Dana Priest is a Washington Post reporter and John S. and James L. Knight Chair in Public Affairs Journalism at the University of Maryland's Philip Merrill College of Journalism. A two-time Pulitzer Prize winner and three-time finalist, Priest uncovered secret CIA prisons in Eastern Europe and deplorable conditions for veterans at the Walter Reed Medical Center in Washington. @DanaPriest
REYNOSA, Mexico — As deadline descended on El Mañana’s newsroom and reporters rushed to file their stories, someone in the employ of a local drug cartel called with a demand from his crime boss.
The caller was a journalist for another newspaper, known here as an enlace, or “link” to the cartel. The compromised journalist barked out the order: Publish an article saying the mayor in Matamoros had not paid the cartel $2 million a month in protection fees, as an El Mañana front-page story had alleged the day before.
“They want us to say he’s not guilty,” the editor who took the call told his colleagues during the episode in late October. Knowing glances passed between them as a visiting Washington Post reporter looked on.
They all knew that defiance carried a high price.
The enlaces are part of the deeply institutionalized system of cartel censorship imposed on media outlets in northeastern Mexico abutting the border of Texas. How it works is an open secret in newsrooms here but not among readers. They are unaware of the life-and-death decisions editors make every day not to anger different local cartel commanders, each of whom has his own media philosophy.
Submitting to cartel demands is the only way to survive, said Hildebrando “Brando” Deandar Ayala, 39, editor in chief of El Mañana, one of the oldest and largest newspapers in the region with a print circulation of 30,000. “You do it or you die, and nobody wants to die,” he said. “Auto censura — self-censorship — that’s our shield.”
Readers get angry when they don’t get the news they need, he said. Resentment against El Mañana grew so strong two years ago that reporters took the logos off their cars and stopped carrying their identification on assignments.
“The readers hate us sometimes,” Deandar said. “But they don’t know the real risks we go through.”
Mexico has long been a deadly place for reporters. Some 88 journalists have been slain in the last two decades, according to Article 19, a worldwide advocacy group that promotes press freedom.
With its endless drug wars, Mexico is one of the most dangerous places in a world that has seen a recent upswing in violence against journalists, with scores of reporters killed or jailed in Afghanistan, Pakistan, the Arab Spring countries, Central America and the former Soviet bloc.
The risks have been especially high for El Mañana because its circulation area is bounded to the west by the birthplace of the Zetas criminal network in Nuevo Laredo and to the east by the Gulf crime syndicate’s home base in Matamoros.
In February, the last time El Mañana defied a cartel’s censorship rules, an editor in its Matamoros bureau was dragged outside, stuffed in a van and beaten as his abductors drove around threatening him with death.
“Next time, we’ll kill you!” one yelled before pushing him out of the vehicle.
Four El Mañana journalists have been killed in the past 10 years. Others survived assassination attempts, kidnappings, and grenade and machine-gun attacks on their offices. Deandar has been shot, kidnapped and had his home set on fire, he said.
The worst assaults began in 2004, when an editor in Nuevo Laredo was stabbed to death. Two years later, gunmen broke into the bureau there, detonated a grenade and sprayed machine gunfire, leaving one employee paralyzed.
Afterward, bulletproof glass and electronic security keys were installed at its three offices, where the blinds are always drawn.
In March 2010, when the Gulf cartel defeated the Zetas for control of Reynosa, it took revenge on three El Mañana reporters whom the Zetas had forced to watch one of its mass executions.
The cartel called the three Reynosa reporters and told them, “ ‘either you come in or we’ll pick you up,’ ” an editor there at the time recalled.
They surrendered to the cartel and were never heard from again. Their presumed slayings were never reported by El Mañana, editors said, because that’s what the Gulf commander demanded. The enlace passed word that the killings were a one-time message to the Zetas, not a tactic the cartel intended to repeat against the newspaper.
Twice in 2012, gunmen from the Zetas shot up the offices of the Nuevo Laredo bureau. Not long after, El Mañana announced it would no longer print cartel news in its Nuevo Laredo edition. Articles about Nuevo Laredo crime sometimes appear in other editions, but without a byline or names in the story.
North America’s ISIS
The cartels’ tactics resemble those most Americans would associate with al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. The display of multiple beheaded corpses and bodies hanging from bridges are a regular occurrence. Hundreds of young people have disappeared. Mass graves are commonplace.
