The Violent Re-design of Coahuila By Ignacio Alvarado Alvarez

AUGUST 9th 2014:

A version of this article by Ignacio Alvarado Alvarez appears today in the online magazine, Variopinto, under the title: Política, violencia y negocios (Politics, violence and business

The original, unedited article is posted [here] with the author’s permission. I am working on a translation of the article and hope to post it tomorrow. The article refers to a study from the Rice University Baker Institute by Tony Payan and Guadalupe Correa Cabrera. That report, Energy Reform and Security in Northeastern Mexico, is available here. -Molly

AUGUST 10th 2014: 

Though not stated explicitly in the article below, we can see parallels with government tactics that began in Ciudad Juarez back in 2008 when the army moved into the city. Shortly afterward, many public security leadership positions were occupied by retired military officers and what the government called a “war against organized crime” resulted in the murders of more than 11,000 people in the city as well as thousands of reported disappearances. The article details a similar project in Coahuila, now the epicenter for privatization of the oil industry. We see how state officials cooperated with the Zetas and then with the federal security apparatus to remove possible obstacles to the development of new underground reserves that could revive the lagging fortunes of Mexico’s most profitable economic sector.  And perpetrated a huge increase in homicides and forced disappearances in the region. For more details on the operations in the region, see the Aljazeera America piece by Ignacio Alvarado Alvarez and Michelle Garcia. -Molly

THE VIOLENT RE-DESIGN OF COAHUILA

Ignacio Alvarado Alvarez    Translated (with permission) by Molly Molloy

Saltillo, Coah. Mexico — In the summer of 2010, the municipality of Piedras Negras, Coahuila could boast statistics showing that it was the 10th most livable city in the country, according to the Quality of Life Index of the Strategic Communication Office [Gabinete de Comunicacion Estrategica, http://www.gabinete.mx/].  With a population of nearly 200,000 and an urban marginalization/poverty rate of barely over six percent, the residents lived in the calmest and most pleasant Mexican border city. But these conditions were about undergo a shocking change.

One segment of the population that for years had made its living moving drugs across the river emerged out of the shadows in this year, and was not only seen doing business in the open, but also exercising an excessive level of power that soon erased the high quality of life reported by the above-mentioned communications company. Men armed with rifles went into the streets, took over control of security in the city and began to demand payment of extortion in exchange for not murdering or kidnapping businessmen and other prominent citizens.

Everyone was aware of the existence of the Zetas—they established here the most important criminal hegemony in the area, while forces of the state did practically nothing to oppose them. The government’s official version was that the power of the Zetas was of such magnitude that there was no way to confront them. But, going beyond the official version, there were elements which outlined a different reality: revealing links between a corrupt group of government officials in whose jurisdiction lay millions of pesos in hydrocarbons.

“(In Coahuila), we have become aware of a new criminal system that involves organized crime working together in a systemic way with federal, state and municipal authorities and law enforcement. This new model—functioning via sophisticated webs of corruption—reveals the new relationship that exists between the State and crime,” said Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera, Associate Professor and Director of the Department of Government at the University of Texas in Brownsville.

Correa and fellow Texas academic, Tony Payan, recently published their analysis of the enormous energy potential of the shale oil and gas deposits in the Burgos Basin and the deep water reserves in the Gulf of Mexico for the Mexico Center at Rice University. [See: Energy Reform and Security in Northeastern Mexico, https://bakerinstitute.org/media/files/files/21e1a8c8/BI-Brief-050614-Mexico_EnergySecurity.pdf ]

Thanks to Mexico’s energy sector reforms, the potential of these deposits will raise Mexico’s petroleum production to a level not achieved since the 1970s. But advances have been held back by the private investors’ fears of the violent climate in recent years.

The report published by Rice’s Mexico Center places the regional violence within the context of powerful economic interests. It is not the version imposed by the government of a war between cartels for routes to the United States, nor is it the concept of “La Plaza,” [territorial control by various criminal organizations]. Rather, the struggle is for control of the more than 120,000 square kilometers (70,000 sq. miles) of the Burgos Basin and its enormous gas reserves.

The Mexican northeast is preparing to become a more influential region whose enormous semi-desert expanses shared by Tamaulipas, Nuevo Leon and Coahuila will put stratospheric earnings into the pockets of the owners of the land surface as well as those who control the exploitation of underground hydrocarbon deposits.

In December 2013, the federal government inaugurated a super-highway from Mazatlan to Durango that will soon extend to Matamoros on the Gulf of Mexico. This route from the Pacific to the Gulf crosses states where 19 million Mexicans live and which generate wealth equivalent to 23 percent of the Gross Domestic Product. Mazatlan will not only become the Pacific port of entry to the United States, but also the gateway to Asia, currently the greatest market for hydrocarbons, according to the report by Correa and Payan, entitled Energy Reform and Security in Northeastern Mexico.

“What seems curious to me is that there is a close relationship between the disputed regions, that is, those with higher levels of violence, confrontations between sicarios and between them and the armed forces, as well as the subsequent displacement of people from their lands and businesses, and those areas rich in hydrocarbons, particularly in the Sabinas Basin and the Burgos Basin. And this petroleum and coal-rich zone is a very important region for the energy sector because coal is the key raw material for the development of the different hydrocarbon extraction processes,” indicated Correa.

