By Al Giordano
Special to The Narco News Bulletin
MAY 6, 2000: The Mexican daily El Universal reported today that the radio journalist assassinated eight days ago near the US-Mexican border was, in fact, something more, and something less, than a journalist.
José Ramírez Puente, according to Mexico's largest national daily, worked for the federal Center of Investigation and National Security, a domestic intelligence agency dedicated to espionage within Mexico's borders.
The El Universal story, by correspondent Luis Carlos Cano, also reveals that Ramírez Puente's car, in which he was murdered by 35 knife wounds, did not belong to him, but rather to the federal espionage agency. Also found in the car with the body of Ramírez Puente, were a cell-phone belonging to CISEN, and eight kilos of marijuana in the trunk, of unknown origin.
International freedom of expression organizations rushed to condemn the assassination of Ramírez Puente. That they gave him the posthumous benefit of the doubt was a reasonable judgement call. His murder, coming days before the May 3rd International Press Freedom Day, became an instant cause celebre and most press reports presumed that he had been killed by drug traffickers for his journalistic work. Some organizations also correctly asked whether the marijuana was planted in his trunk to discredit the deceased: a common practice in real life and in Mario Puzo novels alike.
Yet now, that the assassinated "journalist" turns out to be a corrupted police spy, we ought to give equal force to condemning the attack on journalism that is corruption.
Not one report on the assassination mentioned anything about the radio personality's work that might have provoked his murder. Ramírez Puente enjoyed access to top government officials on his radio show. He was not known as an investigative journalist, nor did he have the reputation of a crusader against powerful interests. How did he live? Was his radio salary sufficient to afford that car? Mexican journalists are among the most underpaid in North America.
Ramírez Puente may have worked for a radio station, but he was not a journalist. He was cop, or an informant, posing as a journalist. He rubbed elbows with politicians and spied for a federal police agency.
The defense of journalists from attack and assassination is vitally important work. But journalists must also be defended from the killer named corruption. And that defense requires more action on the part of journalists and free expression organizations to expose the corrupt among the living.
We, the journalists, ought to be looking more closely at the members of our own profession. What kind of lifestyle do each of us lead? What kind of cars do we drive or property do we own? With whom do we socialize? What kind of work do we do? Do we expose powerful interests or defend them? We ask these questions every day of politicians. We demand full disclosure from everyone but ourselves. We don't ask uncomfortable questions of each other. Most journalists on a career track do not question each other. For journalism, no longer a calling, has become a club. The colleague you question today might be in the position to hire or fire you tomorrow. Cowardice has become a job prerequisite in too much of the media world. And it shows, painfully, in what passes as reporting in this era.
Meanwhile, those journalists who do show courage in their work are pretty much out there on their own. Rather than feeling the support of their colleagues, they more often suffer the slings and arrows of the less courageous, and they tend to be ignored. One of the most outrageous cases of press persecution in Mexico is the crusade by federal government and business interests against veteran newspaperman Mario Menéndez Rodríguez, editor and publisher of Mexico's third-largest daily, Por Esto!, based in Mérida. Not a single international free expression organization has reported on the long pattern of official harassment and federal persecution against him. This persecution came because he and the journalists of Por Esto! began to demonstrate three-and-a-half years ago, with photos and hard evidence, that the country's top banker - a man who hosted the Clinton-Zedillo "anti-drug" summit in 1999 - has run tons of cocaine through his beachfront properties near the Caribbean tourist mecca of Cancún.
The only US news outlets to cover his case so far, other than this correspondent's reports in the Boston Phoenix, have been an Associated Press story last September, and the Village Voice "Press Clips" column by Cynthia Cotts. In Mexico, the national media simply tries to ignore Menéndez. He makes them uncomfortable for his long history of reporting on the failures and untruths of other journalists. And, frankly, I see a lot of resentment, even envy -- the usual "confederacy of dunces" -- behind their disparaging of him. For four decades he has run circles around them with his hard-hitting journalistic reports, and then denounced those journalists who remained silent in the face of injustices. This dates from 1968, when Menéndez was the only Mexican journalist to publish photos and testimony of the massacre of students in Mexico City.
When I took on the Menéndez story a little over a year ago, the threat against me was not delivered by the narco, nor by anyone in government. The dark messenger was a powerful, prize-winning reporter, whom I did not know, but whom called me by telephone and made various threats of what he would do to discredit me if I published the story. I would like to mention his name here but to do so would distract from the higher purpose of this story, and probably assure that nobody beyond my own on-line newspaper would publish it. Once the Menéndez story was published in the Phoenix, I did send a memo to the newspaper of that "journalist" relaying my notes on his threatening phone call to me. There was no response. That esteemed institution didn't even bother to question me, to discern the accuracy or inaccuracy of my claims. And the "journalist" in question responded by calling my neighbor -- maybe he thought she lived with me -- and yelled at her. That "journalist" is still on the job. Impunity is not the sole realm of politicians. It runs amok in journalism as well.
