Censor or die: The death of Mexican news in the age of drug cartels

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As deadline descended on El Mañana’s newsroom and reporters rushed to file their stories, someone in the employ of a local drug cartel called with a demand from his crime boss.

The caller was a journalist for another newspaper, known here as an enlace, or “link” to the cartel. The compromised journalist barked out the order: Publish an article saying the mayor in Matamoros had not paid the cartel $2 million a month in protection fees, as an El Mañana front-page story had alleged the day before.

“They want us to say he’s not guilty,” the editor who took the call told his colleagues during the episode in late October. Knowing glances passed between them as a visiting Washington Post reporter looked on.

They all knew that defiance carried a high price.

The enlaces are part of the deeply institutionalized system of cartel censorship imposed on media outlets in northeastern Mexico abutting the border of Texas. How it works is an open secret in newsrooms here but not among readers. They are unaware of the life-and-death decisions editors make every day not to anger different local cartel commanders, each of whom has his own media philosophy.

Submitting to cartel demands is the only way to survive, said Hildebrando “Brando” Deandar Ayala, 39, editor in chief of El Mañana, one of the oldest and largest newspapers in the region with a print circulation of 30,000. “You do it or you die, and nobody wants to die,” he said. “Auto censura — self-censorship — that’s our shield.”

Readers get angry when they don’t get the news they need, he said. Resentment against El Mañana grew so strong two years ago that reporters took the logos off their cars and stopped carrying their identification on assignments.

“The readers hate us sometimes,” Deandar said. “But they don’t know the real risks we go through.”

Mexico has long been a deadly place for reporters. Some 88 journalists have been slain in the last two decades, according to Article 19, a worldwide advocacy group that promotes press freedom.

With its endless drug wars, Mexico is one of the most dangerous places in a world that has seen a recent upswing in violence against journalists, with scores of reporters killed or jailed in Afghanistan, Pakistan, the Arab Spring countries, Central America and the former Soviet bloc.

The risks have been especially high for El Mañana because its circulation area is bounded to the west by the birthplace of the Zetas criminal network in Nuevo Laredo and to the east by the Gulf crime syndicate’s home base in Matamoros.

In February, the last time El Mañana defied a cartel’s censorship rules, an editor in its Matamoros bureau was dragged outside, stuffed in a van and beaten as his abductors drove around threatening him with death.

“Next time, we’ll kill you!” one yelled before pushing him out of the vehicle.

Four El Mañana journalists have been killed in the past 10 years. Others survived assassination attempts, kidnappings, and grenade and machine-gun attacks on their offices. Deandar has been shot, kidnapped and had his home set on fire, he said.

The worst assaults began in 2004, when an editor in Nuevo Laredo was stabbed to death. Two years later, gunmen broke into the bureau there, detonated a grenade and sprayed machine gunfire, leaving one employee paralyzed.

Afterward, bulletproof glass and electronic security keys were installed at its three offices, where the blinds are always drawn.

In March 2010, when the Gulf cartel defeated the Zetas for control of Reynosa, it took revenge on three El Mañana reporters whom the Zetas had forced to watch one of its mass executions.

The cartel called the three Reynosa reporters and told them, “ ‘either you come in or we’ll pick you up,’ ” an editor there at the time recalled.

They surrendered to the cartel and were never heard from again. Their presumed slayings were never reported by El Mañana, editors said, because that’s what the Gulf commander demanded. The enlace passed word that the killings were a one-time message to the Zetas, not a tactic the cartel intended to repeat against the newspaper.

Twice in 2012, gunmen from the Zetas shot up the offices of the Nuevo Laredo bureau. Not long after, El Mañana announced it would no longer print cartel news in its Nuevo Laredo edition. Articles about Nuevo Laredo crime sometimes appear in other editions, but without a byline or names in the story.

The full article is available on the website of The Whashigton Post