Though successful in covering the gruesome aspects of the cartel-related carnage in Mexico, the U.S. press falls short in exposing the muzzling of its Mexican counterparts at the hands of organized crime. That blunt assertion comes from Ricardo Trotti, director of press freedom at the Inter American Press Association.
“They are not covering the news on how the Mexican press is being hit and you need [the coverage] to pressure the Mexican government. They need to pressure the government [on] its lack of reforms,” he said Monday in El Paso, where reporters and editors from the U.S. and Latin America gathered at the University of Texas at El Paso for a two-day summit, “News in the Line of Fire.” The event was sponsored by the American Society of News Editors, the IAPA and UTEP.
“We have to cover news regarding press freedoms and push for legal reforms,” added Trotti, who said that even a mere 180-word article in big-name outlets like The Wall Street Journal or The New York Times are enough to rattle the Mexican government into action. Mike O’Conner, the Mexico representative for the Committee to Protect Journalists, said that since Mexican President Felipe Calderón took office in December 2006, 27 journalists have been murdered and at least 5 have disappeared in Mexico. Three men who worked as distributors for newspapers have also been murdered, O'Conner added. The number of murdered journalists since 2000 is 67, said Gustavo Salas Chávez, the Mexican prosecutor for crimes against freedom of expression.
These figures could actually be higher. O’Conner acknowledged the CPJ count is a more conservative figure, when compared with media tallies. It’s because the CPJ uses more stringent criteria to determine who is a working journalist in Mexico. The committee only counts journalists who were working in that capacity when they were killed, he said, while others include former journalists and communication directors. Even people who have posed as journalists using false credentials have been counted as such after being killed by criminal gangs, he said.
O’Conner’s assessment followed a presentation in which he described the cartels and henchmen he said are now running Mexico. If Calderón pointed to a map of the Mexican state of Tamaulipas, which shares a border with the Texas cities of Laredo, Brownsville, and Roma, O’Conner said, he'd be fooling himself if he said the state was under his authority.
“I used Tamaulipas as an example, but I could have been talking about five states,” he said on the UTEP campus, just a few hundred yards from Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua, the epicenter of violence in Calderón’s war against the cartels. In one year alone, he said, criminals paid out 15 billion pesos in bribes.
One of the most poignant moments of the conference came when Alejandro Hernandez Pacheco, a cameraman with Mexican news outlet Televisa, recounted being kidnapped in July en route to the Mexican state of Durango. He was held at a house, awaiting certain death. Holding back tears, he told a captive audience how suddenly he was overcome with a sense of relief after deciding he would try to escape. “I knew my children would be proud of me,” he said of his attempt. Next to him sat an emotional Sandra Rodriguez Nieto, a senior reporter for El Diario de Juárez, who lost her colleague, crime reporter Armando Rodriguez, in 2008. Rodriguez was gunned down in front of his young daughter one morning as he prepared to take her to school. Hernandez Pacheco eventually fled from his captors after they felt the presence of law enforcement and let their guards down. He is currently seeking asylum in the United States. His grim tale was preceded Sunday by a lighter moment offered by Wendy Benjaminson, The Associated Press’ Texas news editor and drug-war beat team leader. When asked how she keeps tabs on her team’s reporters who travel to Mexico, the veteran journalist said she invokes the “Jewish mother” practice of having them call repeatedly.