Coverage of Organized Crime in the Mexican Media

By Gabriela Gómez Rodríguez, Ph.D.

About the author

Gabriela Gómez Rodríguez is a Professor in the Departamento de Estudios de la Comunicación Socialat the University of Guadalajara.  Paseo Poniente 2093, Jardines del Country, Guadalajara, C.P. 44210, Mexico.

gabygomez79@gmail.com

Abstract

The purpose of this paper is to offer a detailed view of the situation of violence related to organized crime as it is represented in the Mexican media. This work presents the results of an empirical study (using media analysis and interviews with journalists) about the coverage of violence in a variety of Mexican media.  In the study, I try to outline some factors that can help us to understand and improve the conditions for journalists in Mexico. I also try to show some of the main characteristics of the representation of violence by the media that  currently prevail in news stories about organized crime.

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Introduction

In Mexico on Jan. 23, 2007, President Felipe Calderón Hinojosa, then only a month and a half into his administration, declared war, on behalf of his government, on organized crime.

Since then, Mexican media have gradually increased their coverage of events related to this war to an almost blanket level. Every day, stories of drug-trafficking and kidnappings occupy the media to such an extent that each death, each image, has become one more statistic, a figure.  Between Jan. 23, 2007, and March 2010, there were 22,647 deaths related to this war (La Jornada, 2010), in addition to the deployment of more than 50,000 soldiers and marines, 30,000 federal police and many more municipal police (Reveles, 2010).  The first headline about a severed head hurled into a discotheque impacted on society. Now, this impact has been largely lost in the profusion of stories about quartered cadavers, corpses strung up from bridges, and bodies “binned” (buried in bins and filled with cement). Practically all the newspapers, the serious and the less so, have published these types of images; some even try to take advantage of such content to cash in.

In Mexico, people are becoming increasingly accustomed to the violence, but not all Mexicans are living it in the same way. Some are growing used to viewing it from a distance through the media, as if it were a film or a TV series, while others live it as a reality day by day, second by second. Many mothers mourn their lost children; others live under constant threat. The narrative of violence in the media is constructed and circulated in diverse ways in Mexico. The violence is lived and perceived according to the region of the country where one lives and the social conditions that prevail.  One study found that in Mexico, more than one in four citizens (27 per cent) said they or a family member had been the victim of crime in the previous three months.  In other words, more than a quarter of the country’s population has experienced a violent incident.  As well, about 78 per cent of Mexicans say they fear being victims of an armed robbery and 72 per cent say they fear being kidnapped.

To understand the situation of organized-crime violence in Mexico, it is necessary to first know something about the how the country’s drug-trafficking element evolved and the how it has been viewed and portrayed over time in the mass media.

  • It is known that a legal exchange of marijuana, opium and other herbs has existed since the end of the 19th century, for medicinal purposes.
  • This legal exchange lasted only a few years; in 1916, then president Venustiano Carranza approved the first law that restricted the production and distribution of drugs, and Mexican drugs cartels began to stealthily expand.
  • In the 1940s, the state of Sinaloa, because of its location and climate, was consolidated as the principal area for the traffic of drugs to the United States.  Foreigners lived in this state and it’s said that they instructed the locals in the use and properties of marijuana and opium; there are those who accuse Americans of having promoted the production of illegal drugs in Mexico.
  • In the 1970s, Mexico became the main seller of marijuana and opium to the U.S.
  • In that decade, the Mexican government implemented various measures to decommission drugs and from then on, counted on the support of the U.S. government,
  • At that time, and in spite of the fact that the drug industry was growing by leaps and bounds, the communication media reserved little space for this subject, giving it scant coverage and mentioning it only in passing in the crime section, with few images.
  • The business of the production and trafficking of narcotics proliferated, giving rise to other cartels that fought for control over production and distribution of drugs in some areas of Mexico through the use of violence, as well as through bribes and with the collusion of the authorities at all levels, federal as well as state.
  • In the 1980s, the previously discreet presence of drug-trafficking began to become more overt, in particular, after the capture of drug baron Rafael Caro Quintero and the murder of DEA agent Enrique Camarena.  Local and national media increasingly covered stories of drug-related violence.
  • The most internationally resonating and widely covered incident was that of Cardinal Juan Jesús Posadas Ocampo, who was assassinated on May 24, 1993, at the city’s airport. It is said that the primate died in the “crossfire” of a shoot-out between rival cartels (those of Tijuana and Sinaloa). Still today, 17 years after his death, the case remains open; unfortunately in Mexico, impunity and corruption prevail.
  • The conflicts and betrayals within the cartels, the alliances and collusions of the government and police institutions with organized crime, the greater use of drugs in the country and the globalization of the drug market in which Mexican drug-traffickers are involved have created the nine cartels that now exist.
  • The most powerful is that of Sinaloa, better-known as the Pacific cartel, whose boss is Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzmán who, according to Forbes magazine, is one of the richest men in the world and according to many analysts, heads a cartel protected by the government of Felipe Calderón (Proceso, 2010).
  • If this scenario were not sufficiently worrying and disheartening, what the communication media publish or transmit through their content does not help the population understand the problem, nor does it prevent or bring to attention any real threat or risk.
  • Since Felipe Calderón declared war on drug-trafficking, the lives and tranquility of many citizens have been violated and disrupted.
  • According to a survey by Harris Interactive (2010), 75 per cent of Mexicans believe drug traffickers are winning the war, and so do 80 per cent of Americans.