The comparison with terrorist groups 7,300 miles away frustrates journalists here. They watch the endless international coverage of Middle East violence yet know that the terrorism just across the U.S. border is largely ignored by the American media.
Mexico’s 2014 murder rate of 13 per 100,000 is twice as high as Afghanistan’s.
“We have a war here, and we’re doing war reporting,” said Ildefonso “Poncho” Ortiz, a deeply sourced reporter for Breitbart News Network’s Cartel Chronicles, one of the only American outlets to track cartel maneuvers. “Sometimes AP [the Associated Press wire service] will pick up a story, but other than that, it never leaves the valley.”
The three largest U.S. newspapers nearby — the Brownsville Herald, the Monitor in McAllen, Tex., and the Laredo Morning Times — forbid their reporters from crossing to report because it’s too dangerous, according to the editors at the newspapers.
Pervasive corruption abets the violence. The local police forces have been disbanded and replaced by the army and federal police in the northern Mexican state of Tamaulipas, which includes Matamoros, Nuevo Laredo and Reynosa.
A car bomb killed the Nuevo Laredo mayor one week after he was sworn in. The new Matamoros mayor survived an ambush in March. Cartels install surveillance cameras throughout their cities and employ lookouts with cellphones to keep watch. U.S. Border Patrol officers are regularly indicted for cooperating with organized crime.
“Tamaulipas is a black hole when it comes to information,” said Aaron Nelsen, a reporter based in McAllen for the San Antonio Express-News. “It’s so hard to get anyone to talk about it,” even elected U.S. officials.
A cartel media director
El Mañana’s circulation area includes major U.S. border cities; its online editions are read as far north as San Antonio and Houston.
It is a third-generation family enterprise, founded in 1924 as an anti-establishment voice. Over most of its 91 years, its formidable enemies were corrupt politicians and their hand-picked prosecutors.
The newspaper now maintains a working relationship with the local governments, as evidenced by the government advertising it receives. Withholding state advertising dollars is a common and effective economic hammer used against media outlets whose investigations upset the status quo.
“When it’s not the politicians against us, it’s the drug dealers,” said Heriberto Deandar, 78, who co-owns El Mañana with his brother, Brando’s father. “He who is not afraid has no courage.”
Brando was raised in Reynosa but moved to McAllen in 2007 for safety reasons. He commutes to work. Asked why he doesn’t find a safer job, he said simply, “It’s in my blood. I cannot leave.”
During a recent visit to the town, the eerie atmosphere was inescapable.
Reynosa’s wide boulevards were nearly empty. Heavily armed soldiers patrolled in black masks to protect their identities from cartels resentful of the army’s two-year occupation.
Military helicopters whooped periodically overhead, racing to shootouts or hunting suspects. At dusk, hundreds of cars streamed slowly across the international bridge to McAllen, where an increasing number of well-to-do Mexicans have moved their families to safety.
The Metros faction of the Gulf cartel controls much of civic life and all contraband — drugs, sex slaves, immigrant smuggling, fuel, stolen vehicles — in or moving through Reynosa, said journalists and media experts here. Its commander, whose parents are from Reynosa, has a more liberal view of the media than his counterparts in the other two cities.
He seems to care about his image, too, they said, as evidenced by the “narcobanners” that appeared on city bridges in November.
“This is to make it clear that I am a narcotrafficker, not a terrorist like you’ve been saying in the media,” the cartel boss declared in one handwritten sheet-sized banner. “Investigate and check your facts. Crime has lessened since I took charge.”
In Matamoros, though, the commander of the cartel’s Ciclones faction tolerates no coverage. In Nuevo Laredo, the Zetas have a commander of finance, assassinations, logistics, stolen vehicles and fuel, weapons, prostitution, immigrant smuggling — and media.
The Zetas media director, a clean-cut, 30-something man described by one person who knows him as “a pretty friendly guy,” calls enlaces and beat reporters at El Mañana and other media outlets every day to tell them what stories the cartel wants published or censored. One day it’s a story critical of new government limits on imported cars; the next it’s a birthday party in the social pages featuring a cartel boss’s daughter. Sometimes the media director provides photos and video for an article.
“It’s a common conversation every day,” one reporter said.
