He was twenty-one, a photojournalist, shot several times at close range in broad daylight. His colleague, an eighteen-year-old intern, was wounded. Luis Carlos Santiago Orozco and Carlos Manuel Sanchez Colunga were parked in a shopping centre carpark when the bullets hit them. Santiago, who had only been working at the paper for two weeks, died a short time later. It was September 16 and Mexico had celebrated its Bicentenary of Independence only the night before.
On Sunday, when he was buried, the newspaper he worked for, El Diario de Juárez, ran the usual image of the country’s flag alongside its masthead. Today, however, the flag was dripping with blood.
“¿Qué quieren de nosotros?” the headline asked. “What do they want from us?” No suspects had been named in the case and no one had taken responsibility for the shooting. A Chihuahua state attorney’s office spokesman later said the murder was not related to Santiago’s journalistic work, but rather to “a personal problem,” a line heard on more than occasion before in relation to such cases.
But there was no question who it was that the paper’s use of “they” in its headline referred to.
What followed was a passionate and highly unorthodox open letter from the paper’s editorial staff to Ciudad Juárez’s rival drug cartels, which are currently jostling, with bloody results, for control of the infamous border city’s coveted trafficking routes into the United States. (Juárez, Mexico’s most dangerous city, borders El Paso, one of the United States’ safest.)
“We don’t want to see more dead,” the open letter read. “We don’t want to see more wounded nor do we want to be intimidated. It is impossible for us to do our job under these conditions.”
It has been impossible for quite some time. That the most remarkable thing about the murder of Santiago was not the brazen manner in which it took place, but rather the paper’s subsequent editorial, is telling. In Juárez, where between eight and twelve homicides are recorded every day—this is, for many people’s money, the homicide capital of the world—and where bicentenary celebrations were cancelled in case the cartels tried anything funny, there is nothing less remarkable than a brazenly committed murder. Or, for that matter, a dead journalist.
Indeed, not only was Santiago not the first journalist to be killed in Juárez, he wasn’t even the first from El Diario. In 2008, the paper’s crime reporter, Armando Rodríguez, was gunned down in his driveway while preparing to take his daughter to school. Two prosecutors investigating that case were later killed within a month of each other. None of these murders have ever been solved.
The carnage is not limited to Juárez, either. In July this year, Hugo Alfredo Olivera Cartas, the editor of El Diem, a small paper in the western state of Michoacán, was found sitting in his pickup truck one fine summer morning with three bullets in his head. The death of Santiago brings the number of Mexican journalists killed this year to nine. Chillingly, with over three months left of the year, last year’s bumper crop of eight bodies has already been surpassed.
The US-based Committee to Protect Journalists this month released a report dealing with the impact of the drug wars on the country’s journalists and press freedoms. The conclusions reached were as negative as the journalistic death toll was high.
“Twenty-two journalists have been murdered since President Felipe Calderón Hinojosa took office in December 2006, at least eight in direct reprisal for reporting on crime and corruption,” the report, Silence or Death in Mexico‘s Press, read. “Three media support workers have been slain and at least seven other journalists have gone missing during this period. In addition, dozens of journalists have been attacked, kidnapped or forced into exile.”
The report also detailed the more subtle—which is to say, less bloody—effects of the drug wars on the country’s press. Primary and most insidious among these is the culture of self-censorship that has arisen, with numerous newspapers, as well as radio and television stations, flatly refusing to cover drug-related violence, either as a result of cartel bribes or else without any prompting at all. In February, The Dallas Morning News reported that more than two-hundred people had been killed in the border city of Reynosa as Los Zetas, a north-eastern cartel, did battle with their former bosses, the Gulf Cartel, for control of the state of Tamaulipas. Not a word of this was so much as mentioned in the local press, which Los Zetas more or less controls. Forget bribes. The allure of not being beheaded on videotape can often be currency enough in such matters.
The CPJ report also notes the failure of the Calderón Government’s militaristic approach to the cartels—there are currently some 4500 police and federal troops in Ciudad Juárez alone—and indeed the most controversial passage in the El Diario editorial was one in which its authors, deferring to the cartel bosses as “señores,” acknowledged that the rules are no longer being set by the government but by the drug lords.
“You are the de facto authority in the city now,” the editorial read. “We ask you to explain what you want from us, what we should try to publish or not publish, so we know what to expect.”
President Calderon’s spokesman for security matters, Alejandro Poire, immediately denounced the editorial as a dangerous form of appeasement. “It simply is not appropriate in any way, shape or form, for any party to try to make agreements with, promote a truce with, or negotiate with criminals,” he said. Following a meeting with the CJP and the Inter American Press Association, Calderon this week announced that he would push for legislation that would make attacks on journalists a federal crime while simultaneously providing protection and support for those deemed to be at risk. He has attempted to push for such legislation before, however, only to see it stall in congress.
The CPJ’s executive director, Joel Simon, agreed that the letter seemed overly deferential to the cartel bosses, though he acknowledged that the sentiments in the letter were “understandable.” “I think the big losers are, obviously, the public,” he said in an interview with public radio.
El Diario‘s editors, however, insist that their editorial did not amount to a surrender, and it is true that they have continued to run stories about the drug wars in the wake of last week’s murder.
But the fact that they should have run such a letter at all remains a sign of the extent to which conditions in the north of the country have deteriorated. While news organisations throughout the north have gone mum one by one on the question of the cartels, El Diario and other Juárez papers, despite the obvious, ever-present risks, have thus far remained fiercely committed to the ideal of speaking truth to power.
Let us hope that its commitment to that ideal didn’t die with Luis Carlos Santiago Orozco.
An edited version of this article appeared under the title ‘Reporters suffer in Mexican mayhem’ in The Australian on Monday, September 27, 2010. That version is accessible here.