A negative image of Mexico has been built up at both the domestic and international levels, and although reports of the violence that occurs in the country are not false or unreal, they represent only a partial reality, poorly-told.

A few media groups that have alliances with the government control media information. Some of them possess TV channels, radio stations, newspapers, printing presses and even football clubs. In Mexico, the media with greatest penetration are those of radio and television; the latter is found in the hands of a private initiative—the “duopoly” of Televisa and Television Azteca. Through the channels of these broadcasters, a large proportion of the population is “informed” about the news from their locality and of the events in the country. With respect to the dailies, Mexicans have not been great readers of newspapers, even though over 300 exist in the country.  The great majority of these are controlled by a few media companies, but some independent newspapers and publications do exist, such as La Jornada, a daily newspaper, and Proceso, a weekly magazine (despite the crisis, both  have managed to survive).

In recent years, all the communication media have increased their coverage of organized crime.  To illustrate, I present the case of the political publication with the greatest prestige and tradition in Mexico: the magazine Proceso. It is practically the only medium in the country that undertakes investigative journalism on the subject of organized crime. This journal has increased the number of its front pages devoted to drug-trafficking and organized crime since Calderón declared war on the “narcos.”

The subject has continually returned to the front pages of this publication. From December 2006, when the president took office, to May 23, 2010, of 182 front pages of the Proceso, 65 (or nearly 36 per cent) highlighted organized crime as a weekly topic.  It should be noted that independent journals such as Proceso and provincial journalists have suffered greatly from the threats and aggressions of organized crime. It is precisely in the provinces where drugs are produced, circulated, stored and distributed. In Ciudad Juárez, in Tijuana, in Culiacán, in Tamaulipas, in Acapulco, and in other northern cities, the mainstream media currently publish very poor information on events related to organized crime. They have focused instead on portraying violence as yellow news, as a kind of tabloid journalism, with little or no contextual information. It is in these cities that the largest number of crimes and executions related to drug-trafficking happen.

The journalists in the north of Mexico face daily threats, aggression and intimidation; and they are stricken with fear and dread. Journalists in these regions have lost their lives because they published information that did not go down well in certain criminal sectors, or because they investigated and “didn’t pay heed to the threats” or, as some journalists say, because they colluded with organized crime. In this way, the criminals, as well as the government, “buy” the reporters.

In contrast, in Guadalajara, located in the central-west side of the country, the reality of the violence and its representation in the media is different. In this city, the violence by organized crime is seen from a certain distance (although that distance is closing).  It is known that the city belongs to the Culiacán Cartel, but executions have taken place increasingly closer to or even within the city. Recently, local media reported on the discovery of six dismembered bodies in some areas of the city.  In covering the story, local media, who had previously tended to be more careful in how they represented violence, now fell into temptation to “cash in” by providing detailed descriptions of the body parts found.  What do citizens gain from reading such descriptions?

The media coverage on organized crime in the south-east of Mexico is perceived differently; reportedly, this region feels furthest from the criminal activities of the central and northern parts, where the fear is greatest.

Representation of organized-crime violence in Mexican media

This study outlines the main characteristics1 of the representation of organized-crime violence in Mexico as follows:

1) Sensationalism.  Some communication media have opted to cash in on the violence and publish cut-up bodies on their front pages; such images are excessively crude and offer little help in comprehending the extreme act. They serve only to invite the morbid consumption of what is called “red” information: that is to say, news stories in which market values prevail over journalistic ethics and responsibility. It is the type of journalism known as tabloid, and such tabloid media, using violent images and “colourful” language, have become the best-selling organs of information.

2) Over-exposure to violence.  Over-exposing people to violent content in media runs the risk of “normalizing” or “naturalizing” the violence in the public mind.  There is practically no medium or space in the media, especially in television, that does not “cover” or “inform” about the war against drug-trafficking and organized crime. For example, in one of the local newscasts of Guadalajara, I found that 75 per cent of the information that was broadcast was related to violent crimes. There was no contextual information, only facts and figures. The renowned writer and journalist Hector Aguilar Camín (2010) argues that the reporting of so many deaths ends up aiding the criminal element in a kind of “double-hit”: once with the facts and again with the re-presentation of the facts (in media accounts).

