Cartel Censorship Reaches Mexico City

Mexico drug cartels and journalism
Violence encroaches on the capital, and so does the pressure to muzzle real journalism. Rodrigo Abd/Associated Press

Like an unstoppable tsunami, the wave of drug-related censorship that has enveloped thousands of journalists in Mexico has reached the capital city, long a bastion of relatively open crime reporting, according a report released Wednesday by the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Since former President Felipe Calderon declared war on Mexico's criminal syndicates seven years ago, reporters in the provinces have adapted to the new rules of the game: no detailed reports on cartel activity, no mention of top echelon drug leaders, no serious investigations into executions. In hundreds of towns and cities across Mexico, journalists can do little more than regurgitate vague official press releases. For those who stray, threats, kidnappings, beatings and murder are not uncommon. According to Article 19, a press freedom group, 50 reporters have been killed since Calderon took office on December 2006.

But until recently, Mexico City-based journalists had largely been spared from the cartel demands that created a self-imposed censorship for most of the country. They often wrote about criminal organizations without fearing for their lives and the city itself was a bubble of relative calm.

Now that's changed. One of Mexico's strongest cartels, the Familia Michoacana, has descended on Ciudad Nezahualcoyotl at the edge of Mexico City and silenced the press there, according to the report.

"The deep problem for Mexican journalism and for Mexicans is that while those reporters can tell CPJ ... they can't tell their readers in the rest of the country," wrote Mike O'Connor, Mexico Representative for the New York-based CPJ, in the report. O'Connor died of a heart attack in Mexico City last month at 67.

After arriving in Neza -- a city of over 1 million people 10 miles southeast of Mexico City -- Familia Michoacana first ensured its monopoly over drug sales. Then, its members began to kidnap and extort, roaming the city in big SUVs and threatening police officers from behind rolled down, blacked-out windows. In the process, the report noted, they infiltrated the police, making it impossible for the mayor of Neza to protect his people. Or the journalists who cover it.

"To stay alive in Neza, journalists simply stop telling the public what the cartel doesn't want the public to know," O'Connor wrote. "All of the journalists CPJ spoke with who cover Neza said they stay away from organized crime stories or play it very cautiously. For the most part, they don't investigate or look for the big picture. They crank out today's limited story and hope the cartel doesn't get angry."

It's not only cartels that are intimidating Neza's reporters into silence. The city's police are also censoring journalists in an attempt to kill reports that make them look "incompetent or corrupt."

In 2010, El Diario de Juarez, the biggest newspaper in Ciudad Juarez, published a front-page editorial asking the cartels to clarify what it could and could not publish and calling them a de facto authority. Mexicans were appalled. But as other local newspapers have followed suit around the country, silence has become the norm.

"When information media does not have a state protecting it, it takes the rational attitude," said Jorge Chabat, a drug and security expert at CIDE, a research university in Mexico City.

Mexico's national newspapers, which have retained a degree of immunity amid the encroaching information blackout, are beginning to bow to the pressure, too.

O'Connor found that La Jornada, one of the largest newspapers in the country, has stopped reporting on organized crime in Neza. He said that while other national newspapers published ambitious crime stories in 2012, "no story went nearly as deeply as the problems seem to go."

Meanwhile, Mexican authorities deny the presence of cartels in or near Mexico City. O'Connor cites Miguel Angel Mancera, Mexico City's mayor, as telling an interviewer, "there is not a single cartel. Nothing like the names of the cartels you find in the states." And Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto has tried to overshadow reports of growing cartel activity with an around-the-clock focus on his signature education, tax and energy reforms.

Neza, which sits on a drained lake and contains a vast landfill, housed a homegrown cartel in the late 1990s which was eventually broken down. For years, Neza's drug market did not belong to a single gang but in 2008 or 2009, wrote O'Connor, an organized crime cartel took over and began wreaking havoc. "An organized crime cartel was never supposed to operate in metropolitan Mexico City," said O'Connor in his report. "The drug war was supposed to be taking place out there, in the 'provinces.' "

But like a cancer bent on destroying its host, the drug war, and censorship, are now reaching the heart of Mexico.

"This will make public opinion be less informed, which will reduce pressure on the government, which will increase criminal activities," said Chabat. "That would mean the end of the pact between state and society and the failure of the Mexican state."