Knight Center
Knight Center


Journalism in Times of Drugs: Under Threats, Violence and Censorship

Some of them live under threat, enduring forced silences via terror and daily shootouts in broad daylight. They have friends who have been kidnapped or killed. But they keep on, trying to figure out how to report. They are not war reporters, they don’t wear bullet-proof vests or helmets, nor are they in Iraq or Afghanistan. They are the ones who cover one of the most complex and dangerous stories in the world: the journalists reporting on drug trafficking and violence from the border between Mexico and the United States.

Twenty-six of these reporters, representatives of some of the main print media organizations of Mexico and the United States, participated March 26-27, 2010, in Austin in a Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas special seminar, the McCormick Foundation Specialized Reporting Institute: Cross-border Coverage of U.S.-Mexico Drug Trafficking. It was the first gathering of this kind with the most prominent journalists from both sides of the border who specialize in the coverage of the drug violence in Mexico.

It was not just any group: there were 14 U.S. journalists and twelve Mexican journalists, almost all veterans with more than 20 years of experience, true experts in the country and the border area, belonging to the most important media of both nations, and newspapers that are on the frontline on both sides of the border.

The meeting was attended by reporters from U.S. national newspapers like The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Washington Post, and Los Angeles Times;"Mexican media such as the magazine Proceso and the newspaper El Universal; and major newspapers on both sides of the border like the Houston Chronicle, Dallas Morning News, San Diego Union Tribune, San Antonio Express News, Diario and El Norte of Juarez, El Siglo of Torreón, El Mañana of Nuevo Laredo, and El Imparcial of Hermosilla, among others; and Belo TV (a chain of 20 television stations in Texas). Experts in security and organized crime, human rights, trauma and journalism, drug issues, and drug trafficking, and specialists from the University of Texas at Austin and El Paso, San Diego State University, and the Inter American Press Association participated in the seminar together with the journalists.

"I have lived very ugly things, but here I am. I have survived," said Luis Gerardo Andrade of “Border” in Tijuana, south of San Diego, during the conference.

"Often you feel like you are chasing ghosts. How much of all this is true?" asked William Booth, the Washington Post correspondent in Mexico City. Booth and other journalists talked about the hardship of covering a conflict where there is no access to the parties involved, therefore it is not possible to confirm if the sources are telling the truth or just spreading desinformation.

In the two-day seminar, the special conditions faced by journalists covering the issue of drugs at the border between Mexico and the United States was analyzed. An extremely difficult subject, not only by the constant exposure to violence and trauma that this can create, but by its very character, involving nearly a century of history of drug trafficking in the two nations and the current foreign policy toward immigration, the war against terrorism and the growing debate over the minimal results of the current drug policy.

They talked about the unusual protective measures to be taken by reporters -- not only Mexicans but also those from the United States, who also are affected by the climate of terror imposed by the traffickers --, the difficulties of access to official sources on both sides of the border, the danger and the difficulties to be overcome to get drug informants, and the constant struggle to cover in all its richness a subject dominated by platitudes and simplifications of the "war on drugs."

The feeling of helplessness and disinformation was expressed by Alfredo Quijano, a reporter for the newspaper “El Norte” in Ciudad Juarez, south of El Paso. Juarez has become one of the most violent cities in the world, with nearly 5,000 killed in the past three years because of the wave of drug-related violence. "Every day there is shooting, dead people. We do not know who fired at whom, who is disputing what. It is a city in chaos and in that city have to do journalism," Quijano said.

For the facilitator of the event, Colombian journalist and teacher at the United Nations-affiliated University for Peace Alvaro Sierra, one of the major themes of the meeting was to discuss to what extent the coverage is dominated by the body count from violence and the challenge to inform in a situation in which violence becomes routine and runs the risk of being trivialized. "It's almost inevitable that the repetition of these events generates a routine and a certain social insensitivity against crime. The first time three people are killed together is big news, sustained for several days. The tenth time will be on inside pages, for a day, and for the hundredth time, the decision may be that fewer than five people no longer qualify as news. How can you fight this, which does great harm to society?"

