MEXICO CITY, Mexico — Like on any other Monday morning, reporter Bladimir Antuna kissed his family goodbye and set off in his Ford SUV to work the crime beat at a local newspaper in Durango city.
Hours later his lifeless corpse was found beaten, strangled and dumped outside a public hospital.
“This is what happened to me for giving information to the military and writing what I shouldn’t. Take care of your texts before you do your story,” said a message scrawled on cardboard next to the cadaver.
Antuna’s brutal murder marks Mexico’s worst year on record for the slaying of its media workers, many who have been killed covering the relentless drug war. The incessant violence and intimidation is leading to many journalists to censor their coverage of the cartels and corresponding police corruption.
According to a tally by El Universal, the country’s top-selling newspaper, 12 reporters, photographers, editors and radio hosts have been slain this year — two more than in the previous worst year of 2006. The deaths — all of Mexicans working for local media — make the country the most dangerous for the trade in the Western hemisphere.
There have also been dozens of cases of journalists being threatened, beaten and having offices attacked with gunfire and grenades.
Particularly concerning is how the murders have become so frequent they now fail to grab much attention — either in Mexico or in the United States. Antuna’s slaying gained only scant coverage, lost in a sea of more than 5,000 apparent drug-related killings here this year.
International media groups say they are also concerned about how Mexican authorities have failed to bring the killers to justice or give journalists adequate protection despite the escalating attacks.
In May, gunmen fired on Antuna’s house in apparent warning shots. He had also reported receiving threatening phone calls.
Officials “knew about death threats Bladimir Antuna received but did nothing to protect him,” press freedom group Reporters Without Borders said in a news release. “It is unacceptable … . Once again, we call on the federal authorities to set up protection programs to put an end to this grisly toll.”
In 2006, Mexico appointed David Vega as special prosecutor for crimes against journalists to deal with the mounting body count. Vega resigned nine months later without successfully prosecuting a single murder case.
In the same year, Mexico’s Congress created a special commission on crimes against journalists. That body was dissolved this October, to the dismay of press freedom groups.
One major problem is that Mexican authorities have been so overwhelmed with violent attacks on their own officials, protecting journalists has become a low priority.
In the last 18 months, more than 1,000 police, soldiers, judges and other agents have been slain in execution style hits and abductions.
The most high-level killing was of the acting federal police chief Edgar Millan, who was shot dead in his family house last year. When authorities cannot protect one of the nation’s top policemen in his own home, journalists in the field feel particularly vulnerable.
Antuna, like most of the slain reporters, covered the war between drug cartels over the billion dollar trafficking routes to the United States.
His home-state Durango has become one of the front lines in this conflict as the paramilitary Zetas gang has muscled in on its drug-producing mountains and smuggling routes long controlled by the Sinaloa cartel.
This year, three other Durango journalists have been murdered, making it Mexico’s most dangerous state for the profession.
Federal prosecutors said Antuna’s killing appeared to be the work of the drug cartels but had no immediate suspects.
In front-line states such as Durango, the cartels regularly threaten journalists over coverage of gangland killings and corruption of authorities, often warning them not to use the names of particular gangsters or criminal organizations.
As a result, media outlets practice a self-censorship, limiting most reports of murders to the simple facts, omitting motives and wider links.
“When you start writing, the first thing you think about is not how your editors or readers are going to see your story but how the bad guys are going to see it,” says Javier Valdez, who covers organized crime for the weekly Rio Doce in the neighboring Sinaloa state. “My son asked me if I was scared. And I told him, “Yes I am.” We have to admit that. We are all scared.”
Mexico City reporter Alejandro Almazan received death threats following one interview he published with a drug capo, forcing him to have armed guards for a month.
Since then, he has changed to writing many of his accounts in fictional form, such as in a new novel he has published called “Entre Perros” or “Among Dogs.”
“I gave up trying to report which drug cartel is controlling which smuggling corridor. After all, I’m not a policemen or a federal investigator,” Almazan says. “Now, I try and write about the bigger social context, which is a bit less dangerous. I don’t want to die young. I want to enjoy my life and live until and I’m an old man.”