REYNOSA, Mexico — The big philosophical question in this gritty border town does not concern trees falling in the forest but bodies falling on the concrete: Does a shootout actually happen if the newspapers print nothing about it, the radio and television stations broadcast nothing, and the authorities never confirm that it occurred?
In Escobedo on Friday, Mexican forces detained wounded men suspected of belonging to a drug gang that had been in a shootout.
Times Topic: Mexican Drug Trafficking
The New York Times
Rival drug gangs have been battling fiercely in Reynosa.
As two powerful groups of drug traffickers engaged in fierce urban combat in Reynosa in recent weeks, the reality that many residents were living and the one that the increasingly timid news media and the image-conscious politicians portrayed were difficult to reconcile.
“You begin to wonder what the truth is,” said one of Reynosa’s frustrated and fearful residents, Eunice Peña, a professor of communications. “Is it what you saw, or what the media and the officials say? You even wonder if you were imagining it.”
Angry residents who witnessed the carnage began to fill the void, posting raw videos and photos taken with cellphones.
“The pictures do not lie,” said a journalist in McAllen, Tex., who monitors what is happening south of the border online but has stopped venturing there himself. “You can hear the gunshots. You can see the bodies. You know it’s bad.”
The Mexican government’s drug offensive, employing tens of thousands of soldiers, marines and federal police officers, has unleashed ever increasing levels of violence over the last three years as traffickers have fought to protect their lucrative smuggling routes. Journalists have long been among the victims, but the attacks on members of the media now under way in Reynosa and elsewhere along a long stretch of border from Nuevo Laredo to Matamoros are at their worst.
Traffickers have gone after the media with a vengeance in these strategic border towns where drugs are smuggled across by the ton. They have shot up newsrooms, kidnapped and killed staff members and called up the media regularly with threats that were not the least bit veiled. Back off, the thugs said. Do not dare print our names. We will kill you the next time you publish a photograph like that.
“They mean what they say,” said one of the many terrified journalists who used to cover the police beat in Reynosa. “I’m censoring myself. There’s no other way to put it. But so is everybody else.”
When they are not issuing threats, journalists say, the drug runners are buying off reporters with everything from cash to romps with prostitutes. The traffickers are not always so press shy. When they post banners on bridges expounding on their twisted view of the world or commit some particularly gory crime, they often seek out coverage.
But not now. And the current news blackout along the border has only amplified fears, as false rumors of impending shootouts circulate unchecked, prompting many parents to pull their children from school and businesses to close.
It means that a mother can huddle on the floor of a closet with her daughter for what seems like eternity as fierce gunfire is exchanged outside their home, as occurred here recently, and then find not a word of it in the next day’s paper.
And it means that helicopters can swoop overhead, military vehicles can roar through the streets and the entire neighborhood can sound like a war movie, and television can lead off the next day’s broadcast talking about something else. Even some authorities, including Mayor Óscar Lubbert of Reynosa, acknowledge that without news reports, it is harder for them to get a full picture of how much blood is spilled overnight, partly because the traffickers sometimes haul their dead comrades away before the sun comes up.
The violence was so fearsome last month that the American Embassy in Mexico City temporarily closed the consular agency in Reynosa, which offers assistance to Americans, many of whom manage the hundreds of manufacturing plants based here. Closed on Feb. 24, the office reopened on March 8 after a lull in the bloodshed, which has continued sporadically in recent days with clashes between traffickers and the police.
What remains unclear is whether the combatants have called it quits or are merely reloading for more battles to come.
Rarely, if ever, do the local news media mention the names of the groups engaged in combat or their top leadership. The Texas press broke the story that the Drug Enforcement Administration traced the upsurge in violence in Reynosa to Jan. 18, when a member of the Gulf Cartel killed a top lieutenant of the rival Zeta gang named Victor Mendoza. The Zetas, founded by former members of the Mexican special forces and known for both their organization and their brutality, demanded the shooter. The Gulf Cartel, which once used the Zetas as enforcers but now vows to eliminate them, refused.
In the weeks that followed, fierce shootouts broke out along long stretches of the border, and the local reporters went silent.
“Before, if there was a shootout, the scene would be full of journalists,” said one of the many reporters who has given up covering the drug war here out of fear and who insisted on anonymity for the same reason. “Now, sometimes there will not be a single journalist. Everyone stays away.”
The fear extends to the Texas side of the border, where most news organizations now bar their journalists from crossing into Reynosa. When journalists do try to get a glimpse of Reynosa’s underbelly, bad things can happen. A reporter and camera man working for Mexico City-based Milenio TV were picked up by traffickers early this month and viciously beaten overnight, prompting them to catch the next flight out.
Days later, a reporter for The Dallas Morning News quickly left Reynosa after he and a television crew were approached by a man on the streets who warned them they lacked permission to report there and ordered them to leave.
They were the lucky ones. A local radio reporter died recently from a beating, according to local journalists, who say five other colleagues have disappeared in the last month. The authorities have confirmed only one of the disappearances, that of Miguel Ángel Domínguez Zamora of Reynosa’s newspaper El Mañana, who disappeared March 1.
“We’re all watching our backs,” said a Reynosa journalist, whose voice trembled.
One troubling aspect of the kidnappings and killings of journalists in Mexico is that nobody knows for sure which cases involve crusading reporters doing their jobs in revealing the truth and which involve careless or crooked reporters who had become too close to a cartel.
Ciro Gómez Leyva, the news director at Milenio who had sent the crew to Reynosa, wrote an angry column recently taking President Felipe Calderón to task for his declaration that no part of the country was outside the control of the government. “Journalism is dead in Reynosa,” Mr. Gómez declared flatly.
The violence and what it has done to the news media has become, by necessity, a part of journalism instruction along the border. At one Reynosa university, communications professors talk about the importance of staying neutral and how it can be deadly to take sides. They also steer their students, until the climate along the border changes, into jobs covering politics, culture or sports. Anything but crime.
Violence Flares in Acapulco
MEXICO CITY (Reuters) — Thirteen people were killed in and around the Mexican beach resort of Acapulco early Saturday apparently in drug-related violence, with four victims found beheaded, security officials said.
Five of those killed were police officers whose nighttime patrol was attacked by gunmen on the outskirts of the city, the officials said in a statement.
The bullet-riddled bodies of eight other men were discovered in different areas around Acapulco, and four of them had been beheaded, the officials added.
Rival drug gangs in recent years have fought over territory in Acapulco, where any resurgence in violence could hurt the tourism industry. More violence flared later on Saturday in Guerrero State, with Mexican soldiers exchanging fire with gunmen, the newspaper Reforma reported. One soldier and 10 gunmen were killed, the paper said.