Monterrey's old-time newspaper war

In this digital age, in many parts of the world newspapers are passe, constantly shrinking in size, able to capture only a fraction of the advertising they once did.
So it was with some surprise when I visited Monterrey late last week to see that a good old-fashioned newspaper war has broken out. The industrial city has long been served by El Norte, a pioneering newspaper that is the heart of Grupo Reforma, the newspaper chain that also publishes Reforma in Mexico City.
Due to its groundbreaking investigative work in the 1970s to the present, Grupo Reforma is a media institution. Wikipedia describes it as the largest printed media chain in Latin America. So it is big, powerful and well-established.
Who would go against its flagship El Norte then? Well, another business conglomerate, that of Ricardo Salinas Pliego, head of TV Azteca, the No. 2 television conglomerate. Salinas's brother, Guillermo, decided to found El Horizonte, and its first edition came off the presses in April. Now the reporters from the papers are going mano a mano.
It's a bit surprising that El Horizonte has chosen a format that seems remarkably similar to El Norte.
I wasn't in Monterrey long enough to get a better sense of why the Salinas clan would pour money into paper and ink rather than digital media. But it seems there's some bad blood between the Salinas family and that of Alejandro Junco de la Vega, head of Grupo Reforma, which now has to share local advertising revenue. Stay tuned.


Hope and despair in Mexico

Can one have a bleak view of Mexico’s recent past yet remain profoundly hopeful about its future? The answer is a resounding yes, says Alfredo Corchado.

Corchado is a friend and colleague in Mexico, author of the new book Midnight in Mexico: A Reporter’s Journey Through a Country’s Descent into Darkness (Penguin Press, 2013).

I’ve just finished the book, and it is a remarkable soul-wrenching analysis both on the personal and political levels. Alfredo is the son of a Mexican bracero who left Durango state to work in California, taking his family with him nearly five decades ago.

He grew up with a foot both in Mexico and the United States, dragged as a youngster “kicking and screaming” to a new country, leaving behind a patria that his mother believed was cursed and that his father says was in the grip of gangsters who “know no forgiveness.” 

The book offers great, first-hand history of the PRI’s temporary demise in 2000, the political rise of opposition leader Vicente Fox (Corchado was the first reporter to interview Fox after his triumph), then the sinking of Mexico into the grip of brutal criminal gangs.

If your view of Mexico is Pollyanna-ish, this book is not for you. Corchado’s meetings with undercover U.S. agents, narco couriers, his encounters with the grieving relatives of victims of violence in Ciudad Juarez, and the repeated threats against his own life – apparently coming from Z-40 himself, the feared Zetas leader – all convey the wounds of the nation.

I haven’t enjoyed a book this much in a long time. What makes it wonderful is how Alfredo parallels the recent history of Mexico with his own compelling family tale and his search for truth about the country's dark side. Yet through that search, Alfredo conveys a deep love of country, its culture, its music, its often vulgar language, its conflicted but grand history, genuine Mexicanidad. And to that, I’m sure Alfredo would raise a glass of tequila.


Al Capone and YouTube

Imagine if gangster Al Capone had an outlet like YouTube. Would he have tried to convince the good people of Chicago of the righteousness of his Prohibition-busting bootlegging?

In Mexico, gangster leaders do have YouTube and they use it. In the video above, Servando Gomez, the leader of the Knights Templar, a crime and narcotics cartel in Michoacan state, rambles on for nearly 14 minutes in Spanish. Known commonly as La Tuta, the alleged drug lord talks about a host of subjects, including his hatred for rival groups Los Zetas and the New Generation Jalisco Cartel.

He also lashes out at self-defense groups that are forming along the Pacific coastal states, and says his group is willing to dialogue with the government -- but not to give up its weapons.

One of the most noteworthy things about the video is that La Tuta has no fear of showing his face. In Michoacan, the Knights Templar are the uber-bosses. Politicians are mostly under their thumb. I bet La Tuta can drive through the larger towns and cities of Michoacan with little fear of harassment or arrest. For those who believe Mexico is getting a grip on crime, do you think Al Capone could wander the streets of Chicago openly? 

Another noteworthy aspect of the video -- it has nearly a million hits and it's only been out for a few days. Clearly, some Mexicans are interested in what he has to say.

Item: I had difficulty viewing this video on Safari. If you, too, have trouble viewing it, try changing browsers.


Facing death to get the story

This is a CNN interview of Lydia Cacho, one of Mexico's most renowned investigative journalists. Cacho won her fame for reporting on the intersection between sex trafficking, pedophilia rings and powerful elected politicians. Her foes have tried repeatedly to have Cacho arrested -- or worse -- for her reports exposing their ties to sex trafficking. Read here to learn more about her early reporting on the under side of Cancun.


Mexico's new urban 'war correspondents'

Can one remain informed about a global hotspot even when traditional news media shy away from coverage? It’s a compelling question.

In fact, Twitter users in a number of Mexican cities serve as de facto urban war correspondents, according to a report by Microsoft Research.

