MEXICO CITY – MEXICO CITY (AP) — The threats, four or five of them, came to reporters at Imagen, a daily newspaper in the once-quiet state of Zacatecas where drug cartels have taken over in just the last few years. Then editor Patricia Mercado got a phone call ordering her to print a prepared article or she would be kidnapped.
Mercado ran the story — verbatim — of an innocent young man killed by the army, which was committing human rights abuse.
"If it's a question of life or death, I have no trouble making a decision. The lives of my reporters are most important," she said, after telling a group of Mexican journalists Thursday that traffickers from the Zetas cartel have "almost become the news editors."
Her colleagues from across the country told similar stories of attacks, intimidation and self-censorship in a rare public debate days after El Diario de Juarez wrote a stunning editorial calling drug cartels the de facto authorities in Ciudad Juarez and saying, "Tell us what you want."
President Felipe Calderon said Wednesday he would push legal reforms to protect journalists and create a security plan after he met with the Committee to Protect Journalists and the Inter American Press Association, which sponsored Thursday's conference.
At the same time, the Attorney General's Office announced the first lead in the 2008 killing of El Diario crime reporter Armando Rodriguez, saying soldiers had detained a suspect who described how Rodriguez was killed and said the journalist was targeted because of his work.
El Diario editor Pedro Torres, who ran the provocative editorial after a second of his journalists, 21-year-old photographer Luis Carlos Santiago, was killed last week, said he was skeptical about the arrest, given its timing.
"Every time there is pressure ... they find an escape valve. They present someone, an important arrest," Torres told The Associated Press. In two years, he has yet to be interviewed about Rodriguez's death. "It's very hard to believe in an investigation that is carried out this way," Torres said.
El Diario's editorial dominated the public discourse all week in a country the U.N. called the most dangerous place for journalists in the Americas. Sixty-five news workers have been slain since 2000, Mexico's National Commission on Human Rights has said.
More than 90 percent of the cases have gone unsolved, according to the CPJ.
"For me the most eloquent part of the editorial was the 'de facto authorities,'" said Javier Garza, deputy editorial director of El Siglo de Torreon in the northern state of Coahuila, whose offices were shot up in 2009. "Why would we believe Calderon? ... The legitimate authorities have done nothing."
Investigators believe Rodriguez was killed "for writing a lot of stories against one of the criminal organizations fighting for territorial control" in Ciudad Juarez, the Attorney General's Office said in a statement.
It did not specify the criminal organization. The Juarez and Sinaloa cartels have been battling there since 2008.
The office said it was withholding the suspect's name and when he was arrested because it didn't want to undermine the investigation. It said the suspect has not been charged in Rodriguez's murder but has been charged with other crimes.
Torres said Rodriguez never set out to criticize one cartel more than another.
Mexican journalists blame the government as much as the cartels for the intimidation they face.
Jorge Luis Aguirre, 52, a journalist in Ciudad Juarez who was granted U.S. asylum days before Santiago was killed, testified before U.S. Congress that he was threatened. Two years ago, while driving to the funeral of a slain colleague, he answered his cell phone only to hear a chilling voice on the other end warn: "You're next." It's unclear exactly who threatened Aguirre.
The decision to grant asylum to Aguirre is believed to be the first of its kind since the country's bloody drug war began. It could open the door for other reporters such as television cameraman Alejandro Hernandez, who also is seeking U.S. asylum after being kidnapped in July, presumably by the Sinaloa drug cartel. His lawyer says he fears both the cartels and the government.
But Mexican journalists also shoulder some blame.
Though press independence has increased in Mexico, corruption persists, particularly in smaller media markets. Salaries are low, leaving reporters vulnerable to bribes. Government advertising remains a major source of funding — influence — for many publications.
"What's being done to clean up our newsrooms?" Ismael Bojorquez, director of the weekly Rio Doce in northwestern Sinaloa state asked rhetorically.
Most journalists agreed that the best protection would have to come from inside their group. They discussed a plan to drop their competitive instincts, cover sensitive stories collectively and run them at the same time in numerous publications. A similar plan in Colombia allowed journalists to continue reporting in the face of threats from organized crime.
It would make it more expensive to kidnap or kill journalists, said Leonardo Kourchenko, a vice president at Televisa, Mexico's main TV network, "because the information would be everywhere."
Associated Press writers Olivia Torres in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, and Olga R. Rodriguez and E. Eduardo Castillo in Mexico City contributed to this report.