According to Correa, the way in which the region became so violent involves a logic that is distinct from drug smuggling, or from the simple exercise of violence to control territory for crossing drugs, for extortion and kidnapping. She suggests the provocation of a brutal phase that could permit the establishment of a system friendly to those in privileged positions in the near future.

“There are elements that suggest the utilization of paramilitary tactics where it is not clear what the State’s role is in confrontations and mass executions,” Correa said. “Relationships between distinct actors are key because the new criminal model is being exported to diverse regions of the country.”

Coahuila is not only rich in oil shale reserves, but also in coal. The big mines that feed national electrical energy generation are in the central and northern region of the country, precisely where the rising crime wave began during the second half of the previous decade. It is the same region that includes the Sabinas Basin. The last remnant of the Burgos Basin runs just south of the Rio Bravo/Rio Grande until it reaches Piedras Negras.

For decades the smuggling of drugs into the United States has operated without notable interruptions.  Even during the violent period that came with the incursion of the Zetas onto the local criminal map, the traffickers rarely attacked the civilian population. Between 2005 and 2009, the first four years of the government of Humberto Moreira (former governor of Coahuila), there were 788 homicide cases in the state—a fourth of the number of murders committed in Ciudad Juarez in just one year in 2010.

It was in 2010 that the tranquility of the towns and cities in the basins and the mining regions came to an end and this change is reflected immediately in the statistics reported by the Executive Secretariat of of the National Public Security System (SESNSP). Between 2010 and 2011, Coahuila reported 1,067 homicides. But the demonstration of criminal power attributed to the Zetas is more intricate and complete than what the official numbers indicate.

In March 2011, dozens of armed men raided the towns of Allende and Nava, just south of Piedras Negras. They abducted some 300 people and demolished houses with heavy machinery in operations that went on for days according to testimonies of survivors.

Three years after this massacre, the state government says that it was an act of vengeance due to betrayal committed by previous partners of Zeta chief Miguel Angel Trevin~o, Z-40, captured by Mexican Marines near Nuevo Laredo in the summer of 2013.

Allende is located about one hour away from the 14th Motorized Calvary Regiment of Muzquiz, and 20 minutes from the military garrison of the Plaza of Piedras Negras. Military guards are also stationed at the checkpoint on the highway just outside of the town, but no one came to the aid of the unfortunate families in Allende.

“No one has yet dared to link one thing with the other, but when they do they will realize that nothing was spontaneous,” said a former official of the previous state government.  “The opening of the doors to this cartel carries very specific signals that impact the everyday lives of everyone. And I was inside and I know how they operate. I was afraid because I know the tactics that the government used to take revenge on their enemies.”

Humberto Moreira, a professor who began his career teaching secondary school classes via television, together with his brothers and close friends, joined a political group that monopolized power locally at the three levels of government in less than two decades. As governor, his political successes far exceeded those of any of his predecessors. Among his accomplishments, he enabled his brother Ruben to succeed him as governor while he simultaneously rose to the higher position of national director of the PRI.

His leadership of the (PRI) party lasted only a few months due to the corruption scandal  that erupted when it was revealed that he had accumulated a public debt under his governorship of more than 33 billion pesos [more than three billion dollars]. This unleashed an investigation that resulted in the ex-treasurer of Coahuila, Javier Villareal, being held in prison in the United States under accusations of conspiracy, money-laundering, fraud and various other crimes. Also accused is Javier Torres, the interim governor appointed by Moreira when he left to take the position of national director of the PRI.

Money was not the only scandal during his term of office.

In March 2011 several supposed leaders of the the Zetas were arrested in Coahuila, identified as Gerardo Hernandez Sanchez—aka El Gerry, and Pedro Toga Lara—El Guacho. Both of them took advantage of the protected witness program of the PGR (Mexican Attorney General), along with another presumed Zeta leader arrested in January 2012, Jose Luis Sarabia.

The three informants incriminated leaders of the federal, state and municipal police as members of the Zetas’ network of complicity. But the most relevant of them was Humberto Torres Charles who served as legal director of state health services under the protection of his brother Jesus who had been named by Moreira to the post of Attorney General of the state of Coahuila.

Before the judge, the three witnesses said that they had testified under torture and irregularities were also found in the case files. The state government officials accused by the PGR of creating the support network for the Zetas were exonerated in February of this year (2014). Neither was (former governor and national PRI director) Humberto Moreira convicted in the case of the billions of pesos in public debt.

But the idea that the Zetas operated with the consent of the former state government has also been suggested by the current state governor, Ruben Moreira.

“In 2011 (if not before) we were were at the point where the government was no longer in control, rather, organized crime had taken over,” Governor Moreira said in a statement to the newspaper Vanguardia of Saltillo (Coahuila) in December 2013.

In fact, Humberto Moreira was a governor who avoided the responsibility of attacking organized crime. Rather, he delegated this function to retired military officers—he has stated this himself—who were appointed to the posts of municipal public security and other leadership positions in the state police.

