REYNOSA, Mexico (Reuters) - A powerful drug cartel is buying off journalists in northern Mexico to work as spies and smother coverage of a spike in killings on the U.S. border in the latest attack on the media in Mexico.
Hitmen from the Gulf cartel based over the border from Texas are paying reporters around $500 a month and showering them with liquor and prostitutes to intimidate and silence colleagues at radio stations and newspapers in towns near the Laredo-Brownsville area, journalists and editors say.
A turf war that has erupted over the past three weeks around the manufacturing city of Reynosa has gone almost completely unreported despite more than 100 deaths, in a news blackout made more notable by the intense media coverage of other drug war flashpoints around the country [ID:nN05248915].
Across Mexico, nearly 19,000 people have been killed in drug violence since President Felipe Calderon came to power in late 2006 and launched a military-backed campaign against drug cartels. The bloodshed worries Washington and is scaring off foreign investment and tourists as Mexico’s economy tries to recover from its worst recession in decades.
For years, ill-paid Mexican reporters have occasionally been forced by cartel gunmen to take money to report favorably on traffickers or hush up killings, but the Gulf cartel now appears able to impose an almost total muzzle on reporting violence from Nuevo Laredo to Matamoros.
Reporters at news radio stations and dailies including El Manana and La Prensa say they have little choice but to ignore the fight over smuggling routes that has broken out between the Gulf gang and its former armed wing the “Zetas.”
“Our newsrooms have been infiltrated by these reporters, they monitor what we write, they know where we live. With this system, the narcos have direct control over us,” said a local newspaper editor who declined to be named for safety.
Many of the rogue journalists do little to hide their dealings with traffickers and have been seen arriving at news conferences or crime scenes in flashy new SUVs accompanied by armed men, often to prevent news of any killings getting out.
One reporter in the border town of Nuevo Progreso said his job involved talking cash from corrupt local police in the pay of the Gulf cartel and distributing it to local reporters.
Others caught by the army at sporadic checkpoints have struggled to explain the hundreds of dollars bulging in their wallets when most local reporters earn less than $400 a month.
Directors at El Manana and La Prensa in Reynosa were not immediately available for comment.
The U.S.-based Committee to Protect Journalists, or CPJ, said it is aware some journalists are working for cartels.
“We know this is happening. It is a consequence of the huge level of influence these criminals exert,” said Carlos Lauria, the committee’s senior coordinator for the Americas.
Desperate to spread news of the new outbreak of violence, residents in and around Reynosa have turned to social networking sites like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to post cell phone videos of shootouts and report suspicious activity.
“One of the fundamental human rights has been taken away in this part of Mexico and the federal government is not speaking out about it,” said Alberto Islas, an independent security analyst in Mexico City.
Some honest reporters choose not to report the violence out of fear for their safety. Cartel attacks have made Mexico one of the world’s most dangerous countries for the media, the CPJ says, with at least 24 journalists killed here since 2006.
So-called narco-reporters may be at an even greater risk of getting caught up in the turf wars. Five reporters suspected of working for the Gulf cartel went missing two weeks ago in Reynosa.
“We don’t know who they angered but it wasn’t because of their journalism. Two of the reporters hadn’t published anything in months,” said a colleague of the missing journalists.
Local politicians say the Gulf cartel, which controls a third of narcotics shipments into the United States, is keeping its war with the Zetas as quiet as possible to avoid provoking army deployments that could disrupt its smuggling operations.
Calderon has sent thousands of troops across Mexico to curb drug gang operations, but the army presence around Nuevo Laredo, Reynosa and Matamoros is still relatively light.
“The Gulf cartel’s message is: there’s nothing happening here,” said a town councilor in Rio Bravo next door to Reynosa. “The hitmen even pick up their dead after gunfights so there’s no evidence of what’s going on,” he added.
Editing by Catherine Bremer and Kieran Murray