CIUDAD JUÃREZ – A journalist is murdered and a newspaper stops its presses for good.
Last week, the scrappy daily El Norte shut down after nearly three decades after the murder of one of its longtime correspondents.
A black cloth is draped over the entrance to El Norte’s headquarters, a red-painted building on a street corner not two miles from the U.S. border. Online, a ticking clock of sorts blocks out the paper’s home page, www.nortedigital.mx. Each day the clock ticks one higher: “19 days since the assassination of Miroslava Breach Velducea. And her case remains unsolved!”
I find El Norte’s founder and publisher, Oscar Cantú Murguía, at a conference table inside a quiet newsroom. He is poring over past issues dating back to the 1990s, many of them with explosive headlines that encompass some of the paper’s investigations into abuses of power, drug trafficking, inequality and injustice.
“I lived firsthand the assassination of a journalist that collaborated with us, someone very close,” he said. “It hurt so much – it was such an emotional blow, this experience. And in the cruelest way … they shot her eight times in the head, in front of her children. This, for me, was the breaking point. It was the moment to say, ‘This is unacceptable.’ ”
Breach Velducea was one of three journalists slain last month in Mexico, one of 21 journalists murdered with impunity in Mexico the past decade.
She worked for both El Norte and Mexico City’s La Jornada in Chihuahua City, the capital of Chihuahua state. She wrote El Norte’s political column and frequently covered the intersection of politics, corruption and crime – an especially dangerous mix in Mexico.
The Committee to Protect Journalists ranks Mexico No. 6 in the world on its “impunity index” of countries where journalists are killed and the killers go free. The group tracks unsolved slayings in which journalism is the confirmed motive.
Alfredo Corchado, a longtime Mexico correspondent for the Dallas Morning News, describes El Norte as a “hard-hitting, scrappy newspaper that provided competition, which made the journalism landscape that much more effective in holding the powerful accountable.”
“As long as the vast, vast majority of crimes go unpunished, the silencing of journalists will continue to burn a hole in society,” he said. “This is a devastating, shameful admission that Mexico cannot guarantee the protection of journalists and freedom of expression.”
In Mexico, that freedom is often compromised by a system in which government agencies pay for a lot of publicity – and politicians often buy more ads in media outlets considered politically friendly.
El Norte was suffering financially long before Breach Velducea’s death dealt what for Cantú Murguía was the final blow.
Like most traditional news outlets in Mexico, El Norte also accepted government publicity but received considerably less than competitors in recent years. The paper had a roughly $1.3 million contract with the previous Chihuahua state government last year, compared with top competitor El Diario de Juárez, which had a $3.7 million contract, according to a state transparency website.
Cantú Murguía is from a well-to-do Ciudad Juárez family; he is an attorney and developed industrial properties before dedicating himself to his passion, journalism. As he puts it, he has “never lived by this newspaper,” but journalism, especially the investigative kind, takes resources. (He says none of his staffers has been laid off; they were absorbed into some of his other media projects.)
Some journalists in Mexico publicly criticized his decision as insincere or opportunistic – more about money than the murder.
But one longtime colleague, Keith Boone, told me that closing the paper in this way, at this time, gave Cantú Murguía a chance to “bring attention to this heinous crime and what is happening to reporters in Mexico.”
“Oscar doesn’t look at his paper as a business,” said Boone, vice president of Grupo Mega Radio, which operates dozens of radio stations throughout Mexico, including Ciudad Juárez.
“He looks at it as his personal mission – to tell the truth. He has confronted stiff opposition by not subordinating to presidents, governors and mayors, which many other successful press outlets have.”
The papers splayed on El Norte’s conference table bear headlines like “Drug lord buys impunity.” Another describes a former governor as “marked by crime.” “Prosecutor threatens Norte” reads another.
There are multipage investigations into wrongful convictions, the sad state of the city’s public schools or the misuse of public funds – and often the stories come with sidebars pointing the finger at the politicians and powerful people.
“How do they dare assassinate journalists? Because nothing happens,”Cantú Murguía says. “The issue is impunity. We don’t have the physical security or judicial security. The law doesn’t come down on those who commit these acts.”
“When you attack a journalist,” he says, “you are attacking society itself and its institutions – and democracy, a system that we should protect.”
UpFront is a regular Journal news and opinion column. Comment directly to Las Cruces Bureau reporter Lauren Villagran at firstname.lastname@example.org. Go to www.abqjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.