“What did I do as governor? I went to (Secretary of Defense)  General Guillermo Galvan and I said: ‘General, give me a hand here,’” said Humberto Moreira in an interview with journalist Ramon Alberto Garza, published in Reporte Indigo in October 2012.

The freedom provided to the Zetas during the governorship of Humberto Moreira ended when his brother took over the office.

Before he assumed the governorship on December 1, 2011, Ruben Moreira held a meeting with the federal security cabinet in the headquarters of the Secretary of Government (Gobernacion) in Mexico City. He was brought up to date on the strategy that would be utilized to annihilate the (Zeta) cells of Miguel Angel Trevino and Heriberto Lazcano.

At this meeting he was told: “We are going after them, governor. Are you with us or not?” One of Ruben Moriera’s collaborators recounted this to the former government official. “Well, of course, I am with you,” responded the governor-elect, according to the same source.

“Ruben, like any good politician, had observed that the Moreira trademark was going down because of the debt problem and the corruption. And (Felipe) Calderon, despite the fact that he was in his last year as president, was stronger than ever. And this information gave me a lot of clarity to understand why he (Ruben Moreira) had become more ‘calderonista’ than Calderon,” said the former advisor.

The new state government established the Armed Special Tactical Group (GATE, a SWAT unit), which would lead the offensive against the Zetas. They assassinated a nephew of Z-40 and in response, the Zetas ordered the execution of Jose Eduardo Moreira, the son of Humberto Moreira. The assassination was carried out on the afternoon of October 3, 2012.

“This act marked a turning point in the new configuration of organized crime and the fight against it. After the death of Eduardo Moreira, the Zetas start losing their most visible leaders, beginning with Heriberto Lazcano. The end of this period comes with the arrest of Miguel Angel Trevino Morales. From this point, the Zetas take on a much lower profile, and begin a new phase with the development of a successful transnational criminal enterprise,” according to Guadalupe Correa of the University of Texas at Brownsville.

In fact, the numbers of homicides were on the rise during 2012 and 2013, totaling 1,416. Nevertheless, the most terrible legacy were forced disappearances—some 8,000 people—according to the estimates of the organization, United Forces for Our Disappeared [Fueras Unidas pro Nuestros Desaparecidos, Fundec] in Coahuila—made up of victims’ family members. At this stage, the evidence gathered through their own investigations cannot clearly discern which operations are carried out by forces of the state, which by paramilitaries or which are perpetrated by narco-trafficking groups. They are left with the sensation of an enormous complicity.

“This is a criminal system that at this point we cannot see how far it goes,” said Raul Vera, Bishop of the Diocesis of Saltillo and the principal supporter of Fundec. “We are going to assume that there is a tiny and tenuous difference between what is assumed to be a political organization of the country and what are narco-trafficking organizations or cartels. But today, you just don’t know where one ends and the other begins. The line is blurred because the corruption is at such a high level that it is impossible to distinguish one from the other.”

Closer Look At Massacre In Mexico Reveals Glimpse Of Corruption…Al Jazeera America

Below is another excellent report on the massacres in Allende, Coahuila…Yesterday I posted the piece from VICE.COMHow a Mexican Cartel Demolished a Town, Incinerated Hundreds of Victims, and Got Away, by Diego Enrique Osorno.

The July 5 report below by Michelle Garcia and Ignacio Alvarado at Al Jazeera America goes further in pointing out the actual involvement of Mexican government forces in the disappearance and killing of more than 300 people–activities that went on for months in 2011. Only after three years has a Coahuila state prosecutor begun to investigate and probably only now because of testimony provided by several people who left Mexico and are now protected witnesses in a Texas court proceeding.

A few excerpts:

“Missing from the official statements was any explanation as to how the Zetas — whose name means Z — were able to carry out days, if not months, of killings unimpeded by law enforcement. There was no indication that the military, which was posted at a base in Piedras Negras and operated a checkpoint outside of Allende, intervened.”

“… Questions about possible government complicity — directly or indirectly — generally dissipate when violence is branded as Zeta-related. Indeed, as violence in Mexico’s northern region continues unabated, in lieu of investigations and convictions, Zeta is the catchall explanation applied to criminality, one that has the effect of silencing further questions.”

…“Let’s suppose that there had existed a small, tenuous difference between the supposed legal and political system and the narco organizations, the cartels,” said Vera, who operates the Center for Human Rights Fray Juan de Larios, which defends migrants’ and prisoners’ rights. “That line is faded now because of the degree of corruption.”

The discovery of this latest atrocity can be added to years of similar events, some of which I tried to explain last summer here: The Mexican Undead: Toward a New History of the “Drug War” Killing Fields…  

These questions remain: Which criminal element is actually the driving force–the cartels, or the government? And where in the mainstream US press can we find any reference to Merida Initiative billions of US taxpayer dollars going directly to corrupt and murderous Mexican police and military? And to what end? I think we need only look at the exodus of children and families from Mexico, El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala to get a glimpse of how such policies play out on the ground. -molly

Closer Look At Massacre In Mexico Reveals Glimpse Of Corruption (Al Jazeera America)

Molly Molloy Interview With Action on Armed Violence

Here’s an interview I had some months ago with Iain Overton from the Action on Armed Violence [(AOAV), which has a central mission: to carry out research, advocacy and field work in order to reduce the incidence and impact of global armed violence.  For more on the organization click here. -Molly

In focus: Molly Molloy, Border and Latin America Specialist at New Mexico State University

By AOAV on 19 May 2014

AOAV: [Would] you say that small arms and guns have been a constant backdrop to your view of Latin American politics and immigration?

