In Mexico, Journalists Are Becoming an Endangered Species

Evaristo Ortega Zárate, a journalist in Veracruz, Mexico, was an ace at reporting details. He covered rival drug traffickers, criticized the inaction of local authorities and investigated politicians. Thanks to his efforts, his paper, Espacio, grew from a local weekly to a statewide presence.

But the focus of Ortega's writing changed this year. “They’ve arrested us,” he wrote in a desperate text message. “They have made us get into a police car.”

And those were the last words he wrote. Like dozens of other Mexican journalists in recent years, Evaristo Ortega Zárate simply vanished.

The life of a journalist has never been easy in Mexico, a country noted for its one-party rule, corruption and lawlessness. But in recent years, since President Felipe Calderon challenged the control of drug cartels that “sought to rule the nation,” practicing journalism has become a deadly occupation.

The numbers vary according to the source, but roughly 70 journalists, photographers, editors and producers have been killed in the last decade in Mexico, in what Reporters Without Borders calls, "the Western Hemisphere's deadliest country for the media."

The deadliest place in the world to get a quote remains Iraq, where 140 journalists have been killed since 2003, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), a nonprofit that tracks violence against journalists worldwide.

But in many ways the streak of violence south of the Rio Grande is even more disturbing. At the height of the war in Iraq, journalists were often killed in sporadic crossfire, homicide bombings and inconclusive murders. And the number of journalists who have been killed has plummeted – from 32 in 2007 to four last year – as the war has wound down.

But in Mexico, the violence is almost never random. Druglords meticulously target journalists for execution, and the method is often very personal. Journalists have had their throats slashed and their bodies dissolved in acid; they've been dismembered and tortured by having a message carved into their bodies; they've been set on fire and they've been buried alive, head first.

Even the bullet to the head has been anything but straightforward: The body of reporter José Bladimir Antuna García's had a note attached to it that read: “This happened to me for giving information to the military and writing what I shouldn't have. Check the texts of your articles well before publishing them. Yours faithfully, Bladimir." It is not known whether Bladimir himself was forced to write the words before he died.

The climate of fear extends to reporters north of the border, as well. El Paso Times reporter Diana Washington Valdez routinely visited Juarez City, just on the other side of the Rio Grande. But she says, “I had to stop going. I just won’t go back.”

In April, she said, “I received a message, recommending that I should stop writing about drug-trafficking.

“Because of all the chaos and mayhem, I’m becoming too recognizable as a journalist."

Separated from El Paso by a small creek roughly the length of a football field, drug traffickers in Juarez City have commandeered radio stations to issue warnings to the press: "Do not mess with us. Do not arrive at the scene of the crime when we are still there.”

The warnings are being taken seriously. "We're seeing more auto-censorship among members of the media in Mexico,” said Carlos Lauria, a CPJ analyst.

Auto-censorship is common in Afghanistan, a country that has known war for decades and one in which freedom of the press is a relatively new concept. But Afghanistan actually ranks low among reporter-averse countries -- over the last 20 years, "only" 22 journalists have been killed there, including nine in 2001, the year American forces routed the Taliban.

Precautions are prudent in a nation that has known generational war, but now they are a reality in Mexico, right across America's southern border.

Some Mexican cartel members are seeking to control their image, and they have even kidnapped journalists to barter for television air-time. And the threat to reporters doesn't come only from the lawbreakers. The lawmakers pose problems, as well.

Of the 244 assaults on journalists, 65 percent came from public officials, according to Sociedad Interamericana de Prensa.

And the threat may not be contained south of the Rio Grande.

“On this side of the border, there’s a constant flow of intelligence and counter-intelligence,” Valdez said. “We know from our sources that some criminal activities are being coordinated from El Paso.”

While the journalists who were interviewed for this article insisted that they want to maintain their professional integrity, they say they are necessarily concerned that poking or prodding the wrong person may not be worth the risk.

There is “no magic solution for stopping the violence of the cartels or to protect freedom of the press,” Carlos Laurie said.