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Shifting Drugs Landscape Maintains Peril for Journalists in Latin America

Shifting Drugs Landscape Maintains Peril for Journalists in Latin America

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In August, the Colombian government signed a ceasefire with guerrilla group FARC in Havana, in a historic peace deal that experts say will have unintended consequences for the country’s drug trade. Mexican cartels are looking to new drug routes and the supply of alternative product as more US states move towards legalizing marijuana. And despite implementing harsher drug laws in the past year, Ecuador is becoming increasingly implicated in narco-trafficking between South America and the United States.

Photo: Henry Romero/Reuters

By Colette Davidson

The changing landscape of the drug trade in Latin America is not only putting new pressures on governments, but it has brought with it increased risks to journalists in terms of self-censorship and threats to personal safety. Journalists in the region must often make the choice between risking their lives to report on narco-trafficking or stifling the news in an effort to appease local governments, security forces or crime bosses.

Drug cartels in Colombia and Mexico rake in between $18 and $39 billion per year in US sales alone, according to the US Justice Department. Marijuana is still the biggest market for the US, but cocaine continues to hold a prominent role in the region’s narco-trafficking operations. In the last decade, Mexico and Colombia have shared a cozy relationship when it comes to cocaine production and sales: Colombia – along with Peru and Bolivia – acts as the producer while Mexico and the Caribbean provide corridors for the transport of product into the US.

In 2015, Ecuador’s role in transnational drug trafficking skyrocketed, with a fivefold increase in seizures of illicit drugs compared to the previous year, according to Insight Crime, a foundation that studies organized crime in Latin America and the Caribbean. In the last three years, an estimated 300 Ecuadorian fishermen have been arrested for drug trafficking. And Ecuador is becoming an increasingly strategic launch pad for traffickers from Mexico and Colombia to smuggle cocaine through to the US.

“The overall trend is a multiplication of trade routes in general,” says Coletta Youngers, an expert on drug policy in Latin America at the Washington, DC-based advocacy organization Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA). “Colombia is still the primary source as a producer of cocaine, but more drugs are going through Ecuador and out from the coast by sea or plane towards Mexico. Another route is to go through Venezuela to Puerto Rico and then, you’re essentially in US territory.”

In October 2015, Ecuador’s National Assembly enacted one of the toughest drug laws in the region, creating a “zero-tolerance” approach and slamming small-scale drug traffickers with harsher sentences. However, critics of the law say it is clogging up the nation’s prisons with low-level offenders and has pushed drug trafficking further underground.

A prohibitive communications law in June 2013, which gives the government authority over editorial content and the ability to impose sanctions, has further complicated how journalists cover Ecuador’s narco-trafficking system.

One Ecuadorian journalist, who requested anonymity out of fear for her safety, says many journalists in the country simply opt out of reporting on the drugs trade.

“We receive so much pressure from the government that it’s difficult to investigate narco-trafficking,” she says. “We know that the government, police and judges are not going to protect us if we get into trouble.”

Due to the 2013 communications law, she says that her news outlet has been required to run corrections and follow-up articles according to government-approved content if initial pieces weren’t deemed appropriate.

“As journalists, we of course want to report on the drugs trade,” she says, “but we’re not going to go out on our own where someone can kill us, if later the government will just change what we report on.”

In certain coastal areas of Latin America, the line between politics and the drugs trade gets blurred. Local politicians, facing pressure from drug lords, often find themselves taking bribes or fostering a system of impunity for the community’s narco-traffickers. Nowhere is that volatile relationship more evident than in Mexico, where journalists often find themselves at the mercy of a corrupt system.

“Journalists are paying the price in Mexico of being between organized crime and a very corrupt political class,” says Adrian Lopez, director general of the Noroeste editorial group in Sinaloa, one of Mexico’s most dangerous states. “We know of lots of politicians that are connected to cartels. In Sinaloa, we say that you can’t rule without the cartel’s permission.”

He says that in some areas of the country, journalists have been required to ask permission from Los Zetas or La Familia – two of Mexico’s most powerful drug cartels – before printing an article.

“In Mexico, the situation has turned from bad to worse in the last decade, with an increase in international criminal networks,” says Carlos Lauria, journalist and senior program coordinator for the Americas at the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). “Organized crime and state and local authorities are all intertwined, and street crime, drugs and human rights abuses are not being covered outside Mexico City.

