After a print run of 27 years, the Ciudad Juárez news daily Norte is calling it quits. In an emotional Sunday farewell of Adios! emblazoned in bold black letters, Norte’s founder and president, Oscar Cantu Murguia, informed readers that the day’s paper edition would be the last. The chief reason, Cantu said, was the lack of security faced by Mexican journalists.
The April 2 announcement came less than two weeks after investigative reporter Miroslava Breach Velducea, Chihuahua state correspondent for La Jornada daily as well as a long time Norte contributor, was assassinated in front of her Chihuahua City home while preparing to take her son to school.
Only days after Breach’s murder, a so-called narcomanta, or narco banner, was publicly displayed in Chihuahua City threatening any probing journalist and vowing war against the state government. It was signed by “El 80,” the same name used in a previous narco banner that claimed credit for the Breach murder and threatened Chihuahua Governor Javier Corral.
Although Chihuahua state law enforcement officials publicly declared last week that two of Breach’s assassins had been identified, no arrests have been made in a crime that stunned Mexico and the world.
“The tragic and deeply felt death last March 23 of Miroslava Breach Velducea, our collaborator, forced me reflect about the adverse conditions in which journalism is currently exercised. High risk is the principal ingredient. Mortal aggressions, as well as the impunity (in crimes) against journalists, have been put in evidence, impeding us from freely continuing our work,” Cantu wrote.
“Today, esteemed reader, I turn to inform you that I have taken the decision to close down this morning daily because, among other things, no guarantees or security exist for the exercise of critical journalism as a counter-weight.”
Also citing economic reasons, Cantu asserted that all three levels of the Mexican government had not paid debts owed to Norte. Typically, Mexican newspapers are heavily dependent on government publicity for their income streams. Commercial advertising enjoys nowhere near the importance as it does (or at least did) in U.S. media.
At the moment, it’s unclear whether Norte’s digital version, even in a much downsized form, will keep publishing. New stories appeared Monday, April 3, on Norte’s website.
Norte and the crises in border journalism and Mexican politics
The sudden closure of Norte’s print edition was top news in Mexican outlets on April 2 and 3. In cyberspace, numerous opinions were voiced on the websites of leading national publications such as Proceso magazine and Aristegui Noticias. Many squarely laid the blame for the disappearance of a newspaper at the feet of the government for tolerating attacks on the freedom of expression.
“Congratulations, Mexico,” wrote Manolo Ruiz on Aristegui Noticias. “Delinquency, corruption and impunity won.” Writing on the same site, David Covarrubias linked Norte’s shutdown to next year’s national elections. “They complied with their objective, and one year from the federal elections,” he wrote.
Others, however, criticized Norte for relying on government funds and sucking up to the powers-that-be. Upon entering office, the new administration of Javier Corral announced it was slashing government publicity expenditures but did not specify who was getting cut and for what precise amounts.
“A good part of the communication media in Ciudad Juárez has entered a period of recession due to the withdrawal of government funds disguised as official publicity. Norte’s case is one of these,” wrote Roberto Abrego on Proceso’s response page.
Quoted in the April 3 edition of Ciudad Juárez’s other leading daily, El Diario de Juárez, local educator Eduardo Limon Alonso was more direct, accusing Norte of “toying with Miroslava’s image” as a means of concealing failure. “The regrettable thing is that it will leave families without employment,” Limon said.
For many years Norte vied with El Diario, but finally lagged behind in the competition. Neighboring El Paso, Texas, even figured into the equation, as both dailies distributed in the Sun City. During the last few years, however, Norte stopped distributing in El Paso, cut back significantly the size of its print edition and trimmed back the news staff. On the digital side, Norte pulled its news archive of stories related to violent crimes against women, which was the best source of its kind in the Juárez press.
Considered among the best investigative journalists covering the mass women’s murders, or feminicides, which came to light in Ciudad Juárez after 1993, Norte reporter Rosa Isela Perez was eventually let go from her job and fled Ciudad Juárez in 2010 after receiving many threats. Granted political asylum in Spain, Perez described in a YouTube video a generalized state of repression and violence in Ciudad Juárez and Chihuahua, including the 2010 murders of women’s activists Josefina Reyes in the Juarez Valley and Marisela Escobedo in front of then-Governor Cesar Duarte’s offices in Chihuahua City.
For El Diario, Cantu’s announcement wasn’t a surprise.
