time by the Guardian last week.

Peña Nieto limits himself to the odd speech promising vague measures that he assures will sort out the mess he inherited. Photograph: Mario Guzman/EPA
But the voids in coverage of Mexico's drug wars are not limited to the on-the-ground reporting in local media facing ever present dangers. The violence, what it means and the strategies used to combat it, are also beginning to drop out of national and international headlines.

A study released this week by an independent commission concluded that coverage of the violence in capital-based print and on TV during during the first three months of the Peña Nieto administration (beginning last December) was about half of what it had been in the same period a year before.

The report, from the Observatory of the Processes of Public Communication of the Violence, found, for example, that the words "organized crime" and "cartel" began to disappear from free-to-view TV.

Some of the waning interest can be put down to drug war fatigue as the horror looses shock value, and the dynamics of the conflicts become so complex it can be hard to see where even major violent events fit into the bigger picture.

"It is all getting messier," says drug war analyst Alejandro Hope. Hope says that the importance of the broad power struggles between famed international criminal organizations are becoming less important for understanding the violence than the proliferation of local conflicts between smaller groups, many of them the result of splits in the larger cartels.

But the recent waning of media attention is also associated with the new government's success in controlling a major source of stories about the country's security crisis – itself.

Right up until he left office in December, Calderon made countless speeches aggressively defending his offensive, while his officials distributed the videoed interrogations of arrested drug traffickers, and government ads proclaiming operational successes were everywhere.

Today the ads have disappeared, arrests are rarely even publicly announced, government officials avoiding naming the cartels involved in major events, and Peña Nieto limits himself to the odd speech promising new – and vague – measures that he assures will sort out the mess he inherited.

"I believe that a year's time is a good moment to evaluate how the [new] strategy is going" he said last month, without offering an clear idea of what he is doing that is all that different from Calderón.

The discursive attention paid at the very start of his government to the need for more preventative action was widely welcomed, but as the months go by, the plans themselves remain sketchy.

Meanwhile, the army and navy are still deployed around the country in law enforcement activities, and co-operation with the US seems largely unchanged. The pledge to create a new squeaky clean and flawlessly efficient national police force remains on the table, but with little explanation of what marks this plan off from several previous attempts to do the same thing.

There is greater clarity in the governments efforts to quell internal government rivalries over strategy and improve coordination between the federal and state level authorities. So far, however, the most discernible effect of the new concentration of power is to keep a tighter hold of official information.

Even the explicit commitment to reduce the death toll "significantly" is hard to evaluate given the absence of an official description of what this means and the dependence on official data that many distrust.

The new government has begun releasing a national monthly figure for drug war related deaths, but without accompanying information about the criteria used to work it out, or why it should be more reliable than the data intermittently released under the previous administration which was widely dismissed as woefully inadequate.

Hope, the security expert, is not convinced that any of this can secure a permanent change in the crisis narrative that dominated the Calderón years even if, for now, the horror is being kept out of the papers."By not talking about it very much they may change perceptions on the periphery, but it is risky too when something is going on everyday," he says. "And something is happening every day."



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