BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. Whoever ultimately wins Mexico's presidency will inherit a growing problem, crime and corruption, particularly the crime associated with the drug cartels and the corruption that has hobbled the police. And few places are more symbolic of Mexico's inability to police itself than Juarez. A border town sustained by multinational factories that draw workers from across the country, Juarez has seen the kidnappings, rapes and murders of some 400 girls and women since 1993. In the United States, we'd like to think that federal and local police would fall all over each other to solve such a high-profile case, but in Juarez, some believe police and prosecutors are bending over backwards not to solve it. In the absence of any discernible progress in the investigation, reporters often have taken the lead, as WNYC's Marianne McCune found when she brought us this report in 2003.
MARIANNE McCUNE: Even the mostly poor, uneducated mothers of those killed seem able to investigate more thoroughly than do local police. After 20-year old Claudia Gonzalez' maimed body turned up alongside seven others, it was her mother, Josefina Gonzalez, who went back to where she was found to look for clues. [JOSEFINE GONZALES SPEAKING IN SPANISH]
INTEPRETER: We found her pants in a bag under some bushes, and another day we looked again and found her factory ID, just lying there in the desert.
MARIANNE McCUNE: Across the border in El Paso, FBI special agent Art Werge says that's just the kind of thing he would do.
ART WERGE: Attack the problem until the problem is resolved. We set up a computerized system of following each and every lead. We assigned the lead to agents.
MARIANNE McCUNE: Police in Juarez have made arrests – several dozen people are in jail – but only one has been convicted, and the evidence against those charged is questionable at best. One former forensics investigator quit the Chihuahua State Police, saying he was pushed to plant evidence against a suspect. Art Werge held training sessions this year for Mexican investigators, but he says he's most impressed by the investigative skills of local newspapers.
ART WERGE: I've seen reports where they've actually diagrammed the areas that the abductions have taken place, the dump sites, the characteristics of the victims – what we call victimology. There's a lot of good leads.
DIANA WASHINGTON VALDEZ: We don't have a badge and a gun to go out and arrest anybody, but we can reveal, and then it's out there.
MARIANNE McCUNE: Diana Washington Valdez has been covering the case for years for the El Paso times. She's written stories about investigations that were suppressed because they implicated wealthy and powerful men and about police who were suspects in crimes against women, yet never prosecuted. But such revelations have done frustratingly little to spur officials into action, so sometimes reporters are taking action themselves. One helped set up a rape crisis center. And Washington Valdez was among those who recently barged in on a nightclub she believes is involved in the murders, based on a leaked FBI report. A "media ambush" she called it. The group found the club's bathroom covered with pornographic photographs and the club's layout and staff matched those described in the report, but they found nothing to confirm accusations. Still, Washington Valdez says, they were able to alert Juarez residents of possible danger.
DIANA WASHINGTON VALDEZ: The time has come when we might have to increase the risk to ourselves in order to advance the issue. [BRIEF RADIO CLIP]
MARIANNE McCUNE: Case in point - Samira Izaguirre, one of the hosts of a popular Juarez radio show. [PHONE RINGING/SAMIRA IZAGIRRE ON RADIO] When at her previous station, she urged listeners to come to a candlelight vigil in hopes of pushing the government to solve the murders, she says thousands more than she expected crowded the streets. [SAMIRA IZAGUIRRE SPEAKING IN SPANISH]
INTERPRETER: The government saw danger. They thought I wanted to attack them politically.
MARIANNE McCUNE: Izaguirre and her co-hosts were abruptly fired a few weeks later. The station said the hosts owed money for past air time, but Izaguirre believes Chihuahua state officials pressed the station to get rid of them. And now she's afraid of worse than losing her job - she says strange men have threatened her and her children and many other journalists as well. [SAMIRA IZAGUIRRE SPEAKING IN SPANISH]
INTERPRETER: I know they could kill me tomorrow, but right now I just think there's no one else addressing the problem.