“The power of criminal networks is huge – in most cases of journalists killed, the investigations go nowhere.”

But as the US moves towards greater adoption of laws to legalize marijuana – California will put forth a bill in November to legalize its recreational use and Colorado legalized possession in January 2014 – Mexican cartels are slowly being forced to change tactics.

Since 2011, the amount of cannabis seized along the US border with Mexico has decreased by 37 percent, as Marijuana becomes less and less interesting for sale to the US. Cartels will continue to look towards exporting cocaine as well as harder drugs, like methamphetamines and heroine. As cartels fight to hold onto their territory as US demand dwindles, journalists risk getting caught in the crossfire for reporting on the trend. Fifty journalists have been killed in the last decade in Mexico, according to CPJ, and the level of censorship has increased due to a wave of unprecedented violence.

In Colombia, many hope that the violence against journalists will ebb with the signing of the peace deal with the FARC guerrilla group, despite concerns that the deal could offer impunity for FARC members convicted of war crimes and human rights violations. Widespread censorship exists in areas where there is a strong presence of guerrillas and paramilitary groups controlled by drug traffickers, and journalists who work in those regions face some of the most serious challenges.

The country remains one of the most dangerous for journalists in the world, and in the top five countries with the largest amount of journalists killed for their work, according to CPJ. Since 1992, at 47 journalists have been killed for their work, says the CPJ, many due to the continued conflict between the government and armed groups.

“Journalists have suffered hugely from drug traffickers,” says Lauria. “Many issues are very sensitive so they just don’t cover them. Well, they can cover them, but then they can’t report it because they’re terrified.”

Diana Carolina Duran Nunez, the first female legal editor at the Colombia daily El Espectador, says those working in rural areas are the most at-risk. “They get threatened through anonymous letters and calls, sometimes they can be intimidated by receiving floral arrangements,” she says. “The kind you send to someone for condolences.”

Colombia remains the number one cocaine producer in the world, with its fields of coca leaves expanding by 39 percent to 96,000 hectares in 2015, according to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). They estimate that production of cocaine hydrochloride – the white powder form of the drug – rose 46 percent to 646 tons in 2015.

FARC currently operates in 25 of Colombia’s provinces and while it has never fully admitted to its involvement in the drug trade, it is thought to have earned between $200 million and $3.5 billion at the height of business in the early 2000s – in part from the drug trade as well as from kidnapping, extortion and illegal gold mining, according to a report by The Economist in April 2016. When FARC fighters are forced to demobilize, as part of the peace deal with the government, some experts say that territory formerly under their control could instead fall into the hands of other paramilitary groups.

“There’s a lot of concern that if they’re able to move people out of coca production in the areas under FARC control, it could move to new areas and give a new generation of paramilitary groups the opportunity to move in and take more control of the drug trade,” says WOLA’s Youngers. “People are saying that this [ceasefire] is a way to combat the drug trade, but in fact you have so many actors that are involved that it will most likely just shift in terms of where things are happening and who’s reaping the profit from it.”

Press freedom groups in Colombia say that the security situation for journalists has improved in the last decade, but many in the field say the effects of the ceasefire are not evident.

“It’s not a reality yet, there’s still no progress,” says Edgar Osma, a Colombian cameraman who has been kidnapped four times by guerrilla groups. “But journalists are optimistic that change will come.”

As Latin America’s narco-trafficking landscape continues to ebb and flow with the changes of governmental policies – both there and abroad – journalists are faced with the ever-present task of reconciling courageous reporting with personal safety. With the constant threat of kidnappings, disappearances, hostage taking and murder, journalists who dare to cover the region’s drugs trade must tread carefully.

“We need to learn to become more intelligent in our reporting and our writing,” says Mexican journalist Lopez, of journalists working on the region’s drugs trade. In the current environment of politicians and narco-traffickers often banding together, journalist safety remains threatened. “The situation we have now is perfect for controlling the press.”


Hedvig Lundstrom's picture

Hedvig Lundstrom


2016-09-08 15:20

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In countless countries, journalists, editors and publishers are physically attacked, imprisoned, censored, suspended or harassed for their work. WAN-IFRA is committed to defending freedom of expression by promoting a free and independent press around the world. Read more ...