Latin America: The Invisible War on the Press

A couple of weeks ago I was in New York, meeting with network television producers about a series they wanted to run about a story my production team and I have been reporting for more than five years: the narco-insurgency currently wreaking havoc on the U.S. and Mexico.

Just as we all sat down around the conference table, my cell phone rang. Given the importance of the meeting, I normally would have let the call go to voice mail, but when I looked at the number I knew I had to pick it up. This person would not be calling unless it was an absolute emergency. I opened the phone and didn’t even get the “Hello” out of my mouth before a shaken and somewhat scared voice said, “Rusty when can you be here?”

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The caller was my most trusted source in Mexico. Slightly stunned by the abrupt nature of the call, I responded inquisitively, “Pretty soon, I should wrap up here in New York in a couple of days, why?”

“We have to talk right away, we have a huge problem down here and you’re in the middle of it,” he exclaimed.

When I returned to Texas a few days later, I called my source and we arranged to meet at a public place. He got in my truck and we drove away. As I found a place for us to park we quickly disposed of the normal chit-chat about family and business; I could clearly see he was rattled about something, so we got down to what was on his mind.

He looked outside the window, took a deep breath, looked me square in the eyes and said, “Kidnap orders have been issued for a long list of people along the border and one of the names on that list is yours.”

“Do you understand what I’m saying to you?” Before I could answer he added, “Rusty they have the cops, customs agents and the military looking for you down here, if you cross that bridge into Mexico tonight, you won’t make it a block down the street before they’ll grab you and take you away.”

I fully understood the point my friend was making. This was not the first time a threat had been made on my life. You don’t report on the cartels in Mexico without getting the attention of the individuals you document on film and write about. They are going to come after you sooner or later and I’m no exception to these rules.

The head of Mexico’s National Human Rights commission reported recently that 52 journalists and media workers have been killed in the last decade in Mexico. Most of the slayings remain unsolved. Seven other reporters went missing and six newspaper offices were attacked with explosives over the same period. The president of that same commission was quoted as saying “Impunity has become the hallmark of the aggressions against journalists in Mexico.”

I’ve had a front row seat to the attacks made on the journalists all over Mexico and the United States for the past five years. The bombing of numerous newspapers and television stations combined with the assassinations of reporters has constrained the free press in what is supposed to be the strongest democracy in Latin America.

The armed attacks and threats by drug traffickers against media organizations have made Mexico the world’s most dangerous country after Iraq for journalists, according to the French media advocacy group Reporters Without Borders.

Freedom of the press is one of the most sacred institutions in this country and it too is under attack. In July 2007 several newspapers in Texas received notification of specific threats made by Los Zetas to kill an American reporter in Laredo. The San Antonio Express News published the story about the threat on its reporter and decided to pull him from the paper’s Laredo bureau.

That same year a local television station in McAllen, Texas, was set to broadcast a series of reports and interviews showing that the Zetas had ramped up its army of mercenaries and was preparing for all-out war. The station received a credible death threat from the Zetas shortly after airing the first part of their series, making them pull the stories.

To many people this is an invisible war zone. But to those who live and report in this war zone, these threats are real.

I’ve spent nearly five years documenting the Mexican drug cartels, including the Zetas. After I made the documentary Drug Wars: Silver or Lead, the threats we received were for the most part, directed simply to get us to give up. And they came close to achieving that goal. I had cast and crew members quit in fear of their lives because of these threats, I had sources back out, and I had people in my own government back away from me.

There is one axiomatic truth that’s worth repeating. If you go after the narcos or the corrupt police who do their bidding, they will go after you. It matters not who or where you are–these guys are not going to walk away quietly from $40 billion a year.

According to the 2009 National Drug Threat Assessment report, Mexican and Colombian drug trafficking organizations generate, remove and launder between $18 billion and $39 billion in wholesale drug proceeds annually. This is just the dollars they are laundering and taking home and does not include the profits that they leave here in the U.S., such as real-estate businesses or other tangible assets. They also use drug profits to trade for weapons.

But now I recognize this as probably the most credible threat directed at me. Part of me has known all along this was inevitable but I was still taken aback. I’ve obviously struck a nerve with these guys. And now I’m confronted with a choice.

Getting all the facts is of paramount importance to the men and women who practice good journalism in this country. Indeed, exposing the truth in a free press has done more for positive change and government and corporate accountability in our nation than perhaps any other single component, but that simply does not fit in the world of terror that the narcos create and perpetuate. Needless to say, a threat by narco-terrorists from Mexico to kill or kidnap American reporters on U.S. soil should send a chill down the spine of anyone who values democracy and freedom.

Every time I think about backing off, tucking tail or going to a new line of work in my field, I think of those brave souls that are down in Mexico risking life and limb every day to report just slivers of the truth. Take William Slemaker, for instance, whose daughter was kidnapped by these same terrorists in 2004 and she has yet to be found. Still, Slemaker continues to speak out against these criminals every chance he gets. I think about the law enforcement officials like the Border Patrol agents, the county sheriff’s and their deputies that live along that border and are under constant threat by these narco-insurgencies.

So, in all humility, I have to say, the fear of what these narco-terrorists are doing and are continuing to do to our two countries., exceeds the fear of what they’ll do to me for reporting it.

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