GLOBAL JOURNALIST: Drugs cartels impede press freedom in Colombia, Mexico

Saturday, October 30, 2010 | 3:22 p.m. CDT

Byron Scott, professor emeritus, Missouri School of Journalism: Our focus today:  Colombia and Mexico – no, not two cities in central Missouri – but two troubled nations whose governments are trying to stop powerful drug cartels. …  A few weeks ago, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared that Mexico’s drug gang wars are taking on aspects of Colombia’s long battle against FARC cartels.

Colombia and Mexico also remain two very dangerous places for journalists to cover these stories. This week, the Missouri School of Journalism is presenting its honor medal to a group of Colombian journalists who work together to report the continuing battle against drug lords.


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Ignacio Gomez let me begin by asking you to tell us briefly why the Foundation for the Press Freedom was founded and what it does?

Ignacio Gomez, founder, Foundation for the Press Freedom Colombia, Bogotá, Columbia: In 1986 Guillermo Cano, the editor-in-chief of El Espectador was killed. All of the journalists in Bogotá especially but also in the country were shocked. More than 200,000 people went out to the streets to go to the funeral, and the colleagues started to think about how to keep writing about drug trafficking — about the influence of drug trafficking in Colombian politics — without being killed. These times for Colombia were hard for journalists. By 1996 we made finally the recommendation with support of the Committee to Protect Journalists, and especially Reporters Without Borders was helping us to make it real. Finally, today we have a protection program that provides bodyguards, armored cars, bullet-proof vests and stuff like that to 82 journalists in the country, and right now we have fewer journalists being killed. We are also starting finally to talk about freedom of the press.

Scott: I think that is a broader problem that we have around the world. Tala, he mentioned Reporters Without Borders as one of the organizations that supports the foundation and its protection. Would you like to give us the worldwide perspective?

Tala Dowlatshahi, senior advisor for Reporters Without Borders, New York: Colombia definitely is on our radar as is Mexico, so I want to congratulate you for highlighting these two countries. There is a range of issues that can be looked at as a global problem that are also specific to Colombia and Mexico like illegal telephone tapping by the Colombia intelligence agency, which our team investigated this past May. So far we have a total of 11 journalists who have been murdered in Mexico this year. There are increasing numbers of local police involved in silencing radio stations and Mexican journalists. Of course when you look at countries in Africa you have very seasoned journalists with very little resources and very high corruption so that is always an issue. In the Middle East you have conflict and war, which makes journalists’ lives more in danger and they suffer more bloodshed. In particular, local correspondents are really risking their lives and their families’ lives to get the story.

Scott: We have had a couple of recent shows where we have talked about the drug gang wars in Mexico. Ioan just before we went on the air I heard you talking about a book that you have coming out. I know it is on the subject.

Ioan Grillo, correspondent, Time Magazine, Mexico City: That’s right. It is a book that is based really on nine years that I’ve been in Mexico and following the development of the situation and the tragic escalation of the situation. This book looks at how the Mexican drug war, this conflict, has transformed so radically in the past couple of years and how these drug gangs from these groups — that were originally these mountain peasants growing marijuana putting it out in the United States — has transformed so radically into these armed groups which can launch attacks of 50 men using heavy weapons, grenades, kidnapping, killing politicians and spreading a real kind of terror on the country; the reason this has happened, how it has happened, why it happened through nine years. I have taken a lot of effort to really get to good sources and really talk to people involved in the inside in these organizations wherever I can, and that has often been in prison cells, in drug rehab centers, on the streets, wherever I can to try to get to people with real first-hand knowledge of being inside these kinds of organizations, being under the order of these people or to carry out murders or traffic drugs or any of these kinds of decisions. And the situation has escalated with such terrible consequences.

Scott:  The title of your book?

Grillo: "The Killing Ghosts: Inside the Mexican Drug Wars" published by the Bloomsbury Press, in the U.K. and the United States, in Spain and France in 2011.

Scott:  Dudley, you’ve been in Mexico City even longer. Give us your insight. Is this a story that parallels the Colombian situation or not?

