In a city full of ghosts Juarez newspaper takes a surprising stand

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EL PASO, Texas — A major border news daily published a jaw-dropping front page editorial this week that seems to call on drug cartels, or whichever entities are in control of crime-plagued Ciudad Juarez, to tell them what the newspaper should publish to prevent further attacks against its staff.

The September 18 editorial in El Diario de Juarez, prompted by the recent shooting death the paper’s 21-year-old photographer Luis Carlos Santiago Orozco outside a shopping mall, said, in part: “Tell us what you want from us, what you want us to publish or not publish, so we will know what to do?”

In typical knee-jerk fashion, quite a few journalists were quick to condemn the feisty border newspaper for scrapping its journalistic responsibility and caving in to the drug lords, a charge the newspaper denies. It troubles me that the major media, on both sides of the Rio Grande, did not take the time to carefully analyze the fine points of the editorial, but instead focused on the attention grabbing and alarm-raising message to “drug cartels.”

"What do you want from us?" (Borderzine.com)

"What do you want from us?" (Borderzine.com)

It seems that most missed the point of the long and nuanced editorial statement. Narcos, like ghosts, are unlikely to visit newsrooms or call with an offer to negotiate a public truce. They use subtle tactics instead to get what they want, like threatening to kidnap a Zacatecas editor if she didn’t publish a story about a young man who was killed by the army. She decided to publish rather than perish.

There are countless similar stories of harassment, intimidation and violence against Mexican journalists, especially those in border towns like Juarez who cover crime on a daily basis.  Photographers, often the first to arrive at a grisly crime scene, are also first in the narco war’s line of fire.  A result has been self-censorship by Mexican news media, meaning news outlets often publish the official version of a crime rather than risk than doing their own digging and reporting. Even that is no guarantee of safety. Several journalists have fled to the U.S. seeking political asylum. One newsman, the publisher of the Juarez crime website La Polaka.com, was among the first to be granted asylum this week.  According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, Mexico, where 65 news workers have died since 2000, is the most dangerous country in the world for working journalists.

What prompted the desperate-sounding appeal by the Spanish newspaper? Rage?  Impotence?  Abdication? Were warring narcos the paper’s only intended readers, or was the audience the public agencies and officials who are supposed to secure the peace and protect citizens but instead seem to be incompetent or worse?

If journalists had read the editorial all the way to the end, they would have noticed it was full of well-aimed criticisms of state and federal officials and police agencies, even of President Felipe Calderón. The not-so-veiled message seemed to be asking, “who is in charge” and “whom do you trust” when all sectors of society appear to have gone kaput, through ineptitude, indifference or collusion.

First some background on the scope of Juarez’s troubles.  Once a city brimming with U.S. tourists, thriving businesses and round-the-clock maquila factories, Juarez today is a ghost town where anything goes. Gruesome beheadings and birthday party massacres are routine stories. Chilling bed-sheet messages left on overpasses by drug cartels decorate the streets now empty of tourists and shoppers. Most residents refuse to leave home after sundown. Once thriving avenues are littered with boarded storefronts. It’s as if hope has boarded the last train north. Mexico recently disclosed that there have been 28,000 drug-related murders in the last four years; Juarez accounted for nearly 7,000 of them.

No wonder the newspaper took swipes at President Felipe Calderón’s ineffective war against the cartels and his unfulfilled pre-election promise to protect journalists and press freedoms, and the failure of Mexico’s federal and state law enforcement to protect Juarez doctors, businessmen and regular citizens from common thugs. The paper also chastised a top Chihuahua state official for accusing the paper of promulgating “psychological terrorism” after it published complaints by parents and teachers who say they are victims of extortion.

The editorial even hinted that the federal government was about to produce a “scapegoat” to pin the blame for the murder of El Diario crime reporter Armando Rodríguez, also known as “el Chuco,” in 2008.  The paper was eerily on target. Less than a week after publishing its editorial and following a high profile meeting between Calderón and international journalism organizations seeking protection for journalists, federal officials said they have a suspect in Rodríguez’ murder, someone they identify only as “El 7.” El Diario claims “El 7” is Juan Alfredo Soto Arias, alias “El Arnold,” who was tortured into confessing. In another surreal twist, a federal official claimed the shooting death of the El Diario photojournalist was due to “personal reasons” without explaining what he meant. It turns out Santiago was driving the car of another young El Diario staffer, the son of a human rights activist, who may have been the real target of the attack.

Juarez is that kind of place.

Although I’m doubtful any of this will be sorted out soon, at least there is Calderon’s promise to visiting international journalists that he would push legal reforms to protect news professionals.

Veremos.

In the meantime, I say a prayer for the newsmen and women who continue doing their jobs each day in a city full of dangerous ghosts.  No news story is worth one drop of their blood.

_____

Editor’s note: This story was previously published on Hispanic Link

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