Reporters Without Borders today expressed its concern after Carlos Huerta Muñoz, crime correspondent on the daily Norte de Ciudad Juárez, in Chihuahua state, northern Mexico, was forced to flee the country, after getting death threats from a drug cartel.
His newspaper’s management decided the day after his departure on 30 January to drastically reduce its coverage of drug-trafficking and to stick to official information on the subject.
Two other recent cases have underlined a still alarming situation for the Mexican press. Octavio Soto Torres, editor of the daily Voces de Veracruz, survived a shooting attack in Pánuco, Veracruz in the east of the country on 23 January and the home of Cecilia Vargas Simón, of the daily La Verdad del Sureste, had his home broken into and searched in Villahermosa, Tabasco, in south-east Mexico on 27 January.
“One journalist forced into exile, another victim of a murder attempt and then a break-in at a journalist’s home. All methods are good to silence a journalist when he doesn’t pay with his life for his work,” the worldwide press freedom organisation said.
“The start of this year does not bode well for the Mexican press, which is one of the continent’s most exposed to reprisals from organised crime. Now Carlos Huerta Muñoz has fled abroad, will Mexican journalists who are threatened end up imitating their Colombian colleagues, who had been forced to flee their country or their region?” the organisation asked.
“We urge the federal authorities, starting with the Office for the Investigation of Crimes Against Journalists (FEADP) to take over the investigations into these three cases.”
Huerta Muñoz, a crime and drug-trafficking specialist on the Norte de Ciudad Juárez, in Juarez city, received telephoned death threats on 30 January from an anonymous caller who said he was from “The Federation”, a drug cartel grouping. The call apparently came from a mobile phone in Sonora state in the north-west. Similar threats were made to local media like the daily Diario de Juárez and Canal 44 television. Despite being offered police protection, Huerta Muñoz decided to leave Mexico with his family, according to the Centre for Journalism and Public Ethics (CEPET), a Mexican press freedom organisation.
The editor of the Norte de Ciudad Juárez, Alfredo Quijano, told Reporters Without Borders that the journalist had refused police protection. “Since the police have been infiltrated [by organised crime], we don’t believe that the federal, state or municipal authorities can provide us with guarantees that we can do our jobs,” he said.
Quijano also justified the newspaper’s decision to resort to self-censorship, saying, “If we continue to publish investigations into organised crime we will put our staff in danger.” Two regional dailies have already adopted this policy: El Imparcial in Hermosillo, Sonora, after the disappearance of journalist Alfredo Jiménez Mota, on 2 April 2005, and El Mañana in Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas, in the north-east, whose offices were peppered with machine-gun fire on 6 February 2006.
Elsewhere, the editor of the daily Voces de Veracruz, Octavio Soto Torres, was slightly injured in an armed attack as he went, with his 16-year-old son to the scene of a road accident on 23 January. Three armed men chased them in a car and opened fire, grazing the journalist’s head. Soto Torres told Reporters Without Borders that the attack could be linked to his criticism of sugar cane producers and his tense relations with some municipal officials. The journalist has suffered seven similar attacks over the past ten years.
Finally, Cecilia Vargas Simón, of the daily Verdad del Sureste, received death threats on his mobile phone on 27 January telling him. “You have received the message we left at your home. Stop writing. Don’t try to find us.” A few hours before the call was made the journalist’s home in Villahermosa was broken into a searched but nothing was taken. Vargas Simón has been threatened before in connection with his articles.