Molly Molloy: I believe that, in terms of the numbers of guns in Mexico now, many of them have kind of an origin in the United States, but not a recent origin.  They come from the United States, going back 25 years to the Nicaraguan Contra war and to the military campaigns in El Salvador and Guatemala - mostly funded by the US. And I really believe that a lot of the guns that are on the black market these days that turn up in the hands of criminal organizations  all over the hemisphere, and certainly in El Salvador and in Mexico nowadays, are remnants of that period.  In other words, they’re guns that were shipped into these places legitimately and then got into the hands of criminal groups through military deserters and these illicit groups of fighters like the group of Guatemalan soldiers that supposedly became the Zetas…

Zetas Smuggling Baseball Player From Cuba?

Several people on the list have sent this story of the LA Dodgers player and human trafficking connections in major league baseball. A lot of greed going on in this story and not all of it can be blamed on the Zetas (IMO). The original story is in the Los Angeles magazine (posted below). Picked up later by ESPN and NPR.

Escape from Cuba: Yasiel Puig’s Untold Journey to the Dodgers | LA Mag

No One Walks Off The Island | ESPN

From Cuba To LA Baseball Diamond, Yasiel Puig’s Dangerous Odyssey | NPR

Nuevo Laredo police chief missing, brothers dead; sniper kills state police commander in Nuevo Leon

In addition to the missing police chief of Nuevo Laredo, this story details the sniper shooting of a state police official in Apodaca in Nuevo Leon. He was shot in the back by gunfire from a Barrett .50 caliber rifle. That is a big rifle… The police chief had been threatened and drove an armored vehicle. The shot came from an estimated 60 meters away. He was arriving home to a gated and guarded community at 1:45 am. They suspect that the sniper was waiting outside the wall all night with the rifle supported on the wall. There are some good images of the Barrett.50 here. molly

Risking Life for Truth

Published in The New York Review of BooksAlma Guillermoprieto, writes about the real heroes of Mexico who seek the truth:

Let us say that you are a Mexican reporter working for peanuts at a local television station somewhere in the provinces—the state of Durango, for example—and that one day you get a friendly invitation from a powerful drug-trafficking group. Imagine that it is the Zetas, and that thanks to their efforts in your city several dozen people have recently perished in various unspeakable ways, while justice turned a blind eye. Among the dead is one of your colleagues. Now consider the invitation, which is to a press conference to be held punctually on the following Friday, at a not particularly out of the way spot just outside of town. You were, perhaps, considering going instead to a movie? Keep in mind, the invitation notes, that attendance will be taken by the Zetas.

Imagine now that you arrive on the appointed day at the stated location, and that you are greeted by several expensively dressed, highly amiable men. Once the greetings are over, they have something to say, and the tone changes. We would like you, they say, to be considerate of us in your coverage. We have seen or heard certain articles or news reports that are unfair and, dare we say, displeasing to us. Displeasing. We have our eye on you. We would like you to consider the consequences of offending us further. We know you would not look forward to the result. We give warning, but we give no quarter. You are dismissed.

1.

I heard the story of one such press conference a couple of years ago, shortly after it took place, and had it confirmed recently by a supervisor of one of the reporters who was present. It gives some notion of the real difficulty of practicing journalism in provincial Mexico, where dozens of reporters have been killed since the start of the century, some after prolonged torture. Different totals are given for the number of victims.

For example, Article 19, the British organization to protect freedom of expression, gives a figure of seventy-two reporters and photographers killed in Mexico since the year 2000, and of these, forty-five killed since the start of the administritation of Felipe Calderón, in 2006. Other organizations give a total of more than eighty. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), among others, lists only twenty-seven killed since 1992. It does, however, keep a separate, open list of journalists’ deaths in which the motive for each assassination remains unexplained by authorities. When these two sets of victims are added up the total is sixty-five. “Mexico has the highest number of unconfirmed cases in the world…and the real reason so many cases we examine are unconfirmed is that there’s no real official investigation [of these crimes] at all,” the CPJ’s director, Joel Simon, told me. “So we don’t know why they were killed.”

Whichever way one counts the total, those responsible for only three crimes against journalists have been tried, convicted, and sentenced since 1997, and in two of those cases there is widespread doubt that the convicted men were the minds behind the crime, or even that they pulled the trigger.

In recent years, all the murders of journalists and all but a few of the threats against them, as well as disappearances and kidnappings, have taken place in the provinces. While covering the trial of Raúl Salinas de Gortari, older brother of disgraced former president Carlos Salinas, back in 1997, I learned that reporting for one of the hundreds of small media outlets that exist outside Mexico City is hard and often humiliating work. Raúl Salinas was a powerful and unpleasant character. He could and probably should have been tried for many things in connection with the hundred or so million dollars he had languishing in various Swiss bank accounts, but he ultimately served ten years’ hard time on a murder charge for which the evidence was laughable. (The alleged skeleton of one of Salinas’s supposed victims was unearthed on his property with the assistance of a self-described seer. Eventually it turned out that, at the request of the main prosecutor in the case, the skeleton had been planted by the seer’s ex-son-in-law, who in turn had dug up his long dead father for the purpose.)

