Celina Canales, J’09, Mexico
Mexican journalist Alejandro Fonseca was putting up posters condemning organized crime when he was fatally shot in the stomach last September. His killers are nowhere to be found.
In a country where the government prosecutes only one or two crimes out of 100 and 75 percent of businesses fail during the first two years, going into a life of crime is anyone’s best bet.
Turning to crime, poverty, drug gangs, and freedom of speech were the themes of “Scared Silent” Mexican Journalists Under Attack From Drug Mafias,” a Knight Foundation-Cabot Prize conference that took place Thursday, Oct. 16 at Columbia University’s Journalism School.
“For millions and millions, daily life in Mexico can be one daily spoonful of manure after another,” said conference keynote speaker Alejandro Junco, publisher of Grupo Reforma, which puts out what many consider Mexico’s leading newspaper. He said he was referring to a motto that is frequently heard in the most destitute streets in the country: “I’d rather live a week like a king than a lifetime of eating shit.”
Five leaders from the world of U.S. and Mexican journalism grappled for a way forward during the conference’s third and last panel “Future Policy and Periodismo.”
Paul Steiger, chairman of the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, said that his group held at a board meeting last June in Mexico City with Mexican President Felipe Calderón to lobby for federalization of prosecution of crimes against freedom.
Steiger told the audience that Calderón was “encouraging and thinking along the same lines” as CPJ, but that the legislation federalizing those crimes has yet to be enacted.
If Calderon does push a federalization proposal, as he promised CPJ, it will be navigated through Mexico’s Congress by Gerardo Priego Tapia, chairman of the Joint Committee on attacks on the Media and Free Expression and the only Mexican elected official who participated in the Knight-Cabot conference. Priego Tapia is a member of the Partido Acción Nacional (PAN), the party currently in control of the presidency.
“We are a corrupt society. There are no corrupt politicians or journalists in a clean society,” he said when talking about why there was so much unpunished violence. Between 50 and 60 percent of Mexican municipalities are not penetrated or influenced, but rather completely under control of drug dealers, he said, citing the United Nations. This, he said, is a mayor obstacle to efforts to protect journalists from attacks.
“The local press is in the line of fire,” said CNN en Español anchor and Reforma columnist Carmen Aristegui, one of four 2008 Cabot Medalists honored in a gala dinner at the conclusion of the conference. “A journalist who wants to inform about a drug dealer or a politician involved with drugs is putting his or her own existence at risk. Period.”
The danger of risking one’s own life leads to self-censorship, but nobody can ask journalists to be heroes because the threat of dying is real, she said.
Aristegui questioned the reasons for the downward spiral in which Mexico finds itself. During the first ten months of this year, 3,700 people have been killed. She said part of the explanation may lie in the change that occurred in 2000, when the PAN came into power with Vicente Fox as president, and the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI), left the national stage after 72 years of dominance. This undermined an unspoken agreement between drug lords and the government that drug gangs would not attack Mexican civilians uninvolved in the illicit drug trade.
Now a new reality has taken over the drug business.
“In Colombia, drug lords became politicians. In Mexico, politicians are becoming drug lords,” said Ramón Alberto Garza, president of Montemedia Indigo Media, a leading Mexican website.
The problem of a war on drugs in Mexico now, he said, is that no one knows for sure who is a member of the organized crime or in its pay and, thus, against whom such a war should be waged.
Rocardo Trotti, Press Freedom Director of the Inter American Press Association, said that the main problem in Mexico is the lack of political vision. Unlike Colombia, which he said is slowly but steadily recovering for years of drug violence, Mexico is seeing ever higher levels of violence. He suggested three possible solutions: federalization of crimes, harsher punishment, and elimination of statutes of limitations that protect criminals for delayed prosecution.
But these words could not stop the violence. By the time the conference had concluded, photographer Mario Tamez had been beaten and robbed in Cuernavaca, Morelos and the house of reporter Vicente Bórgez in Nogales, Sonora had been attacked with firearms.
Two months left to go in 2008. Let’s hope the death toll does not increase.