A brutal drug war has erupted right next door in Mexico.
We don't hear a lot about it, which is perhaps understandable given the nation's continued preoccupation with Iraq and Afghanistan. But there are good reasons why we should care about a conflict that has claimed 3,700 lives in 2008.
The recent kidnapping of a 6-year-old boy in Las Vegas, Cole Puffinburger, is a sign of the spillover effects of the drug war. Police say it was the work of gunmen working for a Mexican drug cartel. The American consulate in Monterrey was attacked this month by a gunman who fired shots at the building, and another man who lobbed a grenade.
As a sign of mounting U.S. concern, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice traveled to Mexico last week for talks about improving cooperation with a key trading partner.
"Mexico faces unprecedented difficulties in terms of crime and links between crime and drugs ... that have significant implications for the United States as well," Rice said.
The drug war also threatens Mexico's fledgling democracy, much like Colombia in the 1980s.
In late 2006, Mexico President Felipe Calderon sent 25,000 soldiers and federal police to combat the cartels. The military campaign only intensified the bloodletting.A recent opinion poll found that 56 percent of Mexicans believe the cartels are more powerful than the government.
U.S. officials recognize that this country shares some of the responsibility for the drug violence, due to the demand for illegal narcotics as well as the smuggling of guns from the United States to drug gangs in Mexico.
Congress in June approved the Merida Initiative, a $1.4-billion counter-narcotics program to assist Mexico over the next five years. The money can't arrive fast enough, say Mexican officials.
That sense of urgency is not shared by the U.S. media.
"The U.S. press has an obligation here," Lee Bollinger, president of Columbia University, told a conference organized recently by Columbia University School of Journalism. "I call on the U.S. media to step up to its obligation to cover this story with at least as much interest and depth as it covers violence in Iraq or Afghanistan."
Meanwhile, Mexico has become the most dangerous place for journalists in this hemisphere, the conference heard. Reporters routinely take their bylines off stories about the drug business. Some stories simply aren't covered at all. Those who are brave enough to risk reporting often suffer dire consequences, are savagely beaten, and even murdered.
One prominent newspaper owner, Alejandro Junco of Reforma, Mexico's largest daily, said he had recently been obliged to send his entire family to the United States for safety.
He described how two reporters from his paper quit after they were attacked by armed men while investigating a drug-related story. They were beaten and left with broken eardrums, collar bones and ribs.
"The more we go after them the harder they push back. Life is cheap," Junco said.
Another editor, Alberto Quijano of El Norte in the border city of Ciudad Juarez, across the river from El Paso, Texas, said he disconnected his home telephone in order to protect his family from repeated death threats.
Almost half the 75 Mexican journalists murdered or disappeared over the last two decades were killed since 2004. Mexico ranks 10th in the world "impunity index," with barely 1 percent of violent crimes successfully prosecuted. The conviction rate for cases involving journalists is higher, but still just14 percent.
A Special Prosecutor for Crimes against Journalists was appointed, but critics point out the prosecutor has no powers of investigation and cannot file charges.
"If you can run drugs without fear of being caught," Junco says, "then you can also kidnap, extort, rape and kill, and disregard any law that impedes you - all with impunity."
Junco refuses to give in. "It is our resolve to speak out," he said.
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Vicente Borquez, Diario del Yaqui correspondent and reporter for local radio station Grupo Formula, was at home with his wife and two children at around 6:30 a.m. on Oct 16 when unidentified assailants fired R-15 and AK-47 rifles at the building. The family was unharmed. Nogales, across the border from Arizona, is the city with the highest level of drug-related violence in Mexico.
Alejandro Fonseca Estrada was killed on Sept. 23 in Tabasco. Fonseca, host of a morning talk show on the local radio station EXA FM, was hanging anticrime posters on a major street in Villahermosa, capital of the Gulf Coast state of Tabasco, when he was approached by four unidentified men armed with AR-15 rifles, witnesses told local police and reporters. One of the posters read, "No to Kidnappings." Witnesses said the assailants berated Fonseca for the posters and then shot him at close range.
On Oct. 10 Angel Villagomez, editor and founder of the local daily La Noticia de Michoacan, went missing in Lázaro Cardenas, a port city on the southern Pacific coast, after leaving his office to drop two colleagues off at their homes. State police found the journalist's bruised and bullet-riddled body the following morning in a garbage dump near a coastal highway.
Source: Committee to Protect Journalists