Farce or not, the judging of a former president’s brother, in a country where the powerful enjoy almost total impunity, was unquestionably the trial of the century. Under Mexico’s legal system, there was no jury, and the trial took place within a high-security prison a couple of hours’ drive from Mexico City. I went out there every day for a week, to wait for hours at a time under a harsh sun for the one day when the authorities would, more or less arbitrarily, allow public access to the proceedings.

My colleagues from the country’s principal news media turned out to be local reporters from the nearby city of Toluca, most of them stringers. I soon found out that they took turns among themselves covering the trial (or rather, waiting outside the prison for the occasional opportunity to cover the trial) so that each might have time to pursue the outside activities that allowed them to patch together a living. The reporter for one of the two principal television stations sold real estate in the mornings; another worked afternoons as a radio announcer. All were expected to recruit advertisers. (If memory serves, a commission on these ads was part of their income.)

Some arrived at the prison by bus. Several did not own computers. One had to borrow a tape recorder. They were not idealistic, but the job was exciting. They had clawed their way up the Mexican class system to find a career, and they were proud of themselves. It wasn’t clear how many of them had graduated from journalism school or even college. For better or worse, many provincial reporters still have not. They worked fantastically hard, longed for career training and respect, and knew a great deal more than they published or broadcast.

Given the circumstances, it would hardly be surprising if local reporters like the ones I knew back then were to be grateful for the envelope proffered by a drug trafficker as a sweetener to a death threat. Bribes, known as chayotes, are a long-established supplement to the income of journalists in Mexico.1

Such payments were promoted and made primarily by the government itself since the early days of the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI), and offered with greater or lesser subtlety according to the rank of the person to be paid. An editor from the provinces told me that the practice was more common in Mexico City, but an editor in Mexico City said it was the other way around. “Remarkably, [the chayote] has been impermeable to all the winds of modernity,” said Luis Miguel González, the news editor of a business daily, El Financiero, and a literate and dispassionate observer of the world he works in. “It’s hard for foreigners to understand the lightheartedness with which the practice of the chayote is viewed in the general media,” he went on. “Chayobribes, chayotours, chayomeals are all part of the joke.”

Sometimes money is given to a reporter, a publisher, or an editor, specifically for the purpose of slandering a political enemy. Sometimes it is given in thanks by the subject of a particularly favorable story. Mostly though, the money is handed out, like a regular salary, to beat reporters by their sources. In exchange, the writers are expected to publish government press releases as if they were news stories and to keep their own reporting within bounds delineated by the chayote giver. High-level reporters who pride themselves on their independence would be offended by such bribery. Instead, as González put it, they might be offered the chance to be lied to by a high-level government source.

It is hard to determine how immoral the chayote might seem to Mexican reporters, given that the practice was institutionalized by their own government. Not to accept a bribe or emolument from an official can be seen as a hostile act—a threat, almost. Few editors or publishers can be counted on to stand behind a reporter who refuses to play by the rules. Even fewer pay a living wage. (In the state of Tabasco, where the Zetas are powerful, the enterprising Salvadoran journalist Oscar Martínez found out that reporters are paid 60 pesos—about $5—per story.)

There has been a great burst of reformism and housecleaning in the Mexican media starting in the mid-1980s—there are now any number of superb, and fantastically brave, reporters who struggle to report and publish stories on all aspects of Mexico’s difficult situation2—but the practice of chayotearing beat reporters has gradually crept back to pre-reform levels. As a working editor, El Financiero’s González has to deal with these issues in often painful ways. “They will offer a free official trip somewhere. Then they’ll tell you that on the trip there will be a good news story. Turn down the trip and you lose the story.” My own very general impression over the years has been that the great majority of Mexican beat reporters see themselves as seekers of the truth who operate within extremely narrow confines. Or as González sums up their view: “Accept the bribe but don’t get corrupted.”

Which is to say that Mexican beat reporters’ dealings with the menacing drug traffickers in their neighborhood are not so different from their historical relationship to government officials. The distinction between dead reporters suspected by international watchdog organizations of being on the take from the drug trade and dead reporters suspected by those in political power of not being on the take from anyone is perhaps less useful in this light.

Let us say that a Zeta press conference makes a deep impression on reporter A, particularly after reporter B is murdered for collaborating instead with the police. Reporter A decides to tailor her stories to what she imagines would be the liking of those who are watching her, and even accepts specific instructions, guidelines, and requests. Let us say that one day she is murdered by enemies of the Zetas, who have spotted her as an enemy collaborator. In the unlikely circumstance that an outside observer could actually learn why and how it was that reporter A died, the question would remain: Was she involved with the drug trade or a victim of deadly blackmail? In either case, the likelihood is that both reporters A and B were merely trying to stay alive.

