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

(To complete the surreality of the occasion, Proceso magazine posted on its Web site a detailed account of a supposed meeting in the Crowne Plaza hotel in Xalapa, at which Duarte was meant to have “exploded” with recrimination at Godwin, the esteemed American writer John Lee Anderson and myself, for speaking badly of Veracruz. The story was a fabrication — denied by the governor’s office and all three of us).

It happens that the Committee to Protect Journalists is represented in Mexico by one of America’s most experienced and renowned reporters. O’Connor is a veteran of the “dirty wars” in Central America during the 1980s for CBS television and of other conflicts thereafter for the New York Times. For nearly four years now, he has documented and investigated the intimidation and murder of Mexican reporters and toured the country consulting those under threat. He is uniquely qualified to explain how the war against the press speaks to Mexico’s carnage.

“The government and authorities are ceding territory to the cartels and, for the cartels to take territory, three things have to happen,” O’Connor says. “One is to control the institutions with guns — basically, the police. The second is to control political power. And, for the first two to be effective, you have to control the press.”

“Every journalist I’ve spoken to says that the corruption of forces is such that the cartels control the politicians. That does not say that the cartels get money from this — there are rewards for the politicians and there is a very strong disincentive not to co-operate. I’m not quite sure what the word is to describe the relationship, but ultimately the capo is in charge,” he says.

However, he adds, “When I say to a roomful of journalists, ‘Ask the question, Quien manda aqui? [Who’s in charge?],’ they take a virtual step backwards, wide-eyed. That’s the question you ask yourself at night when you’re drunk and your wife is asleep and you hope no one hears you.”

“You can’t have a democracy without an informed public ... Mexico has all the structures of a democracy, but it does not have an informed public. It has a public which knows the starting lineup of the Green Bay Packers, but doesn’t know who runs the city or the state they live in,” O’Connor says.

“[The public] don’t know what’s going on, because the reporters cannot ask: ‘Who’s in charge?’ You cannot find in your newspaper, in most parts of the country, information about the big story — and the big story is that organized crime has taken over, or is working very successfully at taking over, your city, town or village,” O’Connor says.

“And if you report that, you get killed. Mostly, you don’t think about reporting that,” he says.

O’Connor summarizes government officials as insisting that all Mexican journalists are corrupt and the victims are working for the cartels — “as if they could possibly know.”

Working on the ground, he says: “Look, I don’t have the FBI crime lab behind me — I do the investigations I can within the environment I have. And I know that at some times and in some places, a reporter might get approached by someone with a pistol, and told to write this, but not that, and there may be some money in it. And if you don’t, we know where you and your family live.”

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