War coming to Mexican border?

An ominous juxtaposition of two news items. First, the anti-immigrant vigilante group known has the Minutemen rallied at the Capitol Building in Washington as the Senate debates a get-tough immigration bill already passed by the House. The Minuteman rally was addressed by two lawmakers, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) and Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-CO)—who explicitly called for a military solution. “We are, in fact, being invaded,” Tancredo said. “I’m asking the president to commit the military to this border.” (Arizona Republic, Feb. 8)

Meanwhile, the Mexican army is already occupying the border city of Nuevo Laredo—and has failed to stem the gangland violence which has reached nearly paramilitary proportions. As the Minutemen rallied in DC, gunmen with assualt rifles shot up a newspaper office in Nuevo Laredo, leaving a journalist gravely wounded. From Reporters Without Borders:

8 February 2006

Journalist seriously injured in shooting attack on Nuevo Laredo newspaper

Reporters Without Borders voiced deep shock today at a attack by two gunmen on the headquarters of the El Mañana daily in Nuevo Laredo (in the northeastern state of Tamaulipas) on 6 February in which crime reporter Jaime Orozco Tey was shot five times, in the chest and spine, and is now in a serious condition.

“The care that El Mañana took in its coverage of a region in the grip of violence and drug cartels was not enough to prevent it from being the target of this new attempt to silence the press,” Reporters Without Borders said.

“Fourteen journalists have been killed in Mexico since the start of President Vicente Fox’s term, half of them in Tamaulipas,” the press freedom organisation noted. “We welcome the fact that the federal authorities are conducting the required investigation, as they have undertaken to do in the case of all attacks on the media. And we express our hopes for Orozco’s recovery.”

The attack was carried out by two men armed with AK-47 and AR-15 assault rifles, who burst into the offices of El Mañana at night, fired off about 30 rounds in the newsroom and threw a grenade. Several employees were hurt by flying glass. Orozco was shot as he tried to flee. He has undergone an operation and has had several transfusions since being rushed to hospital.

The attack bears the hallmark of an operation carried out by hitmen on behalf of drug traffickers, who are especially active in this part of Mexico. Following the still-unsolved murder of its editor, Roberto Javier Mora GarcĂ­a, on 19 March 2004, the newspaper decided to restrict its coverage of drug trafficking and local government corruption.

During a visit it made to Mexico’s northern states in May 2005, Reporters Without Borders was told by El Mañana managing editor Ramon Ramon Dario CantĂș Deandar : “All of our journalists who cover sensitive subjects, especially drug trafficking, have been the target of threats and violence. So now we only publish information provided by the authorities.”

Several other Nuevo Laredo news media follow the same practice, including radio Stereo 91 XHNOE, whose crime reporter, Dolores Guadalupe GarcĂ­a Escamilla, was killed on 5 April 2005. CantĂș Deandar said at a news conference yesterday that El Mañana will no longer do any investigative reporting on drug trafficking.

See our last posts on Mexico and the border crisis.

  1. It makes the Times
    From the New York Times, Feb. 10:

    A War in Mexico: Drug Runners Gun Down Journalists


    NUEVO LAREDO, Mexico, Feb. 8 — RenĂ© MartĂ­nez had just sat down to edit a batch of articlels at 7:50 Monday evening when he heard the heavy tread of military boots just outside the newsroom and then, suddenly, like a scream on a quiet night, blasts of machine-gun fire.

    An attack by gunmen on Monday on the offices of El Mañana, a paper in Nuevo Laredo, led to patrols at the paper by federal police officers.

    The newsroom of El Mañana descended into panic. Reporters dived to the floor and crawled under desks. Bullets from high-powered weapons tore through glass and walls. One of the two heavily armed gunmen screamed a threat. Then a grenade went off and the air filled with dust and smoke, Mr. Martínez recalled.

    As the two gunmen fled, Mr. MartĂ­nez crawled toward the newsroom door. There he saw the night rewrite man, Jaime Orozco Tey, a 40-year-old father of three, lying in blood. He had been hit at least three times, and was critically wounded.

    “The guy who shot him never saw him,” Mr. MartĂ­nez said. “This is a dark place to work. We know there is danger in the streets, but we continue to work.”

    On Wednesday, President Vicente Fox appointed a special federal prosecutor to investigate crimes against journalists, and federal investigators began to look for clues in the shooting here, across the Rio Grande from Laredo, Tex.

    But the brazen attack on El Mañana, the biggest newspaper here, underscored an ugly truth: Mexico has become one of the most dangerous places to practice journalism, outside of Iraq. Drug dealers and corrupt police officers regularly kill those who write about them, leading most reporters to censor themselves, journalists say.

