Mexican journalists get survival tips for covering drug-related violence

Last weekend I spent a couple of days on a course with Mexican journalists in Toluca, just outside Mexico City. The training was put together by Article 19, a non-profit working here in Mexico trying to lobby and protect the rather besieged journalistic community which is under fire from all sides.

You can read my full report here, but here’s an extract:

Raymundo Arellano wears a pair of dog tags around his neck. His name, blood type and next of kin have been indented on the silver plates.

“My greatest fear is that I’ll be killed and they’ll bury me somewhere and no one will recognize my remains,” he says.

Arellano is a Mexican television reporter trying to do his job in a country wracked by drug-related violence. More than 30 journalists have been killed or disappeared since President Felipe Calderon took office in 2006, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists; ten of them in the last year alone.

When Calderon came to power five years ago, he unleashed the Mexican army and police against the country’s drug cartels and organised crime networks – a strategy that has resulted in more than 35,000 deaths so far. Both drug gangs and Mexican officials target journalists reporting on events surrounding organized crime, according to non-profits.

One thing I didn’t write about was a feeling of guilt – guilt that as yet no foreign journalist has been targeted by either organised crime or government officials whilst trying to cover the country’s raging drug-related violence. Meanwhile, Mexican journalists are kidnapped and killed with impunity.


I asked most of the journalists I interviewed on the course that question, and most of them gave the same answer – that the foreign press don’t cover the "inside-baseball" side of the story, and it’s those details that get local reporters in trouble. In general, the reporting of foreign journalists here (some of which is incredibly insightful, not to mention brave)  puts the drug-related violence in a country-wide context.

That said,  Tracy Wilkinson, head of the Los Angeles Times bureau here in Mexico City, pointed out to an audience during a panel of the Inter American Press Association (IAPA) and the American Society of News Editors (ASNE);

"What we’re dealing with – the foreign or international press – is nothing compared to what our Mexican colleagues have to deal with, who are really under pressure, and take risks that – thank god – don’t affect us at the same level.
But, she said, "foreign correspondents have had to radically change how we work in Mexico. Before, we could travel all over without thinking twice about it – now we still travel all over but with military-style planning."

Violence against media workers in an old problem here in Mexico – you can see some reports I did on the same issue, same course, a couple of years ago here and here.

But despite that, the impunity enjoyed by those who commit those aggressions remain. Self-censorship is now commonplace amongst reporters trying to stay alive, whilst drug-related violence that has claimed more than 35,000 lives since 2006 continues to consume the country.

With the nation’s army roaming the streets, under the orders of President Felipe Calderon to catch those big bad drug lords, the army too stand accused of human rights violations against innocent civilians. And non-profits say that government officials are equally as responsible for abusing journalists as organized crime networks.

Mexico’s people desperately need quality journalism if they’re to understand what’s going on in this huge terrain. It’s my guess that as general elections approach in 2012, the suppression of reporters is only going to get worse.

Image: Mexican journalists enjoy first aid training during a training course on the outskirts of Mexico City in early April 2011. Deborah Bonello /