Attacks on the media in Mexico usually come in the most brutal forms — kidnappings, assassinations, and blackmail.
But a sneakier, more subtle way of attacking the freedom of press has recently emerged in sunny Cancun — and it's surprisingly effective.
Behold, the art of media cloning.
Cloning happens when a fake version of a newspaper or a magazine is distributed online or in print, with the aim of confusing readers, hampering newsstand sales, and undermining the information that appears in the real publication.
In the picture above, the front page of Luces, an investigative journalism magazine based in Cancun, has been copied, only the headline to the main article has been switched.
The real version of the magazine (on the left) reports that the security policies of Governor Roberto Borge have led to a series of human-rights violations in the state of Quintana Roo, home to Cancun. The “cloned” version, however, praises Borge for getting tough on crime and implementing strategies that “no governor in the history” of the state has tried before.
In another recently cloned edition of Luces the original version of the magazine criticizes Borge's record on women's rights, while the cloned version, which otherwise appears identical, hails the governor for “backing” women's rights.
Norma Madero, owner of Luces magazine, says the front page of her magazine has been cloned 46 times since 2012. On six of these occasions the whole print version of the magazine was cloned and filled with fake headlines and articles that favored local politicians. The pirate copies were distributed by the thousands in convenience stores and news kiosks throughout Cancun, she said.
The cloned copies, along with a mysterious decision by a popular chain of convenience stores to no longer sell the magazine, eventually succeeded in driving the real Luces off newsstands.
“We stopped circulating in print six weeks ago, after being in the market for 11 years,” Madero told Fusion in a phone interview. “Why print the magazine if [copycats] are going to take it off newsstands and replace it with their pirate version.”
Luces continues to publish a weekly digital edition, but has not been able to stop the clonners. The PDF of the front-page has been cloned 40 times, and then gets circulated online by government boosters, Madero says.
“There are officials of the state government who share the pirated version on their social media accounts,” Madero said.
Madero has been asking Mexican prosecutors to launch an investigation into the cloning since 2012. Earlier this month, a federal judge finally agreed to launch a probe and summoned officials of the Quintana Roo state government to appear in a court for a hearing later this week.
Madero believes that the governor’s staff is directly behind the cloning of her magazine, because the fake issues tend to appear when she publishes articles critical of his administration and use of public funds. She says that the cloning attacks begun shortly after Roberto Borge took over as governor of Quintana Roo in 2012.
Here’s how edition #546 of Luces, which features governor Borge, was cloned:
Government denies accusations
In a press release issued last week, the government of Quintana Roo said that it has nothing to do with these cloning attacks. The governor's office says the accusations of cloning are “baseless and lack proof.”
The state government’s spokesman did not reply to Fusion's requests for additional comment.
But Secretary of the Interior Gabriel Mendicuti, a close aide to Borge, thinks the accusations of cloning are part of a politically motivated attempt by journalists to help left-wing politicians win local elections next July.
“They are trying to smear the current administration by pretending that they are victims and making up attacks against freedom of speech, but we guarantee that right to all the residents of this state” Mendicuti said in a story posted on the state government’s official website.
Luces is not the only media outlet facing problems with freedom of expression in Cancun. In September, Article 19, an NGO that tracks attacks against journalists in Mexico, issued a report called “Borge’s army against the free press” which details dozens of attacks committed against journalists in the state of Quintana Roo.
Article 19 accuses the state government of smearing critical journalists through social media campaigns supported by thousands of fake Twitter accounts, which are also used to pad Borge's online following and give echo to his claims against journalists on Twitter.
Manuel Rueda is a correspondent for Fusion, covering Mexico and South America. He travels from donkey festivals, to salsa clubs to steamy places with cartel activity.