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.

April 2011By Comments

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 ago by some Gulf cartel mobsters. Normally revelers would eat, drink, and break piñatas; on this night they ate, drank, and used la tabla to bludgeon adversaries of the cartel, who were hanging from the ceiling by their hands.

“We’re not inventing this stuff,” said another journalist I’ll call Bartolomé. “This is the reality we’re living.” Bartolomé was afraid to be seen speaking in the newsroom with a gringo journalist, fearing a cartel informant would take notice, so our interview was conducted inside his car in a hotel parking lot. Federal police reinforcements happened to be billeted nearby, and as we talked, four blue pickups filled with ski-masked agents gripping assault rifles roared out of the lot. “No one wants to be a hero,” Bartolomé said, chuckling darkly.

One of the ironies, and frustrations, of the situation for reporters like Rafael and Bartolomé is that regional Mexican newspapers—far more than their American counterparts—typically thrive on sensational crime news. Paco, a longtime police beat reporter in Matamoros, lamented that all the big stories are having to be hushed up, while traffic accidents and simple robberies make the front page. “Before,” he told me, “when there was a gunfight or a homicide, we’d say, ‘Hot damn!’ Journalistically, that’s good. Now when there’s a murder, we say, ‘What are we going to do?’”

The dilemma is clear to Jorge Luis Sierra (his real name), an investigative reporter who was formerly the managing editor of Rumbo del Valle, a newspaper in McAllen. “The Gulf cartel employs las tablizas as a way to intimidate journalists,” he told me. “And it seems the narcos have achieved their objective, because they’ve silenced practically all the newspapers down there.”

Matamoros is by no means unique. Drug trafficking syndicates are having a profound effect on how news gets reported in other parts of Mexico besieged by violence. Last year, the independent Mexican Foundation for Investigative Journalism studied crime coverage in eleven regional newspapers and found the same news blackouts that occur in Matamoros. In Reynosa, less than an hour’s drive from Matamoros, four journalists disappeared in 2010; only one has reappeared. Since President Felipe Calderón launched his assault on the drug cartels, in 2006, more than thirty Mexican reporters and media employees have been killed or have disappeared (most of the cases remain uninvestigated).

One of these murdered journalists is Luis Carlos Santiago, a 21-year-old who was working as a trainee photographer for the gutsy Juárez paper El Diario when he was shot dead last September while sitting in a car. El Diario, whose lead police reporter was gunned down in 2008, responded to the photographer’s murder with a front-page editorial, titled “What Do You Want From Us?” that made international news and put the Mexican media’s dilemma in sharp focus. The editorial, which was addressed to the local drug trafficking organizations, the Sinaloa and Juárez cartels, put it bluntly: “You are, at present, the de facto authorities in this city, because the legally mandated authorities have not been able to do anything to keep our colleagues from dying, although we have repeatedly demanded they do so. We do not want more deaths. We do not want more injured or more intimidation. It is impossible to carry out our role in these conditions. Tell us, therefore, what is expected of us.”

In Matamoros, those rules are clear. Broadcast journalists like Rafael, accustomed to reporting breaking news in real time, have learned to communicate with their listeners in code. One day late last year, Rafael was picking up lunch at a Matamoros restaurant when he heard brakes screeching, followed by a deafening fusillade of bullets. As patrons dove to the floor, he punched the number of his station into his cell phone.

“I told our broadcaster to report on the air, ‘Don’t drive by Avenida Sendero Nacional, because the situation is tense, it’s difficult,’” he told me. They didn’t report there was a gunfight in progress, mention the Gulf cartel, or even use the phrase “organized crime.” “Definitely not,” he said. “This is self-censorship.”

Failure to observe the rules rarely goes undetected. Anselmo, a seasoned local journalist, told me that the narcos constantly check local websites, radio, TV, and newspapers for unwanted reports. “They must have a department of media monitoring, because they don’t miss a thing.”

The reporters I spoke with all confirmed that the Gulf cartel has its own chief of communications, who, in turn, stays in touch with a specially selected police reporter who serves as the liaison to the rest of media. The job reportedly pays well but carries its hazards. The day federal troops killed Tony Tormenta, they also killed Carlos Alberto Guajardo, the 37-year-old crime reporter for Expreso. In its extensive coverage of Guajardo’s death the next day, the newspaper failed to mention that he was the Gulf cartel’s go-between. All four longtime journalists told me this unequivocally.

