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Mexican Drug Cartel Stops the Presses

Demise of daring newspaper shows how drugs, crime, and corruption are seeping into the reaches of society

IN July 1986, while the Monitor's Texas correspondent, I wrote a story about El Popular, a scrappy little investigative newspaper in the border town of Matamoros, Mexico, whose muckraking publisher and chief columnist had been gunned down outside their modest offices.

Local reporters, chilled by mounting cases of violence against Mexican journalists, took the El Popular killings as a warning from the border's criminal elements - drug dealers, gun smugglers, or corrupt public officials, they speculated - that there was a high price to pay for meddling in their business.

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I now report from Mexico City, and recently my eyes hooked on a local headline, ``It's feared narcos are buying daily,'' using the familiar shorthand for drug traffickers.

The short, bottom-of-the-inside-page story had sudden impact. The article told how local journalists feared that the Matamoros-based Golfo drug cartel, working through a suspected money launderer for the cartel's kingpin, was seeking to acquire the assets of a recently closed newspaper.

The paper was El Popular.

The decline and fall of tough little El Popular offers a sad look into how drugs and violence have teamed up with corruption to permeate growing sectors of Mexican civil life.

It gives a glimpse of how newspapers - especially small independents, sometimes the most willing to stick their necks out on drug trade and corruption - can be silenced or co-opted.

When I visited El Popular, shortly after the deaths of publisher Ernesto Flores Torrijos and columnist Norma Moreno Figuero, Flores's widow vowed through tears that El Popular would carry on her husband's battle against ``corruption and drugs.''

But the forces that silenced El Popular's leadership didn't let that happen. In 1989, the weakened newspaper was bought by a high-ranking Justice Department official, Carlos Aguilar Garza, who was in charge of Mexico's antidrug battle in the country's northeast - but who also turned out to be the protector and servant of the Golfo drug cartel.

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Aguilar had also owned El Aguila, a Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, newspaper, as well as the Matamoros daily Y Punto. He was murdered in his home - a case that remains unsolved - and Y Punto was taken over by the man now presumed to be a Golfo money launderer.

As for El Popular, it slowly deteriorated until it had less than 20 employees. It closed last May, only a whisper of its former vociferous self. And now, according to the newspaper I read, a Golfo cartel money launderer was out to buy the paper's assets.

``The drug traffickers are always interested in extending their power and quieting any opposition, so buying up newspapers makes sense,'' says Marco Villareal, general director of El Diario in Nuevo Laredo. ``And if a journalist suspects his employer has drug connections, he's not going to push to investigate drug-trafficking.''

Despite the handful of known cases of drug money infiltrating newspapers, Mr. Villareal says the problem in Mexico is still marginal, certainly not as bad as in Colombia. ``Many of Mexico's newspapers are old family businesses, like ours,'' he says, ``which are not likely to be sold to or infiltrated by drug interests.''

A bigger problem, he adds, is the corruption of public officials by drug interests. ``When the drug traffickers are operating under official protection, how can we expose them when we can't get people to back us up?'' he asks. ``It makes our work harder.''

As for journalist killings, Mexico counted four over the last year, according to the Inter-American Press Society, placing it, Colombia, and Guatemala as the hemisphere's three most dangerous countries for journalists.

``It's hard to tell if those deaths were related to the journalists' work,'' says Enrique Gomez Orozco, a journalist in Leon, Mexico. ``None of those killings was ever solved.''

Neither were the killings of El Popular's Torrijos and Moreno.

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