“People often report, confirm, comment on, and disseminate information and alerts about the violence, typically as it unfolds. For example, the following Twitter message reports the time and location of blasts, along with a list of hashtags or keywords that both label and enable discovery of shared information resources:

“There are reports of blasts on Venustiano Carranza Avenue #Shooting #RiskMty #MtyFollow.”

The report notes that organized crime has threatened news media in various areas of the country, choking off the flow of information even as vulnerable citizens need trustworthy and timely information more than ever.

"Like other armed conflicts, the Mexican Drug War is also a conflict over the control of information," the report says.

So some citizens, acting partially from altruistic motives, as serving as social media “curators,” for lack of a better term, spending up to 15 hours a day posting and reposting information relevant on Twitter, often about roadblocks, gunfights and armed patrols. Through a winnowing process based on their past credibility, some of these Twitter users have huge followings. Some say they feel like they are part of a citizen network on public safety.

“Together, four curators in Monterrey have 115,678 followers, almost three times the followers of the governor @RodrigoMedina (40,822) and almost as many as the most popular news media organization @Telediario (139,919).”

The report quotes one Twitter user with a large following in Monterrey, “Claudia,” as saying: “It’s like if I was a news correspondent on social networks of the war we are living.”

To read the full report, click here, then click on the hyperlink for "The New War Correspondents: The Rise of Civic Media Curation in Urban Warfare."


Viewing the news through a prism

Sometimes one writes a story that proves to be a lightning rod for people’s emotions. That is the case with an article I wrote this week about a young U.S. Marine veteran from the Miami area who is in jail in Matamoros, facing up to more than a decade in prison.

The Marine brought an old hunting shotgun into the country after being informed by a Customs and Border Protection agent that he had completed the necessary paperwork. Click here to read the story.

Reaction from fellow Marines has been swift and angry. Here’s one email from a former comrade-in-arms of the man I wrote about, Jon Hammar:

This sank my heart into my stomach. If it weren't for Hammar I wouldn't be alive. We served together in Iraq and he was the one who told me about Pathway Home. I’ve known him for over 8 yrs now and I want to get him back. What do I have to do?! Cause we are pretty close to doing something non diplomatic. ...


Another person posted on our website:

Thank you for bringing this situation to the attention of the American public. People should be outraged that Mexican officials can get away with treating America citizens in this manner. No one should travel to Mexico for any reason (nor support the country with tourist dollars) because anyone could easily find themself in a similar situation.


But the reaction was very different in Mexico. Televisa, the television conglomerate, translated my article, and some readers were not sympathetic to the U.S. Marine. Here’s one typical comment:

It's true, he must pay for this crime and not go weeping to be rescued using corruption and influence peddling in our deplorable ‘justice’ system run by those responsible for over 15,000 deaths under Calderon. They sold weapons to corrupt politicians like Felipe Calderon and his entourage of murderers. Just as a Mexican is sent to prison by merely stepping on US soil, it’s also a crime to bring guns to Mexico without permission. They always believe they are so enlightened and cry about anything while Mexicans die and endure all sorts of wrongful convictions on U.S. territory. Don’t be a cry baby and face your sentence like any offender must. Do not break Mexican law. Set an example for others.



The role of 'narco-banners' in Mexico

When gangsters dump headless bodies in Mexico or park vehicles filled with corpses, they usually leave behind a cloth banner with a message.

The messages are invariably taken down by law enforcement as soon as officers arrive on the scene. Major media outlets rarely print or post photos of the cloth banners.

Anyone interested in the workings of multitude of criminal gangs and drug mafias, though, is interested in the messages these banners contain. Often written in “hillbilly Spanish,” replete with spelling errors and poor grammar, they nonetheless reveal feuds within gangs, motives for gang-on-gang violence, the changing contours of the geography of terror and who mobsters have in their deadly sights.

To understand public security issues in Mexico, one has to use the banners as a window into what gangsters are thinking. They are one of the few windows out there. Look on either this blog or this one to see a sample of banners. (Warning: those blogs often contain very graphic images of bloodshed.)

Yet politicians occasionally rail against the banners. A tweet by someone at insightcrime.org led me to this Proceso article about how the chief of staff to the governor in Colima state said any media outlet that shows the banners or reports on their contents becomes “spokesmen for organized crime.”

The banners, Rene Rodriguez Alcaraz said, “are designed to instill terror in the populace.”

This is a common refrain. Look here for a Spanish-language article on remarks by Roman Catholic Archbishop Jose Guadalupe Martin Rabago of Leon last month in the same vein. He is quoted saying this: “In any case, what I think those narco-banners want is to create a climate of terror, so do not play into the hands of those who want to intimidate. I think we would do well not to give publicity to the messages in these banners.”

I respectfully disagree. Looking past the violence associated with the banners, which is invariably horrific, they still give insight into the minds of the enemies of law and order. If nothing else, one can take solace that those working for the kingpins are usually a visceral group, criminally astute perhaps but poorly educated and often not very intelligent. That is not the message gangsters want to convey in the narco-banners but it might be a useful rendering of who they are.


The 'journalists' with a cool $7 million

Nicaragua Mexico_Nost-2
The arrest of 18 fake journalists, all presumably Mexican, at the border between Honduras and Nicaragua is troubling on many levels.

