World

Survival Courses for Journalists Covering the Drug War

Apr. 7: Security forces following reports of abducted passengers in violent Tamaulipas state bordering Texas stumbled on a collection of pits holding a total of 59 bodies. (AP Photo/Alexandre Meneghini)

Apr. 7: Security forces following reports of abducted passengers in violent Tamaulipas state bordering Texas stumbled on a collection of pits holding a total of 59 bodies. (AP Photo/Alexandre Meneghini)  (AP)

Raymundo Arellano wears a pair of dog tags around his neck. His name, blood type and next of kin have been indented on the silver plates.

“My greatest fear is that I’ll be killed and they’ll bury me somewhere and no one will recognize my remains,” he says.

Arellano is a Mexican television reporter trying to do his job in a country wracked by drug-related violence. More than 30 journalists have been killed or disappeared since President Felipe Calderon took office in 2006, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists; ten of them in the last year alone.

When Calderon came to power five years ago, he unleashed the Mexican army and police against the country’s drug cartels and organized crime networks – a strategy that has resulted in more than 35,000 deaths so far. Both drug gangs and Mexican officials target journalists reporting on events surrounding organized crime, according to non-profits.

Speaking to a classroom of fellow journalists taking a survival and first aid course last weekend, Arellano described how he was kidnapped a year ago in the northern city of Reynosa in the state of Tamaulipas. He and a colleague were picked up by armed members of an organized crime network while researching a report on drug-related violence there. They were beaten up and threatened before being let go. Arellano is one of the lucky one. He survived.

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Sitting among the twenty journalists listening to Arellano was David Cilia, a reporter for the magazine Contralínea. In March last year, he was on a reporting trip in the mountains of Oaxaca with a humanitarian convoy when they were ambushed. Their attackers opened fire, killing two people. David took three bullets – one in the leg and two in the torso. It was more than 60 hours before his colleagues and family rescued him.

The police or emergency services never showed up, according to Cilia, which he said is indicative of the Mexican government’s inertia towards aggressions against journalists. The vast majority of murders and disappearances of his peers go uninvestigated.

“In Mexico, there isn’t the political will to help or protect journalists,” said Cilia.

The result of such high levels of intimidation can lead to self-censorship amongst journalists.

“When you’re kidnapped, it changes your life. You have a fear that you never had before, you have an aversion to report on certain issues, and you lose confidence in yourself,” said Arellano.

At the end of last month, some of Mexico’s biggest media organizations, faced with such threats, signed an agreement on how they will cover drug-related violence from now on. The accord stated that the press must not be used by organized crime to generate terror among the public, and it must not become a propaganda tool for criminals.

But Grupo Reforma, a media company with newspapers in three major cities, refused to sign, as did the news magazine Proceso and the left-leaning newspaper La Jornada. Carmen Aristegui, a popular CNN host and broadcaster, said that the accord resembled “almost patriotic journalism,” in that it was mainly an attempt to make Mexico look good in the eyes of the public and the international community. She urged each publication instead to regulate itself according to its individual standards. 

Despite the threats to Mexican journalists and journalism, Arellano and thousands like him continue to report Mexico.

“Part of our job is to resist – at the end of the day the worst thing that we can do is stay quiet.”

Deborah Bonello is a freelance reporter and video journalist based in Mexico City.