María Elizabeth Macías Castro had a great fondness for the internet. It gave her comfort and hope, and was an indispensable element of her work as moderator of a website where organized crime is reported. This everyday tool would also be the cause of her death.
Journalism in Tamaulipas, Mexico, is widely practiced under the protection of Los Zetas and The Gulf Cartel and refusing to do so means death or exile.
Source: Milenio Semanal
NUEVO LAREDO, MEXICO- María Elizabeth Macías Castro had a great fondness for the internet. It gave her comfort and hope, and was an indispensable element of her work as moderator of a website where organized crime is reported. This everyday tool would also be the cause of her death.
On September 24, 2011 the decapitated body of the journalist was found at the Colón monument. The head was placed on top of a spherical block of concrete like a cherry on top of a cake. Next to it lay the body, various discs, two computer keyboards and some cables, in the macabre scene set by its executors: Los Zetas.
Macías Castro, 39 years of age and mother of two teenagers, wrote as NenaDLaredo (a pseudonym meaning baby from Laredo) in the news portal www.nuevolaredoenvivo.es.tl, which is used by the public to denounce suspicious people, vehicles and activities to the Army, Navy and Federal Police, and also to alert them to shootings and dangerous situations. She also worked for Primera Hora, the daily newspaper owned by the current mayor of Nuevo Laredo, Benjamín Galván Gómez of the PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party). The publisher’s response was ominous silence.
This woman, with long blonde hair and a prosthetic leg, became the latest victim of the fierce control being inflicted on the media due to organized crime in Tamaulipas. In this northeastern Mexican state, birthplace of The Gulf Cartel and Los Zetas, it’s the drug lords who decide what news gets published, how and when. Besides the strange phone calls and encrypted messages, organized crime lords employ their own journalists who serve as press coordinators, liaisons who give precise orders on how to manage information and who are responsible for monitoring what their colleagues write.
This phenomenon occurs in cities such as Matamoros, Reynosa, Nuevo Laredo, Victoria and Tampico, where reporters are under constant threat and have no other option but to comply. What happened in March 2010, when Milenio Televisión journalists were held up by group of armed men and held prisoner on the Ribereña highway that connects Reynosa to Nuevo Laredo, is still fresh in people’s minds. After being beaten and threatened, they were set free with one clear warning: “Get out of here and don’t come back, there’s a turf war heating up.”
As a result, a new order has now been given: not to assist any journalist from outside in reporting on the theme of violence or narco-trafficking in the area. Maintaining the appearance that the region is peaceful is the order of the day. So there’s no other option but to engage in sporadic secret meetings, with low voices and a dose of paranoia that can only be appreciated in the border area. Few people are willing to talk and those that are insist that the reporter does not carry any press credentials, cameras or recording devices. Only a notepad and one condition, or rather a demand, for total anonymity.
The Tamaulipas Omerta and the 13 Murders
At a public event, as the first Mexican truck prepares to cross the bridge to the United States as part of negotiations on the Free Trade Agreement, a Nuevo Laredo journalist discreetly takes photos of his co-workers from Tamaulipas and Nuevo Leon who came to cover the event at the Puente Internacional. It’s the criminal liaison and he’s keeping tabs on the other reporters. He keeps the microphone of the company he works for in his vest pocket so he can maneuver with greater ease. The journalists from other regions don’t realize what’s going on, whereas the locals are already used to this. “Everybody knows who’s in charge of giving the orders from above, because they personally make a point of letting us know. Early last year  they threw an all-expenses-paid party and we were told that attendance was compulsory; we were told that such and such would be in charge of giving us the orders and that there would not be another,” said a well-known editor from the northern part of the region.
In the style of the Italian Mafia from which omerta originates, the code of silence reaches owners, directors, associates and general employees of the media and is extended to other social settings. The interviewee added that “Co-workers are obliged to play this role and they understand the position they are in. We don’t want anything to happen to each other, so there’s nothing left but to obey.”
He also accepts that the criminals also give out incentives as well as threats. “It may sound like a justification, but I’m just stating the facts: rejection is not a wise decision because the criminals take offense and they are giving journalists 100-200 dollars a week in a state where monthly salaries are around 600 dollars.”
