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Drug traffickers seek to intimidate Mexican media

Monday - 7/30/2012, 7:56pm  ET

By OLGA R. RODRIGUEZ and PORFIRIO IBARRA RAMIREZ
Associated Press

MONTERREY, Mexico (AP) - The three masked men took less than a minute to burst into the offices of a major Mexican newspaper in northern Mexico, subdue the security guard, drench the reception with gasoline and set the building ablaze.

Surveillance video at the El Norte's building in the Monterrey upscale suburb of San Pedro Garza Garcia shows the three assailants, two carrying automatic rifles, get into a waiting minivan and drive away escorted by at least three other waiting vehicles. Seconds later a San Pedro Garza Garcia police car arrives at the scene but doesn't give chase.

The attack against El Norte's offices in Monterrey's metropolitan area is the third in less than a month against the newspaper. Experts say it could be an escalation in the efforts by drug traffickers to intimidate one of the few regional outlets that continues to cover the drug war and investigate official corruption linked to cartels, while others fall silent to intimidation.

"There are parts of the country where criminal groups decide what gets published and what doesn't," said Jose Carreno, a media expert at Mexico City's Ibero-American University. "They're trying to extend the pressure."

Monterrey-based El Norte is part of the Reforma Group which publishes newspapers around the country, including Reforma, a Mexico City-based national daily that prides itself on investigations into government corruption and drug trafficking.

A Grupo Reforma official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly about the attacks said El Norte newspaper has not received any threats and that it's not clear why El Norte is being targeted.

"We're waiting for authorities to solve this," the official said.

The newspaper said in a story published Monday that none of the 15 people working El Norte's supplement Sierra Madre were injured by the fire. The weekly society insert covers weddings, parties and the doings of rich and famous in the areas around Mexico's third-largest city.

No one has been detained in any of the attacks against the newspaper's offices, which have been targeted by grenades and gunfire at least six times since 2010, when the Zetas drug gang and its former allies in the Gulf drug cartel began fighting for control of Nuevo Leon state, where Monterrey is located. No one was injured in those attacks, according to Mexico's chapter of the press freedom group Article 19.

Most recently, gunmen threw grenades and opened fire on two buildings belonging to the El Norte on July 10, and the newspaper did not change coverage. A day before the attack, the newspaper had broken a story about how employees of a local motor vehicle bureau were suspected of improperly providing thousands of license plates for stolen cars.

The paper reported Sunday that people in Monterrey continue to fill casinos despite several attacks, including an arson fire that killed 52 people nearly a year ago. The attack on El Norte with armed men spreading gasoline mirrored the fire last August at the nearby Casino Royale set allegedly by members of the Zetas drug gang who had been extorting the business.

Other newspapers in northeast Mexico have stopped covering drug cartel violence all together to protect their staffs against violent attacks including kidnappings and murders carried out by gangs that want to prevent their activities from appearing in print, or are angered by coverage. El Norte and Reforma publish drug violence articles without reporters' bylines to protect from retribution.

Drug cartels have targeted journalists working for national media chains.

In 2010, gunmen allegedly with the Sinaloa drug cartel kidnapped a reporter and a cameraman working for Mexico's television giant Televisa, as well as a cameraman for Milenio television and a reporter for Durango state newspaper El Vespertino.

The captors demanded the television networks broadcast videos that accused officials of favoring a rival gang. Only Milenio aired the videos. The reporters were released five days later.

Several press freedom groups on Monday urged Mexican authorities to investigate the attacks.

"There is no journalist in Mexico who can feel safe when there are criminal groups who feel they can attack a national media outlet without any consequences," said Carlos Lauria, senior program coordinator for the Americas for the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists.

Nuevo Leon Gov. Rodrigo Medina said Monday he is committed to finding those behind the Sunday attack and asked local and federal authorities to close ranks and help protect journalists.

The federal Interior Department also issued a statement condemning the attack and said it has offered to help state authorities with the investigation.

Mexico's National Human Rights Commission says there have been 126 attacks on journalists or media outlets in Mexico since 2000 and only 24 of these cases have been prosecuted. Only two of these cases have resulted in convictions.

The commission attributes the impunity largely to a failure by authorities to investigate attacks.

Other groups have smaller numbers, such as the Committee to Protect, because of how they count journalists.


(Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)