Mexico Media Pact Marks PR Battle in Drug War

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After Mexico’s biggest media organizations agreed last week to follow guidelines for reporting on organized crime, InSight explores why the press has become a key battleground for how the country’s drug conflict plays out.

Signatories to the plan agreed to follow ten measures, including not publishing information that could jeopardize the security forces, and protecting journalists from violence.

But perhaps the most interesting point was a resolution not to report on “propaganda” from organized criminal groups.

According to the agreement, journalists should “Ignore and discard information given out by criminal groups for propaganda purposes,” and avoid turning criminals into heroes or victims, as this helps them build support with the population. The accord also asked the press to establish guidelines on publishing violent images, in order to avoid being used as “inadvertent spokespeople” by the cartels.

This is significant because it shows how far the Mexican press has been dragged into the conflict, not only as an observer of events but as a key weapon used by the criminal groups. The pact has come about because the country’s drug-trafficking organizations (DTOs) have in the last five years become increasingly sophisticated media operators, intent on manipulating public opinion in Mexico through widely disseminated propaganda campaigns.

This includes narco-banners hung around cities, narco-videos posted to the Internet, and even narco-flyers distributed on the streets or left beside the mutilated bodies of victims. The DTOs use these high-impact, often dramatic communication methods to threaten opponents, announce new policies, and, most importantly, to seek grassroots support.

A DTO that is capable of successfully manipulating its image may win the backing of the local population, gaining it the space needed to work, with less interference from the authorities. A case in point is the Familia Michoacana, which has promoted itself as a religious vigilante group working in the interests of the people of Michoacan state. Curiously, the bloodthirsty group has often claimed to be on the government’s side in the battle against other drug cartels such as the Zetas. It recently used narco-banners to rebrand itself as the “Knights Templar,” promising to keep order, prevent crime, and continue its “altruistic work.”

Part of this image-building strategy by Mexico’s cartels involves getting the media, via threats and bribery, to report on the conflict in the way the cartels want. The resulting intimidation and violence has seen 66 journalists murdered in Mexico in the five years until January, according to the Mexican National Commission on Human Rights (Comision Nacional de Derechos Humanos – CNDH).

Some reports warn that, as well as co-opting police officers, the cartels have journalists in their pay who inform them on what is happening within the newsrooms, and work to publicize stories the gangs want and suppress those they don’t.

There were also reports last year that newspapers in Ciudad Victoria, in the contested border state of Tamaulipas, are intimidated into regularly running stories based on press releases from the Zetas.

In September 2010, newspaper El Diario de Juarez made explicit the dilemma facing the media, with an editorial addressed to “the different organizations” battling for control of Ciudad Juarez. Under the headline “What do you want from us?,” the piece called on the cartels to make clear what the newspaper could do to avoid more deaths, after the murder of two of its employees.

Hillary Clinton was criticized from many sides, and particularly by the Mexican government, when she said last year that Mexican drug traffickers were morphing into an insurgency. But the importance of public image to these groups, and their efforts to control the media, suggest that their actions are taking on a more political slant. Even though the cartels lack ideological objectives, the need to control public discourse in order to get more power and space to operate drives them to pursue quasi-political goals.

The new agreement is an attempt by Mexico’s media establishment, backed by the government, to fight back against this by limiting coverage of the cartel’s communications.

In a move that foreshadowed the media agreement, earlier this month Juarez Mayor Hector Murguia Lardizabal asked news outlets not to report on narco-banners that threatened new security chief Julian Leyzaola Perez. According to the mayor’s arguments, the media shouldn’t give a forum to criminals seeking publicity, in order to “show once and for all that we are free of fear.”

Despite criticism following the announcement of the pact, with claims that the Mexican media are agreeing to self censorship, the new agreement will not stop news on the drug war from getting into the public domain. Mexico’s DTOs have made new media their own – distributing press releases to blogs, uploading “narco” ballads and posting videos on YouTube. Even if the traditional media take a step back, anonymous sites like Blog del Narco are moving in to supply raw coverage of every bloody twist and turn of the conflict, posting uncensored videos and photos of the violence and statements from the cartels.

The public relations battle could have longer lasting consequences for the media, though, even if it doesn’t stop Mexicans hearing the latest news from the frontlines of the conflict. The Senate is reportedly considering moving to make the agreement into law, making it a crime to break the guidelines on reporting on organized crime.

As the founders of Blog del Narco explain on the site, “The media and the government continue to say that nothing is happening in the country; we will continue with our work.”

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