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Mexico’s Drug War Putting Reporters, Journalism in the Crosshairs

September 20, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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A young photographer for Juarez's El Diario newspaper was gunned down as he walked to lunch, prompting his newspaper to ask of Mexico's drug cartels on the front page what they expect of journalists. Ray Suarez speaks with Angela Kocherga of Belo Television about the latest killing and the effects on drug war media coverage.
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TRANSCRIPT

GWEN IFILL: Finally tonight: intimidation and the drug war in Mexico. Ray Suarez has the story.

RAY SUAREZ: The appeal to the drug cartels from the major newspaper in Juarez was dramatic. “What do they want from us?” asked the front-page editorial in El Diario. That editorial and an open letter from the newspaper’s reporters came three days after a young photographer, Luis Carlos Santiago, was killed and an intern seriously wounded as they were walking to lunch outside El Diario’s offices.

Santiago was the second journalist from the paper to be killed. Declaring the cartels the de facto authority in the city, the paper asked for guidance on what to publish and not publish. The editorial put into words what is already practiced among some Mexican news organizations in areas where the drug war is most intense. Nearly 29,000, including 30 journalists, have died in the past four years. The death toll in Ciudad Juarez, on the Texas border, is more than 6,000. For more, we go to Angela Kocherga, the Mexico bureau chief for Belo Television.

Angela, a dramatic thing in any case, but certainly on the front page of a newspaper. It is impossible to do our job in these conditions. What kind of attention is that getting?

ANGELA KOCHERGA, Belo Television: Well, Ray, this really has stunned much of Mexico. And, as you pointed out, along the border, that really is the common practice, this self-censorship to survive. Basically, what the Diario de Juarez did is spell out what is already helping in many newsrooms in these conflict zones where powerful drug cartels really are in charge of the coverage.

The Diario asks, what can we print, what can we not print, and how do we keep our reporters and photographers safe? Mexico is stunned because it pointed out that the Diario said that these cartels are, in fact, the de facto authority in this region.

RAY SUAREZ: Were they really asking for instructions from the cartels, or was this more of a dramatic device, a rhetorical device to illustrate the danger of the situation for their journalists?

ANGELA KOCHERGA: I think both. We talked to the assistant editor of the newspaper. And he said, yes, they really were directing this comment to the Mexican drug cartels fighting over these key smuggling routes to Texas and the rest of the U.S.

But he said also that they wanted to send a message to Mexico as a whole to show how desperate the situation is, and really plea for help. And this situation is really kind of a drug war zone where, even, as they point out, in regular drugs — in wars, conflicts, you have protection for journalists. And that is definitely not the case here in Mexico.

So, they said this was not a publicity stunt, that they really are serious about this message.

RAY SUAREZ: Let’s talk a little bit more about what is going on in the rest of the country. Journalists have been killed in other places. Is this sort of self-censorship going on in the other conflict cities?

ANGELA KOCHERGA: You do see this, especially along the border in other states, like Michoacan, and, of course, Tamaulipas on the northern border.

It is so bad that, when they were running gun battles in the state of Tamaulipas bordering Texas, citizens had no way to confirm what was going on. They resorted to social median, Facebook, Twitter, to tell each other stay off this street or keep your children home from school.

So, yes, this self-censorship really is a survival skill for journalists. A few years ago, another Mexican newspaper, Nuevo Laredo, took out a front-page editorial and said: We will no longer cover the drug war. We are going remain silent, because it is the only way to protect our reporters and photographers.

That came after that newsroom suffered a grenade attack from drug cartels. So, this is a reality throughout Mexico.

RAY SUAREZ: This declaration, this open letter to the drug cartels was really dramatic in its anger, in its use of language. “We don’t want more dead. We don’t want more injured or more intimidation.”

But it was also very tough on the Mexican government, saying it had provided almost no protection for media workers. Has there been any response from the government to this dramatic open letter?

ANGELA KOCHERGA: We did this afternoon hear from a spokesman with the Calderon — President Calderon’s administration, saying they offered their condolences to the Diario for the photographer who died and the other one who was injured in this attack.

But the spokesman also condemned this editorial, saying that by no means does — is there any reason for any group, especially a newspaper, to try and negotiate with criminals or try and form some sort of truce. The government said they are the authority and that this newspaper should be dealing with the authority, which is the Mexican government.

The assistant editor of the Diario then said to me that: Well, if they are the authority, they need to demonstrate that with actions here in Juarez.

RAY SUAREZ: And there’s no question that these attacks are intentional, that the 30 reporters and media worker was have been killed were the target of these attacks, rather than just collateral damage in the violence that’s gripping some of these cities?

ANGELA KOCHERGA: They — these cases continue to be under investigation. And you do often see some doubt cast by the state investigators on the journalists’ role: Were they really attacked because they were doing something in their line of duty, in their jobs, or was it some sort of personal situation?

So, you do see some effort sometimes to kind of cast these victims in a negative light. So, the problem with many of these cases and throughout Mexico is that they often go unsolved and unpunished, so we often don’t know the real facts of the case. And that may be the situation in this murder as well, Ray.

RAY SUAREZ: Angela, you have traveled frequently from the Mexican capital to the border region and back. Ciudad Juarez has gotten a lot of attention in these last few years. But is more of the country, is even the capital becoming more like Juarez, rather than the other way around?

ANGELA KOCHERGA: You do see more murders spreading throughout Mexico. I mean, you even see some of these narco banners in Mexico City saying: You know, we’re here. We’re threatening authorities.

Right outside of Mexico City, we had four bodies hanging in the city of Cuernavaca, a very popular place for Americans. A lot of Americans retired there, kind of a beautiful city, but now at the heart of the drug war.

Cities like Cancun, we heard last week, a possible attempt foiled by the government, with a narco group staging an attack to try and break some other people out of prison. So, I mean, this thing — by no means is Mexico a failed state, but there are these pockets of lawlessness and a growing concern away from the border that these powerful drug cartels are having an impact in other parts of the country.

RAY SUAREZ: Angela Kocherga, thanks for joining us.

ANGELA KOCHERGA: Thank you, Ray.