Dead Line

In Mexico, how journalists cover the drug war that has terrorized the borderlands can mean the difference  between life and death. Which is why a strict set of rules—and punishments—dictates what can and can’t be written.
STOP THE PRESS: The killing of Gulf cartel leader Cardenas made the papers in Brownsville. But not in Matamoros.
Photograph by Adam Voorhes

The newest tourist attraction in Matamoros is a bullet-shattered storefront on Abasolo Street where infamous drug lord Antonio Ezequiel Cárdenas Guillén, a.k.a. Tony Tormenta, was killed on a Friday afternoon last November in a terrifying gun battle involving 150 Mexican marines, 17 military vehicles, and 3 helicopters. In the weeks after the incident, matamorenses streamed past the destroyed pink-and-white building to take cell phone pictures or pocket a shard of glass as a memento of what was quickly dubbed “Black Friday.” During the shooting, which also claimed the lives of four other cartel members, two marines, a soldier, and a newspaper reporter, locals had cowered in their homes and offices while explosions erupted all across the city. Businesses closed and international bridges shut down. Across the river, at the University of Texas at Brownsville and Texas Southmost College, campus was evacuated in fear of stray bullets whizzing north.

The slaying of Cárdenas, one of the leaders of the powerful Gulf cartel and one of the DEA’s eleven Most Wanted fugitives in Mexico, was news all over the world. The Brownsville Herald topped a detailed story with the headline “Deadly Day, Gulf Cartel Leader Dead.” Reuters and the Associated Press covered the incident. In England, the BBC, the Daily Mail, and the Independent all ran stories. The news even reached Mumbai. Yet in Matamoros, coverage was evasive. The local paper El Mañana bannered “Unleashed Hell!” across its front page, but the story scrupulously avoided Cárdenas’s name, mentioning only “various casualties of unknown individuals.” In this city of half a million, no newspaper, radio station, television station, or website was willing to print the fact that the military had just trapped and killed one of the country’s most feared crime bosses. “Our profession has been practically kidnapped,” a longtime crime reporter in Matamoros explained to me.

A Mexican drug trafficking organization is like any other large, wealthy corporation—it seeks to maximize good press and minimize bad press. And in Matamoros, as in some other cities along the border, as the cartels have become more bellicose in recent years, they have also become more sophisticated, and relentless, about public relations. The Gulf cartel, in its home base of Matamoros, does everything it can to suppress news that might calentar la plaza, or “heat up” the smuggling corridor, even while

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