By Ana Arana and Daniela Guazo, Fundacion MEPI*
Cover from del El Siglo de Torreón 21/08/11
MEXICO CITY - It was 38 minutes into the professional soccer match at the Santos Modelo Stadium about 275 miles from the U.S. border when players started running from the ball to their locker rooms. Popping sounds interrupted the announcers. More than one million Mexican television viewers watched as a firefight between the country´s most ruthless drug cartel and local police unfolded in the industrial town of Torreon, Coahuila.
The images broadcast showed terrified men, women and children crouching under the stadium seats and others scrambling for cover. Television Azteca, the second largest Mexican network, stopped transmission of the game. But ESPN continued, breaking its audience records worldwide for a domestic soccer match.
It was the first time drug-related violence played out on live television alongside the country's beloved sport. But another battle raged inside the local Mexican media where criminal groups have continued to muzzle regional reporting on drug violence that has left more than 60,000 dead since outgoing President Felipe Calderon took office. A lack of official government information including credible crime reports has further complicated the media´s job, an investigation by Mexico City-based Fundacion MEPI found.
"The pictures were provocative," said the paper´s top editor Javier Garza. But, he and his journalists worried they might become a target if they featured the images prominently. Assailants have bombed and sprayed the daily´s offices with bullets twice since 2009. Journalists there have received death threats and warnings from criminal groups that don't like El Siglo´s coverage.
Mexico was the most dangerous country in 2011 to be a reporter, the International Press Institute reported. Ten journalists were killed here last year and the trend continues into 2012. Continued fear of retaliation from organized crime has deepened an atmosphere of self-censorship among Mexico´s regional news outlets, the investigative journalism project MEPI found.
The six-month investigation, a follow-up to a study in 2010, examined publishing trends in 14 of 31 Mexican states to better understand how drug violence affects news content in regional media. The states, concentrated in northern and central Mexico, are among the country's most violent. The study found provincial newspapers increased their coverage of organized crime in 2011 by more than a 100 percent over last year, publishing reports on 7 out of 10 organized-crime incidents in their coverage area. But only two newspapers—El Norte in Monterrey and El Informador in Guadalajara—provided context to the violence, identified the victims and did follow-ups.
The day after the shootout story was on El Siglo´s front page. But, the paper did not try to explain why the attack took place, in line with editorial policies. Editors know that criminals read their pages to see how their organizations are portrayed and are careful not to provoke them.
The Theatrics of Violence
Casino Royale Tragedy Monterrey N.L.
The improvements in coverage in 2011 were not directly connected to more forceful reporting or new editorial policies. Rather those reflected the news media's response to a spike in more gruesome violence including gangland-style executions, which sociologist Eduardo Guerrero estimated grew 9 percent countrywide and by more than 100 percent in several municipalities.
"The murders in many parts of the country were spectacular in size and dimension," added Alejandro Hope, a former intelligence analyst with the Mexican civilian intelligence agency known by its Spanish acronym, CISEN. "There was no way the local media could ignore them."
Among the various vicious 2011 incidents were: in the northern city of Monterrey a fire set by Zeta operatives in the Casino Royale, a middle class gambling center killed 52 people; in the southern state of Veracruz, 35 nude bodies left on a main thoroughfare and in Guadalajara, Mexico's second largest city, 28 bodies stuffed into a parked SUV and left abandoned on a well-transited avenue.
Spotty Government Reports
Regional editors and reporters said fear is not the only cause for spotty and weak news accounts across Mexico.
A key factor affecting content is the limited flow of public information. In El Siglo's shootout case, local authorities failed to provide reporters with a proper police report and according to the daily's own safety protocols, reporters do not investigate such stories beyond the simplest facts.
"It has been an uphill battle to try to get precise data from the local authorities," Garza said. For instance, he noted, the prosecutors count homicides differently than the local police department. "Sometimes we get information from three government agencies, and they all contradict each other."
Without this information from federal and local authorities, the regional news media cannot add context to their reporting, Garza said.
But there is another side of the story.
Torreon sits in territory disputed by drug cartels. Seven other states are in the same situation, smack in the middle of cartel crossfire and with a dearth of official information. In most of these states, those factors give rise to lopsided reporting that is dominated by coverage of beheadings, kidnappings and other criminal activities.
In El Siglo the coverage of government anti-crime efforts versus cartel-related crimes was tilted heavily towards criminal networks. MEPI found 457 government operations described in that newspaper, as compared to 713 organized crime incidents in 2011.
Ironically, the media in states controlled largely by one cartel tended to publish more stories about government anti-crime initiatives such as detentions and raids.
In Tamaulipas, Michoacan and Zacatecas, for example, states where the Zetas drug cartel has undue influence, the media shied away from writing about drug organizations and their activities.
