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 fighting a hugely disruptive war against the Zetas, the former enforcement arm of the Gulf cartel, which split off to become a cartel of its own. Since early 2010, the fighting between the two groups has intensified in the state of Tamaulipas, as the Zetas have tried to push the Gulf out. Yet since leaders of the Gulf cartel do not like to see headlines about their frequent shoot-outs with the Zetas—or the authorities—and since the penalties for displeasing the cartel are extremely serious, local journalists have found themselves in a strange position, unable to produce even the most basic news about the war that is terrorizing their city.

There are four major daily papers in Matamoros: El Mañana, Expreso, El Bravo, and Contacto. All have been compelled to censor their coverage of the mafia war and refrain from digging too deeply. The Tony Tormenta shooting is the best illustration of this, but another widely cited example of how the cartel war has warped reality are the two accounts that were published of a different shooting that took place last November. After two police officers were machine-gunned while sitting in their patrol car in Colonia Tecnológico, a neighborhood on the city’s east side, state officials called a press conference and declared that the men were collateral victims of a jealous lover’s attack on his girlfriend’s husband. The explanation was dubious at best, but El Mañana ran with it, turning the story into a telenovela script, reporting that the lovestruck swain, “deranged by his torrid passion,” had insensibly killed the patrolmen while he was on his way to commit his crime of the heart. Two and a half weeks later, the same officials paraded two alleged Zeta assassins before the press and announced, straight-faced, that it was actually these men who had killed the policemen.

The clearest critique of what is going on comes from the journalists themselves. According to several that I spoke with, the dueling accounts of the cop murders were the result of state officials, who are believed to be in the pocket of the Gulf cartel, trying first to disguise a successful Zeta hit so as not to irritate the Gulf and then, after the rival triggermen were captured, broadcasting a Zeta defeat in order to please the Gulf. In both cases, the newspapers simply repeated the story line offered by the officials. To deviate from the script and violate the rules of cartel PR would have been to invite a punishment that every reporter understands and fears: la tabla. The word refers to a large wooden paddle commonly used in Mexican kitchens to stir pork carnitas in big pots. But cartel mobsters use it as an instrument of enforcement.

They tell you, ‘Either come to us or we’ll come for you,’” explained Rafael, a journalist who works for one of the city’s broadcast outlets. “It’s better if you go to them, because if they have to come for you it will be worse.” (Rafael was one of four veteran Matamoros journalists who spoke with me on condition of anonymity. Their names have all been changed.) He said that a tabliza involves putting a gun to the victim’s head, wetting the board, and then beating him with it. “I know various co-workers who were victims ,” he told me. “They couldn’t walk for days.”

And still, they might have been the lucky ones. In 2004 Francisco Arratia Saldierna, a 55-year-old Matamoros newspaper columnist for four regional newspapers who wrote about corruption and organized crime, was so brutally beaten with la tabla that he died of a heart attack. Then there’s the story, circulating in Reynosa, about a holiday party held several years

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