Huffpost Media

Journalists Targeted In Mexico's Drug War

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CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mexico — As the photographer pulled his 2000 Ford Explorer into a soccer field, the crackle of his police scanner was broken by a lone accordion riff.

The riff, a fragment of a "narcocorrido" glorifying drug smugglers, was an announcement that the death toll in Mexico's drug war _ already above 4,000 this year _ had just risen.

Hector Dayer already knew that as he looked out at the seven bodies, bound, beaten and repeatedly shot. What he didn't know was whether yet another colleague was among the victims.

Two weeks earlier, Dayer had photographed a friend _ a veteran crime reporter from a rival newspaper _ shot dead in his car as his 8-year-old daughter sat shaking in the passenger's seat.

On this day, none of the bodies belonged to journalists. Dayer grabbed his camera, pulled up the collar of his jacket to hide his face, and stepped out to photograph the carnage.

"We should wear ski masks, like the police," said Dayer, a father of two who works for the newspaper El Norte. "We are so public. Everyone can see us and identify us."

Mexico is the deadliest place in the Americas to be a journalist, and among the deadliest in the world. The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists says at least 24 have been killed since 2000, and seven have vanished in the past three years.

Many of the victims had recently reported on police ties to cartels. Some are suspected of accepting drug money, but it's hard to be sure because the killings are barely investigated. Of the 24 cases, the committee says, only one has been solved.

Some attacks target specific journalists, others entire newsrooms. In at least two cases, grenades have been thrown at newspaper offices.

The attacks are silencing journalists and undermining Mexico's young democracy. Across the nation, news media have stopped reporting on the drug war, with most limiting their reports to facts put out by authorities, with no context, analysis or investigation. In most places, journalists don't even report on killings they witness.

Ciudad Juarez, Mexico's bloodiest city with about 1,400 deaths this year, is an exception. Here journalists continue to cover the daily deaths, without using bylines or photo credits.

Many use different cars and routes to get to work each day. A few wear bulletproof vests, but most think those make them more of a target.

Nearly all crime reporters have received threats. They include Armando Rodriguez, 40, a veteran with the newspaper El Diario. In February, Rodriguez asked the state prosecutor for protection, but she asked him to file a police report and he never did.

On Nov. 13, Rodriguez sat in his driveway with his 8-year-old daughter, waiting for her 6-year-old sister to come out so he could drive the girls to school. Gunshots rang out.

Rodriguez's wife, Blanca Martinez, screamed as she looked out the kitchen window. She saw her husband's head bent down and thought he was searching for his cell phone to call his newspaper to report the gunshots.

Then she realized he wasn't moving. Their daughter was shaking in the seat next to him.

Martinez ran out and told her daughter to get inside the house, then climbed into the car with her husband, holding his bloody body until police and colleagues arrived.

"I don't have any hope the guilty will be caught," she said. "All I want is for them to repent."

The colleagues who showed up to cover Rodriguez's death were shaken too.

"I took photos but afterward we all didn't know what to do," Dayer said. "There was just silence."

Rodriguez's desk at El Diario is much as he left it, notebooks and police communiques stacked haphazardly. El Diario director Pedro Torres says he wants a full investigation, but police have shown little interest.

Hours after The Associated Press asked the office of Mexico's attorney general why nobody had examined Rodriguez's computer, El Diario editors say federal investigators called to say they were sending someone to pick it up. The attorney general's office never got back to the AP.

"We're not interested in making him a martyr. We just want the truth," Torres said. "We feel so helpless, so angry _ but not afraid. Because, I insist, you cannot do journalism with fear."

Jorge Luis Aguirre, director of news Web site La Polaka, agrees. As he was driving to Rodriguez's wake, his cell phone rang.

"You're next," said a voice.

Aguirre parked his car, called his wife and fled to the U.S. with his family. He plans to apply for asylum.

"Any journalist in Juarez is at risk right now of being assassinated just because someone doesn't like what you published," he said in a telephone interview from hiding.

Media-freedom groups are pushing for the U.S. to grant such requests, and are lobbying Mexico's Congress to pass a bill that would make attacks on the news media a federal crime.

"This violence has gone way beyond the press," said Carlos Lauria of the Committee to Protect Journalists. "It's going against freedom of expression."

It is also insanely brutal. Dayer has seen the worst of it this year, from human legs protruding from a large pot commonly used to cook pork, to a body hanging inside a house with a pig mask over the face. When the death count reached eight in the span of an hour, he called his wife and told her to take the kids inside.

Once, as he photographed a headless body hanging from an overpass, someone noticed a man in a car nearby taking pictures of the journalists. A photographer went over to ask what he was doing, but the man sped away. Later in the day, the head was found in a trash bag at the foot of the city's 28-year-old Journalist Monument, a statue of a newspaper delivery boy.

"I think about that day a lot now," Dayer said.

Juarez's journalists take extraordinary risks for their daily blood-and-gore reports. They careen through traffic, often arriving at crime scenes before the police. Photographers have stumbled across hitmen who fired shots, pistol-whipped them and stole their cameras.

On a recent morning, an AP reporter accompanied a TV crew as it plied the streets looking for the day's dead. The police scanner reported an armed man in a white car nearby, and the driver swung into pursuit. A wailing police car raced up behind the crew, as TV and radio correspondent Ever Chavez screamed at the driver.

"Not too close! Get back!" he said.

The police car stopped the white car and dragged out two men as Chavez moved in with his microphone. Police pulled a black handgun from one of the men's pockets, but it turned out to be plastic. Chavez went on the air.

"That's the report we have so far," Chavez said cheerily. "Be careful out there, and have a good morning."