Journalism in the Public Interest

Mexico’s Newspapers Shy From Covering the Drug Gangs Behind Continuing Violence

A new study shows that papers have stepped up reporting on murders but remain wary of covering the Zetas and other gangs responsible for the killings.

Fans crouch down at the sounds of a shootout during a football match between Santos and Morelia, which had to be suspended, at Corona stadium, in Torreón, Mexico, on Aug. 20, 2011. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)

Mexico's regional newspapers are publishing more stories about murders linked to the drug trade, but they remain reluctant to write what they know about the organizations responsible for the killings.

A new study by our colleagues at Fundación MEPI, an investigative journalism center in Mexico City, reviewed daily coverage in 14 of 31 Mexican states. It found a significant increase in the number of stories on organized crime groups. But the study says that only two newspapers, El Norte in Monterrey and El Informador in Guadalajara "provided context to the violence, identified the victims and did follow-ups," according to the review, which can be read in English here and in Spanish here.

Mexico has been convulsed in recent years by a brutal conflict between competing drug cartels and by the government's efforts to curtail the drug trade.

In one notable instance, a soccer game in the Mexican city of Torreón was interrupted by sounds of a gun battle outside the stadium. Panicked spectators scrambled for cover and rushed on to the field which had been abandoned by the players. Here's a video of that scene.

At El Siglo de Torreón, the local paper, editors debated whether to publish a story about the gun battle. The pictures of the cowering soccer fans were dramatic, but the study quotes the paper's editor, Javier Garza, as saying he and his colleagues were worried they might become a target if they played the pictures big. The newspaper has been bombed and shot at twice since 2009, and its journalists routinely receive death threats from drug gangs.

Garza ultimately splashed the picture across the front page. But the accompanying story "did not try to explain why the attack took place, in line with editorial policies," the report said. "Editors know that criminals read their pages to see how their organizations are portrayed and are careful not to provoke them."

Publications elsewhere reported that the gun battle was between local police and members of the Zetas, a drug gang that has effective control of Torreón.

According to the foundation's study, which compared police records to newspaper coverage, seven out of 10 violent incidents were covered by papers in the 14 Mexican states. Many were on a scale that made them impossible to ignore, the report said. In Monterrey, for example, Zeta operatives torched a local casino, killing 52 people. In Veracruz, 35 nude bodies were left on a main thoroughfare.

One obstacle to covering organized crime in Mexico is the lack of reliable official statistics and police reports. In 2011, El Siglo reported, officials in Torreón simply erased 100 murders from the official court record. In response to such problems, journalists in Mexico are increasingly tracking crime by creating their own databases, the study said.

The new Fundación MEPI study follows up on the foundation's examination of press coverage in 2010. That earlier study found that Mexican newspapers rarely reported murders that were taking place.

We need to make Washington aware of the drug war’s effects. It’s as simple as that. Blanket the streets with pictures of corpses, esp. around Congress and State.

Al Dorman I think Congress and the Obama Administration, particularly DHS, DOJ, State and DOD, are aware.

The Mexican peoples know who are behind the slaughters. American news sources I believe are criminal for ignoring reporting the what seems to be a daily occurrence. Digging for this information is not that difficult.

The press is full of a daily take on the violence in the Islamic countries Syria comes to mind. The articles always have the tone of how awful the slaughter of innocents. We should be asking our selves where is the outrage from main stream media when somewhere around 60 thousand and counting each day of Mexicans loose their lives and the war is on our border and spreading in the U.S.

it is time that the people of Mexico begin to stand up en masse to this outrageous violence blanketing their country and spilling over into ours.  This is not intended as a criticism of the good people of mexico but a way of saying that they must somehow, some way, end this violence.  not taking sides in the drug war between cartels but killing those on both sides who are perpetrating the violence.  Extreme times call for extreme measures and the death penalty for those who are caught participating in this madness would be a good start.  prosecuting and sending to prison those who are caught taking bribes from drug cartels would be another good step.  But, if the government of mexico will not do what is necessary to stop this violence, then it is up to the people to take matters into their own hands to stop this madness.  i relize that the above is sort of a reactionary statment but there must be some way for the people of mexico to stop this violence.  I don’t have all the solutions but if the good, non-violent, against the drug cartels people of mexico can find a way to rise up together to stop this then i bet they can soon find solutions that work.

I’m oversimplifying the problem, but if fear is the issue, then it sounds like the Mexican news services need to get ahead of technology.  They need to make everything they know public and make it impossible to stomp out, like distributing through peer-to-peer services.

The cartels are big enough and powerful enough that you can’t treat it like crime.  It’s a tyrannical government that runs counter to the needs and desires of the people.  When they think of themselves as revolutionaries rather than reporters, anonymous pamphlets aren’t quite so bad an idea.

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