Dudley Althaus, bureau chief, The Houston Chronicle: Mexico is in some respects like Colombia, but in others it is very different. The violence is horrendous right now, but it is nowhere near what Colombia suffered in the late '80s, through much of the '90s. A lot of us forget about the blowing up of airplanes, the attacks on police headquarters with car bombs. We haven’t seen that level yet in Mexico. Having said that, this is unprecedented in Mexico. The violence has escalated incredibly. I think many of us missed it in the last five or 10 years, just how deeply entrenched the drug gangs have gotten, and really just to call them drug gangs is kind of a misnomer. They’re involved in all sorts of things. They have become really embedded in the social fabric of Mexico, and in many small towns it is really terrifying.

Scott: Ignacio let us get back to the Colombian situation.

Gomez: The paramilitary and the drug traffickers have penetrated the state. In fact we have six Congress people in jail with the military and the traffickers. All of them were right-wing and were part of the government. The attacks unfortunately haven’t stopped. Two weeks ago my apartment was searched, and my computer and my daughter’s computer were taken out because of tips, but immediately the media said the tips were not bad tips but were related to government agencies.

Scott:  Let me return if we can to the harassment techniques that you are still facing in Colombia, Ignacio and ask our colleagues in Mexico City if again that this is something that they are facing?

Althaus: In the drug areas of the Pacific and the Gulf of Mexico coasts, the harassment is really coming from the gangsters themselves and sometimes from the government.

Scott: Sort of a government unto themselves.

Althaus: Absolutely. On the south Texas border the Mexican newspaper journalists and really journalists of all kinds are really gagged by the gangsters themselves. They receive phone calls about what they can publish, what they cannot publish and so for a lot of parts of that area of the country news doesn’t come out. News about shootouts in the cities that may kill a dozen people or 16 people and last all day, and there is not a word of it in the local TV or radio or the local newspapers. And journalists will tell you they are under threat of death if they publish this sort of thing. When news does come out about these kinds of killings, it is usually because they are told specifically to print this news.

Grillo: I agree with Dudley. The situation of harassment from organized crime of the press is absolutely incredible in certain places. In Durango three journalists were kidnapped and held for a week and beaten. And what is very tragic about this whole situation is what the government is not doing to protect them. One of them was tied to a chair for days, not given food for a length of time. They got let out of this place after this kidnapping, the federal police said they freed them in a raid, but they were released. They said the federal police picked them up and took them to Mexico City, saying they were going to meet President Felipe Calderon. They were brought to Mexico City and put before a press conference. They had just come out of this week of being kidnapped; they were thrown before the press.

If you look at the video of that press conference, they’re pretty fazed out. One of the journalists said he can’t possibly go back to Durango right now. It is way too dangerous. So it was a really tragic situation, and I understand the government itself is being attacked. But when you see the head of the federal police assassinated in his own home, you realize that he is worried about his own skin and not so much about journalists. It is very tough for journalists in those front-line states.

Scott: Tala, is this the exception or the rule among journalists covering this type of story?

Dowlatshahi: It has now become the rule where lawlessness, local police corruption, involvement by government and paramilitary groups against journalists is a common phenomenon. You see that in Mexico and you see that in Colombia, but you also see that globally. No longer is the journalist an objective viewer of a scenario. They now become direct targets. In Mexico, many journalists have received notes from insurgent groups who want to make sure that they are covered. So it is kind of an oxymoron. They want to get the media coverage, but they want to dictate what the coverage is. That is a very frightening situation for journalists.

Althaus: That is absolutely correct. That is what is happening in Mexico and up in the borders. I’ve talked to journalists who actually get press releases from the gangsters and are told to print these press releases verbatim on the front page or wherever the gangsters say to print them. And not just about this gang or that gang, it might be somebody’s daughter is having a birthday party, and these guys receive press releases that you have to publish a story about the birthday party. It is an incredible situation.