One of the dangers of over-exposure to violence is that it desensitizes and paralyzes people as citizens. Mexico is a nation where more than 90 per cent of the people have television sets; this is not good news because practically all that the populace has access to in the way of news is broadcast to them via the duopolies of television: Televisa and Television Azteca, both allies of the government and virtually official government organs; they are willing partners in this over-exposure.

3) External censorship.  In contrast to the government-allied media are the paralyzed and threatened media, which recognize their social function but which also face the threat of censorship.  In this type of censorship, the media, and even more so the journalists who work for these outlets, find themselves obliged by organized crime as well as by government officials and politicians to publish certain information—or not. A single call, a single threat, and the journalist is left without any alternative but to obey the order.  Journalists know that threats are carried out.  Not for nothing is Mexico considered a most dangerous country for journalists.

4) Self-protection/censorship.  Mexican journalists are obliged to engage in some form of self-protection with regard to what they publish. Some media analysts would call this phenomenon self-censorship. Certainly, fear is the greatest social controller and clearly the journalists have reason to fear for their lives. In the last 10 years, 56 journalists have been murdered in Mexico, ranked the most dangerous country for journalists on the American Continent (Sociedad Interamericana de Prensa, 2010).

Attacks on Journalists
State Total cases in 2008 State Total cases in 2009
Chihuahua 14 Oaxaca 17
Oaxaca 13 Veracruz 15
Veracruz 12 Chihuahua 15
Distrito Federal 12 Distrito Federal 9
Puebla 8 Tamaulipas 8

Source: Centro de Periodismo y Ética Periodística. Annual report, 2009.

To clarify, not all the aggression comes from organized crime. If 15 years ago a correspondent for an important national newspaper “fought” for the exclusive news about drug trafficking , nowadays he or she would prefer not to broach the subject, as if that reality didn’t exist—out of fear. This is natural, considering that journalists in the north of the country suffer daily threats; they have seen their colleagues assaulted and killed.

Aggressor Cases
Law enforcement/Security teams 50
Officials 36
Unknown 17
Organized crime 12
Private 10
Union/political groups 8
Party members 7
Media owners and managers 5
Party Readers 4
Ministers of religion 2

Source: Centro de Periodismo y Ética Periodística. Annual report, 2009.

As if this weren’t enough, in a city considered one of the most violent in the world, Ciudad Juárez, a journalist from whatever medium who tries to acquire life insurance will find that this is impossible, given his or her profession. The insurance companies have denied to all media professionals the right to buy insurance.  This situation represents a violation of human rights, including the right to know.  In the absence of any counter-action or guarantee of safety on the part of the State, the people feel unprotected. The people of Ciudad Juárez have nevertheless found a way to spread alerts or information through virtual social networks. Even organized crime groups have used these networks to issue “warnings” to the populace not to leave their homes on a given day; they will open fire, and those who don’t heed the warnings could die a violent death. In various cities, principally in the north, one lives with the sense of being under siege.

Professsional role Attacks
Reporters 75
Cameramen/photographers 38
Mass media 19
Editors/Media directors/news editor 18
Tv and radio journalists hosts 7
Newsboys
Cartoonists/Columnists 5
Community media 2
Members of community radio 2
Undefined 11

Source: Centro de Periodismo y Ética Periodística. Annual report, 2009.

5) Strategic use of mass media by organized crime groups.  The communication media are commonly used as part of the media strategy of organized crime to send messages to the people and/or the government, and even to other cartels.  I find that the new forms of violence employed by drug-traffickers and organized crime, so shocking and crude, have much in parallel with international terrorism, in the sense that the intent in both cases is to cause fear, terror and fright; and both groups have achieved this.  In this sense, the media have served, albeit in an involuntary or unwitting manner, as messengers for the drug traffickers.  It is increasingly common for criminal groups to send messages through the so-called narco-banners (“news” items issued by organized crime figures to emit warning messages or to establish postures against another criminal group or the government). These banners are displayed in public places; for example, suspended from pedestrian bridges. In this way, the criminal groups have imposed an agenda on the media and on the people, as consumers of media.  Evidently, organized crime has a strong media impact and if it is headline-making, it is because it is newsworthy. It is well-known that the bloodier and more shocking an act, the more likely it is to be promoted to the front pages and headlines of the media.  It is necessary then to ask: What would organized crime be without public media of communication?  The question also works in reverse because we cannot deny that to publish something linked to organized crime maximizes the sensationalist nature of the piece, and that is good business, above all when the media companies suffer from an economic downturn or crisis.

