Wall inside the Rezizte art collective workshop in Ciudad Juarez

Wall inside the Rezizte art collective workshop in Ciudad Juarez

When Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto took office December first, he inherited a crisis of violence linked to the country’s ongoing drug war. He vowed to implement a new security strategy and bring peace back to the country. While official data has shown a slight drop in drug war-related murders, questions remain about just how substantial the advances are.

The violence never really disappeared, but international media attention has been focused on other aspects of Mexican policy: the economy, the possibility of reforms to the energy sector, and the like. When violence does come up, the Peña Nieto administration tends to point to government statistics which suggest a decrease in drug war-related homicides. Unlike his predecesor, President Enrique Peña has chosen not to make the drug war a centerpiece of his policy or media strategy.

ERNESTO LOPEZ PORTILLO: “Lo que estamos observando es una invisibilización de la violencia… (fade down as reporter interprets)

Ernesto Lopez Portillo of the Institute for Security and Democracy says what we’re seeing is a process in which violence is being made invisible and spoken of less. He attributes this to a number of factors, among them threats against journalists to the extent that some media have openly refused to cover issues related to organized crime, systemic impunity with regards to violent crime, and a conscious change in government communications strategy which no longer has the drug war front and center.

Lopez Portillo questions the methodology which shows a drop in homicides linked to organized crime and warns documented murders may not be providing a complete picture of drug war deaths.

Relatives of the disappeared march in Mexico City

Relatives of the disappeared march in Mexico City

ERNESTO LOPEZ PORTILLO (In Spanish, male VO): “What we DO know is that there’s a phenomenon of disappearances which of course includes the disappearance of dead bodies. Therefore, these types of statistics do not allow us to reach a conclusion – yet – that there is a successful change in the strategy to reduce homicides.”

Then there’s the issue of official record-keeping. Sometimes discrepancies will emerge when comparing state-by-state data with information provided by the federal government. Other times information requests made to the same agency will turn up different results.

ANA CRISTINA RUELAS: “Yo lo veo como el agua turbia…” (clip in Spanish, reporter interprets)

Ana Cristina Ruelas – the Access to Information Program Officer with the Mexico office of the press freedom group, Article 19 – compares Mexican government transparency to muddy water. She says only that which is on the surface is visible and differently-worded information requests to the same authority can receive distinct answers.

ANA CRISTINA RUELAS (In Spanish, female VO): “The system of access to information and accountability in Mexico is awful. We’ve carried out state-by-state analyses and encountered tremendous opacity. Information requests about things as basic as budgets are rejected. So, imagine criminal case files! Anything related to public security is taboo.”

Hunger strike encampment outside of Attorney General's office

Hunger strike encampment outside of Attorney General’s office

Federal transparency law allows Mexico’s government to withhold certain types of public information for a period of 12 years, including information deemed to affect national security. Ruelas says many criminal cases stemming from the drug war have been sealed under this clause.

Article 19 has been caught in a two year long legal tug of war over access to information about the 2010 massacre of 72 migrants in San Fernando, Tamaulipas; the largest single multihomicide event of Mexico’s drug war. Most media outlets – let alone individual reporters – don’t have the resources to pursue information requests with such tenacity.

Some press in areas most affected by the violence have given up on reporting on the drug war altogether. Others – like El Diario de Juárez – have learned from experience what not to print. Pedro Torres is the newspaper’s managing editor.

PEDRO TORRES (in Spanish, male VO): “For example, at one point we published the contents of “narco banners” and other messages left in public places by drug traffickers. We published them initially because it was news – it was a new method they were using to communicate. We later saw how they were using the media to reproduce their message. There were even cases in which they’d call [the newsroom] trying to oblige us to publish the content and we said ‘not anymore’. It just got to the point that we agreed we’d no longer publish that. So, as the war escalated between the trafficking groups, we had to learn to determine what was fit to publish.”

Mural in Ciudad juarez

Mural in Ciudad Juarez

El Diario learned those lessons when violence in Ciudad Juarez was so bad, the city was named a world murder capital. Homicide rates there have since decreased, but many locals there attribute the change more to cartel hegemony than the success of an official security strategy. Ernesto Lopez Portillo of the Institute for Security and Democracy says this type of analysis is often missing in media coverage of fluctuating crime statistics.

ERNESTO LOPEZ PORTILLO (in Spanish, male VO): “The media wants statistics to be able to say that something has increased or decreased, and generally say nothing more to the public… Homicides can sometimes increase because authorities are doing their job more and there’s a violent reaction or they can sometimes decrease for reasons that have nothing to do with official policy. In short, the issue is more complex, requires greater caution, a deeper look, and the media should be better prepared to explain it to people.”
But a proper explanation and understanding of the big picture requires greater access to public information and a climate in which the press can investigate sensitive issues without fear of intimidation – or even death. Mexico has for years ranked as the deadliest country in the Western Hemisphere for journalists – and seems on track to retain that dubious distinction in 2013.

NOTE: This story was written as a radio script in August 2013 for an outlet I freelance for, but the story was “killed” (cancelled mid-way) in late September. I tried to find an outlet for it elsewhere without success. Perhaps this serves as its own example of how continuing violence is disappearing from the media spotlight. Posting here for posterity.

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