That experience sensitized me to the question of corrupt journalists. I have begun to look more suspiciously at my colleagues, and to view what forces benefit from their reporting, along with keeping an eye on their economic status, on how they live. Yet law enforcement agencies need not always buy a reporter with money. There is an implicit racket of information: a reporter who looks the other way at the abuses of power is often rewarded with scoops and documents by those very same officials. He becomes their informational hit man against their enemies. And the authentic journalists among us thus work even harder, digging for facts, poking around where we are unwelcome, having signaled our non-cooperation with journalistic racketeering.
And so the still-developing case of Ramírez Puente offers journalists and free speech advocates a motive for reflection. The corruption of one journalist is a corruption of us all. It causes the public to distrust all of us. My sense is that it also places us all in more danger.
It seems to me that there is an institutional resistance to admitting that so many journalists are corrupted. When we speak of threats against journalists, we are all elevated in the public eye as perhaps more courageous than we are. But when we speak of corruption among journalists -- any reporter on a federal police payroll is as corrupt as one who works for organized crime; both types are despicable -- we are admitting the dirty little secret of our profession. And yet, unspoken, this secret festers and corrupts the industry more.
In Mexico, in particular, the pattern of attacks on journalists by government and criminals alike is very clear. The drug cartels tend to go after journalists whom they suspect, rightly or wrongly, of doing business with their competitors. A few years ago a photographer near the US border was assassinated by the narco. This, because he had tried to blackmail someone in organized crime with a photo he had taken.
Those narcos who do attack honest journalists are almost always those who enjoy special protection by authorities. The most famous case is that of Jesús Blancornelas and his assassinated colleage at the crusading Tijuana weekly Zeta. Every week, that newspaper runs an ad, seeking justice still. As the Committee to Protect Journalists observed, very shrewdly:
"Journalists who investigate high-level corruption often find that the government responds to their efforts with official statements that seemed to have been designed to undermine the credibility of their reporting and expose them to threats and intimidation. In June, for example, Mexican journalists reported on a U.S. intelligence report implicating PRI politician Carlos Hank González and his sons Carlos and Jorge Hank Rhon in a major cocaine-trafficking and money-laundering operation. Mexican officials immediately argued that the allegations were politically motivated and intended to embarrass the government of president Ernesto Zedillo.
The Hank family is already well known to the Mexican press. Jorge Hank Rhon was a prime suspect in the 1988 murder of Félix Miranda, a columnist for the Tijuana weekly Zeta. Every week since the murder, Zeta has run a full page with Miranda's picture and a caption reading, "Jorge Hank Rhon: Why did your bodyguard Antonio Vera Palestina kill me?"
For those unfamiliar with the details, Jorge Hank Rhon is a racetrack owner in Tijuana, and son of one of the most powerful politicians in the country, Carlos Hank González. Hank started out as a professor. He's now on the Forbes list of the wealthiest billionaires on earth. That Mexican officials defend him is no surprise. But he has even more powerful interests behind him: US Ambassador to Mexico Jeffrey Davidow, who has traveled with Hank in Costa Rica and been a guest at his mansion (according to the highly-respected International Drug Dispatch based in France), made a Nixonian attack on the Washington Post for publishing US intelligence documents about the Hank family's involvement in drug trafficking and drug money laundering. He called the report of June 2, 1999, "an old act of theater with the motive of soiling bi-national relations."
And just last month, US Attorney General Janet Reno wrote a letter to Hank's "narco-lobbyist" (to quote a term once used by US Senator Richard Shelby of Alabama), former US Senator Warren Rudman, to defend Hank from the accusations of her own law enforcement agencies. (The Federal Reserve Board, however, pushes on with its prosecution of the Hank family's ownership of the Laredo National Bank in Texas, which they charge was bought with laundered money.)
What justice will ever come for the assassinated Zeta colleague while even Washington continues to signal that the Hank family is untouchable: protected by the Potomac Cartel.
With this kind of behavior, the US Embassy and the US Department of Justice can only bring about more attacks on journalists by those who consider themselves immune to prosecution. The problem is obvious in Latin America, but it begins in Washington.
Likewise, one radio reporter in Juárez was corrupted. And as the story develops we will get a clearer picture of why he was killed. But it's not just Mexico or Latin America, nor is it only the press south of the border that often moonlights for cops and criminals alike. There is a systemic problem in journalism today that if journalists of conscience do not confront, more of us will be attacked, even killed, and slogans like "freedom of the press" will follow us to our graves.
Former Boston Phoenix political reporter Al Giordano is publisher of The Narco News Bulletin, reporting on the drug war from Latin America
To read a translation of the full El Universal story, or to link to the original in Spanish, click here.
Related Narco News stories on journalism and the drug war:
April 30: Translation as Censorship
LA Times story censored by "translation" in Mexican dailies
(This story was published in Spanish in the Mexican national newsweekly La Crisis)
May 8-13: The Narco-Media: Trouble at TV Azteca
Part I: TV reporter's "bodyguards" are fed agents spying on the opposition
Part II: Veteran Mexican journalist slams TV Azteca's lack of ethics
May 13: The Great Helicopter Robbery
Por Esto! of Mérida and La Prensa of Managua teamed up to expose the truth
(This, after most media repeated government lie that the Zapatistas stole the chopper)
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(With photo of US Dept. of Justice Letter that tried to silence the story)
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