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Danger in Mexico for reporters

May 17, 2013 - By Tim Johnson, McClatchy Newspapers

ACAPULCO, Mexico -- It is a sultry morning in this crime-ridden resort, and little movement occurs at the main police headquarters. Francisco Robles, a freelance news photographer, glances down at an incoming text message on his phone.

"Four dead. Let's go," he says, heading for the door as the words trail from his mouth.

Chasing after is Carlos Alberto Carbajal, a photographer for El Sur, one of this city's daily newspapers. They jog four blocks to a main artery and hail a rickety VW Beetle painted as a cab. Destination: A sun-parched dry riverbed on Acapulco's far outskirts where several men have been executed in broad daylight.

An ambulance's lights still flash as the two photographers arrive. Dozens of federal police mill about. Crime scene investigators already have placed yellow tape around the thatched-roof, open-air hut where the bodies lie. Shells from a 9mm and a .38 Super are scattered about. A fifth body lies not far away.

The two begin snapping photos.

The sun is directly overhead, but the work is dangerous. Journalists covering the crime beat intersect with corrupt cops, arrive at crime scenes where mobsters linger, and are often targets of recruitment by criminal organizations eager to have informants in the newsroom. Even if they begin the beat as straight arrows, they get twisted and pulled in multiple directions. And they can be murdered because they know too much.

Mexico is easily the most dangerous place in the Western Hemisphere for reporters to ply their trade. Dozens of journalists have been killed or disappeared. Nearly every month, a newspaper or a radio or TV station is firebombed, attacked with explosives or raked with gunfire, targeted by the country's rising criminal gangs who use violence to discourage reporting the gangsters don't like.

That's particularly true for reporters and photographers on the crime beat, who are killed with greater frequency in Mexico than any other kind of journalist. In a perilous profession, it is the most hazardous job.

That's why back in the El Sur newsroom, Aurora Harrison offers some unsolicited advice for anyone covering crime for a Mexican media organization.

"There are some facts that you should leave out of stories," said Harrison, a reporter who survived multiple threats while covering the beat for two years.

Here's some other advice: Don't ask too many questions. Don't linger at crime scenes. Don't give out your cellphone number. Travel in groups. Never climb in a vehicle with police in it because gangsters may spray it with gunfire. Get off the beat quickly.

In parts of Mexico where organized crime has penetrated deeply, a crime beat reporter or photographer can find himself working closely with the gangsters, many of whom want journalists to write stories and take photos when the group executes its rivals.

So they tip off reporters as massacres occur or as corpses swing from highway overpasses. The tips come fast, and for journalists earning money by the story or the photo, it's hard not to collaborate. But the gangsters want more -- far more -- than publicity. They also want to make sure some news doesn't make the papers and newscasts.

When gangsters approach a journalist, refusal is not really an option.

"If you say no, 'Here's a picture of your wife and your children. You know what to expect.' What do you do?" said Rodrigo Bonilla Hastings of the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers, a Paris-based organization that represents 18,000 publications worldwide.

Journalists in crime-ridden areas of Mexico say it's common when a new gang moves into an area for henchmen to order journalists to attend a meeting. They then issue marching orders.

"They establish one of them as the contact. And they say, now this person is going to tell you what you can and what you can't publish. This person has to fulfill the orders," said Marcela Turati, who covers organized crime and its social consequences for a national newsweekly, Proceso.

With monthly salaries as low as $400, crime beat reporters can become easy targets for mobsters. Many pass on messages from organized crime to senior editors.

"The police reporters were the ones who began to tell us what we couldn't publish," said a former editor of a major newspaper in Tamaulipas state, bordering Texas, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear that gangs might gun him down.

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