Reporters have learned to consult him on nearly everything, one media expert said. Even a car crash isn’t a simple car crash. “You have to call somebody to make sure you can write about it,” one journalist said, because it might actually not be an accident but a purposeful vehicular homicide organized by the cartel.
Critical coverage of local politicians is also forbidden.
For his own security, the media director changes cellphones often, but his online avatar always stays the same: a rabbit.
The three cartel commanders’ differing media philosophies force El Mañana to produce three distinctly different editions. “If you want to find out what’s happening in Nuevo Laredo or Matamoros, you read El Mañana de Reynosa,” Deandar said.
For example, when Mexican troops captured the leader of the Matamoros faction in October, known as “Ciclón 7,” El Mañana did not print a word about it in its Matamoros edition. But in Reynosa and Nuevo Laredo, it was banner news.
With Ciclón 7 gone, Deandar said, “we are waiting to see who is the next chief, so we’ll know the rules.”
Mechanics of self-censorship
After hearing the enlace’s demand to exonerate the allegedly corrupt mayor in Matamoros, the editor on duty rubbed his head trying to contain himself.
“First they tell us what not to publish, now they are telling us what to publish!” he yelled before heading upstairs to his office.
He dialed the editor in Matamoros who had passed the enlace’s message to Reynosa, put the phone on speaker mode and upped the volume so the whole room could hear.
Enlaces pass instructions via phone calls, text messages, apps and in personal meetings. They often communicate cartel demands to crime reporters who show up at the scene of shootouts, blockades, car bombs and executions.
Sometimes a cartel member will run into crime reporters at the scene.
“They’ll say, ‘Get the hell out of here! We’ll kill you!’ And we have to go,” one reporter said.
Three minutes into the conversation with the Matamoros editor, the senior editor began raising his voice about the enlace.
“Give me his name and number!” he shouted. “And tell him you’re not going to take any more messages! No more! Tell him if you take any more messages, I’m going to fire you!”
He hung up, waved around the piece of paper with the enlace’s name and phone number on it and then stood up. It was getting dark. Time to leave for a safer city.
The front-page story that upset the cartel was a reprinted interview with the new mayor of Matamoros, Leticia Salazar, an anti-corruption crusader. The interview was conducted by the national Excelsior newspaper. In it, she accused her predecessor of paying the Gulf cartel more than $2 million a month in protection fees from public works funds and towing fees.
El Mañana’s editors felt safe publishing the interview in all editions because it seemed like a political corruption story, not one about the cartel.
The cartel demand that followed was to run an interview with the former mayor quoting him as saying he was innocent of the allegations. But the former mayor had not requested an interview.
As he left the building, the duty editor said he planned to call the former mayor on the way home.
Speeding through Reynosa’s back roads in the dark, he called the former mayor, who said he had not requested an interview and did not know the cartel had demanded one on his behalf.
It was time for a decision. “If you want an interview, we can do it in our office or over the phone,” the editor said. If it’s in the office, “we will need a photo of the interview; if it’s over the phone, we’ll have to record it. Either way, we need to show it was real,” not something made up by the cartel.
We won’t publish it right away, the editor added, so the cartel won’t think it can tell the newspaper what to print.
The interview ran three days later, in all editions, including Matamoros, where it mattered most to the cartel. But there was no byline, not even in the Reynosa edition. Instead, it read simply, El Mañana/Staff.
Social media steps up
Several years ago, shopkeepers, doctors, lawyers, mechanics, local government workers and students began to fill the void in local news with social-media coverage. It took the cartels a while to understand what was happening on anonymous Twitter accounts and Facebook pages.
Once they did, retribution followed. On Sept. 26, 2011, the decapitated body of a female blogger was left at the Christopher Columbus monument in Nuevo Laredo. Next to her corpse were two keyboards and a handwritten warning, signed “ZZZZ.”
But social-media crime reporting has only grown in the four years since. It includes real-time maps of shootout locations, slayings and kidnappings as well as endless cellphone videos of crimes in progress.
During the Post reporter’s visit in October, alerts and bulletins about news that went unreported by El Mañana were rife on social media:
Oct 17, 2:39 p.m. @MichaelNike8: Near the exit to San Fernando, tires burning to distract the authorities
Oct 21, 1:50 p.m. @SSPTAM: Avoid the area between Reynosa and Monterrey. Authorities are responding (to a situation)
Nov. 3: @Codigo Rojo [Code Red]: Yesterday, federal agents captured 3 men and a female commander of Toro [the local cartel commander in Reynosa] and seized 3 new trucks and around 20 guns, including 5 or 6 guns covered in gold and diamonds; This photo shows what was taken out of just one of the trucks.
