Top Developments

  • Amid threats and attacks, self-censorship becomes more pervasive.

  • Congress stalls on reforms to combat violence against the press.

Key Statistic

  • 9: Journalists missing since 2005. Most had covered crime and corruption.

The deepening influence of organized crime and the government's inability to curb worsening violence left the news media wide open to attack. In the last 10 years alone, CPJ research shows, 32 editors and reporters have been killed, at least 11 in direct reprisal for their work. Nine more journalists have disappeared since 2005. Most of those targeted had covered organized crime, drug trafficking, or government corruption – topics that journalists say they increasingly avoid in fear of reprisal. Reforms that would impose special penalties for attacks on the press and give the federal government broad authority to prosecute crimes against free expression were stalled in Congress.

Organized crime continued a decade-long emergence in major cities. Powerful drug-trafficking organizations, which originally exported narcotics to the United States, have extended their reach to street sales, extortion, and kidnapping. Rival groups fighting for urban markets routinely murdered one another's members, and bribed or killed police officers and public officials. Nowhere were the effects of organized crime more evident than in Ciudad Juárez, a border city across from El Paso, Texas. Since late 2007, two large cartels have battled for control of the city's drug sales and other rackets. Although the federal government deployed 10,000 soldiers and federal police officers to Ciudad Juárez, the number of drug-related murders had reached nearly 2,000 by late October, surpassing the toll for all of 2008, according to officials and news reports. Almost all of the murders went unpunished.

Though crime and drug trafficking are the biggest issues in Ciudad Juárez, journalists extensively censor their work on those vital topics, CPJ's Mike O'Connor wrote in a June special report. "We have learned the lesson: To survive, we publish the minimum," said Alfredo Quijano, editor-in-chief of Norte de Ciudad Juárez, referring to his newspaper's practice of self-censorship. "We don't investigate. Even at that, most of what we know stays in the reporter's notebook." Many journalists said the November 2008 killing of Armando Rodríguez Carreón, a veteran crime reporter, served as a warning to the entire press corps in Ciudad Juárez. The case, unsolved in late year, also illustrated the dysfunctional state of law enforcement. While the state prosecutor claimed to have given federal authorities the names and locations of several suspects, federal officials said they had no leads and no suspects. In July, the lead federal investigator working on the case was shot to death. His replacement was murdered less than a month later.

In north-central Mexico, journalists pointed to another murder to highlight the pattern of violence and intimidation. On May 25, assailants abducted crime reporter Eliseo Barrón Hernández from his home in Torreón, Durango state, as the journalist's wife and two young daughters watched, according to news accounts and CPJ interviews. His body, a gunshot wound to the head, was found the next day in an irrigation ditch. In June, the federal prosecutor's office said a man detained by the Mexican army had confessed to Barrón's murder and had implicated several others, news reports said. The alleged attacker, who claimed to work for the criminal organization Los Zetas, told interrogators that Barrón had been killed to warn other journalists not to report on the group. The case was pending in late year. Los Zetas has become Mexico's most feared criminal gang, operating along the Gulf Coast, the Yucatán Peninsula, and into Guatemala as well as in the Mexico City area and western Mexico.

A second slaying in Durango heightened anxiety. On November 2, Bladimir Antuna García was found murdered after being abducted from a street in the city of Durango, according to news reports and CPJ research. Antuna, a reporter for the daily El Tiempo de Durango, appeared to have been strangled. The journalist, who had received several death threats, had recently broken a story on corruption in the Durango City Police Department.

Six other journalists were killed in 2009 in unclear circumstances. Photographer Jean Paul Ibarra Ramírez was shot to death in the town of Iguala, Guerrero state, in January. Reporter Carlos Ortega Samper was pulled out of his pickup truck and shot in the mountains of Durango state in May. In July, authorities found the body of Acapulco radio anchorman Juan Daniel Martínez Gil, beaten and suffocated. Norberto Miranda Madrid, who covered crime in northern Chihuahua, was shot to death inside his office in September. José Galindo Robles, director of Radio Universidad de Guadalajara, was found in his home in western Jalisco state in November with a fatal blow to the head. And in December, José Alberto Velázquez López, publisher of a newspaper in the southeastern state of Quintana Roo, was shot as he left an office holiday party. CPJ was investigating the killings to determine whether they were linked to the journalists' work.