“The cartel didn’t speak directly to the press, so they had a contact,” said Bartolomé. “Carlos was the contact from the cartel to the press.” (Carlos’s brother, Ricardo, himself a journalist, emphatically denied this assertion. “No, Carlos worked with me as a reporter and photographer,” he wrote in an e-mail.)

According to the account in Expreso, Carlos Guajardo was killed doing his job when he got caught in the crossfire between federal troops and narcos on Black Friday. Several sources in town, however, told me that Guajardo’s dual-cab white F-150 pickup was traveling in a convoy with other cartel vehicles when it came under fire from federal security forces. The killing is under investigation by Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission.

“For me it wasn’t a surprise what happened. We knew how involved he was,” said Anselmo, who knew Guajardo well. But he added that despite Guajardo’s alleged criminal connections, the portly, gregarious journalist was well liked. “Carlos was like any other reporter who drank beer and took bribes.”

Journalists see their cartel liaison, a role that is common in newsrooms throughout Tamaulipas, not so much as a collaborator or turncoat but more of “a necessary evil,” an editor in Nuevo Laredo told me. The cartel contact essentially performs the service that El Diario’s infamous editorial requested: He informs his colleagues explicitly what the cartel wants and does not want reported. But the mafiosos can be notoriously unpredictable and bad-tempered. Matamoros journalists remember the chilling story of what happened to Carlos Guajardo’s predecessor. After a number of stories were published about what appeared to be a series of small-time ATM robberies unconnected to organized crime, the contact was summoned before the cartel chief, who was furious. It turned out the cash machine robbers were related to someone in the cartel. Though the journalist swore he was blameless, an acquaintance says the narcos proceeded to thrash his bare backside with la tabla until his skin turned purple and he was unable to stand.

“The deal is, you don’t know who’s the brother and cousin of who,” said Paco. “You publish something about their family and then you’re so nervous that you can never sleep again.”

The muzzling of the Matamoros media is not accomplished through fear alone. Local journalists say most crime reporters are on the take. They accept chayote, or bribes, from the cartel that range from $400 to $800 a month, effectively doubling a reporter’s salary. Editors receive even more. “We are paid very low salaries,” explained Anselmo. “That’s why we work in two or three media jobs. For this reason, many compañeros succumb to temptation.”

Nor is corruption in the news media a new phenomenon. Within Mexican journalism circles, Tamaulipas has the reputation of having more than its share of compliant reporters. In fact, the Gulf cartel’s control of the local media was modeled on the cozy, long-standing relationship between reporters and the presidencia municipal. Paco says that, traditionally, all the city’s news outlets had accepted chayote from city hall in return for not criticizing the mayor. So journalists were already accustomed to taking money to stay away from inconvenient stories when the narcos announced that they too wanted special treatment.

“Cartels have essentially taken over municipalities and inherited the corrupt structures that were already in place. In other words, there was always some level of corruption in the newsroom,” says Joel Simon, the executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists. The difference is that when journalists displease the mayor, they lose their bonus or risk being fired; when they displease the capos, they sometimes pay with their life.

And so the rules of reporting remain the terms of survival. Four days after the deaths of Tony Tormenta and Carlos Guajardo, a top Gulf cartel boss called an unprecedented meeting of the city’s journalists. The gathering took place at a cartel bar closed to the public. There was plentiful Bud Light and carne asada for the thirty reporters and editors in attendance, but the mood was tense. “We didn’t know what was going to happen,” explained Bartolomé, who was there.

Once the crowd was gathered, the capo in charge announced the name of the journalist who would replace Carlos Guajardo. Then he did something no one expected. He reassured the press corps that the local mafia was not interested in attacking the media or the federal forces who had recently moved into the city; he said the Gulf cartel only wanted to shed the blood of Zetas. The meeting ended prematurely when a lookout spotted the Mexican marines nearby.

The journalists of Matamoros hurried back to their newsrooms, unsure what would happen next in their daily struggle to chronicle the life of their violent city. Recalling the capo’s comments, Bartolomé said sardonically, “They told us there would be more”—here he made quotation marks with his fingers—“freedom of expression.”

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