The Media vs. the Drug Cartels

What the Mexican press can learn from the Colombian experience.

Mexican police investigate a homicide

On Sept. 18, shortly after a second journalist from its staff was murdered, the Diario de Ciudad Juárez published an open letter addressed directly to “various drug-dealing organizations.” Under the headline “What Do You Want From Us?” (¿Qué quieren de nosotros?), the paper’s editors asked the drug gangs for guidance on how they should cover illegal activity in their city. The letter was seen as a surrender to the criminals who have terrorized the border city.

The editorial reflects the powerlessness of a newspaper caught in the middle of a violent war between gangs of drug traffickers and a government that is unable to guarantee the safety of its citizens and that is ill-served by a state-level judicial system whose convoluted bureaucratic processes often result in impunity for the few criminals it manages to bring to trial.

Days before the story appeared, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton compared the current situation in Mexico with that of Colombia two decades earlier, during the worst of the war against the drug cartels. Although Secretary Clinton’s comments were later rejected by President Barack Obama, a growing number of analysts are comparing the two countries’ wars against organized crime in an attempt to apply the lessons of Colombia in Mexico, especially for the Mexican press.

More than 20 years ago, when the fight against the Colombian drug cartels was at its worst, the press did not back down; instead, it advocated for a harsher, more effective judicial process. This was not without sacrifice. In 1986, the Medellín cartel murdered Guillermo Cano, the editor-in-chief of El Espectador, one of Colombia’s most important publications at the time. Three years later, in 1989, they detonated a bomb that completely destroyed the newspaper’s facilities. In response, the Colombian media took a tougher position against terror. The day after Guillermo Cano was killed, El Espectador ran the headline “Seguiremos adelante.” (We will prevail.)

Dark days were still to come both for Colombia and its media. Between August 1989 and April 1990, the drug traffickers murdered three presidential candidates and bombed a commercial airliner with 107 people on board. (The narco-traffickers thought César Gaviria, a presidential candidate whose campaign eventually succeeded, was on the plane.)

In September 1990, in an attempt to pressure the government into suspending extraditions, drug lord Pablo Escobar kidnapped Francisco Santos, the editor of Colombia’s leading newspaper, El Tiempo (and, more recently, Colombia’s vice president during Álvaro Uribe’s administration of 2002-10),and Diana Turbay, another prestigious journalist and the daughter of former President Julio César Turbay. After Turbay was killed in crossfire between the armed forces and her captors during a rescue attempt, the media’s indignation was felt around the world, and Escobar was forced to release Santos in an act of “good faith.”

In 1994, journalists denounced the Cali cartel’s contribution of more than $6 million to Ernesto Samper’s presidential campaign. This led to a corruption investigation that concluded with several government officials, including the secretary of defense, serving time in jail. This exposé disrupted a “way of doing things” long established by corrupt politicians and their drug-dealing counterparts and brought about a more surreptitious relationship between the two factions. And, of course, the threats to journalists intensified to an even higher level. Still, the media did not give up.

Surprisingly, perhaps, the Colombian media’s worst losses did not come during the height of the Medellin and Cali cartels, but rather in the latter half of the 1990s, when the big cartels were in decline and the country’s paramilitary groups not only took control of the drug business but also infiltrated every level of the state. In a time when guerrilla groups were terrorizing landowners and rural communities through kidnappings and extortion, the paramilitaries positioned themselves as the most effective protection against them. By serving the interests of cattle ranchers and agricultural conglomerates, they won the favor of several governors and mayors—and the support of a large sector of the congress.

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, between 1997 and 2003, 51 journalists were murdered in Colombia. Of these 51 cases, 27 were judged to be related to the journalist’s professional activities. The most famous case was that of Jaime Garzón, a personal friend and a contributor to the magazine I edited, as well as Colombia’s most popular comedian. In response, Colombians took to the streets in outrage.

In November 1999, three months after Garzón’s murder, 32 media executives signed an agreement designed to improve the quality of press coverage of drug-related violence around the country. This attitude was fundamental in helping Colombia reach a consensus on the need to fight drug trafficking and criminal enterprise. There was never any doubt as to what had to be done on the part of the government, the media establishment (this is, the owners and editors of major magazines and newspapers, the most important columnists, and TV networks), or the private sector: Keep on condemning the wrongdoings of the drug traffickers, no matter how harsh the consequences.

The effectiveness of the international war on drugs is debatable. But that uncertainty has not prevented Colombian society from rejecting terror as a means of gaining power. The government must understand that when a member of the press is attacked, society at large is attacked; therefore, defending the media must be a priority. This means that the upmost diligence should be applied to all investigations, prosecutions, and the sentencing of the perpetrators in such cases. And, not only should the president allot as many resources as are necessary for the job, but the highest degree of his political will and accountability should be invested in the enterprise. Journalists, for their part, must remember that the power that comes with getting published and being heard is much more of a responsibility than a privilege.

Periods of crisis such as the ones experienced in Colombia—and now in Mexico—are not the time for doubt or division, but rather for the authorities, the media, and the private sector to join forces and work toward a better future. That should be the lesson of Colombia’s terrible recent history.

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