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Mexico's crime reporters in the line of fire

VILLAHERMOSA, Mexico—On a recent night, two reporters parked their car in front of the Red Cross station here, the place where they hang out waiting for something to happen. They'd just returned from photographing a minor car wreck.

An official-looking black Ford Explorer, its hazard lights flashing, idled in front.

"Who ... is that?" the rookie reporter known as Puma wondered. For a second, they stared. Brow furrowed, Puma broke the silence.

"You know, somebody called me yesterday from a blocked number. They told me to quit (messing) around or they were going to (mess) me up," he said quietly.

Moments later, the mystery SUV drove off without incident, but the episode underscored the anxiety that looms over Mexico's crime reporters.

Mexico's bloody war between drug cartels has provided spectacular stories this year for those who write "notas rojas," or so-called red news, as crime reports are known in this sweltering southeastern Mexico city: a severed head hurled at the police station, a police chief wounded in an ambush, an unprecedented flood of Mexican soldiers into the region.

But it's also instilled a sense of dread among the tight-knit group of reporters who daily chase auto wrecks, suicides and now the growing violence attributed to drug traffickers. One of their colleagues has been missing since January. Death threats come regularly.

Violence against journalists in Mexico has reached unprecedented levels, as drug cartels wage war over billion-dollar trafficking routes. More than 700 people have died in Mexico in drug-related violence so far this year, the country's national daily El Universal estimates.

In the past year, 10 journalists have been killed, according to Reporters Without Borders, a Paris-based advocacy group. That makes Mexico the second-most dangerous country to be a reporter. First place goes to Iraq.

Hardly a month goes by without violence directed at journalists. Earlier this month, Amado Ramirez, a well-known reporter with the national television network Televisa, was shot dead in a daylight ambush as he left a radio station in Acapulco, on Mexico's Pacific coast. Saul Martinez, a reporter with Diario de Agua Prieta in the northwestern state of Sonora, was kidnapped on April 16 by armed men. He has yet to reappear.

Two days later, somebody lobbed a grenade at another Sonora newspaper, Cambio de Sonora. No one was injured, but the building was damaged.

Here in Tabasco state, reporters are haunted by the case of Rodolfo Rincon Taracena, a reporter for the Tabasco Hoy newspaper. A regular at the Red Cross station, Rincon, a father of three, left his newspaper office shortly before 8 p.m. on Jan. 20. He hasn't been seen since.

Until the past couple years, crime reporters in Tabasco, a small oil-rich state of verdant coastal plains, were more apt to cover the state's oddly high number of suicides than vicious murders. Now, however, there's a sense of risk in almost everything they do.

"I haven't even written anything. And I'm not doing any investigations," said Puma, who at 20 has been on the job for less than a year. He asked that he be identified only by his nickname. "Who knows?" he said.

In Villahermosa, the crime reporters meet every day around a white plastic picnic table in the local Red Cross station, which grants them a tiny room to congregate. A TV atop a tiny refrigerator constantly flickers with American movies and news broadcasts.

About 14 reporters from six Tabasco newspapers drift in and out throughout the day. Some carry hand-held radios to monitor police frequencies. Mostly, they follow the Red Cross ambulances and rely on tips from sources.

"I'd rather have a million friends than a million enemies," Felipe Rosales, 30, a veteran reporter from the daily Novedades de Tabasco, likes to say.

His phone is constantly ringing. Like most, Rosales starts work early, at 8 a.m., and the day often stretches past 10 p.m. He counts one day off each week.

Depending on the news cycle, even that isn't for sure.

Last summer, reputed members of the Zetas, a group of ex-soldiers working as enforcers for the Gulf drug cartel, stormed a Tabasco police station to try to rescue two detained colleagues. Two officers died in the attack. Rosales and others were called out at 2 a.m.—and worked for two days without sleep.

Not every day is so spectacular. Often, their stories receive play on inside pages, trumped by tales of local politics.

On a recent weekday, Rosales cruised the colonial streets in his tiny newspaper-owned sedan, past the bar-lined boardwalk on the parched banks of the Grijalva River.

A lumbering man with longish bangs spilling over his face, Rosales carries his own digital camera stuffed in a fanny pack hidden beneath his girth.

"As long as I'm on the streets, I like it. I don't like being in the office," Rosales said. "I like to be where the action is and not behind a desk."

The stories on the street that day proved mundane: A motorcycle-riding pizza delivery man clipped by a passing car; a jitney bus totaled by a truck making an illegal U-turn; a woman rear-ended by a drunk driver. No one died.

But the day produces a more sinister story in neighboring Chiapas state, where a couple was pulled over and police discovered 26 kilos of cocaine, a 9 mm pistol and an AK-47 assault rifle.

To be sure, competition exists among the reporters, but mostly they share tips, give each other directions to crime scenes and ride in the same cars.

When threats arrive, they endure together.

Last fall, someone shot up a police commander's car. No one was hurt. The gunman's car was found abandoned nearby.

Inside, a note in Spanish was found: "This is what happens to those who get involved in the drug sales. Why do reporters care?"

"It really made us think. If you see they can kill a police officer, think about what they could do to us," Rosales said.

A similar threat came to Rincon, the Tabasco Hoy reporter who disappeared, and two other reporters as text messages on their cell phones. Rincon had just published two articles about the narcotics trade in Tabasco, including one pinpointing local drug dens. "So much scandal for a ... journalist," the message read.

Rincon's boss, Roberto Cuitlahuac, said the newspaper has been frustrated by the local authorities' lack of progress in solving the case. A federal office created to investigate crimes against journalists won't take the case because no body has been found.

Cuitlahuac harbors no doubts that Rincon's disappearance is linked to his articles, but he says that the newspaper, the region's largest, won't be intimidated.

"It was important to him," Cuitlahuac said. "He was very conscious that we had to expose these types of crimes or our children might one day be drug addicts."

But Rincon's disappearance has been chilling on local reporters, Cuitlahuac acknowledged.

"Nobody even wants to put their names on stories about organized crime. A lot of people don't even want to write about those subjects," he said.

In the wake of the death of Televisa's Ramirez, Mexico's government again vowed to ramp up security for reporters. But journalists say the promises are hollow, and they've staged protest marches urging more protection for reporters.

At the Red Cross station, Rosales and a few others were about to call it a day when paramedics popped their heads in to say hello. A news broadcast announced the arrests of two men in Ramirez's death.

The anchorman reported, however, that authorities hadn't linked his death to organized crime. Rosales shook his head in disbelief and left for the night.

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(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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