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Mexico: Editorial to Cartels Spurs Nat'l Debate

A newspaper's stunning, front-page editorial of seeming surrender to drug capos has set off a national debate from the presidential palace to Mexico's equivalent of the water cooler - its ubiquitous town squares.

"What do you want from us?" El Diario de Juarez asked the cartels whose war for control of the border city across from El Paso, Texas, has killed nearly 5,000 people - including two El Diario journalists - in less than two years. "You are currently the de facto authorities in this city ... Tell us what you expect from us as a newspaper?"

For many Mexicans, it was a voice that finally exposed in a very public and unusual way the intimidation felt across the country.

"We weren't speaking directly to (drug gangs). It was an open message," El Diario director Pedro Torres said in one of dozens of interviews since the editorial appeared Sunday. "We wanted to provoke a reaction that would call attention to what's happening in Juarez, and in the end, I think we met our objective."

The editorial dominated headlines and talk shows for two days, and Torres said he received calls from as far as Russia and Japan. (Scroll down to see the editorial.)

It also brought a volley of accusations of collusion and incompetence between government and media, whose adversarial relationship is still evolving a decade after the end of tight controls under Mexico's single-party rule.

The government implicitly criticized the editorial, saying no sector of society should negotiate with criminals.

"In no way should anyone promote a truce or negotiate with criminals who are precisely the ones causing anxiety for the public, kidnapping, extorting and killing," said Alejandro Poire, security spokesman for President Felipe Calderon. "All sectors of society should fight them and bring them down in a definitive way."

The editorial exposed the dissonance between Mexicans who must deal with violence daily and those who live in quieter parts of the country for whom little has changed since President Felipe Calderon launched an offensive against the cartels in late 2006.

"There are many parts of the republic that don't want to understand that things have changed a lot for some people ... into a state where they've lost control," said Jose Carreno Carlon, a journalist and professor who headed media relations for former President Carlos Salinas de Gortari. "There are cases of journalists who are pressured by criminals - who have to consider that in their work, who have to address the de facto authorities every day."

The editorial could be a turning point for Mexicans, pushing them to recognize the corrupting forces on freedom of expression in a country considered the most dangerous in the Americas for journalists, according to the U.N. and the Organization of American states.

El Diario captured a feeling of helplessness that resonates nationwide, said newspaper editor Jose Martin Mayoral Lozano, who has limited coverage of organized crime since his car was torched in 2005 as a threat.

"This is something unusual," he said. "I see it as a call to the people, a call to awaken society to what's happening in our country."

With last week's killing of El Diario photographer Luis Carlos Santiago, 21, a total of 65 news workers have been slain since 2000, Mexico's National Commission on Human Rights has said.

They include Armando Rodriguez, El Diario crime reporter who was gunned down in 2008 as he was taking his daughters to school. The federal investigator in the case also was assassinated and there are no leads.

Calderon met with international press groups Wednesday, saying he would push legal reforms to protect journalists and create a security plan in the wake of a report from the Committee to Protect Journalists, which outlines widespread impunity for attacks on reporters in Mexico.

Under the plan, patterned after one in Colombia, the government would provide protections for journalists facing threats, including security or relocation to a safe haven, said Joel Simon, CPJ executive director. The plan could be rolled out as early as next month.

Calderon's government rankled press groups with its reaction to Santiago's killing. It condemned the attack, but accepted the Chihuahua state prosecutor's theory that the photographer was killed for personal reasons - not for his work.

"The authorities have to be very careful not to disqualify or say immediately that a killing didn't have to do with the journalist's work," said Gonzalo Marroquin, vice president of the Inter American Press Association, who met with Calderon. "It could be an easy exit to avoid the problem."

Mexican journalists blame the government as much as the cartels for the intimidation they face.

Jorge Luis Aguirre, 52, a journalist in Ciudad Juarez who was granted U.S. asylum days before Santiago was killed, testified before U.S. Congress that he was threatened by a Chihuahua state official.

Television cameraman Alejandro Hernandez also is seeking U.S. asylum after being kidnapped in July, presumably by the Sinaloa drug cartel. His lawyer says he fears both the cartels and the government.

But Mexican journalists also shoulder some blame.

Though press independence has increased in Mexico, corruption reigns, particularly in smaller media markets. Salaries are low, leaving reporters vulnerable to bribes. Government advertising remains a major source of funding - influence - for many publications.

"Criminals routinely bribe them to act as cartel publicists or to buy their silence," according to the CPJ report.

But that, too, could be changing, said Carlo Lugos Galera, a political science professor at Mexico's Iberoamerican University.

"The editorial is a wake-up call to society to be more demanding of the media ... more demanding for reliable information," he said.

(El Diario)

The headline in Sunday's El Diario newspapers says "Reporters Feel Threatened by Manta"; "Manta" is a slang word for signs that narco traffickers post in city squares giving orders to local police or city officials. A black ribbon in the upper right of the newspaper front page commemorates the latest journalist to be murdered, Luis Carlos Santiago, 21, who was attacked by gunman while leaving the newspaper offices to go to lunch.
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