Journalists face death and impunity in provincial Mexico, says renowned writer Alma Guillermoprieto

By Alejandro Martínez

In an essay published in the Nov. 22 edition of The New York Review of Books, celebrated journalist Alma Guillermoprieto mentions a press conference that took place a few years ago in the Mexican state of Durango summoned by the vicious drug trafficking organization Los Zetas. She asks readers to place themselves in the attending reporters’ shoes:

Imagine now that you arrive on the appointed day at the stated location, and that you are greeted by several expensively dressed, highly amiable men. Once the greetings are over, they have something to say, and the tone changes. We would like you, they say, to be considerate of us in your coverage. We have seen or heard certain articles or news reports that are unfair and, dare we say, displeasing to us. Displeasing. We have our eye on you. We would like you to consider the consequences of offending us further. We know you would not look forward to the result. We give warning, but we give no quarter. You are dismissed.

Guillermoprieto uses the anecdote to illustrate the dangers of being a journalist in provincial Mexico, where most crimes against the press take place.

In her article Guillermoprieto describes the rampant impunity in the country, where dozens of journalists have been killed in the last decade and the vast majority of the crimes go unpunished.

For instance, Guillermoprieto highlights the case of Armando “El Choco” Rodríguez, a police reporter in Ciudad Juárez who was killed four years ago. The crime garnished national attention and in 2010 president Felipe Calderón said the crime had been solved. However, doubts emerged about the culpability of the man the government was accusing. He was never charged with the crime.

Low salaries and work conditions in the Mexican provinces, which Guillermoprieto describes as “hard and often humiliating,” also serve as a backdrop for the widespread practice of accepting chayote, or bribes for journalists. While these bribes thrived during the 70-year rule of the Revolutionary Institutional Party, Guillermoprieto said they’ve been returning thanks to drug traffickers’ growing power and influence. While the chayote is often paid as a regular stipend for beat reporters, some journalists have to choose between taking bribes and facing the wrath of criminal organizations.

The choices for a journalist become narrow, Guillermoprieto says:

Let us say that a Zeta press conference makes a deep impression on reporter A, particularly after reporter B is murdered for collaborating instead with the police. Reporter A decides to tailor her stories to what she imagines would be the liking of those who are watching her, and even accepts specific instructions, guidelines, and requests. Let us say that one day she is murdered by enemies of the Zetas, who have spotted her as an enemy collaborator. In the unlikely circumstance that an outside observer could actually learn why and how it was that reporter A died, the question would remain: Was she involved with the drug trade or a victim of deadly blackmail? In either case, the likelihood is that both reporters A and B were merely trying to stay alive.

Click here to read Guillermoprieto’s full article.

Note from the editor: This story was originally published by the Knight Center’s blog Journalism in the Americas, the predecessor of LatAm Journalism Review.

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