When the hitman came for Armando Rodríguez, he was standing with his 8-year-old daughter in front of his house in Ciudad Juárez. The 40-year-old newspaper reporter took 10 bullets and died at the scene.
Covering crime in Mexico, especially along the border, means covering the cartels, and it's a job that everyone in Mexico knows can have fatal consequences. Although he was known as a tough reporter, Rodríguez wasn't foolhardy. He had recently taken refuge for several months across the border in El Paso, Texas, after receiving telephoned threats.
"Perhaps it was not even personal," Jesús Meza, president of the Association of Journalists in Ciudad Juárez, told The Washington Post. "Maybe it wasn't anything he wrote. He was a prominent journalist. He was known. So he was killed as a symbol. He was killed to create panic and paranoia. This is a technique of terrorism. They want everyone to be afraid, because that will destabilize the society."
Indeed, a few weeks before Rodríguez's murder, all Juárez journalists got what could only be seen as an explicit threat. After the decapitated torso of a drug trafficker was found hanging from a bridge, his head appeared at the base of a statue of a newsboy at the center of the city's Plaza of Journalists.
Journalist Jesús Blancornelas survived an assassination attempt. (AFP/Getty Images/Omar Torres)
But even before the cartel threat loomed as large, journalists found themselves in the crosshairs. In 1997, Jesús Blancornelas survived an assassination attempt after the magazine he founded in Tijuana, Zeta, published an article about the powerful Tijuana-based Arellano Félix cartel.
Blancornelas spent the rest of his life under armed guard before dying of natural causes in 2006. But the magazine's co-founder and a writer were assassinated in 1998 and 2004.
Clearly, the international attention that Blancornelas drew to threats against journalists in Mexico hadn't kept the other reporters safe. Since 2000, in fact, 24 Mexican reporters have been killed, at least seven in direct reprisal for their work, according to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists. And seven others have disappeared since 2005, all in areas heavily affected by drug violence. (A Mexican organization, Article 19, gives slightly different figures: 28 journalists killed since 2000 and eight others disappeared and assumed dead).
For years, many Mexican publications, especially those near the border, have adopted protective measures. Stories involving drug trafficking carry no bylines. And some newspapers — now including Rodríguez's — won't even publish anything at all on the subject beyond the bare facts of a killing or an arrest. Many reporters have given up the profession.
Other publications vow to keep going. But it's not an easy decision. Alejandro Junco de la Vega, publisher of Grupo Reforma — Mexico's most influential newspaper chain — wrote to the governor of Nuevo León state about what happened when a reporter and photographer visited a tire repair shop near Monterrey that had been forced to pay protection money.
"They hadn't been there 10 minutes when several bulletproof vehicles pulled up and blocked the way out," Junco de la Vega wrote. "The journalists were thrown to the ground and their computers, cameras, phones and IDs were seized. Then they were severely beaten. Both have resigned their jobs, saying it wasn't the first attack."
And Junco de la Vega himself was forced into hiding. "This year . . . I have been obliged to move with my family to a secure location in the United States," he told the Columbia School of Journalism in New York City in October during a one-day session on the perils Mexican journalists face. "We are under siege from the drug capos, from the criminals. And the more we expose their activities, the more strongly they respond. Life is cheap."
As in Junco de la Vega's case, the perils are simply too great. At least two other Juárez reporters fled to the United States following Rodríguez's assassination.