Former Mexican President Vicente Fox accused a Mexican senator of drug trafficking last week, resurrecting charges first revealed in a New York Times story I co-reported ten years ago.
These stories don’t die. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said about Mexican reporters.
Fox brought up the drug charges after Mexican senator Manlio Fabio Beltrones called for an investigation of Fox over charges of illegal enrichment while serving as Mexico’s President.
In return, Fox accused Beltrones, who is contemplating a 2012 run for the presidency, of running a smear campaign against him and his wife. “Mr. Manlio Fabio Beltrones should focus on his duties as a senator, rather than promoting his presidential aspirations,” Fox said on Friday.
“Manlio Fabio Beltrones has a record with the DEA related to drug trafficking,” Fox continued, referring to the United States Drug Enforcement Administration. “Mexico doesn’t deserve this political spectacle.”
Fox’s charges stemmed from our 1997 New York Times investigation of Beltrones, who was then governor of the northern state of Sonora.
The article, which caused a thunderous outcry in Mexico at the time, revealed that U.S. officials had collected intelligence linking Beltrones and another Mexican governor to one of Mexico’s biggest drug traffickers.
Both governors, who denied the charges, filed criminal libel complaints against the story’s authors, Sam Dillon and me. The complaints, if substantiated, would have landed us in a Mexican prison.
The federal criminal defamation statute, written in 1917, was a unique tool for the politically powerful to imprison journalists for writing anything that damaged their reputations, even if what was said was true. But the law’s real import was to coerce reporters into writing retractions.
When a senior Mexican government official made such a proffer to the New York Times, Bill Keller, then the paper’s foreign editor, brusquely responded by letter: “We do not, and will not, back away from a story we believe to have been accurate in order to appease someone who found the story troublesome.”
Beltrones became further enflamed after the Times article was included in a series of reports showing the corrosive effects of drug corruption in Mexico that won the 1998 Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting. The paper’s submission letter for the award remarked that undertaking a major investigative project on a foreign country was “something almost unheard of in foreign correspondence.”
Mexico’s attorney general eventually dismissed the governors’ complaints against us. And earlier this year, Mexico finally scuttled the 90-year-old criminal libel statute as a gesture towards more press freedom.
But journalists in Mexico face a far more existential threat from the drug mafias and corrupt politicians, and neither Fox nor Beltrones nor any other politician has done much about it.
Last year, nine Mexican journalists were murdered, and three are missing, according to Reporters Without Borders.
After Beltrones left the governorship for a legislative post, the trafficking situation in Sonora turned even uglier.
On April 2, 2005, Alfredo Jiménez Mota, a 26-year-old reporter investigating drug corruption in the state, disappeared and is believed to have been killed. Mexican officials have yet to identify and bring to justice the authors of the crime.
Jiménez Mota worked at El Imparcial in Hermosillo, where both Sam and I had spent a great deal of time during our investigation of Beltrones. We did not know Jiménez Mota, who was only 16 at the time.
Yet his disappearance, and probable murder, strikes me deeply. By chance, he disappeared on my birthday, investigating drug corruption in the same locale that we did. The sad irony is that Sam and I were rewarded for our reporting. Alfredo appears to have paid with his life.
For more about the story behind the story, see “Opening Mexico: The Making of A Democracy,” by Julia Preson and Sam Dilllon.