A relevant case came to light recently and became the subject of various interpretations and critiques, many of them negative. It involved the founder of the journal Proceso, one of the most respected journalists in Mexico, Julio Scherer García. A widely sought drug baron  with the nickname “El Mayo Zambada,” contacted the journalist through third parties with a request to meet, and Scherer agreed. The result of this was the publication of a photo of the journalist with the drug baron on the front page of the journal. This urges the following considerations: How far was the journalist used? Up to what point do the media contribute to organized crime?

6) Blinkered information.  Blinkered information (information that is incomplete or out of context and so misleading) abounds for journalists and the media from government institutions, the police and others.  This situation makes it difficult for journalists to be able to offer the people facts and information that allow for their contextualization; in other words, the media and the people are denied access to the all the relevant facts; they are only  partially informed.

Proposals

In the face of these difficulties, what can be done to improve the situation (with regard to both social safety and the free flow of information through public media of communication)?  I believe that the following measures are indispensible:

1)    Journalists union.  The country’s journalists need to unite in order to be better-prepared to cover risky situations, such as those connected to organized crime. There have been attempts to group together, but the race for the exclusive has always taken precedence. Journalists are understandably reluctant to risk their lives for a story and they unfortunately find no protection where they work. As if that weren’t bad enough, the salaries and working conditions of the journalists are hardly optimum. Mexican journalists are not prepared to cover such violent situations; it is the international organizations, such as Artículo 19 and others, that have prepared manuals with recommendations on how to cover high-risk situations, given their experience in other countries such as Colombia.

A policy response implemented in Colombia is one that I consider worthy of emulation:  There, the media created a network of newspapers and broadcast outlets to share and publish information-reports, in this way shielding the various media outlets from drug-gang retribution against any one for authoring the articles.  This network allowed for the monitoring of media reports with regard to the armed conflict.  Finally, the newsrooms of the local press were visited and advice was given on how to draft the text and how to avoid pitfalls.

In Mexico, awareness is growing of the danger that reporters live under and the importance of the information published about organized crime. Some media directors are organizing journalistic forums to discuss the type of information and image that should or should not be published and the social function that should be assumed by the media, as well as the protections that should be implemented to provide security for journalists and to guarantee freedom of the press.

2) Self-regulation of the media.  Self-regulation is preferable to external regulation; it has to appeal to the media outlet’s sense of social commitment and discretion: to publish all relevant information and to refrain from publishing violent images or other information about organized-crime violence without full context.

3) Power of citizens.  In the face of this scenario that appears to have no solution, it is only the citizens who can rescue the country from the abyss: a more participative and critical citizenry that demands better content in the media; that does not ‘consume’ the morbid, tabloid press; that turns off the television that airs an excess of banal information about violence; that demands more from its government; that demands its right to information and social safety; that mobilizes itself through social networking and the like. The only viable and realistic solution that I can see in the face of such a situation is collective action (along with collective action in other countries) to allow Mexican society to live in peace and with the guarantee that human rights not be not violated each day.

The media provide only a partial or incomplete reflection of the reality of organized violence, and the hope of the Mexican people for positive change, like the warmth of the sun that embraces the nation every day, is an element that no one, neither organized crime nor government, can ever destroy.

Notes

  1. Some of these characteristics were developed for the work El protagonismo de la violencia en los medios de la ZMG, by Gómez G. & Rodelo F. (2010), which work will be part of the document “La violencia social de la ZMG,” organized by the CONAVIM, Segob.

References

Aguilar, H. (2010). La Indefensión periodística frente al narco. URL: www.saladeprensa.org [May 20, 2010].

Artículo 19 (2010). Prevenir para después informar. Guía práctica de seguridad para la cobertura en zonas de riesgo. URL: http://www.articulo19.org/images/stories/publicaciones/manual%20de%20seguridad.pdf

Centro de Periodismo y Ética Periodística. (2009). Gobierno y narco; la lucha por imponer la agenda periodística Situación de la libertad de expresión en México 2009.  Informe anual.

Mitofsky, C. (2010). Encuesta nacional sobre la percepción de seguridad ciudadana en México.  URL:  http://www.consulta.mx/Estudio.aspx?Estudio=seguridad-mexico-mucd, [May 25, 2010].

La Jornada (2010). 22,743 muertos en guerra antinarco de Mexico. La Jornada, 18 April 2010. URL: http://www.jornada.unam.mx [May 22, 2010].

Proceso (2010). Radio de EU difunde que Calderón protégé al Chapo; Segob lo niega. Proceso. 18 May 2010.  URL: http://www.proceso.com.mx/rv/modHome/detalleExclusiva/79493 [June 1, 2010].

Reporteros Sin Fronteras, (2005). Autoridad, impunidad, y autocensura: las duras condiciones de los periodistas fronterizos, USL: www.rsf.org [May 15, 2010].

Reveles, J. (2010) El cártel incómodo. México: Grijalbo.

Sociedad Interamericana de Prensa (2010). URL: http://www.sipiapa.org/v4/

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