Covering Mexico's drug war

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I was in Houston recently for a visit and many people asked me the same two questions about covering Mexico's drug violence. Is it really that dangerous? And are you afraid? Yes, it is dangerous-- but those most at risk are journalists who work for the Mexican media. And to protect themselves reporters in Mexico have had to develop some survival skills.

Self-Censorship is number one. Especially on a local level -- both newspapers and television stations have had to carefully craft their coverage to make sure they don't draw the wrath of media savvy drug cartels. That means the violence is covered but the cause is not necessarily investigated. It has happened in several places where rival drug cartels wage war on each other or anyone else who gets in the way. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, "Mexico is one of the most dangerous places for journalists in Latin America. Since 2000, 24 journalists have been killed in the country; at least eight in direct reprisal for their work. In addition, seven journalists have disappeared since 2005." Last year a gunman killed crime beat reporter Armando Rodriguez who worked for the Diario of Juarez. He died in his driveway as he prepared to leave to take his daughter to school.
And assailants have attacked both newspaper offices and television stations.
Most recently gunmen sprayed the Televisa-owned station in Monterrey with automatic weapon fire and threw a fragmentation grenade into the parking lot. A message left outside written on cardboard said "Stop just broadcasting about us. Broadcast about the narco politians."
Those types of messages at crime scenes are more and more common. Drug trafficking organizations hang "Narcomantas" or Narco-banners from overpasses or leave notes on piles of bodies as warnings. In Juarez several "hit lists" were left in public places. One at a monument to police officers listed the names of "corrupt cops" who worked for a rival drug cartel.
News directors at the two leading television stations in Juarez tell me they've don't show a close up view of the messages on screen to avoid becoming the messengers of any cartel.
And that leads to another survival skill for media in Mexico: don't get to the scene first. Television prides itself for "being first" to break news. In Mexico that can get you killed. Bands of hit men linger to make sure their targets are dead. I was told by one Mexican Television station, a photographer who arrived after a shooting had a gun pointed at him by the killers. He quickly left. Now, stations in Juarez now wait to make sure police are on the scene before they try to cover the crime.
When media-savvy drug cartels want news coverage they try to maximize it. Several killings in Juarez recently happened right before the nightly newscasts or during it -- meaning "liveshots" from the crime scene are more likely. Sometimes they even call in tips, alerting reporters of a crime that day, with a specific location and time, "for their planning purposes." That's been the case in Tamaulipas.
During the Televisa attack the news anchors asked police for help while on the air.
The last survival skill: a healthy dose of fear. It's the kind of fear that leads some reporters and photographers covering Mexico's drug war to wear bullet proof vests while on assignment.