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Mexican journalist on drug lords: "If they're going to kill you, they're going to kill you'

Thousands of guns lie on the ground before their destruction in Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua State, Mexico on February 16, 2012. At least 6000 rifles and pistols seized to drugs cartels were destroyed by members of the Mexican Army.

MIAMI – "If they're going to kill you, they're going to kill you," said Luz del Carmen Sosa, a reporter in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, and mother of two, who spends most of her day running from one murder scene to another. "Even if you arrive surrounded by police, security escorts, whoever wants to hurt you will hurt you."

Just 20 miles from Ciudad Juarez, photojournalist Alejandro Hernández Pacheco did get hurt. On July 26, 2010, Hernandez was part of a TV news crew videotaping at a prison in the city of Gomez Palacio when he was kidnapped at gunpoint, along with two colleagues.

"They took us to a place that was covered with dried blood, with teeth and hair stuck to the walls," said Hernandez. He stopped himself from describing the room any further, saying it brings back terrifying memories.


"They hit us until they tired," he said, adding that the gunmen also threatened to burn him alive. "They hit me in the head with a piece of wood, on my back, my knees, my ankles."  The men were released five days later.  Authorities believe the kidnappers were members of the notorious Sinaloa cartel.

Stringer/Mexico / Reuters

Galia Rodriguez, 8, daughter of reporter Armando Rodriguez who was killed in Ciudad Juarez, takes part in an anniversary in the journalists's park in the border city of Ciudad Juarez on Nov. 13, 2010. Suspected drug gangs shot dead Rodriguez, a Mexican crime reporter who worked for El Diario de Ciudad Juarez on Nov. 13, 2008 in Ciudad Juarez.

Mexico has become a killing field for reporters, according to a study released this week by the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists. The organization’s "Attacks on the Press in 2011" study shows 48 Mexican journalists have disappeared or have been killed in the last five years across the country.

CPJ's survey found the increase in crimes against media workers began with the start of Mexican President Felipe Calderon's escalated war against narcotics traffickers, a crusade which has led rival cartels to fight for control of the profitable drug routes into the United States. 

‘Nothing has changed’
Pressure from international press organizations like CPJ prompted the Calderon administration to launch an initiative to protect the country's journalists. London-based writers group PEN has called for "immediate and definitive action" to end the killings of journalists in Mexico. 

But the killings and kidnappings continue.

"Nothing has changed," Hernandez said.  "No one is going to protect them [journalists], they have no one to turn to for protection, but themselves."

In Ciudad Juarez, a city that sees an average of eight murders a day, Sosa says journalists put competition for exclusive stories aside and call each other when news breaks, so they can travel to cover developments as a group. A 23-year veteran crime reporter of the award-winning El Diario, Sosa and other experienced journalists have also gotten used to giving up their byline for a simple "staff" byline  when they write a story that may infuriate a cartel leader or government official.  

Mexico's drug war is also part of a drug culture with roots in music, movies and even religion

Self-censorship
Journalists complain the threats have led to the spread of self-censorship.  Mexico City-based correspondent Ana Arana said much of the country is suffering from what she calls "news black holes."

Arana runs Fundacion MEPI, an independent investigative nonprofit. In an effort to determine how pervasive self-censorship has become, the group studied the coverage of drug-related crimes by 11 regional newspapers, as well as the national edition of Milenio and El Universal in 2010 and then again in 2011.

MEPI found that in Nuevo Laredo and other crime-ridden cities, the press was barely covering gangland executions and other drug-related crimes. And if they published stories on those types of crimes, they did so without mentioning suspects.

"We don't know how bad things are in some regions of the country because of self-censorship," said Dallas Morning News reporter Alfredo Corchado, who has been covering Mexico for many years. "Who can blame Mexican journalists for self-censoring themselves when the government is incapable of protecting them, or even solving one case of colleagues killed," he added.

Some Mexican authorities seem to be censoring their information too, according to many reporters. "What we are seeing is that the government forces are slow to respond, or against sharing statistics or details about specific drug violence," said Arana.

That increasingly leaves the public depending on social media for information. Many turn to Facebook and Twitter for the latest on crime hot spots. But even that source of information is being curtailed, especially after the murder of Marisol Macias Castro.

The 39-year-old Twitter user posted notes on the criminal activities of local cartel members last September. She was found decapitated shortly after. Two other murders have also been linked to the use of social media to denounce a drug cartel.

The NBC station in El Paso, Texas reports on the Mexican photojournalist Alejandro Hernandez's efforts to seek asylum in the U.S. after he was kidnapped and tortured by a drug cartel.

‘Not going to retire because I'm scared’
While the risk of reporting worsens, many won't give up their dangerous profession.  Sosa has told her children, now 17 and 20 years old, she does not want a funeral when she dies, because she has seen so many she has developed an aversion to them.

But she says the drug war violence won't force her to quit. "I'm not going to retire because I'm scared or because I'm tired," she said. "This is what I know how to do and this is what I love doing." 

Hernandez also refused to give up being a journalist, but 19 months after being kidnapped he now practices his profession in the U.S.  He was granted political asylum and now works as a photojournalist for a TV network in Texas, where he lives with his wife and three sons.

But those still reporting from Mexico have to continue to brave the dangers.

Culiacan reporter Javier Valdez Cardenas survived a grenade attack in the course of his work. Last year, he was the awarded the CPJ's International Press Freedom award. In his acceptance speech last September, he spoke about the grim tragedy continuing to unfold in his country.

"Mexico is living a tragedy that should shame us,” said Cardenas.  “The youth will remember this as a time of war. Their DNA is tattooed with bullets and guns and blood, and this is a form of killing tomorrow."