Drug traffickers are increasingly seeking to influence the editorial line at a southern Mexico newspaper as it reports from a flashpoint region in the country’s drug wars.
“They call and say: ‘You only have to inform. Do not investigate, do not comment, do not editorialize,’” said Juan Cuevas, director of the newspaper in Guerrero State, home to the legendary beach resort of Acapulco.
The newspaper’s offices lie in an area known locally as “Tierra Caliente,” or “Hot Land,” which overlaps the states of Guerrero and Michoacan and is known for both drug cultivation and the turf wars between powerful traffickers.
Drug violence has flared in the past three years in Mexico, with an estimated 14,000 drug-related deaths since the launch of a military crackdown on the country’s feuding cartels.
Threats, bribes and even murder have also become part of life for some journalists, particularly in northern border areas.
Mexico is now considered one of the most dangerous countries in the world for media workers.
Reporters Without Borders says 57 journalists have been killed in Mexico since 2000 and 10 have gone missing.
In the offices of the El Debate de lo Calenturos in Ciudad Altamirano, a town of some 30,000 inhabitants, employees now dread phone calls from unknown numbers.
“When the screen on the telephone says ‘private number,’ we know that it’s someone from a drug gang. They ask why we don’t publish messages they leave alongside corpses, or they ask us not to publish those of other gangs,” Cuevas said.
The La Familia cartel, which launched a murder offensive against Mexican authorities last summer, is one of the main gangs which operates in the area.
As organized crime has weakened institutions like local government and the police, many reporters fear that responsible journalism is also under similar threat.
“I feel limited as a journalist. If we carried out investigations, we wouldn’t be here. The heroes are buried. I don’t want to be a hero,” Cuevas said.
Secretary Marfelia Zavaleta said she wanted to quit after the death of a 16-year-old newspaper delivery boy.
“He stopped coming to the newspaper. Apparently he was a ‘falcon,’” she said, referring to teenagers suspected of being on the payroll of drug gangs to carry out reconnaissance missions on motorbikes.
Israel Flores, a 30-year-old reporter, said he now took extra precautions when out reporting, including regular calls to his wife.
“Some people tell me it would be better to leave and do something else, but I’m here because I like my job,” Flores said.
The newspaper’s latest police section included six large photographs of three men killed the previous Sunday.
Two pictures were close-ups of bloodied faces.
“We show the faces because they haven’t been identified. It could be criticized journalistically, but it’s a service to the community,” Cuevas said.
“If they are from other towns which receive the newspaper, their families can identify them and collect the bodies,” he said.
The 30-year-old newspaper is mainly political, but editors say they have to include sensational crime stories, known as notas rojas, to reflect the growing violence and satisfy customers.
“I sold all my 200 newspapers because they contained crime stories,” said a newspaper vendor traveling by bicycle outside the offices. “When there aren’t any, customers say it’s boring.”
Meanwhile, when soldiers raided a drug cartel’s Christmas party south of Mexico City, they found 16 automatic rifles, US$280,000 in cash — and a Latin Grammy winner.
The presence of the Texas-based norteno singer Ramon Ayala at the gathering in a wealthy, gated community and the lavish festivities showed the audacity of Mexico’s drug cartels amid a government crackdown that has sent thousands of soldiers and police to track them down.
A spokesman for the federal Attorney General’s Office said on Monday that Ayala was released after being questioned because authorities found no grounds for charging him with a crime.
Mexican norteno bands often sing about drug trafficking and violence and many have been rumored to perform at drug traffickers’ weddings and other parties, but few have been caught.
Ayala and his norteno band, Los Bravos del Norte, were performing in a gated community of mansions outside the mountain town of Tepoztlan when sailors raided the house and a shootout ensued before dawn on Friday, said the official, who was not authorized to be quoted by name.
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