Tue, Oct 16, 2012 - Page 9 News List

The dangers of reporting the truth about Mexico’s bloody drug war

Scores of journalists have died in a country gripped by brutal “narco violence” that has claimed an estimated 60,000 lives since 2006, and still the death toll mounts. Now questions are being asked about who is really in charge — the cartels or the police and the politicians who have failed to respond

By Ed Vulliamy  /  The Observer, XALAPA, Mexico

Illustration: Yusha

He shakes as he speaks and at moments his eyes fill.

“It’s certain that the people who killed my colleague were criminals,” he says, “the killing had the modus operandi of organized crime. But who sent them and why? That’s the question, that’s the smokescreen.”

This is a colleague of Victor Manuel Baez Chino, whose mutilated body was found in June in the main square of Xalapa, capital of the Mexican coastal state of Veracruz. Baez was the state’s crime editor for an online edition of the national newspaper Milenio and editor of the Police Report Web site (currently down) which covered crime.

In August, state prosecutors declared the case closed. Witnesses, they said, had identified the bodies of two men killed in a shootout as the same people who had kidnapped the reporter. Baez’s circles were “entirely unconvinced,” his colleague says.

Baez is one of 56 journalists killed during Mexico’s drug war since 2006 (a figure calculated by the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists). The war reached a climax last week with the killing by Mexican marines of the leader of the wildest — albeit not the biggest — narcotics cartel: the paramilitary “Zetas,” which counts Veracruz, with its strategically crucial gulf port, among its strongholds.

After a further spate of killings this year, Veracruz became the focus for this war against the press: six reporters were killed in Mexico within a month leading to mid-May, three of them in Veracruz.

This is no sideshow in a wider war involving the drugs cartels, argues the committee’s representative in Mexico, Mike O’Connor. He insists that “the silencing of the press and killing of journalists is integral to the reality, the big story, of what is happening here: that the cartels are taking territory.”

Furthermore, he says: “The inability of the government to really solve hardly any of the crimes against journalists during the four years I’ve been here is a metaphor for its inability to solve crimes against common citizens. They simply cannot do it. And you wonder: if they can’t solve these crimes, why not? Is it because they don’t want to?”

Of course, the threats and killings proliferate beyond Veracruz, across Mexico. In the border town of Nuevo Laredo, Ramon Cantu, publisher of the local El Manana said after his paper’s offices were attacked by the Zetas: “We are censoring the paper because we have to get our children to school.”

In Ciudad Juarez, my friend Sandra Rodriguez is among the reporters who work on bravely, despite the killing of two colleagues, “because we have to carry on with this task, to expose what is going on.”

Among those killed in Veracruz was Yolanda Ordaz de la Cruz, whose decapitated, tortured body was found in July last year, dumped near her newspaper, Imagen, two days after she was seized by armed men as she left home.

State prosecutor Reynaldo Escobar Perez insisted the killing was not linked to her work and state Governor Javier Duarte de Ochea said authorities were pursuing “multiple lines of investigation.”

Another was Miguel Angel Lopez Velasco, columnist for the daily Notiver, who was killed along with his wife and son the previous month.

Apart from the barbarism of his killing, Victor Baez’s death bore another hallmark of a “narco execution”: a note pinned to his torso, this one reading: “Here’s what happens to traitors and people who act clever. Sincerely, the Zetas.”

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