Rivalry among Criminal Organizations Is One of the Most Serious Threats to Free Press in Mexico

The Islamic State (ISIS) beheading of US journalist James Foley, the assassination of eight Charlie Hebdo French cartoonists at the hands of Al-Qaeda, and the torture and murder of the Mexican photographer Rubén Espinosa are just a few examples of the more than 1,100 journalists killed worldwide since 1992 in reprisal for their work. Over the years, what have we learned about the causes of these horrifying slaughters? How can this knowledge help us to protect the lives of journalists?

These are precisely the issues addressed by Bradley Holland and Viridiana Ríos in their new study on the relationship between criminal rivalry and violence against the press in Mexico. They offer an evidence-based hypothesis on the effects of having criminal groups competing to control drug markets. In the study, they examine records from the Mexican Ministry of the Interior on journalist assassinations between 2007 and 2010, along with data on areas of criminal rivalry in Mexico.

Contrary to popular belief, the authors claim that the mere presence of powerful and profitable criminal organizations (COs) is not enough to increase acts of violence against journalists. Rather, it is rivalry among such organizations that increases the likelihood of violence against members of the press by up to 23 percent, after controlling for poverty, population size, and inequality levels within each municipality. Holland and Ríos describe a game of conflicted and collaborative interests to explain these results.

The study assumes that the relationship between COs and journalists can be mutually beneficial. This assumption may seem counterintuitive at first. However, the press views COs as sources of information—it wants to write stories about these criminal organizations and share information with the public. On the other hand, COs leak information to journalists when it is convenient for them, or work with members of the press to improve their reputations. For example, in 2014, a leaked video revealed footage of a Mexican reporter accepting money from one of Mexico’s most wanted drug lords at the time, Servando Gómez Martínez. Gómez was bribing the reporter to improve the image of his cartel, the Knights Templar, in the media. This is one instance showing how the press can help improve public perception of criminal organizations.

However, criminal organizations also prevent journalists from publishing information that goes against their interests, and sometimes resort to killing journalists to prevent the dissemination of such information. A clear example of the intimidating effect such violence can have on the press is an editorial published by the newspaper El Diario after two of its journalists were murdered. Entitled ‘‘What Do You Want from Us?,’’ the newspaper asked the drug cartels if they could tell its journalists what they were permitted to publish or not publish so they knew what to abide by and could prevent more killings.

In the context of particular geographical areas, the nature of the relationship between cartels and the media depends on whether a CO has a monopoly over the local drug market. To demonstrate this argument, the study’s authors compare the cases of two towns in Oaxaca, Santiago Amoltepec and San Jacinto Tlacotepec, with two other Mexican municipalities, Juárez and El Oro. While all four municipalities exhibit high homicide rates, journalists have mostly been victimized in the latter two locations, Juárez and El Oro. Under Holland and Ríos’ hypothesis, this difference is explained by the fact that COs in Juárez and El Oro are more competitive over drug markets than similar COs in the Oaxacan cities. However, in Santiago Amoltepec and San Jacinto Tlacotepec, a few COs have unchallenged control of the local drug market, creating a more monopolistic environment and reduced competition.

When COs have undisputed control of a drug market, as in Santiago Amoltepec and San Jacinto Tlacotepec, they prefer nonviolent interactions with journalists. Members of COs may utilize a mix of bribes and threats when needed but generally avoid drawing too much attention to their covert operations.

Conversely, in competitive scenarios, COs are more willing to use violence against journalists, as frequently as they would any other available coercive tactic, in an effort to weaken their rivals. If killing a member of the press seems necessary to increase a cartel’s share of the drug market, the cartel will do it. Similarly, the CO will leak information to the press about a rival organization if it will cause the adversary CO to fail.

The Holland and Ríos study explores a new way of perceiving violence against the press in Mexico. Although related literature has explored the means by which armed organizations control the dissemination of information, this is the first study to identify criminal rivalry as a significant driver of violence against journalists in different regions of Mexico.

However, the importance of these findings need not necessarily be confined to the Mexican context. Our attempts to understand and prevent violence towards journalists in other scenarios (such as the actions of Al-Qaeda in France, or the assassination of the Colombian journalist Jaime Garzón) should take into account that COs might attack the press to make strategic gains related to either warfare or marketing. Likewise, policymakers should understand that even official efforts to control drug markets might increase rivalry between COs, and thus unintentionally create a higher risk for journalists.

Article Source: Bradley E. Holland and Viridiana Ríos, “Informally Governing Information: How Criminal Rivalry Leads to Violence against the Press in Mexico,” Journal of Conflict Resolution. Accessed November 5, 2015, doi: 10.1177/0022002715600756.

Feature Photo: cc/(HonestReporting)

Carolina Bernal
Carolina ('17) is a staff writer for Law & Politics. She is interested in criminal policy, conflict resolution and program evaluation.

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