Reporters on the front line of Mexico’s narco wars
THE telepphone rang at 3:45am. It was Pedro Tonantzin, one of the few journalists still risking their lives to cover narco violence in Mexico that has left more than 50,000 dead since president Felipe Calderon declared war on the cartels in 2006.
Pedro said he would pick me up in front of my hotel near the centre of Cuernavaca. The police had found another body.
A Spanish colonial city of a million inhabitants some 30 miles south of Mexico City, Cuernavaca used to be a prime tourist destination, popular with European and US hikers. No longer. Mimicking what has happened elsewhere in Mexico, rival gangs battle each other for turf, with gruesome killings occurring every day, from corpses hanging on bridges to random shoot-outs.
However, almost nobody wants such crimes reported, which explains why journalists across Mexico have paid such a heavy price in blood. Since 2006, 67 have been killed and 14 “disappeared” according to the government, making Mexico one of the most dangerous places in the world for journalists.
Earlier this month assailants used explosives, grenades and guns to attack two newspapers in the northern state of Monterrey and another in Nuevo Laredo, across the border from the United States. And just last week, a crime reporter disappeared in the northern state of Veracruz.
“This is war, it’s never been so bad. This is even worse than Colombia,” said Marcela Turati, a journalist who has covered “narco” crimes for years. “This is different to any other war: there are no front lines, no trenches, you never know who’s involved with the narcos and who is not.”
In an attempt to protect journalist, last month Mr Calderon signed into law a constitutional amendment making it a federal crime to limit or undermine the right to information, freedom of expression or of the press. Media watchdogs praised the move, but few believe it will make a real difference on the ground where existing regulations are widely ignored by corrupt officials and police.
“I’m afraid the minute I leave home,” said Pedro soon after picking me up, as we sped through the narrow streets at more than 60mph past red lights. He was constantly on the phone checking the information and shouting “go, go, go!” to his colleague, a cameraman, who was behind the wheel.
He added that crimes here generally happened in the middle of the night, forcing him to sleep in a separate room from his wife to avoid waking her when his mobile phone rang out.
He and other reporters covering narco violence travel in groups to crime scenes, believing in security in numbers; sometimes they arrive while the killings are still taking place. Most often they are there before the police arrive.
Pedro now only reports the killings, never investigating the links between the narcos and the authorities, since that would be a death sentence. He and others also do not sign their articles though he says that the drug cartels always know who wrote them since they have people in newsrooms, conspicuous by their luxury cars.
Despite all this he is relatively fortunate. Other journalists have left their families, fearing the narcos would take revenge on them. In states like Veracruz and Guerrero, they have stopped reporting narco crime after scores of journalists were murdered.
As we arrived at the crime scene, where a body riddled with bullets lies in the street, I asked Pedro if this was worth it. He said: “I’m not going to give up. If no-one reported the killings, this would generate a cycle of silence allowing the authorities to ignore the problem, we cannot let this happen.”
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