Mexican journalist documents cases of slain colleagues

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Luis Cardona was the editor of OEM newspapers in Casas Grandes, Chihuahua, when in August 2012 he was kidnapped by armed men who after torturing him forced him to leave town no never return. (José Luis Polo)

This is part of an ongoing series featuring the  documentary Reporters Against Silence. Read more articles from the series here.

Mexican journalist Luis Cardona was kidnapped, tortured and expelled from Chihuahua with four herniated discs on his spine over a year ago, all courtesy of organized crime operatives who were not happy with his reports.

Although his departure has meant leaving his family behind and not having a steady job nor a steady place to live, Cardona has used his time to help document cases of colleagues who were presumably killed by organized crime groups in other parts of Mexico.

Cardona is one of at least seven journalists who were displaced by organized crime in Mexico the international organization Reporters without Borders ((RSF) documented in 2012. These displaced journalists are in most cases unemployed or living in underemployment conditions.

Since his departure from Chihuahua, where he was forced to leave behind his young son with health issues and two older children, Cardona has received help from Article 19, an international organization that advocates for freedom of expression with offices in Mexico.

Article 19 asked Cardona to document the cases of Proceso magazine reporter Regina Martinez who was found dead in her Veracruz apartment in April 2012.

Article 19 also assigned Cardona the case of Armando Rodriguez, a El Diario de Chihuahua reporter known by his colleagues as “El Choco.” Rodriguez was killed in front of his 6-year-old daughter in 2009.

The purpose of Cardona’s investigative work was to gather enough information for two documentaries about the lifes and death of Martínez and Rodriguez. Article 19 has showcased both documentaries in different forums inside and outside Mexico.

“One of the most important findings while doing my interviews with people who knew these two journalists is that they were definitely killed for what they had been reporting,” Cardona said.

Under a law passed by Mexico Congress in June of 2012 crimes against journalists become federal crimes.

The investigation case of El Choco became the first one to be transferred from a state investigation to a federal jurisdiction.  In August the Federal Prosecutor’s Office (PGR) ordered his case and those of five other journalists who were killed in Veracruz, Puebla, Oaxaca, and  Mexico City to be investigated under the new federal law.

Article 19 asked Cardona to document the cases of two other journalists but because of lack of resources the work remains unfinished, Cardona says.

“I had to travel to several states to interview people who knew these murdered journalists,” Cardona said. “Because of the risk involved I had to follow the security protocols Article 19 has taught me to follow.”

The Committee to Protect Journalists  (CPJ) considers as “confirmed” those cases where reporters were performing as journalists at the time of their death. While media workers such as photographers and cameramen are considered in a separate category.

Kidnapping and torture of a reporter

In August 2012, Luis Cardona was the editor for the newspaper chain OEM in Casas Grandes, Chihuahua, when he was abducted by about 10 gunmen using military-style uniforms. The attackers forced Cardona into a Jeep and drove him to a remote area where he was beaten, the he said.

“I had been commissioned to investigate the violent deaths in the village, which I did carefully given that I had been threatened before,” Cardona said. “I never mentioned names nor the names of any of the violent groups operating in the area on my reports, but I did report violent acts because I wanted the community to be informed of what was happening around them.”

“They hit me, broke my glasses and after a few hours of torture they left me abandoned on the side of a secondary road. I had to walk a long distance,” Cardona said.” Their condition was that they’d let me go If I left town for good. Once I left the city, the newspaper virtually disappeared from Casas Grandes.”

Criminal groups are behind the deaths of journalists

In Mexico the numbers of journalists kidnapped, killed, displaced or missing vary due to different selection criteria used by organizations that protect journalists. The CPJ has recorded 56 cases of journalists killed in the past 10 years; there have been a sentence in less than 5% of those cases.

Authorities’ investigations have not been able to determine who killed or the reason behind the killing of 64% of the journalists killed in Mexico, according to the CPJ.

However, some analysts point to organized crime groups as responsible for these deaths.

“It is most likely that criminal gangs connected to drug trade are the ones killing journalists,” security analyst at the Mexican Institute for Competitiveness (IMCO). Alejandro Hope said.

“Some gangs have been particularly aggressive against journalists, I would point to Los Zetas for instance,” Hope said. “They have killed, kidnapped, and intimidated a number of journalists in states like Veracruz or Tamaulipas.”

However, “they (Los Zetas) are not the only ones killing journalists,” Hope said.

“Some killings are connected to the Sinaloa Cartel in Northwestern Mexico. And in some cases it is not impossible that some local authorities either on their own behalf or on the payroll of criminal gangs might have been behind these killings,” Hope said.

Since the start of former President Felipe Calderon’s term in 2006, when he sent the army to fight drug traffickers, about 90,000 people have died in Mexico, including more than 20 journalists and seven have disappeared.

Journalists are in the crossfire of rival gangs

Some studies have shown that the level of risk increases as journalists work in areas where rival gangs dispute territories and markets.

Using a research technique known as “statistical causal inference,” a researcher who is trying to determine who is behind journalist killings made a study comparing Mexican municipalities with similarities in terms of population, per capita income, and violence incidence.

“Journalists are safe even in areas where criminals are highly bloodthirsty, provided that such violence can’t be explained by the rival criminal gangs clash,” Viridiana Rios, a Mexican analyst at Harvard University said in an article published in Nexos.

“Statistics prove it. Mexican journalists killed in towns like Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua, and El Oro, Durango, where due to criminal rivalry the homicide rates reach a figure of 200 per 100 000 inhabitants. Journalists do not die in Santiago or San Jacinto Amoltepec Tlacotepec, both in Oaxaca, places with similar homicide rates, but where none of the murders is attributable to criminal groups fighting each other,” Rios said.

Journalists do not report attacks because of fear

As in the case of Cardona, often abducted and displaced journalists do not report their cases to the authorities for fear of reprisals.

“I did not report my case to the authorities because I have a death threat on my family or me if I do.” Cardona said. “My family hasn’t been attacked so far, but I have found five reminders on my old phone not to return to Chihuahua. I canceled my Facebook account because they left a message on my account telling me they were watching my family.”

Cardona teaches editing and editorial coordination courses in different cities to earn a living.

“I do not want to work in anything other than journalism, I respect those doing something else, but I have decided that I will only work in journalism, even though I know it isn’t always easy under the present circumstances,” Cardona said.  “Today I’m under medical treatment thanks to Article 19. I receive psychological therapy and physical rehabilitation,” Cardona said.