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As drug war rages in Mexico, newspapers quit investigating

NUEVO LAREDO, Mexico—A drug war is ripping apart northern Mexico, but you won't find many details about who's behind it in the local newspapers. Journalists—after their colleagues have been killed, kidnapped and threatened with death—have stopped investigating organized crime.

"It's the new trend of drug gangs: Journalists are warned, paid off or killed," said Daniel Rosas, the managing editor of the daily El Manana, the oldest newspaper in this border city south of Laredo, Texas. "Drug battles have become bloodier, and gangs have no code of ethics. They don't respect human life; why should they respect reporters?"

El Manana, founded in 1932 after the Mexican revolution with a motto to promote freedom of expression, has been self-censoring itself since its editor, Roberto Javier Mora Garcia, was stabbed to death on March 19, 2004.

Earlier this year, a former El Manana reporter, Dolores Guadalupe Garcia Escamilla, died after being shot outside her home. She'd gone to work for a radio station and had named some officials as involved in the drug trade before she was killed.

El Manana, whose walls are covered with images of past front pages, now reports only official news, its editors said. Other major newspapers along the northern frontier followed suit after their reporters were killed, kidnapped or threatened. They said corruption, impunity and lack of police support made it almost impossible for journalists to research rampant violence accurately.

That means they don't follow up on the 173 people who've disappeared since last fall throughout the state of Tamaulipas, deemed by journalism organizations the most dangerous place for reporters to work in Mexico. Twenty-three others missing are Americans from Texas.

There have been at least 108 execution-style murders since January.

"We still inform the community of what's happening but are more careful of what we say. It's a painful decision. We are hostages to self-censorship, and it's worse than censorship," said El Manana's publisher, Ramon Cantu Deandar.

Cantu, 39, has grown cynical about covering organized crime in this city of nearly half a million people. "What's the point of investigating? We can't win. Drug mafias have billions and billions of dollars. They own this city: They buy police, government officials, investigators, you name it," he said. "It's better to write a crime novel."

The only newspaper that's still digging into the drug underworld is the Tijuana weekly Zeta, whose owner, Jesus Blancornelas, is something of a legend in Mexico and travels with bodyguards and bulletproof cars. Zeta's editor, Francisco Javier Ortiz Franco, was killed June 22, 2004, after the paper published the names and photos of people it said were members of the Tijuana drug-trafficking cartel.

Blancornelas said he understood the reticence of his fellow journalists. "They are unprotected, without security," he said. "You can't blame them."

According to Mexico's nongovernmental National Center for Social Communication, the country ranks first in Latin America in reports of attacks on journalists, surpassing Colombia. Journalism organizations are calling for an independent prosecutor to investigate crimes against reporters here.

In the past 18 months, six journalists have been killed along the border: four in 2004 and two in 2005. Two other journalists have been killed elsewhere in Mexico.

Their editors regarded the six as hard-core investigators of the prolific violence that's erupted since 2003, when the leader of the Gulf Cartel, Osiel Cardenas, was jailed, sparking a battle for control of Nuevo Laredo, the largest land port to the United States and the crucial crossing point to Interstate Highway 35, which runs north across the United States to Canada.

"Crimes against journalists near the northern border with the United States are frequently related with their work informing about drug-trafficking, corruption and the participation of authorities in these crimes," the human-rights group Amnesty international wrote in its quarterly report on Mexico. "Government officials rarely investigate these crimes effectively, allowing criminals their freedom to repeat their violence."

"We're completely alone in this business. We don't trust any state or federal authorities, and crime keeps on growing. It's more visible, and there's seldom any punishment," said Jorge Morales, the editor of El Imparcial, in the Sonora state capital of Hermosillo, south of Arizona. The company also owns two papers in Baja California.

Morales dismantled El Imparcial's investigative team after one of its crime reporters, Jose Alfredo Jimenez Mota, disappeared April 2 after telling colleagues he had to meet a source he was afraid of.

Gunmen attacked Jorge Cardona, a reporter for the Televisa TV network, on Feb. 7 at his home in Monterrey, in northern Nuevo Leon state, after he aired a report in which a masked informant accused a paramilitary group associated with the Gulf Cartel, called the Zetas, of involvement in the disappearances of Americans in Nuevo Laredo. The source said the Zetas were backed by municipal police and had an informant in the army.

The FBI later told the Associated Press that the report was generally accurate, including information about captives being fed to lions.

Cardona fled to an unknown location.

Mexican and U.S. officials agree that the violence is due to efforts by gangs loyal to Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, a fugitive drug trafficker based in the state of Sinaloa, to seize control of Nuevo Laredo from the jailed Cardenas' Gulf Cartel, which had controlled the region for years.

"It's a question of who will be the last man standing," said Jack Suneson, owner of Marti's, a Nuevo Laredo fashion boutique and gallery that lost money last month. Dozens of businesses have closed as Americans, heeding a State Department warning, stop visiting.

In the newsroom of El Manana, a memorial to Mora was taken down long ago. Cantu said it was simply too sad for the staff to be reminded every day of what had happened.

Police now guard the entrances to the paper's two-story headquarters, though there are few other signs of stepped-up security. It wasn't till early this month that a new editor took Mora's place.

"I have to live up to Mora's reputation as a moral, ethical and probing journalist," said Omar Eli Robles, who had been a reporter at Monterrey's El Norte newspaper. "Of course, I'm a little afraid, but danger is part of the job."

Asked, however, if he'd tell his reporters to go back to investigating drugs and corruption, he demurred. "When and if this war ends," he said.

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Eight journalists have been killed in the past 18 months in Mexico, six in areas where a drug war rages. None of the cases has been solved, and all are thought to be drug-related.

Roberto Javier Mora Garcia, March 19, 2004—The editor of Nuevo Laredo's El Manana newspaper was stabbed to death outside his home.

Leodegario Aguilera Lucas, May 22, 2004—The editor of the magazine Mundo Politico was kidnapped in Acapulco, in Guerrero state. His body was found last Sept. 8.

Francisco Javier Ortiz Franco, June 22, 2004—The senior editor of Tijuana's weekly Zeta was shot to death as he was driving with his two children, who weren't hurt.

Francisco Arratia Saldierna, Aug. 31, 2004—The columnist for El Imparcial, El Regional, Mercurio and El Cinco, among other Sonora state newspapers, was killed in the city of Matamoros, in Tamaulipas state. Saldierna, who had apparently been tortured, was found outside the local Red Cross offices and taken to a nearby hospital, where he died later that day.

Gregorio Rodriguez Hernandez, Nov. 27, 2004—A photographer for the newspaper El Debate, Hernandez was gunned down in Escuinapa, in Sinaloa state, while he dined with his family at a restaurant.

Jose Alfredo Jimenez Mota, April 2, 2005—The crime reporter for the Hermosillo-based daily El Imparcial has been missing since April 2, when he went to interview a drug source. He's presumed dead.

Dolores Guadalupe Garcia Escamilla, April 5, 2005—The former El Manana reporter was shot multiple times outside the Nuevo Laredo radio station Stereo 91 when she arrived for work at 8 a.m. She died April 16.

Raul Gibb Guerrero, April 8, 2005—The publisher of the Veracruz daily La Opinion was killed in an ambush as he was driving home by four men who fired at least 14 shots, three to his head.

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(Knight Ridder special correspondent Janet Schwartz contributed to this report from Nuevo Laredo.)

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): MEXICO-NEWSPAPER

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