MEXICO -- El Diario photojournalist Lucio Soria surveys the scene where a young man lies dying on the sidewalk near downtown Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, Saturday, Dec. 4, 2010. After a three-week low, that day saw 16 people murdered including four municipal police officers. Before the drug war, journalist in Ciudad Juarez scrambled for the exclusive story. Now, they communicate with each other through Nextel direct calls and cover spot news as a group. JERRY LARAfirstname.lastname@example.org (JERRY LARA)
Since President Felipe Calderon took office in 2006, at least 35 Mexican journalists have disappeared or been killed, according to the New York City-based Committee to Protect Journalists, and none of the cases has been solved.
Many more journalists have been threatened, beaten or kidnapped. At least four are seeking political asylum in the United States, citing death threats.
Countless others, faced with the devil's choice of "plata o plomo" (silver or lead), simply have been silenced, choosing self-censorship over death. And there is nothing subtle about the proposition.
"I was picked up in 2004 by an armed group and spent an hour with them. They told me to stop publishing certain things, to stop writing about them, which is why the word Zeta has not appeared in our paper since then," said one Mexican editor who did not want to be identified, even by region.
"I think it is terrorism against society. And that's their goal. The press is a voice, and if they can silence it by intimidation, they can dominate society," he added.
One result is the withering of reliable local reporting about narco violence in vast areas of the country, undermining an already fragile Mexican democracy and leaving many citizens distrustful of the press and forced to look elsewhere for information.
"There is a loss of prestige and credibility with the public because they think we are sellouts. In many occasions it is true, but not in all cases. They don't understand the danger," said a journalist from Reynosa.
In March, after the violent split between the Zetas and Gulf Cartel in Tamaulipas, attacks on journalists in Reynosa escalated. Foreign and national reporters were chased out of town. One local reporter was beaten to death, and a half-dozen others were kidnapped, with several never reappearing.
As the Mexican drug cartels rapidly morph into broad-based criminal organizations that seek to control everything -- including the police and government -- in territories they dominate, the press dynamic has changed.
In parts of Tamaulipas state, the mafias are the de facto operating bosses, dictating what is published and using the papers as propaganda outlets.
In mid-October, for example, the afternoon paper La Tarde in Nuevo Laredo published gruesome photos of a decapitated woman on the explicit orders of the Zetas, according to an informed source.
The murdered woman allegedly had complained to authorities about one of the Zeta leaders, and she quickly became a very public example of what happens to those who speak out.
The narcos also encourage critical reporting of the military and suppress whatever they don't want aired.
This creates surreal situations in some locales where violent and spectacular events are exploding in the streets, but are not reported by the local media.
The violence has caused some American media outlets to stop covering Mexico.
"For too long we've tried telling ourselves that as foreign correspondents we're afforded a measure of protection. We're fooling ourselves," he said at a panel discussion this fall.
The silencing of the regional Mexican media has created vast "black holes," according to a recent study by Fundacion MEPI, an independent investigative entity based in Monterrey, Mexico.
"We're saying close to half the country is suffering news blackouts or under-reporting of any stories related to the drug violence, and it could be greater," said Ana Arana, director of the project.
When the Mexican military killed Gulf Cartel leader Antonio Ezequiel Cardenas, better known as "Tony Tormenta," in a spectacular shootout Nov. 5 in Matamoros, it was front-page news everywhere but in Matamoros itself.
None of the four large Matamoros dailies even mentioned Cardenas, much less told their long-oppressed readers that the local crime boss was dead.
And in Matamoros, where at least five journalists have been killed since 1986, this was neither a mystery nor a surprise.
One Matamoros journalist described the climate of pressure and fear for their safety in which reporters there work.
After talking with an American reporter, the Mexican said wistfully: "Yours is a beautiful world in which to be a journalist. You can tell things how they are, without the fear that something will happen to you or your family. It is a world I don't know."