“Since the end of last year, Norte of Ciudad Juárez began to announce that it was preparing to abandon its print edition, an action which it carried out today,” a short article stated in Diario de Juárez’s April 2 digital edition.
Whether or not the demise of Norte’s print edition was a long time coming, the timing was certainly inopportune. Juárez media consumers will have less access to news and opinion at the very moment a major political scandal, “Chihuahuagate” if you will, is exploding.
Last week, Chihuahua state authorities arrested three former high-ranking officials from the administration of ex- governor Duarte (2010-16) on corruption charges, while a stand-off occurred in the national legislature over the aborted seating of Antonio Tarin as the replacement for Chihuahua Congressman Carlos Hermosillo, killed in a March 20 auto “accident.” Tarin also faces legal charges linked to Chihuahuagate.
Dozens of other former officials of the Duarte administration are said to be the targets of prosecutors. As for Duarte himself, the Corral government succeeded in getting Mexico’s federal attorney general to issue an arrest warrant for the now fugitive ex-governor that was distributed to Interpol. Reportedly, Duarte was last seen in El Paso.
Moreover, the end of Norte’s print edition comes at a moment when the Mexican presidential succession of 2018 is already heating up and narco-violence in Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua and other parts of the nation, which could seriously impact the electoral process, is undergoing a sharp resurgence, as reported April 2 by Proceso.
In the bigger picture, Norte’s print edition is the latest corpse to fill a graveyard of news media outlets that’s been growing in the Paso del Norte borderland and neighboring New Mexico since the late 1990s. On the U.S. side of the border, previous casualties include the old El Paso Herald Post, El Paso’s Newspaper Tree and New Mexico State University’s Frontera NorteSur. Treading deeper into New Mexico, the fallen press includes, among others, the Albuquerque Tribune, Crosswinds Weekly and the once widely distributed print edition of the Spanish-language El Semanario de Nuevo Mexico.
The Albuquerque Free Press, which launched with a strong print run in 2014, published its final print edition last month and announced it was going all-digital. Similarly, the University of New Mexico’s Daily Lobo has cut back its print edition to twice a week. Almost virtually across the board, regional news media have followed the international trend of cutting back reporting staff and scrimping on news coverage.
(Note: This reporter was a contributor to the Albuquerque Tribune, Crosswinds Weekly and Newspaper Tree, and edited Frontera NorteSur from 2005 to 2016.)
Attacks mount on journalists in Mexico
Despite the international outrage over Miroslava Breach’s March 23 murder, violent attacks against Mexican journalists increased in the days after the Chihuahua City-based journalist was gunned down.
According to Mexican press accounts, Baja California Sur journalist Julio Omar Gonzalez, who had previously suffered attacks and was assigned a government-supplied bodyguard, was shot at by gunmen March 28 while leaving his Cabo San Lucas home. Gonzalez was unharmed but the bodyguard was reported killed.
On March 29, Armando Arrieta Granados, chief editor of La Opinion newspaper in the state of Veracruz, was shot and gravely wounded outside his Poza Rica home, according to La Jornada. La Opinion staff members and executives have been targets before: A former editor was reported kidnapped three years ago in Poza Rica, and the newspaper’s owner, Raul Gibb, was shot to death in 2005.
The same day as the attack on Arrieta, a crew of international journalists from Al Jazeera suffered a detention and robbery by gunmen in the violence-torn state of Sinaloa. The journalists escaped unhurt, but were left in a corn field minus their cellphones, passports and IDs.
Meanwhile, rolling protests by Mexican journalists against the assaults on their persons and their profession continue across the country. On Monday, an estimated 50 journalists conducted a highway protest in the Guerrero state capital of Chilpancingo, denouncing the murders of Miroslava Breach and other colleagues and passing out leaflets to motorists, according to news accounts.
A day earlier, journalists and their supporters in the central state of Guanajuato took to the streets. “Stop the hunting of journalists!” demanded reporter Karla Silva Guerrero, who was beaten by three men allegedly sent by the mayor of Silao, Guanajuato in the newsroom of El Heraldo newsaper back in September 2014.
“It’s important that society raise its voice when a journalist is attacked,” Silva was quoted in La Jornada as saying. “It has to defend its reporters, its photographers, because we are the medium that delivers (the news) of what’s happening in the country.”
Kent Paterson is an independent journalist who covers issues in the U.S./Mexico border region.