A new video showing two influential Mexican reporters taking wads of cash from a notorious drug lord suggests the long tendrils of cartel influence have established a grip in the country's journalism industry, as has been rumored for years.
The video, which was published yesterday by Mexican news site MVS, shows two reporters from Mexico’s troubled Michoacan state appearing to accept money from one of the country’s most wanted drug lords, Servando Gomez, leader of the Knights Templar Cartel. The men then discuss a “communication strategy” to improve the cartel's image and are heard asking for trucks and cameras.
The handoff occurs at the: 22:56 mark
Cartels have long intimidated Mexican journalists, and even killed reporters who ignored their threats. This video suggests that organized crime is also trying to buy off journalists, creating a new brand of narco-journalism.
“The risks for journalists in Mexico are no longer just falling prey to violence or intimidation, but also becoming complicit with criminal groups,” Alejandro Hope, a Mexican drug war analyst told Fusion.
In the 25-minute recording — of unknown origin— the drug kingpin known as "La Tuta," (the teacher) complains about the negative press that some Mexican reporters have given his criminal group, and asks the two journalists for suggestions on ways to “improve” media coverage of his cartel.
MVS News said it received the video early last week from an anonymous source who sent it on a USB flash drive to the company's offices in Mexico City. The news organization did not publish the video for a few days while it confirmed the identities of the journalists, and then called them to ask about the meeting.
One of the reporters, Eliseo Caballero, was the Michoacan correspondent for Televisa, Mexico’s largest TV network. Televisa said in a statement that Caballero was fired after network officials saw the video; network officials say they had no previous knowledge of Caballero’s meeting with the Knights Templar leader.
The second reporter in the video is Jose Luis Diaz, owner of Esquema, a news agency that focuses on crime news in Michoacan.
Esquema supplied news footage and photos to a wide range of international networks, including the Associated Press, Univision, CNN and Mundo Fox, MVS said. Diaz also worked as a fixer for foreign journalists in Michoacan covering the conflict between the Knights Templar and self-styled vigilante groups that have attempted to expel the cartel from the region.
An offer they couldn’t refuse?
When contacted by MVS news, both reporters acknowledged it was them on the video, but said they were "forced" to attend the meeting and cooperate with La Tuta because they feared for their lives and the safety of their families.
Diaz and Caballero admitted to accepting money from La Tuta.
“It’s hard to say no to these people,” Caballero told MVS radio host Carmen Aristegui.
However, during the meeting, Diaz and Caballero are also seen asking for additional favors. Diaz requests a new truck and Caballero asks for video cameras worth $6,000.
The reporters did not answer questions from Aristegui about why they made these requests. Mexican prosecutors said they have opened an investigation into both journalists.
Cartels in Mexico regularly try to pressure local media, especially in places where the cartels have a significant presence.
Francisco Sandoval, a spokesman for media rights group Article 19, told Fusion that cartels regularly prevent local papers from reporting on crime news in northern Mexico, because the narcos fear the reports would put pressure on the army to crack down.
Sandoval said that journalists in cities such as Nuevo Laredo, on the Texas border, stopped reporting on crime two years ago, after suffering several attacks.
But Sandoval says the cartel's apparent media-outreach strategy to seek positive coverage is something new.
“We’ve had a few reports of cases like this,” Sandoval said. “But this is more of an exception to the rule.”
Hope said that La Tuta’s efforts to seek positive news coverage seems to be a particular strategy of the Knights Templar a group, which portrays itself as protectors of the state of Michoacan.
“The Templars see themselves as political actors, and that is why they want to control media messages," Hope said. "They have very well defined territorial aims."
La Tuta has also tried to influence local politicians. A video taken in 2012 showed him meeting with Jesus Reyna, a politician who later became the state’s interim governor. In that video, which eventually landed Reyna in jail, La Tuta discussed candidates for congressional races with the now disgraced politician.
Hope said that La Tuta’s meeting with journalists, which took place last December, also raises questions about the Knights Templar’s level of influence in Michoacan.
The group reportedly took a substantial cut from Michoacan’s mining sector and its multi-million dollar avocado trade, by illegally taxing local businesses.
But the cartel has been on the defensive since early this year, when vigilante groups routed the Knights Templar from several cities.
“I think there needs to be a serious investigation into the extent of the Knights Templar power. And if that also includes media,” Hope said.
“This group certainly does not have the operational capacities it had last year, but they are far from finished.”
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.