In Tamaulipas, where MEPI found the highest rate of self-censorship in the study, the newspaper El Mañana rarely covered organized crime violence. The few cartel stories it reported took place in Texas.
In this state, newspapers impose codes that restrict coverage while reporters, afraid for their safety, hold back in their reporting. "In Tamaulipas the press is often co-opted," said Carlos Flores, a security expert, and author of a book on ties between local authorities and organized crime in Tamaulipas. But Flores said many journalists are concerned about cases of cartel snitches infiltrating the newsrooms.
In Michoacan, another state where the study revealed organized crime reporting was limited, it is widely accepted that the cartel, La Familia, and its splinter group, the Knights Templars, are in control of criminal activities. Yet the newspaper monitored, La Voz de Michoacan, never mentions cartel names.
Not an Easy Fix
In some cities, official reporting improved somewhat with the help of civil society and private sector initiatives. In both Ciudad Juarez and Monterrey, private-public centers increased the flow of statistics. Alfredo Quijano, editor of the daily Norte, pointed to the creation two years ago of the Mesa de Seguridad, or Roundtable on Security, a civil society and government entity that gathers crime information and promotes public participation. And in Monterrey, the Consejo Civico de Instituciones de Nuevo Leon, or Civic Council of Institutions of Nuevo Leon, a private sector advocacy group has pushed for transparency in government affairs, including security.
The lack of accountability and information flow goes back to Mexico´s history of a one-party dominated system, Flores said. "For many years the authorities were not there to inform the public, but to release information that was useful to the government."
Getting the various government entities to release credible information will not be easy in the long run, according to security experts familiar with government reporting in Mexico.
Local governments officials often do not have accurate intelligence about what is going on in their regions, said Leticia Ramirez de Alba, who coordinates studies on criminal trends for the non-governmental organization Mexico Evalua.
Many often lack basic investigative skills while others are in collusion with organized crime, she said. In the last six years dozens of top government officials and police have been identified by Mexican intelligence as working for various organized crime groups. A recent case involved the arrest of 14 federal police officers charged with the attempted murder last August of two CIA contract officers and a Mexican Navy captain in a remote road near Mexico City. U.S. officials suspect organized crime links, according to press accounts.
Meantime, the use of statistics has grown as an important measure of Mexico´s anti-crime programs. In 2010 Calderon, under pressure from human rights groups, released the first online database of organized crime-related homicides dating back to 2006. The statistics provided for the first time government numbers on the toll of rising drug-related violence. The online database was criticized because of lax sourcing. Legal questions were also raised over which jurisdiction, state, local or federal, would investigate the thousands of murder cases.
In 2011, the Attorney General´s office released another set of statistics, but only covered homicides from January to September. It is unclear whether incoming President Enrique Peña Nieto, of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which ruled the country for 70 years, will continue to provide statistics on crime.
Meantime, every state ostensibly is required to give the federal government credible figures on its crime trends. But recently local and state authorities have manipulated the numbers, to make their state look safe while appealing to voters. The practice is very common, according to Mexico Evalua.
In 2011, Torreon, Coahuila officials faked crime figures, erasing more than 100 killings from the official docket, El Siglo reported. In 2007, the government of Mexico state, which borders Mexico City, also manipulated its numbers, reducing its violent homicide rate by 60 percent, said Ramirez de Alba. The manipulation occurred when president-elect Peña Nieto was governor of that state.
No Watchdog Journalism in Mexico
Marco Lara Klhar, a journalist and media trainer, said Mexican journalism shies away from digging deeper into the story of violence.
"Journalists are not being trained to report on stories that go beyond the violence and which describe endemic problems with Mexican justice and political systems," he said. "As journalists, we are not doing our job of watchdog journalism."
In Torreon, editor Garza said he and his editors and reporters understand there is a need to find better ways to report on the drug war and stay safe, but for now they are doing the best they can.
Agreement For the Informative Coverage of the Violence
In March 2011, 715 newspapers, radio and television stations attempted to improve crime coverage, signing an agreement to promote fair coverage. Points in the final document included a statement obligating news media "to present information with exact context that explains the real problem of violence in the country." The accord also required journalists to make sure "crime-news stories specify who provoked and carried out the violent act." Torreon´s El Siglo is signatory to the agreement, but admittedly stays away from certain crime stories.
Garza says he knows the newspaper´s limitations and is searching for better ways to practice strong journalism while under constant threat. Instead of focusing on single crime stories where he must depend on sometimes unreliable officials, he said he is now encouraging his editors to build databases and use crime statistics in charts and maps that quantify the scope of the state's problems.
"We think it might be the way to avoid security threats in the future," he said.
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