NOGALES, Mexico — Hiram Gonzalez stands on a quiet street in Nogales, Mexico. He’s watching two men peering through the bars of the border fence into the U.S. One is talking feverishly into a cellphone while the other scrambles up the 25-foot border wall in seconds. Both men are oblivious to a pair of reporters standing on the street just beneath them, watching, until the man on the cellphone turns around.
"Don't take photos!" he shouts, panicking.
Gonzalez calms him, "It’s just for radio.”
The men slouch down the street shooting glances back over their shoulders before disappearing into an alleyway. Gonzalez is amused; he stops to light a cigarette, juggling a cellphone in his free hand.
Just a pair of smuggler spotters, he says. These scenes aren’t new for Gonzalez. As a newspaper and television crime reporter, he’s covered gun battles live and seen government officials arrested for corruption. With them, always a lingering threat. It’s one that hangs over all of Mexico’s border reporters.
As Mexico's drug cartels fight for dominance, reporters have fallen victim to physical threats, even murder. Testifying last summer, a special prosecutor said 67 Mexican journalists were killed since 2006, making them among the most targeted reporters in the world. Another 14 disappeared. Under the new president, the attacks appear to have increased. They’ve even led to news blackouts along the border.
Last summer, Gonzalez accidentally drove into the aftermath of a gunfight. He was recognized; the gunmen assumed he was there to report.
"They called me at the office and said they were coming for me."
Then his home was broken into. Nothing was stolen. They left him a message.
“Reporter, you’re going to die,” it said, spelled out in hot sauce on the kitchen table.
The Committee to Protect Journalists has consistently named Mexico as one of the deadliest places in the world for reporters. Carlos Lauria runs the organization’s Latin America program.
"Many reporters and media are cowing to silence because they fear reprisal from organized crime and corrupt public officials," Lauria said.
In the last two months, a newspaper and a television station in Ciudad Juárez were attacked in drive-by shootings. A reporter in the border town of Ojinaga was gunned down. Then five employees of a Coahuila news agency were kidnapped. Threats were spelled out on banners along a highway. The news agency announced it will no longer cover organized crime. In Reynosa, a gunfight reportedly happened with as many as 30 dead. The only account was in a U.S. newspaper.
To the CPJ’s Lauria, the pattern is simple: Those trying to stop newsgathering, are winning.
“You have organized crime exerting control over large parts of the country without having to resort to lethal violence,” he said.
Emily Edmonds is a political science professor who works with the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Latin America office.
"How long can they keep it up? Very smart, very rational people are starting to turn away and say, journalism is not worth my life,” she said.
As for Gonzalez, well, he says he hasn’t given up yet.
He talks about his job while punching a number into a cellphone in one hand, holds a cigarette in the other and somehow still manages to navigate a sharp U-turn into oncoming traffic. With violent crime falling in Nogales, he’s turned to looking at drug smuggling, especially drug tunnels. But first, he wants to investigate who built a massive shrine in town to the icon of organized crime, Santa Muerte.
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