I was just in Tomalitos, and some journalists and editors were complaining to me that the government doesn’t put out any information about these shootouts, about these killings, and so you’re stuck. If the government doesn’t put out any information then the journalists are on their own, and, increasingly, they’re not going to investigate anything. So there was a recent shootout in Tomalitos. It lasted 16 hours in this town, and the Mexican army said that two people were killed. Local residents and the rumor mill put the number closer to 40, and none of the local journalists went out to investigate. They just thought it was too dangerous. So whether two people were killed or 40, local residents can’t be sure. And it is a total breakdown of what we all consider to be journalism, but these guys are under threats for their lives.

Scott: And now journalists have to protect each other and have ways of protecting themselves just to cover the story. Do you foresee this as the future for American journalists in Mexico City, Dudley?

Althaus: We have been talking a lot about that. You know foreign journalists here have become much more aware of the possible dangers. We’re in no way facing the same dangers as our Mexican colleagues. The hammer has really fallen on these guys, especially in the Mexican provincial press out in the states. These guys that are there every day, going to work every day, there is no protection. There is no government protection. There is no police protection in their newsrooms, and there is no protection when they go home at night. They’re the ones really under the gun.

Most of us get in and get out of particular areas. Even if you spend a week in these places, you’re not really in the sights of these guys. Having said that I think we all feel increasingly in the sights of these guys and we’ve talked a lot about how we protect each other.

One of the big problems with the national press, I think, is that nobody’s got each other’s back. The major news media, the television networks, the national press, the big newspapers in Mexico City or Monterrey are not really coming to the aid of the local provincial journalists who have been threatened or killed. If you get in trouble or get crosswise with these guys and you’re in a small town somewhere in Mexico, you can be sure the cavalry is not going to come in time. You’re not going to get help, so you’re really facing these guys by yourself.

After these guys that Ioan described were kidnapped in Durango by gangsters and basically put out press releases, which were run on national television networks, the national media here, the national networks banded together and said never again. We’re going to start more solidarity with journalists all across the country. That really hasn’t happened, but there was a lot of talk for the first time about what the Mexican press could do to protect itself, but it really hasn’t come to fruition.

Scott: Tala, who does have the journalists’ back worldwide, Reporters without Borders, Committee to Protect Journalists, International Press Institute? But again their power is mostly the power of public opinion, is it not?

Dowlatshahi: I wouldn’t say that these groups are powerless. Amnesty International is also one that has a significant number of very worthwhile campaigns. Some of the successes have involved for example, the Cuba situation in lobbying with members of the European Commission and European Union who do business with these countries in order to get them to try to put pressure on internal forces to give journalists the freedoms they deserve.

Mexico is difficult because the United States arms Mexico. A number of the ammunitions, small arms and light weapons that come into Mexico come from the United States. So they are indirectly arming these drug cartels. Additionally, you have a lot of the drugs that come into the United States which are big industry so the U.S. can’t be that influential.

What we (Reporters Without Borders) are looking to do is try to get other governments in the European region to provide aid to these countries, to try to work with them in a fashion to put pressure on them, to say "Look we won’t give you money in this regard, if you don’t put more pressure on these insurgent groups inside your country," and that is really all that we can do. There have been some successes, but it is a very tough battle when you see that members of governments are actually working with local police forces, with the drug cartels, and that puts us in a precarious situation in particular for those local reporters.

Scott: I would like to particularly suggest here that whenever journalists have to band together for their own self-protection, it is a worldwide concern  — one that our Colombian colleagues who are being honored this week not only should be recognized for — but we look forward to the day when this is no longer necessary. The United States has spent more than $7 billion to help Colombia defeat drugs. Mexico’s increasing gang violence has Washington policy makers, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, wondering about the price tag behind backing President Calderon. Compare and contrast. The answers will be forthcoming from journalists doing an increasingly difficult job.

Producers of Global Journalist are MU journalism graduate students Ryan Kresse,  Youn-Joo Park, Tim Wall, Kuba Wuls and Rebecca Wolfson. The director is Travis McMillen, audio by Pat Akers.  The floor director is Yue Jiang. The video producer is Erika Croonenberghs. The transcriber is Pat Kelley.

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