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Mexican Border Reporters Under New Stress In State Of Tamaulipas

Paco Rojas is a well-known journalist n Reynosa. He does not mention specific names of organized crime groups on-the-air. His news reports focus on the locations of alleged crimes to warn citizens to avoid a given area. (photo: Lorne Matalon)

REYNOSA, Mexico--Even by the normal insecurity that journalists face in Mexico, what is happening right now to reporters in the border state of Tamaulipas is unusually difficult. In late April, Mexican marines killed the leader of a major cartel in that state—setting off a wave of crime that reporters are struggling to chronicle without being targeted themselves. And the story matters to the U.S. because fight is in Reynosa, a city laden with assembly-line factories that provide the U.S. with items like furniture, electronics and computers. 

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2016 was one of the most deadly for Mexican reporters in recent history. Most press groups count at least nine killed, some as many 16. Reporters Without Borders  annual reportdocuments that Mexico was the third most dangerous country in the world for journalists after Syria and Afghanistan.

That said, what is happening right now to reporters in Reynosa, a city that borders Texas, is unusually difficult. In late April, Mexican marines killed the leader of a major organized crime group there setting off a wave of crime that reporters are struggling to chronicle without being threatened or killed.

Even before that take-down and its immediate aftermath, Reynosa had never been an easy place to be a journalist. The sprawling factory town sits across the Rio Grande from McAllen Texas. It has often been a staging ground for turf battles within organized crime where civilians become collateral damage and where journalists like Paco Rojas are often threatened.

"We are living in the middle of that war. It's like war out here,” said Rojas. He said the public wants to know what’s going on. In late April, Mexican marines killed Juan Loisa Salinas, local head of the Gulf Cartel. The same day the leader of the rival Zetas cartel in the state capital of Ciudad Victoria was killed in a similar shootout. In Reynosa, buildings were torched, cars were set on fire, rival factions within the Gulf Cartel fought it to out on the streets and told journalists to stay away from crimes scenes. At least 26 people have been killed in and around Reynosa. Since then.

“We are asking to the govt,' Hey come on! What's happening with you? Respond to this situation,” Rojas exclaimed.

Rojas said he is now taking self-censorship to new levels. Until recently he would at least hint at which group was allegedly involved in a crime, which unit of police or military were sent to investigate. The gov't of Tamaulipas has pledged to protect journalists but Rojas isn't waiting. He's using different routes and keeping his hands visible while out reporting. He explained that if his hands are visible, criminals are less likely to get suspicious.

In response to the situation that has unfolded in recent months, the state has closed or raided casinos and bars, places where organized crime launders cash. Rojas’ reporting walked a fine line on a story that is s clearly in the public's interest. The situation prompted the state's governor Francisco García Cabeza de Vaca to make a televised address.

“These are rough times,” he said in Spanish. The governor then castigated previous state administrations for not targeting illicit money.

"The governor, his strategy is to fight the income of the organized crime here, not only fighting with bullets," said Aldo Hernandez, a spokesman for the governor..

That brings little immediate comfort to a journalist such as Rojas.

"I get out the house in the morning. Please God let me return to my home. And so many people say the same thing,” said Rojas.

Upriver, in Ciudad Juárez, the newspaper El Norte was shut down after a 27 year run its owner, Oscar Cantú Murguía, concluded he could not deal with that kind of risk. The single word headline April 2 2017  was " Adios" explaining that the decision was the direct result of continuing threats and unpunished killings of journalists. In Reynosa, Paco Rojas said the situation for journalists has become markedly pronounced on the border since March when three journalists across Mexico were killed, including one who was a contributor to El Norte.That contributor was Miroslava Breach killed March 23 after receiving at least four shots to the head.

Carlos Morales is Marfa Public Radio's News Director.