2.

I went recently to the charming city of Xalapa, capital of the state of Veracruz, to talk with officials there about a recent wave of killings of journalists—eight dead in just two years, two of them dismembered, their heads left near the door of another newspaper. Xalapa has a lovely climate, an ambitious university, one of the best museums in the country, and, in the last two years, a raging war between powerful rival drug groups.

The state also has a notable spokesperson, Gina Domínguez, so famous that she was featured on the cover of a local society magazine that month. An enormous bouquet of roses decorates her spacious office. Her staff, friendly and highly qualified, speaks of her effusively. Thanks to a change in state law, she now oversees public relations for all branches of state government and not just for the governor. It is common to hear that she is the real power in Veracruz. More poisonous online rumors point to her tour of duty as press secretary to Mario Villanueva—former governor of the state of Quintana Roo, now extradited to the United States on federal drug charges—and accuse her of bribing the editors of local and even national newspapers.

On the day I arrived, all the Veracruz newspapers carried a front-page story—lifted more or less whole from the press release issued by Domínguez’s office—about the arrest of four men and one woman. The headlines announced that with these arrests (which actually took place a week before the press conference), the killing of four of the eight reporters murdered in Veracruz since 2011 had just been solved. The detainees had confessed, saying that they had acted as hit men for the Pacific Coast drug group Cartel del Milenio.

Further, the press release and the media stories said, the accused had identified the killer of a fifth journalist, who, they said, had worked for the enemy camp, the Zetas. The suspects said that they had also killed “some” other reporters, which in turn had, according to the communiqué, “caused the deaths of still other reporters assassinated…by the Zetas.” Better yet, the group of killers had freely confessed, or so it was said, to an additional thirty-one homicides. Thirty-six killings solved at a single blow!

In her office, Press Secretary Domínguez spoke in such perfectly even tones, with an expression so utterly unshifting, that I have no memory of her personality. She blinked once, and changed the subject, when I suggested that reporters used to the official bribe system were now being asked to choose between the frying pan and the fire, but otherwise she surfed smoothly over every question.

Could I interview the detainees? She listed the intricate legal impediments to that. Why was it that the wave of crimes against reporters had increased so sharply when the governor she now worked for was elected? In Veracruz, as in the rest of Mexico, she noted, drug group warfare was always shifting from state to state, and the murder of journalists was one of the accompanying phenomena. The government’s record of successful struggle against violent crime was outstanding, she said coolly, and it had gone further than that of any other state in promoting more professional journalism. Had she in fact worked for the disgraced former governor of Quintana Roo, Mario Villanueva? Indeed she had, she said, for two months, and she had left that state long before his arrest.

Throughout the interview—she gave generously of her time—she stayed on message. “We have always maintained that the murder of these journalists had nothing to do with freedom of expression.” The five detainees’ confessions, she insisted, made it clear that the murder victims were only partially employed as reporters, and that the actions of reporters on the police beat were furthering the interest of los grupos criminales. In every case but one, she stressed, all the victims were linked to the police beat.

The following day, both Article 19 and the Committee to Protect Journalists mentioned the dearth of evidence provided by the Veracruz state attorney general. A few days ago, when I asked Dario Ramírez, head of Article 19’s Mexico regional office, if he knew how the case against the suspects was moving along, he explained why he didn’t. The logic of the government officials, he said, “is to let the cases ‘cool,’ without producing an effective result. There is no access to the investigation, so we don’t know what stage it’s in.”

3.

On November 13, 2008, the reporter Armando Rodríguez, who worked for the Juárez newspaper El Diario, waited in his car with his oldest daughter, then eight years old, while his wife got the youngest ready for preschool. She heard shots, and for a moment thought that it was just part of the general Juárez soundtrack. When she looked out the window seconds later it was too late. Riddled with bullet wounds, Rodríguez was slumped over his daughter’s body, whom he died protecting.

Armando Rodríguez—known everywhere as El Choco (for “chocolate”) because of his skin color—started out in journalism as the cameraman for Blanca Martínez, who was then a TV reporter. They married, and while Blanca became the editor of the local Catholic church weekly, Rodríguez persuaded a Juárez newspaper to hire him, and he transferred to El Diario as a reporter.

He worked the police beat hard, particularly at the time of a series of unspeakable feminicidios, or serial killings, of young Juárez women, and then again when the wave of drug violence started in 2008. An elder statesman on the police beat, Choco was respected by his editors and by his colleagues for his aggressive reporting.

“They said he was temperamental,” his widow told me over the phone, “but it was just because he was so passionate about his work.” The first time he got death threats the paper persuaded him to take a break because he needed an operation. Many other threats followed. In the weeks leading up to his murder, Choco Rodríguez had published articles linking relatives of the Chihuahua state attorney general, Patricia González Rodríguez (no relation), to the dr ug trade. On November 12 he wrote a story about the gangland execution of two police officers who, according to Choco, worked directly for the attorney general, pointing implicitly to the possibility that the attorney general herself had connections to the drug trade. The story ran in the issue of November 13, which hit the street around 1:30 AM. A few hours later, Choco was dead.3

I asked Blanca Martínez how the investigation into her husband’s murder was going and her voice got small. “That December they came to question me,” she said. “I can’t remember if they were federal or state police. They asked me about his work, they asked me if he carried a weapon. [He didn’t.] One of them told me that they had precise instructions [from the federal government] to investigate the case. That was the first and only time the government ever sought me out.” There were no arrests, she said. There were no new leads. The investigation was inactive. Years had passed before she was allowed to see the court files on her husband’s murder, and then only briefly. There was, additionally, the fact that the main federal investigator had been gunned down a year after the murder. His replacement was killed shortly afterward.