The beheading of Macías Castro is the most recent murder, but not the only one. Two months earlier, a couple was found hanging from a bridge in residential area La Voluntad 2, Nuevo Laredo. “They weren’t exactly journalists, they were Tweeters and bloggers. The man was strung up by his feet and the woman by all four limbs, like little goats,” said a journalist who was forced by the attackers to witness the event and ordered to spread the news. As informers, their fingers were symbolically cut off and so that there was no doubt as to why they were killed, a message was left accusing them of reporting against Los Zetas on the narco-trafficking and terrorism blogs.
The list of journalists killed in Tamaulipas is long. From 2000 to date, there have been at least 11 homicides (or 13 including the two bloggers) and 5 disappearances, while unlawful detentions, beatings and threats can be counted by the dozen. The following journalists have lost their lives because of organized crime or under suspicious circumstances; Luis Roberto Cruz Miranda (2000), reporter for Multicosas magazine in Reynosa, Pablo Pineda Gaucín (2000) of the daily La Opinión from Matamoros, Saúl Antonio Martínez Gutiérrez (2001) of daily paper El Imparcial from Matamoros, Félix Alfonso Fernández García (2002) of the Nueva Opción magazine in Ciudad Miguel Alemán, a town situated between Reynosa and Nuevo Laredo in the so-called “Frontera Chica”, and Roberto Javier Mora García (2004), editorial director of the newspaper El Mañana from Nuevo Laredo.
Others killed include Arriatia Saldierna Francisco (2004), a reporter for the newspaper El Imparcial and El Regional, Matamoros, Guadalupe Escamilla (2005), of radio station Estéreo 91 in Nuevo Laredo, Julio César Pérez Martínez (2005), México magazine, Matamoros, Ramiro Téllez Contreras (2006), of radio station EXA 95.7, Nuevo Laredo, Jorge Rábago (2010), reporter for Radio Rey in Reynosa, and Mary Elizabeth Macías Castro (2011), of newspaper Primera Hora and moderator of the Nuevo Laredo En Vivo portal.
Between February 18 and March 3 2010, eight journalists were kidnapped in Reynosa, a city of one million inhabitants. Not a single line was published in any of the local media, even though the news spread right across the city during that week. The Human Rights Commission of The State of Tamaulipas (CODHET in Spanish) has only four disappearances on record and only one of them corresponds to a journalist. None of them, not even when officially registered, have been reported in the press.
The Gulf Cartel and Los Zetas against the Press
The cause of the levantones (the term used by police and journalists to refer to these unlawful detentions) was the Gulf Cartel’s arrival in Reynosa, displacing Los Zetas and retaliating against their allies, some of whom were journalists, without caring whether they supported them out of sincerity or because they were under threat. Among the hostages was an employee of the newspaper El Mañana and another from La Tarde (published by the same company). A third hostage belonged to the online news site MetroNoticias and fourth was from the daily La Prensa. When the media in Nuevo Leon, Coahuila and Mexico City wanted to report it, they hit a wall of fear and silence: no one was willing to talk, either to avoid getting involved or endangering those who had disappeared. An attack is always followed by a threat and so making a scandal could make things worse. “You can’t imagine the desperation. Not knowing how a family member is and not being able to ask for help because these people (the criminals) find out everything. They’ve bought off a lot of cops, judges, journalists…if I reported the disappearance they would know about it and that would make it worse for the family,” explained the niece of one of the disappeared, who chose to create a page on Facebook in an attempt to find her relative.
It ended up having to be the American newspaper Dallas Morning News that would spread the news, using Mexican journalists living in the U.S. as their sources. Even the Committee For The Protection of Journalists (CPJ) spoke out via Carlos Lauría, coordinator of The Committee For America, from its headquarters in New York, but nothing changed. Two reporters were finally released and Jorge Rabago Valdez, contributor for broadcasters Radio Rey and Reporteros en la Red, was found dead on the street showing obvious signs of torture. His buttocks and legs had been beaten using a flat board and he suffered burns and fractures that ultimately resulted in a cardiac arrest.
The two reporters that were freed did not want to file a complaint, so they left town and quit the profession. The relatives of the five that are still missing don’t want to make public statements either. For the authorities, only one case exists: that of Miguel Ángel Domínguez Zamora, of daily El Mañana, Reynosa, the only person that has been officially reported as missing. “The situation in Tamaulipas has reached the point that people have to resort to blogs and websites to find out what is happening and to denounce what they see because the conventional media, the established press no longer provides that service. We only report car accidents, burglaries or muggings if the drug cartels are not involved, because if we get the order not to publish a story on an accident then we simply don’t publish it,” says a photographer with 15 years in the business.