Also trending on Twitter the same week was the one-year anniversary of the killing of @Miut3.
@Miut3 was a prolific citizen crime reporter. She tweeted the location of shootouts, explosions, carjackings and the identities of disappeared people. On Oct. 15, 2014, her anonymous account was hacked. Soon afterward, she became unreachable.
Her followers frantically refreshed their Twitter feeds trying to find her. The next morning, at 5:04 a.m., a tweet from her account appeared: “Friends and family, my real name is Maria Del Rosario Fuentes Rubio, I’m a doctor and today, my life has come to an end.”
Minutes later, two photos appeared on her account. One showed Fuentes Rubio in distress. “Close your accounts, don’t risk your families the way I did,” her account read. “I ask you all for forgiveness.”
The second photo showed what appeared to be her bloodied face and corpse on the ground. No one has been arrested.
In February, a few months after Fuentes Rubio was killed, the two factions of the Gulf cartel in northeastern Mexico went to war again. The chaos provided El Mañana with the kind of journalistic opening it hadn’t had in 15 years.
With the cartel preoccupied, El Mañana became the newspaper it might otherwise be had circumstances been different. The entire newsroom deployed to cover the battles. Dramatic photos, detailed articles and screaming headlines won Mexico’s attention.
Readers in Reynosa finally got the full story of what was happening around them:
Day One: “Border in Shock,” “Shoot-Outs and Roadblocks . . . ”
Day Two: “Border Under Siege: Marines Attacked, Three Armed Men Killed, Soldiers Wounded”
“We were all excited in the newsroom,” said a longtime senior editor who shepherded the coverage. “It was an adrenaline rush.”
“No other newspaper in the state” provided such detailed coverage. “They were all afraid,” he said, nodding toward Deandar. “We have a courageous boss.”
This was such big news, Deandar said he thought at the time, that he wanted to share it even with readers in Matamoros despite the standing cartel news blackout there. To be cautious, there would be no bylines and no names of cartel members.
The cartels would not approve, cautioned Enrique Juarez, his Matamoros editor.
Just after midnight, the red printing press in Reynosa rolled out Day Three’s edition. “Nine Dead in Fighting: Third Day Siege in Urban Areas and Roads.” Delivery trucks dashed to their distribution hubs.
By 3 a.m., El Mañana employees discovered that the truck carrying the newspapers for Matamoros had vanished. Deandar rallied a posse; they found the vehicle at noon in an abandoned field, still full of newspapers. He ordered the papers be delivered to Matamoros, where they hit the streets an hour later.
Juarez, up in his second-floor office, got threatening phone calls right away.
At 4 p.m., as deadline loomed, someone called from the lobby asking him to come down. He found a knife and braced himself. Armed men burst in. One picked up a big jug of water and threw it at him, causing him to drop the knife.
“We’re going to break you!” one yelled, as they dragged him away. They stuffed him into a van, beat him about the head and back, and shoved him onto the pavement an hour or so later.
Four frightened El Mañana employees in the Matamoros bureau resigned the next day.
A story about Juarez’s abduction and a photo of him at his desk, with the assaulting water jug, ran on Day Four next to the headline, “30 Dead Already, Mayor Suffers Grenade Attack, US Consul Suspends Operations”
It did not appear in the Matamoros edition. Juarez and his family left the city. He no longer works in Matamoros.
He is still not right, he said in an interview. “I don’t feel safe. I look around when I go out.” He worries that the fighting cartel factions will team up again and come after him.
“If I had the opportunity to leave . . . ” His voice trails off.
Pressuncuffed.org seeks to encourage and promote rigorous student reporting, scholarly research and debate on the role of, and obstacles to, independent journalism in the United States and abroad. Our website features reporting by University of Maryland students about press freedom in the United States and abroad. It also offers resources to instructors elsewhere who may want to teach classes or hold workshops on this theme. In the near future, this site will become a place for student work from around the country and abroad.
Dana Priest, two-time Pulitzer prize winner at The Washington Post and Knight Chair in Public Affairs Journalism at the University of Maryland.