MARIANNE McCUNE: After one government suspect said police tortured a confession out of him, he died mysteriously in prison. State police officers admitted to killing the defense lawyer of another suspect. They say it was self-defense. [SPANISH]
MARIANNE McCUNE: Alfredo Quijano Hernandez's small local newspaper, El Norte, has investigated the case perhaps more aggressively than any. He flips proudly through five days of the paper's coverage after state police killed defense attorney Mario Escobedo. [SPANISH]
INTERPRETER: We heard through the police radio that the attorney had had an accident. When we got there, there were about 200 police officers there.
MARIANNE McCUNE: Quijano says he took pictures of every car in sight, so when state police released a photo of a bullet hole in one of its cars – supposed evidence that the attorney shot first – Quijano published his own photo of the car that night, completely unscathed. [SPANISH]
INTERPRETER: We published the information, saying we believe it was an assassination, and that provoked a strong reaction from the government.
MARIANNE McCUNE: That afternoon, the reporter who wrote the story says he saw two big cars in his rear-view mirror. [SPANISH]
INTERPRETER: One car got in front of me, and then the other, and they blocked my way. Then one man got out of his car and I thought it was the end of me. [CAR HORN]
MARIANNE McCUNE: Carlos Huerta says they told him to stop with the kind of stories he'd been writing. He says he lied to them, told them he'd back down. Now he's still on the street, and they're still on the street, and so are the state police who shot defense attorney Escobedo. Despite El Norte's coverage, the government accepted the officers' claim that Escobedo shot first. Whether or not government officials are actually complicit in any of these crimes, Mexican media analyst Ernesto Villanueva says it's clear they're more interested in controlling public opinion than bringing the culprits to justice. Some mothers say they're urged not to talk to the press when they report their daughters missing. Officials in Chihuahua have even gone so far as to prosecute journalists for allegedly defaming them.
ERNESTO VILLANUEVA: They try to buy the journalists, and if they can't do it, well, they try to destroy them.
MARIANNE McCUNE: Newspapers also bring in revenue with what are called casetillas – advertisements that look like news articles that are paid for by wealthy individuals. El Norte's competitor, El Diario, published claims that radio host and activist Samira Izguirre was a regular at strip clubs – not fit to be speaking for the mothers. Receipts showed the state government paid for the accusations, according to local reporters who followed up.
ERNESTO VILLANUEVA: You think that it's information, but, in fact, it's an advertisement, and you paid for that. It's an enemy with the people's right to know. And we have two sides – the government that pay and the press that accept to do it.
MARIANNE McCUNE: The result is more than the average confusion about who's printing the truth and when. Some mothers of murdered girls and their advocates accuse El Diario and other local papers of taking orders from the governor or even the local drug cartel. But El Diario reporter and editor Martin Orquiz reports El Norte is a mouthpiece for the mothers and activists. [MARTIN ORQUIZ SPEAKING IN SPANISH]
INTERPRETER: We don't publish everything they want, and that bothers them. The easiest thing to do is accuse us being with the governor or some political parties. El Diario is attacked all the time.
MARIANNE McCUNE: The powers that be may not succeed in efforts to intimidate individual reporters, but they do succeed in casting doubt in all directions. Media analyst Villanueva says two things need to happen before Juarez reporters can operate outside of politics.
ERNESTO VILLANUEVA: We have to cut the economical ties between media and government.
MARIANNE McCUNE: And, far more difficult, he says, fix a broken justice system so that reporters don't have to fill in the void. Still, many locals say if the Juarez mystery is ever solved, it will be because reporters have stretched the boundaries of their jobs. Local coverage has attracted international attention and the murders are slowly becoming a worldwide human rights issue. Whether every detail reported is accurate may not matter. Any version of this story adds to the pressure on Mexico to act. For On the Media, I'm Marianne McCune in Mexico City.