Few murders in Mexico have been the focus of as much media indignation or pressure as Choco’s. It has become a cause for Juárez reporters and editors and several media associations in Mexico City. The crime has also become a flagship case of sorts for the Committee to Protect Journalists, which is based in New York and is the most influential organization of its kind. In the fall of 2010, after many requests, the CPJ was able to meet with President Felipe Calderón, whose term in office is likely to be associated forever with the ill-fated decision to declare a military war on drugs, and with the atrocious violence that ensued.

During his conversation with the CPJ delegation, the president emphasized that he was just as concerned with the fate of journalists in Mexico as his visitors, and as determined to see justice done in the case of every crime against them. In fact, he said, the murder of Choco Rodríguez had just been solved; the culprit was a confessed hit man who had been under arrest for several months and had not previously mentioned murdering Rodríguez, but who had recovered his memory of this crime.

Weeks before the CPJ meeting with Calderón, a reporter at El Diario was contacted by someone who claimed to have a brother, a convicted murderer, doing time in the Juárez penitentiary. This brother was the leader of a gang of killers, and had confessed to several murders. But the source was concerned because the convict was being removed from prison every weekend and taken to a military base. There, he was being tortured mercilessly, and told to confess to the murder of Choco Rodríguez. But he continued to insist that he had not committed that murder.

The day after the CPJ delegation’s meeting with Calderón, the editors and reporters at El Diario were able to put the pieces of the puzzle together: the tortured hit man was called Juan Soto Arias, and it was he who had been identified by President Calderón as the confessed killer of Rodríguez. “Whatever limited confidence we had in the investigation disintegrated at that point,” Joel Simon told me. “Someone was acting in an incredibly cynical manner. We don’t know how high up that went. Regardless, the president told us information that was incorrect and easily confirmable as incorrect.” The investigation has been dead since that incident, “like all investigations into the killing of journalists,” as Simon pointed out. (Soto Arias reportedly remains in prison, serving a 240-year sentence for the murders he initially confessed to. He was never charged with the killing of Armando Rodríguez.)

One day recently I had a long phone conversation with Rocío Gallegos, who was Choco Rodríguez’s editor at the time of his death. Since that first murder, reporters have received many threats, and a young intern was assassinated.

El Diario is unusual in that it is relatively prosperous and concerned for the welfare of its news staff, Gallegos said. Staff reporters are given fellowships to attend journalism school and seminars. They have health and life insurance, and most are on a salary. While journalism in Tamaulipas, homeland of the Zetas, has all but vanished, news continued to flow out of Juárez, and El Diario, even when it became the most violent city in the world. (Thanks largely to a deal that appears to have been struck between the Pacific Coast drug mafias and the local drug runners, similar to a reported deal in Tijuana, violence in Juárez has greatly diminished in the last year or so.) Even before Choco’s death, the traffickers’ hostility to the media was made clear: a week before that murder, Gallegos recalled, someone placed a man’s severed head at the foot of a public statue honoring the city’s paper delivery boys.

I asked Gallegos, who is currently the news editor at El Diario, how life had changed at the paper in the long years of bloodshed. “We understood that we had to give up on exclusives,” she said. “Whether we got a scoop or not became irrelevant. [There were places] where you simply couldn’t send a reporter out alone.

“We were so unprepared for this situation!” she said.

It overwhelmed us. We’d come in from a scene where the victims’ mothers were crying, the families were crying, and then we had to sit down and write. Or it would be three in the morning and I’d find myself comforting a reporter who was weeping because she’d just received a death threat on her cell phone. You have to think: how have we been affected by all this? I think a great deal about those colleagues who have had to go out and photograph twenty corpses. How have they been affected?

I asked her what she would have wanted to see in these years of terror. “Justice,” she replied. “Less aggression. Greater safety. But above all, I would have wanted justice, because the murder of our colleagues has received no justice. I would like to know who killed them and why.”

  1. 1Why the chayote, a prickly vegetable known as mirliton in New Orleans, should signify illegitimate money willingly taken is a mystery, but it is a word known by Mexicans in all walks of life, and a principal reason why the media are so little respected. Another common term for press bribes is embute, or “stuffing.” 
  2. 2Interviews with a small sampling of these colleagues can be seen online (with English subtitles) in a half-hour documentary produced by Article 19, at vimeo.com/38841450. 
  3. 3In 2010, in one of the drug war’s more grotesque episodes, the Zetas distributed a video recording of the torture of the state attorney general’s brother. Before they killed him, the brother stated on camera that he and his sister had both worked for a rival drug group, and that she had ordered the murder of Armando Rodríguez. The reliability of statements made under such conditions is, of course, nil. 

