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Paul Tash

Mexico pays dear in drug war

MEXICO CITY

On the day I arrived here, as part of a group seeking greater protection for journalists and punishment for their killers, an editor in the provinces found a message outside his newspaper.

"You are next," said the note. It was attached to a severed human head.

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, Mexico has become the most dangerous country in the hemisphere for journalists — worse even than Colombia. The biggest reason is the drug trade, which passes through Mexico on its way to the United States. The gangs who control the business are ready to kill anybody who gets in the way. The violence recalls the gangland warfare in the United States during the days of Prohibition, except American mobsters typically considered journalists off-limits.

By CPJ's count, 21 journalists have been killed in Mexico since 2000, and another seven have gone missing during the last three years. In Tijuana, an editor was shot to death through the driver's window of his car, with his 11-year-old son and his 9-year-old daughter in the back seat. Four years later, no one has been charged in the murder.

To their credit, the Mexican authorities received our delegation at the highest levels and seemed to share our concerns. A meeting Monday included the president, the foreign minister, the interior minister and the attorney general. The president promised to push new laws that would give federal authorities power to prosecute crimes against journalists, typically left now to the states.

Still, President Felipe Calderon emphasized that crimes against journalists are only one front in a broader war between the drug syndicates and a society struggling to enforce its laws. As dangerous as it is to be a reporter in Mexico, it is even more risky to be a police officer. More than 300 have been murdered, the president said. One of the country's highest-ranking police officials was assassinated inside his own home.

"We have paid a very high price" in the drug war, Calderon told our group. "The greatest threat to freedom of expression is the same threat for the general population of Mexico — organized crime."

While Americans worry about drugs and migrants crossing north into the United States, the Mexican officials, including senior federal prosecutors, complained to our group about the "river of weapons" flowing in the other direction.

The drug cartels are shopping in the United States for firepower, including assault rifles, rocket-propelled grenades and even antitank missiles, said Calderon, often leaving Mexican police overmatched. If the United States wants to stem the drug trade, the Mexicans suggested, it could help turn down the trade in armaments.

From the relative safety of Tampa Bay, violence and anarchy in Mexico can seem quite distant, with the courage of some martyred journalists and police officers to be admired from afar. Except for this:

On the same day the Mexican editor found a human head outside his newspaper, a man in Tampa shot his estranged wife and two of her friends to death, and in St. Petersburg, a police officer fatally shot a 17-year-old boy who may have carried a pistol to a high school graduation party.

It would be noble for Americans to care about two Mexican children who will carry the memory of their father's assassination, and to calculate how their country's appetite for drugs and guns contributed to his murder.

But we need not look so far to find the warning signs of what happens when order starts to unravel, and when violence and weapons become ordinary facts of life.

Paul Tash is the editor and chairman of the St. Petersburg Times and a director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, a press freedom group based in New York.

Mexico pays dear in drug war 06/14/08 [Last modified: Monday, June 16, 2008 7:47pm]

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