Increasingly violent drug cartels have been blamed for 3,000 murders in Mexico in the past eighteen months, according to a story in the Washington Post. But as the death toll rises, media coverage decreases. That’s because cartel gunmen target journalists in addition to one another — more than 30 journalists have been killed in the past six years in Mexico and scores more have been subject to intimidation — kidnapping, office bombings, and so on. It all adds up to make Mexico the second most dangerous country in the world to be a journalist, according to the Post. First, of course, is Iraq. (The Post story has all sorts of good details and quotes from the reporters and editors on the ground — worth a read.)
Mexico has gotten bad quickly. In 2005, I created two tables that illustrated how much worse Iraq was for journalists than all other countries around the world. Before the invasion of Iraq, the countries that routinely saw the most press deaths were Russia, Algeria, and Columbia — they each had three or four a year for ten years running. Starting in 2003, Iraq saw 56 journalists killed in a three year span. Mexico wasn’t even on the list.
But we could have predicted this. In a 2006 photo essay called “Born Into Cellblocks,” Mother Jones sent a photographer into a Mexican prison to photograph the children who live there with their mothers. Chuck Bowden wrote the accompanying text, in which he explored the drug violence that was even then consuming Mexican towns near the American border. He also mentioned the growing violence against journalists. Snippets are below, the whole thing is here.
Bullets killed the police chief last summer, just a few hours after he took office. This brought in the Mexican army. The ongoing slaughter of many cops and citizens caused the U.S. government to shut down its consulate for a spell last August. This winter the local paper was visited by some strange men, presumably working for the cartels, and they fired dozens of rounds and tossed in a grenade. One reporter took five bullets. The editor promptly announced a new policy: His paper, one of the few Mexican publications on the line actually printing news about the drug cartels, would no longer report on the cartels…
Beneath this gore, women and children muddle on, some in Mexican jails. Incarceration, like law, is a bit different in Mexico. Conjugal visits are permitted; small children younger than six can be locked up with their moms; and men and women peddle goods and themselves within the walls in order to survive. Mexican prisons often do not provide grub. I’ve stood in line with family members who toted a week’s supply of food on visiting day, seen women reel out of cells in disarray after their weekly intercourse sessions with their men. Drugs are commonplace inside the walls, as are gangs. Money can buy anything. For years the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration has complained about the posh quarters given to major drug players and how they continue to do business without interference while theoretically being under lock and key.
Update: Journalists of any stripe — not just those that cover the drug cartels — are vulnerable in Mexico. After Lydia Cacho exposed a powerful hotel owner as the orchestrator of a child pornography and prostitution ring, she was arrested and almost killed by local police. Mother Jones interviewed Cacho in May.