    The Committee to Protect Journalists, a New York-based organization, says that at least four journalists have been killed in the last six years in direct reprisals for their reporting on drug dealers, and that one young investigative reporter from Hermosillo, Alfredo Jiménez Mota, is missing and presumed dead after writing about a drug gang called Los Numeros.

    “That’s a very alarming number,” said Joel Simon, the committee’s deputy director. “The situation is very comparable to Colombia in terms of self-censorship and the level of violence.”

    Another five reporters have been killed for motives that remain unclear but may have had to do with their work, the committee says. At least two others have been critically wounded, most recently Mr. Orozco, who did not report on drug dealing but seems to have been caught in the wrong place at the wrong time.

    Daniel Rosas, the managing editor of El Mañana, said the paper had purposely stopped reporting on drug cartels since the former managing editor, Roberto Mora García, an outspoken critic of police corruption, was knifed to death in March 2004 as he arrived home after work. Mr. Rosas said the newspaper had not received any warnings about the most recent attack.

    “It could be that they want to make us an example to control all the press,” he said. “It’s the same as terrorism. It is terrorism.”

    [Mexico’s attorney general, Daniel Cabeza de Vaca, said Thursday that drug dealers were behind the attack. A prime suspect had been located, he said, but no one had been arrested.]

    Not far from the offices of El Mañana, Guadalupe García, a crime reporter for the radio station Estereo 91, was gunned down in April 2005 after signing off from her morning news program. She was known for her provocative reports that named drug runners and their bosses. Someone had even broadcast a threat to kill her over the police radio frequency, which she monitored.

    One editor at El Mañana who narrowly survived this week’s attack (several bullets smashed into the wall near him) summed up the position of reporters here succinctly: “It’s like working with a pistol to your head.” He insisted on not being named.

    JesĂșs Blancornelas, editor of Zeta magazine in Tijuana, said in an interview that the attacks against journalists continued because they were seldom if ever solved by the state police, who he says are often corrupted by drug dealers. “The government does not investigate because the government is complicit,” he said.

    Nor have the federal authorities made much progress in most of the cases they have taken on, like that of JimĂ©nez Mota, he noted. A colleague of Mr. Blancornelas’s, Francisco OrtĂ­z Franco, was killed on June 22, 2004, by hit men linked to a drug cartel. Three people thought to have had lesser roles in this killing have been detained, but two leaders in the Arellano FĂ©lix [Tijuana] drug cartel believed to have ordered the killing remain at large, law enforcement officials have said.

    Mr. OrtĂ­z was the third Zeta journalist to be killed in nine years. Mr. Blancornelas himself was shot and critically injured by gunmen who ambushed his car in November 1997. No one was ever arrested for that attack, in which his driver died.

    He now lives in a prison of sorts. Fifteen guards from the Mexican military escort him back and forth from his fortified house to the bunker-like offices of Zeta. “I cannot go to public places,” he said.

    President Fox’s administration has taken steps to combat threats to the press. In December, the Human Rights Commission mounted advertisements urging people to come forward if they knew about attacks on journalists.

    Luis RaĂșl GonzĂĄlez PĂ©rez, the director of a program tracking attacks against journalists for the commission, said 72 credible threats and attacks against journalists were reported to rights investigators last year, the largest number since records began being kept in 1991. “Organized crime has become a force against freedom of speech,” he said.

    Mr. Fox has also said his government will not tolerate attempts to silence the press. On Tuesday, just after the commandos stormed El Mañana, Mr. Fox dispatched federal police officers with machine guns to protect the newspaper and ordered federal prosecutors to investigate the crime.

    “To the criminals and criminal organizations that want us to fold up, I say again, the people of Mexico will not fold, nor will the federal government, nor will the security institutions of this country,” he said in Mexico City on Tuesday.

    But in Nuevo Laredo, the federal police say average citizens live in terror of drug dealers, who use the main border crossing here to ship tons of cocaine north. Six thousand trucks cross the bridge going north each day and only 50 or 60 are thoroughly searched.

    Drug-related killings have become commonplace as two gangs, the Sinolese [sic: Sinaloa] Cartel and the Gulf Cartel, have battled for control of the lucrative border crossing, prosecutors say.

    “Unfortunately, the people here don’t cooperate,” said one federal police commander who was not authorized to speak to the press. The commander has been in Nuevo Laredo for two months as part of Mr. Fox’s efforts to restore order.

    “Here, nobody wants to get himself into trouble.”