Journalists under threat as violence increases in Mexican border state Tamaulipas

By Mariana Muñoz

An increase in organized crime-related violence has terrorized the Mexican border state of Tamaulipas over the past week. Conflicts between rival cartel factions in the neighboring border cities of Reynosa and Matamoros have left dozens dead, escalating the present danger for journalists practicing in the region.​

In the Mexican town of Matamoros, across the border from the U.S. town of Brownsville, the newspaper El Mañana reported in its Feb. 4 issue on gunfights in the area that killed nine people. Though they did not mention any cartel or name individuals, it was enough to make them a target for retaliation.

That same afternoon, three armed men kidnapped the editor, Enrique Juárez Torres. The men dragged him from his office, beat him inside a vehicle, and let him go with a warning:  “We are going to kill you.”

Juárez Torres fled the country, half of the staff did not return to work the following day, and at least four journalists at the publication immediately announced their resignation. The publication has since returned to the auto-censorship journalism they had been practicing before.

Two days after the attack on Juárez Torres, a grenade was thrown at the Televisa building in Matamoros, leaving two injured. Televisa, a major Mexican media company and one of the largest in Latin America, had been reporting on organized crime in the area.

News publications and television stations along the border have been effectively forced to stop reporting on violence in order to avoid aggression against journalists. As one line of defense, many online articles that mention anything related to the ongoing situation generally do not include the author's name.

With high levels of censorship in traditional media, social media has become a vital source of information for citizens.

Valor por Tamaulipas, a Twitter account that aims to protect citizens by informing them about dangerous areas they should avoid, has more than 119,000 followers. The account reports on shootings, blockades, and the latest news involving organized crime across the state using the hashtag #SDR, which stands for Situaciones de Riesgo (Risky Situations), followed by the name of the city involved. Thus far, the hashtag #SDRReynosa has been the most active.

Even though reporting anonymously through social media does not generally spur retaliation, the lives of those who publish are still in danger.

In October 2014, alleged members of a criminal gang murdered María del Rosario Fuentes, a doctor who had been practicing citizen journalism. Fuentes, who was a collaborator for Valor por Tamaulipas and was known on Twitter by her handle @Miut3, posted tweets that pinpointed the location of violent incidents in real time and encouraged victims of crime to speak out and file a police report.

In 2013, leaflets were distributed in Tamaulipas offering a reward of 600,000 pesos (about US $48,000 at the time) for information on the identities of people working with Valor por Tamaulipas. In response to the threats, the founder shut it down for a while, but when Valor por Tamaulipas went back online the threats resumed. On Oct. 16, a photo of Fuentes' dead body was published on her own Twitter account along with messages urging her followers to shut down their accounts or risk their lives.

Journalism in Mexico has become one of the most dangerous professions since the beginning of the “War on Drugs,”which unfolded in 2006 under former president Felipe Calderón Hinojosa. Reporting on cartel activity on social media has proven deadly, and with cartels controlling the content that is published in traditional media, journalists are forced to choose their practice or face the consequences.

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.