That routine also affects journalistic victims. Knight Center director Rosental Calmon Alves emphasized not to let pass the murders of journalists in Mexico at the hands of traffickers. In 2009 there were twelve murders of reporters, and four others have been killed so far this year. "We can not lose our outrage at the number of journalists being killed in Mexico so that the perpetrators do not feel that there are no consequences and that they can go unpunished."

The murders of journalists are the tip of the iceberg of violence and pressure against these professionals. "For every murder there are a hundred threats," said a journalist from northern Mexico.

Among the invited experts were Frank Smyth (Committee to Protect Journalists), Donna De Cesare (Dart Trauma Center and University of Texas at Austin), Fred Burton (Stratfor Global Intelligence), Alberto Islands (Risk Evaluation, LTD), Howard B. Campbell (University of Texas at El Paso) and Emma Daly (Human Rights Watch).

The journalists made a critical review of media coverage about drugs and the challenge of avoiding simplifications common in this area. One is the focus exclusively on the criminal side and the victim count in the information, without giving sufficient weight to the social and economic environment, the situation of communities, the issue of consumption and other key areas for the public to have an adequate understanding the phenomenon of illegal drugs.

However, it was found that on both sides of the border there is a large effort to generate quality coverage. Despite the cuts in newsrooms and foreign bureaus, U.S. journalists agreed that the coverage about Mexico in the United States is "top notch," as said Sam Quinones of “The Los Angeles Times,” and Mexico is one of the best-covered countries in the world for the public of the north. Meanwhile, south of the Rio Grande an investigative effort is visible, and, above all, a commitment -- heroic in many cases -- to keep the information flowing.

One much-discussed topic was the clichés that attribute the problem to the neighboring country. In the case of Mexico, simply blaming the United States for drug use and the transfer of arms, without seeing what the country is doing to address these issues, leads to blaming the "gringos." Something similar happens in Washington, accusing the Mexicans of corruption and inefficiency, as if the drug traffic problem depended on it. This leads to the creation of stereotypes about cities or entire countries. One example is Ciudad Juarez, often portrayed as a melting pot of violence, where drugs are king, without further reference to the profound social and economic problems that drag.

The reporters agreed to keep in touch, strengthen the ties of solidarity among themselves and explore new publishing platforms and forms of "creative journalism" to avoid information blackouts as have happened in some towns and cities on the border when the threats are such that no one can publish anything without risking their lives.

Mexico, especially its northern border, has become one of the world's most dangerous places to practice journalism, not only for Mexicans but also for foreign correspondents. The drug traffickers try anything to avoid the coverage of them or the "totalitarian regime," as Sierra called it, which impose on society --and the press -- in their areas of influence. To issue an alarm about the problem and the urgent need to deal with practical measures was one of the main outcomes of this meeting of senior Mexican and U.S. journalists specializing in coverage of Mexico and the issue of drug trafficking.

About the McCormick Foundation:
The McCormick Foundation is committed to strengthening our free, democratic society by investing in children, communities and country. Through its grantmaking programs, Cantigny Park and Golf, museums, and civic outreach programs, the Foundation helps build a more active and engaged citizenry. It was established as a charitable trust in 1955, upon the death of Colonel Robert R. McCormick, the longtime editor and publisher of the Chicago Tribune. The McCormick Foundation is one of the nation’s largest charities, with more than $1 billion in assets. For more information visit

About the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas:
The Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas at the University of Texas at Austin was launched in 2002 by professor Rosental Calmon Alves. Thanks to generous grants from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the center has assisted thousands of journalists in Latin America and the Caribbean. For more information, contact the Knight Center’s program manager, Jennifer Potter-Miller at jpotterandreu at or +1 512 471-1391.

By Monica Medel



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