MEXICO CITY – Mostly because of its violent drug cartels, northern Mexico (search) has become one of the most dangerous places in the hemisphere to be a journalist, media groups say. Attacks in the past week alone have left one editor dead, one reporter missing and another barely alive after being shot nine times.
Activists say the government needs to step in and stop to the violence.
"Some of the media outlets here have hired guards," said Roberto Galves (search), news director of radio station XHNOE, whose crime reporter, Guadalupe Garcia Escamilla (search), 39, is recovering from wounds to the chest, abdomen, legs and arms after an April 5 attack in the tough border city of Nuevo Laredo.
On a global scale, Iraq is considered the most dangerous country for journalists; 19 were killed there in 2004. The Philippines, where six reporters were killed last year and two so far this year, is considered the second-most dangerous.
In Latin America, Colombia has always been considered perilous for reporters because of the ongoing battle between insurgents, drug traffickers and the government. Yet the situation there seems to be improving — only one reporter has been killed so far this year.
In contrast, the situation is growing worse in Mexico, a country with no armed insurgencies that has been recognized for its expanding democracy and modernization.
Northern Mexico "has been worse than Colombia" in terms of the danger for journalists, said Lucie Morillon, a spokeswoman for the Washington office of the French watchdog organization Reporters Without Borders (search).
There is one overriding reason for the danger: Mexico's drug cartels. They are numerous, deadly — and they hate attention from the news media.
"When someone dares to denounce them, the threats come immediately. The violence comes immediately," said Mexico's top organized crime prosecutor, Jose Luis Santiago Vasconcelos.
Garcia Escamilla had received death threats, as had newspaper director Raul Gibb Guerrero, who was killed three days after the attack on Garcia Escamilla near the northern Gulf coast city of Poza Rica, in Veracruz state.
"He always had gotten death threats ... but he never went around with bodyguards or a security detail," said Abel Andrade, the news manager of Gibb's paper, La Opinion of Poza Rica, which had reported on the Gulf drug cartel as well as fuel robberies from gas pipelines.
On April 2, Alfredo Jimenez, a crime reporter who frequently wrote about the drug trade for El Imparcial newspaper in the western border state of Sonora, disappeared after saying he was going to meet a contact.
"We have hope that he is alive," said the newspaper's general director, Fernando Healy. Asked if Jimenez may have been targeted because of his work, Healy replied, "We think so, and the authorities have said the same."
Vasconcelos said all three attacks appear to be the work of drug traffickers, in Gibb's case because of the "cunning way in which they killed."
Four assassins in two vehicles lay in wait for Gibb and ambushed him as he drove home, riddling his vehicle with bullets.
Some of the killings have been particularly sadistic. In the northern border city of Matamoros last August, assailants beat newspaper columnist Francisco Arratia Saldierna to death, fracturing his skull, breaking his hands and damaging his spine before dumping him from a moving vehicle.
Gregorio Rodriguez, a photographer who worked for El Debate newspaper in the neighboring state of Sinaloa, was killed on Nov. 28, 2004, apparently because he had taken a picture of a local drug trafficker. Rodriguez was gunned down by several armed men while he was having dinner with his family at a local restaurant.
On June 22 of last year in the city of Tijuana, across the border from San Diego, Calif., gunmen ambushed and killed Francisco Ortiz Franco, an editor of Zeta, a weekly newspaper that often reports on the drug trade.
And in Nuevo Laredo in March 2004, the news editor of El Manana newspaper, Roberto Mora, was stabbed to death by an assailant who was himself later killed in prison.
In the face of what it called "fears of a mounting wave of violence," the InterAmerican Press Association has called on Mexico's federal government to "take a greater role in investigating and punishing those responsible" for attacks on journalists.
While the government recently allowed news organizations to review case files on past killings, journalists remain dissatisfied with the police investigations.
"The regrettable thing is that the authorities ... are not doing anything to capture the killers of journalists," said Zeta's Blancornelas. "So they're going to go on killing."