05/13/2010 10:48 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Dirty War Against Journalists in Mexico

Vicious drug cartels are threatening, kidnapping and killing Mexican journalists, muzzling news coverage and carving out a vast zone of silence.

This chilling dirty war against journalists is being waged at a time when cash-strapped American media outlets are slashing foreign coverage. It's a perfect storm.

"Mexican journalists are terrified. They're operating in an environment where someone could kill them and 95 percent of the time they'd get away with it," Alfredo Corchado, the Dallas Morning News correspondent in Mexico, told me. "They think twice about whether a story is worth their life. It's a life-and-death situation."

Corchado, 50, is a veteran correspondent on the front lines of the drug war, even though the Morning News closed its 11-person Mexico bureau. Now he reports out of his apartment in Mexico as the newspaper's only foreign correspondent.

When Corchado dared to travel to embattled Reynosa, Mexico -- where eight journalists were abducted earlier this year -- there was a crime news blackout enforced by cartel threats and attacks on journalists. Two hundred peopled died there in less than two weeks this spring.

"You realize how far Mexico has to go before it hits bottom. You see the kind of control cartels have over the media with eight people missing, gun battles in daylight and the biggest news in the paper was the price of onions was going up. You talk to colleagues and realize the extent of self censorship and the level of control by organized crime and it just gives you the chills," Corchado said.

In this widespread intimidation campaign, journalists say they live under "a virtual gag order. " After the news media stopped covering violence, Reynosa residents filled the void by sending messages on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube.

As Corchado wandered through that border town across from McAllen, Texas, with a Belo TV crew, a stranger approached them and said, "You have no permission to report here. It's best you leave." He was a lookout for the drug cartels, Corchado learned later.

"Forty five journalists have been killed in Mexico since 1992, and there have been nine disappearances in the last five years," said Carlos Lauria, the Committee to Protect Journalists' Americas program coordinator. "Impunity is the norm, and the majority of these cases remain unsolved. Mexico's justice system is overburdened and dysfunctional so it has failed to prosecute more than 85 percent of the cases."

A convoy of journalists and rights activists came under attack in southern Mexico in the dangerous Oaxaca state in recent weeks, leaving two dead. After the ambush, two journalists were rescued by local police on April 30. Erika Ramirez and David Cilia, reporters for the national newsweekly Contralinea, were almost killed traveling to an area where two community radio reporters had been murdered two years ago.

The body of a kidnapped Mexican journalist was found with his throat slit, after he wrote columns about attacks by armed groups on the indigenous Purpecha community in central Mexico. Enrique Villicana Palomares, a columnist for the Voice of Michoacan, had received threats two weeks before he died in early April.

At Mexico's largest newspaper chain, Grupo Reforma, journalists are wearing bulletproof vests, and the CEO moved his family to Texas amid growing threats by the drug cartels. Journalists are moving to secure high-rise apartment buildings to avoid being kidnapped, and staying clear of violent crime scenes.

"Some journalists are hiring regular folks to take their iPhones and go out and take a video if something happens. Increasingly there is a fear of covering this stuff, especially at night. There is very little eyewitness reporting. Some reporters will even dress up as street vendors if there is a shooting, and mingle with the crowd to see what's happening. If you know too much it can cost you your life. Often reporters don't even show up," Corchado told me. "The problem is you can't tell the good guys from the bad guys."

"What you see in Mexico is the biggest story that is not really being told. Sure, something big happens and the media moves in to do a daily piece, but this is an ongoing tragedy," Corchado said. "It may sound like an overstatement but this is a country literally fighting for its life."

It's gotten so bad that when the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas at the University of Texas gathered together a group of Mexican journalists to talk about the raging violence in late April, some openly feared for their lives. Many talked about death threats and others described how their bullet-riddled newsrooms were attacked by traffickers. And they spoke of a worrisome trend - corrupt reporters, on the payrolls of drug traffickers, who intimidate co-workers.

"I've talked to these threatened journalists and they feel this emptiness that their war is being ignored, "Luis Botello, senior director for digital media at the International Center for Journalists, said, "They are worried. They see colleagues murdered and threatened and many journalists losing their jobs. They feel like they are alone. The big news organizations are shutting down bureaus and relying on a few freelancers parachuting in to report big stories. It's never been more dangerous to cover."