The detainees were traveling in six vans with fake decals of Televisa, the Mexican television conglomerate. They were busted Monday trying to enter Nicaragua at Las Manos, a border crossing.

Nicaragua Mexico_Nost-1Nicaraguan police grew suspicious. The detainees had vests with Televisa logos, and said they were going to Nicaragua to cover a trial related to the 2011 slaying of Argentine singer Facundo Cabrales.

Today, Nicaraguan Police Chief Aminta Granera (read my profile of her here) announced that police had found compartments in the vans containing roughly $7 million. All the detainees are now in custody in Managua, the Nicaraguan capital.

So who are these guys? Why did they have such a sophisticated cover and so much money? One of the detainees is reportedly named Cecilio López Gutiérrez and is a muncipal police officer from Durango state in Mexico.

One can only surmise without proof. But don’t be surprised if it turns out that the group was part of a cartel squad sent to strong-arm judges, prosecutors, witnesses and others related to the case.

This is a snapshot of the state of Central America. It’s also bad news for real journalists when the cartel gets into the impersonation business of reporters.

Honduran press reports say customs and immigration agents there have been removed for letting the Mexican convoy through.

Just who these guys might be working for gets complicated. The trial in Managua is for Henry Fariña, an impresario who was with the Argentine folksinger when he was gunned down in Guatemala. Some believe Fariña was the real target of the attack and that the Argentine was killed by accident. Prosecutors believe Fariña is linked to a Costa Rica-based gang that is moving drugs for La Familia Michoacana, a powerful Mexican drug group. Apparently that gang is in a battle with another group linked to the Sinaloa Cartel. So behind the fake journalists may be some really sinister goings-on.

The only good news is that Nicaragua was attentive enough to halt further mayhem


The most perilous city for reporters

It is the port of Veracruz, a steamy Gulf of Mexico city in a state of the same name. Six journalists from just one of the newspapers in Veracruz, Notiver, have been killed in the past year.

Earlier this week, the son of one of those slain journalists announced in Texas that he would seek asylum because he fears for his life in Mexico.

His name is Miguel Angel Lopez Solana, 32, and he, too, was a photographer for Notiver, where his father was an assistant editor and veteran crime and corruption columnist. The family home was devastated a year ago when gunmen broke in and executed three people. They killed the father, whose pen name was Milo Vela, his wife, and another son, who was also a photographer at the tabloid.

I'm bringing this up because Notiver published both a story and an editorial today that take some serious pokes at the asylum-seeking son. The article headline reads: "Miguelito says we turned our back on him!" And the editorial headline says: "This isn't Miguelito."

It notes that Miguel Angel, who goes by the nickname El Cachorro, or The Cub, offered a news conference on Wednesday in El Paso, Texas, at the office of his lawyer, Carlos Spector, who handles a number of asylum claims by Mexicans. 

The unsigned editorial challenged Miguel Angel's reported assertion that the newspaper knows more about who might be behind the crimes of journalists in Veracruz.

“You well know that if anyone knows who killed your family -- and why -- it is you," the editorial said.

It said Miguel Angel wasn't formally on the payroll of the tabloid, had no work schedule and shot photos freelance for his father. It alleged that the son lived for a period in Mexico City in a house of a cousin but that the cousin was "murdered under circumstances that were never cleared up." 

The rampant killing of journalists in Veracruz is a particularly nasty matter. Read stories I've written here and here about it. As far as I know, none of the culprits have been arrested. Without justice, the killings are likely to continue in Veracruz, where eight journalists and photojournalists have been slain in 18 months. 


The silencing of a newspaper

Last Friday night, gangsters threw an explosive at the façade of the El Mañana newspaper in Nuevo Laredo, then raked it with automatic gunfire. Luckily, no one was injured in the attack.

At least six cars in the adjacent parking lot were damaged.

It is the second time the newspaper in the border city has come under attack. On Feb. 6, 2006, an assailant threw a grenade at the newspaper.

As a result of the latest attack, El Mañana announced in an editorial on Sunday that it would no longer report and publish news about the criminal gangs that besiege the city and much of the border region. It marked another small chapter in the slow death of the free flow of information in areas of Mexico where organized crime reigns. Here’s a portion of the editorial:

“This newspaper, appealing to the understanding of public opinion, shall not for the time being publish any information about the violent disputes taking place in our city and other regions.

The Editorial Board of this company has come to this unfortunate decision forced by circumstances that we all are aware of and due to the lack of conditions for the free exercise of journalism.

We will only address the issue (of crime) through the professional opinion of analysts who study the phenomenon and treat it wisely and responsibly.

However, we will not lose heart or give in in an effort to promote the values that dignify Mexican society: the value of social and economic justice, rule of law, responsibility, honest and well-paid work, transparency and accountability, citizen participation, strengthening institutions and commitment to education.

…We also share the fundamental idea that all forms of lawless violence, aimed at subduing, oppressing and removing the freedom of a peoples, is definitely doomed.”



This blog is written by Tim Johnson, the Mexico bureau chief for McClatchy Newspapers.

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Read Tim's stories at news.mcclatchy.com.

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