"What do you want from us?"
It’s an odd question for a newspaper to ask of the people it covers. But when those people have an arsenal rivaling an army — and no reservations about murdering journalists to keep them from doing their jobs — a paper’s role leading the public conversation takes on a different and deadly dynamic.
The editors of El Diario de Juárez asked that question of Mexican drug traffickers in an editorial the paper published on Sept. 19 following the assassination in broad daylight of 21-year-old staff photographer Luis Carlos Santiago. Santiago was gunned down in a mall parking lot three days earlier, the same day his countrymen quietly celebrated Mexican Independence Day.
“We do not want more deaths. We do not want more injured or more intimidation. It is impossible to carry out our role in these conditions. Tell us, therefore, what is expected of us as a media outlet,” the editorial reads.
The editorial and the murder that prompted it underscore the extreme dangers of truth-seeking in a region where law and order has nearly disintegrated. Santiago was the second Diario reporter murdered in less than two years — and one of 25 Mexican reporters or media support staff killed since Mexican President Felipe Calderón took office in December 2006, according to the U.S.-based Committee to Protect Journalists.
[Editor's note: This map visualizes those killings, with red points noting when the committee determined that journalists' jobs were motives in their slayings. Those points in green have undetermined motives, and the one in blue involved media support workers. Some points overlap.]
Source: Committee to Protect Journalists; view larger map.
The newspaper — one of the remaining few still dedicated to covering the daily violence in the border city across the Rio Grande from El Paso — insists that the editorial does not signal surrender and vows to continue reporting on tough topics. Upon reading it, media outlets around the world lamented that yet another Mexican daily had surrendered to cartels and their associated prison and street gangs, whose war to gain control of the lucrative drug routes has resulted in nearly 30,000 homicides nationally in less than three years. But Diario assistant editor Pedro Torres, who spoke to The Texas Tribune this week from his Juárez office, said it was a rhetorical statement that aimed to shed light on the dangers faced daily by the paper’s reporters.
The editorial may have been misinterpreted, he said, but it had its desired effect nonetheless. “We said it literally to the leaders of the criminal gangs fighting for control of the plaza, but the intent was to strike a blow … to call attention to what is going on in Juárez,” said Torres, who admitted he was surprised by the attention but added: “It is good. Is it not?”
All it takes is a glance at the paper’s editions since the editorial last week, he said, to prove it isn’t waving the white flag. It included familiar coverage of crime, including the recent killings of two suspected teenaged kidnappers in the town of Ascensión, Chihuahua, about 150 west of Juárez.
Molly Molloy is a librarian and researcher at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces, where she focuses on U.S.-Mexico border and Latin American studies. Every day she searches media posts on the border, specifically from Ciudad Juárez and places them on a listserve called Frontera list. Her group has become an online presence for journalists, researchers and others interested in debates and critiques of news coverage. Following the Diario editorial, several journalists chimed in, saying they know or had spoken to reporters from the paper who refused to “surrender” their ambition and careers to cartel gangs. “Scared, yes. Giving up, no,” posted one reporter. Similar posts soon followed.
Molloy posits that the media, mainly in the U.S., assumed Diario was giving up because it lacks the context about how the press in Mexico has operated for decades. The Mexican press has long done business under the constraints of unspoken yet well-understood threats.
“There have always been arreglos — arrangements between the Mexican press and both the government and criminal organizations,” she said. “I think what Diario was trying to do with its editorial was say, ‘Look, what is the arrangement?’ In other words, ‘Something’s broken down, and we want to know what it is.’ I can’t prove that, and I don’t expect them to say that publicly. But in a way they did say that as publicly as they can, if you read between the lines.”
Molloy suggests, however, that Diario has set the bar even higher, because of the courage its editors mustered in writing the piece in the first place. “It felt like they were trying to say, ‘We are not surrendering. We are not going to back down. We believe that we have a job to report.' I think that that’s what they are doing. I can imagine that the reporters are terrified.”
The day after Santiago’s funeral, a severed head was found on the hood of a car — with a copy of Diario’s coverage of the service. The identity of the victim and the exact message the perpetrators were sending remains a topic of conjecture.
Talk or action?
The same murderous wrath that befell the photographers was visited in 2008 on Diario crime correspondent Armando Rodriguez, who was gunned down one morning while preparing to take his young daughter to school. Rodriguez was shot several times with surgical precision, but the girl was unharmed, leaving many to speculate a that a professional carried out the hit. It wasn’t until this week — when the Committee to Protect Journalists met with Calderón in Mexico — that authorities announced they had a suspect in Rodriguez’s slaying.
“We categorically reject any attack against journalists, because this is an assault against democratic society," Calderon said in a statement after the meeting. "It pains me that Mexico is seen as one of the most dangerous places for the profession."
The president said he would push his Congress to pass a law making attacks on the press a federal offense, according to a news release from the Committee to Protect Journalists. A similar effort stalled in Congress in 2008.
Some have tired of the Mexican leader’s promises, however, believing them to be nothing more than lip service. “When it comes down to it, really it’s going to be more of the same," said Carlos Spector, an El Paso immigration attorney whose roster of clients includes reporters from Mexico seeking exile in the U.S. "How many house-cleanings have they had? How many times have they restructured AFI [Agencia Federal de Investigación] and called it something else? It’s always good for them to say the right thing — at least the addict is saying he’ll never use again.”
Working with the Border Network for Human Rights in El Paso, Spector recently called a news conference to draw attention to the increase in the number of Mexican reporters seeking exile, including Televisa Laguna cameraman Alejandro Hernandez Pacheco and reporter Hector Gordoa Marquez, who worked for Televisa in Mexico City. Their vehicle was hijacked. Multimedios Television cameraman Javier Canales Fernandez had also been kidnapped and was being held at the house to which Hernandez Pacheco and Gordoa Marquez were taken.
The three men “were tortured and threatened with death and the next day they were forced to call their TV stations to demand that these media outlets broadcast videos that the narco-trafficking organizations wanted shown to the nation,” Spector said in a statement. The kidnappers let Gordoa Marquez go, and Canales Fernandez and Hernandez Pacheco managed to escape after their captors felt the presence of law enforcement and let down their guard. The Mexican government then endangered the two further by putting them on public display at a news conference, where officials bragged about the effort to save them; Spector said they were duped into showing up, thinking they were going to meet privately with the president.
Hernandez Pacheco is now in the U.S. seeking asylum, as is Emilio Gutiérrez. Gutiérrez, a former reporter for Diario del Noroeste, a small affiliate of the major daily in Ciudad Juárez in Ascensión, was detained and placed in detention for eight months by Immigration and Customs Enforcement in 2008 after arriving at the port of entry at Antelope Wells, N.M. He fled after being threatened by Mexican military for reporting on alleged abuses committed by the army. Jorge Luis Aguirre, a former editor for LaPolaka.com, sought asylum in 2008 in El Paso after receiving threatening phone calls. He was granted asylum this week.