Two crime reporters went missing in late year. José Luis Romero, a radio reporter in Sinaloa state, was abducted outside a restaurant in December, while María Esther Aguilar Cansimbe, a Michoacán newspaper journalist, vanished after getting a phone tip in November. Seven other reporters disappeared between 2005 and 2008, CPJ research shows.

Widespread corruption has rendered the criminal justice system so dysfunctional that most journalist killings remain unsolved. In the few cases where authorities have obtained convictions, CPJ research shows, questions have emerged about the culpability of the accused. One such case, the 2007 murder of Amado Ramírez Dillanes, Acapulco correspondent for Televisa, was officially closed in March when a defendant was sentenced to 38 years in prison. But in Acapulco, where Ramírez was a star journalist, colleagues said authorities had allowed the real murderers to go free. The National Human Rights Commission later found that police had tortured the defendant and manipulated evidence.

CPJ research shows that local and state authorities in Mexico have been particularly ineffective in solving press-related crimes – and, in some instances, appear to have been complicit. In a 2008 report, CPJ examined the possible involvement of local police and public officials in the disappearances of several journalists since 2005. At least five missing reporters had investigated links between local officials and organized crime in the weeks before they vanished.

Congress moved in fits and starts to combat crimes against the press. The Chamber of Deputies approved a measure in April imposing special penalties for crimes against "journalistic activity." The bill would impose penalties of up to five years in prison for anyone who "impedes, interferes, limits, or attacks journalistic activity." Sentences could be doubled if the assailant were a public official. The measure was pending in the Senate in late year.

The legislation, if passed, would be an encouraging but preliminary step in combating deadly violence against the press, a CPJ analysis found. The enactment of new penalties, CPJ found, would have a significant effect only if accompanied by adoption of a constitutional amendment granting federal authorities the jurisdiction to prosecute all crimes against free expression. The proposed amendment was still before the Chamber of Deputies in late year. In a setback for press freedom, the Chamber of Deputies decided to disband a special committee examining violence against the press. The committee, created in 2006, had helped keep anti-press violence in the public eye.

Reporters and photographers in several states told CPJ about threats, beatings, and arbitrary detentions at the hands of local police officers and soldiers. While some filed complaints with state and federal authorities, others told CPJ they were too afraid to file official reports. In at least one case, a provincial reporter, who asked not to be identified for fear of reprisal, told CPJ he had received a death threat from a high-ranking police official.

Emilio Gutiérrez Soto, a Chihuahua journalist who fled to the United States after facing harassment, was awaiting a decision in late year on his application for political asylum. Gutiérrez Soto, a correspondent for El Diario del Noroeste in Nuevo Casas Grandes, fled Chihuahua in 2008 after being threatened by military personnel in response to articles alleging human rights abuses.

CPJ documented four instances in which buildings housing news organizations or their employees were attacked. In January, gunmen hurled a grenade and shot at the premises of national broadcaster Televisa in Monterrey. (A spokesman for Televisa later told CPJ that its crime reporters had been using bulletproof vests for more than a year.) The next month, assailants shot at the home of the editor of El Debate, a daily newspaper in Guasave, in the state of Sinaloa. The weekly Ríodoce, which covers drug trafficking in Sinaloa, was hit by an explosion in September that caused structural damage. In each case, senior editors said they weren't sure why they had been targeted. No arrests were made in any of the cases.

In August, the federal government released a controversial report into the killing of Bradley Will, a U.S. documentary filmmaker. Will was shot in November 2006 while filming clashes in Oaxaca between antigovernment protesters and supporters of Gov. Ulises Ruiz. Despite photographic evidence that pro-government gunmen were shooting from a distance at demonstrators and journalists – including Will – authorities concluded that the fatal shots had instead been fired by a protester at close range. In October 2008, a Mexican judge ruled that there was enough evidence to bring Juan Manuel Martínez to trial for Will's killing. Martínez remained in jail in late year. No witness has placed Martínez at the scene, no motive has been disclosed, and no weapon has been produced.

The government's report on the Will case contradicted findings by the National Human Rights Commission and Physicians for Human Rights, a Boston-based independent organization, both of which concluded that the two bullets that struck Will had been fired from a distance of 130 to 165 feet (40 to 50 meters). The government report also contradicted the autopsy, which found that the wounds to Will's body and damage to his clothing were consistent with long-range shots.

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