Safety is Worth More than the Truth
Vulnerability increases twofold when the company is small and journalists are well aware of this. When Televisa reports the harassment, disappearance or murder of one of its journalists, it’s not the same as when a local media company does it. The host of a radio news program gives an explanation: “Here, the managers themselves tell us to step aside and that we shouldn’t get into fights. We are told to leave the cartels alone, not to put ourselves, our families or co-workers in danger. Truth and ethics are put away for the time being because although we all appreciate those journalistic values, nobody wants to risk their physical integrity.”
The producer of the same news program agrees with his colleague’s remarks; “The situation is very difficult; nobody practices investigative journalism, reporters are tripping over themselves to report on car accidents and incidents that have nothing to do with the issue of organized crime, although they do have to consult the cartels sometimes and even make sure that none of their members are involved in the accidents. Some co-workers have been threatened, those less fortunate get beaten or detained for turning up at the scene of incidents or for taking photos, despite apparently having nothing to do with the drug traffickers,” said the producer.
In the development centers of the region; Ciudad Victoria, the sugarcane region based in Ciudad Mante and the oil region of Tampico-Madero-Altamira, the situation is exactly the same: journalists have their hands tied and do what they can to work without disturbing the war lords. “In August 2011, 20 inmates died in a pitched battle at Matamoros prison. In October of that year there were reports of shootings and pursuits in Nuevo Laredo and Reynosa that triggered public paranoia. We did not publish a single line out of fear, because the narco-traffickers gave orders through their spokesmen,” said a reporter from Matamoros.
Another clear example of the gag is the famous video of Ciudad Mier, recorded by a resident of the municipality located between Reynosa and Nuevo Laredo on the Ribereña highway, showing the ravages of a shooting that occurred in 2010: exteriors of businesses and houses covered with bullet holes, abandoned vehicles with bullets and traces of blood inside, and rifles shells strewn all over the streets. “That time everybody knew there was heavy shooting in Mier but nobody went there because reporters had orders to stay away. The woman that shot the video put it on YouTube and then from there it was taken by national television networks, that’s why people were able to see it,” a Reynosa reporter explained.
Another colleague from Tampico explained how at the newspaper where he works, several of his colleagues have defected from the police department or politics. Even one of the directors requested to be relocated from their hometown. “Things have gone so far here that one of these people (criminals) summon you to give you a load of pictures from a party and a sheet with the names of people invited for publication in the social section,” a local resident reported. Another journalist from Nuevo Laredo explained that “Due to the pressure journalists don’t even cover shootings. The situation of self-censorship is truly difficult. Then the problem comes of news that must be published such as the couple hanged on the pedestrian bridge or Mary’s decapitation (María Elizabeth Macías Castro).”
The situation is nothing new. Back in 2006 the criminals showed their muscle when in February of that year, they entered the editorial office of El Mañana in Nuevo Laredo, detonated a grenade and opened fire with a machine gun, injuring a police reporter, leaving him crippled and prompting six reporters to resign and the director to go into exile in the neighboring city of Laredo, Texas.
In Tamaulipas, the foundations of journalism have been changed radically by the de-facto power that is exercised by narco-traffickers. Nobody wants a scoop, let alone exclusive coverage, because that would mean attracting attention and becoming visible—the best way to avoid problems is to keep a low profile. That’s what María Elizabeth Macías Castro attempted to do, by using the pseudonym NenaDLaredo but it was of little help: she was tracked down and executed by Los Zetas. The portal was giving too much information to the military. If there was any doubt that the death of Castro Macías is abundant proof of the “law of silence” that reigns in Tamaulipas, the message that served as the epitaph of the perpetrators leaves things clear: “Ok, Nuevo Laredo Live and social networks. It’s me – Baby from Laredo and I’m here because of my reporting and yours…for those that don’t want to believe, this happened to me because of my actions, for trusting in SEDENA* and MARINA…Thanks for your attention Attn: the ‘baby’ from Laredo… ZZZZ.”
*SEDENA is an acronym for the Mexican Army.
Eric Muñiz can be reached at muniz.erick(at)gmail.com.