Mexico’s drug cartels target journalists in brutal killing spree…Observer

I admire a lot of Ed Vulliamy’s reporting from Mexico, but based on known research that has been posted repeatedly on this list and elsewhere, it is just WRONG to repeat the number of Mexican dead as “60,000 since 2006.” That number MAY have been true 2 years ago and the killings have only increased since.  And these numbers are not wild estimates from human rights groups. These are the hardest numbers available from Mexican agencies: INEGI and SNSP. Jim Creechan and I have posted and published these numbers often in the past few months.  Mexican journalists have also written estimates from 100,000–150,000 dead in Calderon’s sexenio. LE MONDE, the major French newspaper, reported 120,000 back in August.  What kind of data do the mainstream English-language press require to update their reports of the death toll from homicide in Mexico?

I would also note again the unquestioned reporting of the government line as to who (or what) is behind the killings of journalists in Veracruz.  This report mentions the killing of Miguel Angel Lopez Velasco in 2011, but ignores the testimony of his surviving son, Miguel Angel Lopez Solana, who implicates the state government and the military in the slaughter of his family. The reason Miguel Jr. is seeking political asylum in the United States is because criminal organizations working in tandem with corrupt government entities murdered his family and will come after him also as they have subsequently murdered many of his colleagues in Veracruz.
His story is told here and much of it is in his own words.
In this passage highlighted below from the Observer article, why believe a note left by supposed Zetas when there is eyewitness testimony that the note was not there when the body is first discovered? Apparently, it is only after the police and marines come to investigate that a note from Zetas appears:

Apart from the barbarism of his killing, Víctor Báez’s death bore another hallmark of a narco execution: a note pinned to his torso, this one reading: “Here’s what happens to traitors and people who act clever. Sincerely, the Zetas.” But Báez’s colleague says that he learned from the marines “that the note was not there when the body was discovered by a neighbour who found Víctor’s door open – it was put there later… by someone, for some reason”.

Compare this information with the similar account of one of the most spectacular massacres officially attributed to Zetas also in Veracruz. News reports in REFORMA (a conservative paper affiliated with the PAN government) at the time said that the bodies bore hallmarks of military-style torture. Family members of some of the victims proved that their dead relatives (most of them young men and women) had no criminal records and no involvement in any criminal activity. In fact, there was evidence that they had been picked up at random, tortured, killed and dumped in Veracruz with messages penned on their bodies supposedly from Zetas…  These stories have been cited in published articles and also posted in full on this list and elsewhere. Feel free to search for them or ask me and I can repost if necessary.  molly
Scores of journalists have died in a country gripped by violence that has claimed an estimated 60,000 lives since 2006

 

New Yorker–Finnegan–THE KINGPINS The fight for Guadalajara.

This is an interesting new story in the New Yorker. I’m impressed by the
reporting and the analysis. My one critique: I think he correctly questions
the interpretation of “narcomantas”

Most *narcomantas* (which appear virtually every day somewhere in Mexico)
are disinformation, their assertions dubious, their true authorship
unknowable.

But later in the article, he seems to take the Zetas’ version at face
value… But, that said, the article is worth the time…

Here also are some comments from Jim Creechan:
Finnegan writes about the difficulty of getting to the truth in any story,
but he does an excellent job here.

Highly recommended. By the way, none of these issues have been discussed
during the presidential campaign and no one has any idea what will happen
with the drug war and drug policy when there is a new president.
Unfortunately, the president may not even have any power or control over
the issue — the corruption and mismanagement of the war is no only the
fault of the central government. The narcos and cartels decentralized at
the same time as the PRI collapsed in the late 1990′s.

The governments at the State level will have just as much if not more
influence in determining the outcome of the election AND in determining the
direction of future drug policy. At the moment, 20 states are PRI — mostly
in the north.

2 new CRS reports on Mexico

See links below to two new Congressional Research Service Reports (CRS) on
Mexico.  These are generally a good baseline for publicly available,
published information…and the research is fairly objective as noted by
Gordon, who sent me these links.
Word on Frontera List—I’m going to be traveling for the next week to a
conference outside of the US. I may not be able to post things or keep up
on the news. Feel free to post to the list and when I’m able to be online,
I can send your postings.  If you send an article, please also include the
LINK so that readers can go to the source. molly

Mexico’s Drug Trafficking Organizations:
Source and Scope of the Rising Violence

Mexican Migration to the United States:
Policy and Trends

 

Special Report: Mexico’s Zetas rewrite drug war in blood–Reuters Ioan Grillo

I sound like a broken record I know, but I can find nothing in this report
that uses as its source anything but official Mexican government and
military press releases. Likewise the US sources are all DEA.  In terms of
the people from Veracruz killed and dumped in the city las September, there
were numerous reports at the time from relatives of the dead that they were
not “Zetas” but rather ordinary street people, prostitutes, kids…
Also, a report from REFORMA at the time mentioned that the condition of the
bodies indicated that they had been captured and tortured by the military.
I am posting those articles below.

Evidencian ejecutados huella distinta al narco – Afirman que la forma en la que mataron a 35 no corresponde al crimen organizado