Drug War: U.S. Reporters Targeted by Mexican Cartels

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Last summer, while in the early stages of researching several stories related to the U.S.-Mexico border and the drug trade, I called up Mother Jones‘ contributing writer Charles Bowden to get his take on things. Having spent much of his life living in the American southwest and writing about these subjects (see his most recent Mother Jones piece here), Bowden knows better than most the risks associated with reporting the drug war. As he explained, the border is a place where people simply disappear, usually by the hundreds each year. Very few are ever found, even if authorities bother to look, which they often don’t. As an American, he said, I could expect to have *some* protection: cartel assassins often hesitate to go after reporters from north of the border, but not always. (See this piece from the Virginia Quarterly Review about the murder of freelancer Brad Will, the only U.S. journalist to have been assassinated since the recent surge in Mexico’s drug violence.) Bowden suggested that I avoid hotels on the Mexican side, that I vary my schedule each day, and that I drive an alternate route whenever possible. The underlying message was clear: take precautions and, to the extent possible, make yourself hard to kill.

Well, since last summer, things seem to have grown even worse. Sunday’s Washington Post reported on the San Antonio Express-News‘ decision to withdraw its drug trade reporter from Mexico after learning of an assassination threat. According to the Post:

Sources have told several Texas newspapers that hit men from Los Zetas, a group of former Mexican military officers who operate as the Gulf cartel’s assassins, may have been hired to cross into the United States and execute American reporters. Word of the threat shattered the widely held perception here that foreign journalists are somehow shielded from violent retribution in a nation that is now second only to Iraq in deaths of journalists…

More than 30 journalists have been killed in Mexico in the past six years, but only one — freelancer and activist Brad Will, who was shot to death during teacher protests last year in Oaxaca — was American. Most of the killings are believed to be related to coverage of an ongoing war between drug cartels. Last year, drug gangs were suspected of firing automatic weapons and throwing a grenade into the newsroom of Nuevo Laredo’s El Mañana newspaper, seriously injuring one reporter.

Express-News Editor Robert Rivard, a former Central America bureau chief for Newsweek magazine, said in an interview Friday that steps have been taken to conceal the location of his former border correspondent, Mariano Castillo.

Castillo wrote nearly 100 stories about cartels, crisscrossing the border from the newspaper’s bureau in Laredo, Tex., for the past 4 1/2 years as drug violence escalated. His first piece about cartels, in late 2003, was headlined “Mexico town erupts into a battle zone; Grenades, machine guns roar south of the border.” In his last front-page article, which ran in May, Castillo exposed the existence of a “shadowy and violent group that calls itself the ‘Gente Nueva,’ or New People — and authorities don’t want to talk about it.”

For now the paper’s border bureau, which is a 2 1/2-hour drive from San Antonio, sits vacant. Rivard is grappling with a challenge faced every day by his counterparts south of border — how to cover a region where his reporters are targets.

“It’s a dilemma,” Rivard said. “On the one side, no story is worth a reporter’s life; on the other side, you don’t want to back down from telling readers about an important story.”

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