BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone. BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. For American journalists covering the Mexican drug cartels, it's beginning to seem more like war reporting. Last week, U.S. law enforcement warned newsrooms that the cartels were threatening to kill an American covering the story in Laredo, Texas and Nuevo Laredo across the border.
Until now, U.S. citizenship has functioned as something of a shield for American reporters there, but ever since President Felipe Calderon's decision to use the country's military to crack down on the cartels, the drug lords have widened their sphere of intimidation.
Bob Rivard is editor of The San Antonio Express-News. Last week he pulled reporter Mariano Castillo off the story because of explicit threats. Bob, welcome to On the Media. BOB RIVARD: Thank you for having me. BOB GARFIELD: Before we get to your specific situation, tell me, please, about life on the streets of Laredo. BOB RIVARD: Well, Laredo, and its sister city to the south in Mexico, right across the Rio Grande, has been watching a bloody turf war for a couple of years, being waged by the respective drug cartels that would like to control that great gateway into the United States, Interstate 35, which starts right there at Laredo and runs all the way to Canada. Reporters call it the drug highway because it really is where so much comes into our country for distribution to U.S. users.
It's been a very unsafe situation over in Nuevo Laredo for a couple of years. Hundreds and hundreds of people have been shot and killed in the battles between the drug cartels and people getting caught in between. The Mexican media has been absolutely intimidated into silence. Reporters have been killed. They've been attacked. There was a grenade thrown during daylight hours right into the newsroom of El Manana, one of the daily papers there in Nuevo Laredo.
And so it's only two and a half, three hours by automobile from San Antonio to there, but it's a very different world. BOB GARFIELD: Till now, U.S. reporters have been excluded from the violence. What happened this time around that made authorities believe that Mariano Castillo himself was in some danger? BOB RIVARD: Until now, we've enjoyed a level of protection that is so different than our Mexican colleagues. That is not to say that cartels have not sent hit squads across the border north into the United States to attack targets. And, in fact, a trial started in Laredo, Texas, yesterday that we're covering in which one of the Gulf Cartel hit men is on trial. He and other members of his death squad crossed over into Laredo in the last couple of years and succeeded in murdering four of nine intended targets before police arrested them and broke up the operation.
So I think when Mariano received this startling warning from a very credible U.S. law enforcement source last Friday, it was in the context that we knew these hit squads now have definitely crossed our own border.
The cartels have a saying in Spanish, “plato o plumbo,” which means literally "silver or lead" but really translates into how they intimidate people, which is, we will buy you off with the extraordinary sums of cash we have, and if you don't agree to work for us or protect us, then we'll resort to violence. BOB GARFIELD: So you get this extraordinary warning from law enforcement. You pull Castillo back from Laredo, and within a few days turn him right around and send him back. Tell me what happened in that intervening time and why you put him back in the line of fire. BOB RIVARD: The FBI took a very hard look at whatever information they had or didn't have, whatever raw intelligence, and they were able to determine, I think to their satisfaction and to ours, that they thought there was no immediate credible threat. As a result, we felt Mariano could go back. And, in fact, we have two reporters in Laredo today because Mariano's continuing his more enterprising reporting work on the cartel while another one of our reporters covers the day-to-day developments in the trial of the hit men. BOB GARFIELD: Now, when you sent them back, it wasn't just, well, tally-ho, good hunting. It was with an extraordinary array of precautions. Tell me what reporters have to do to go into Laredo, a U.S. border town [LAUGHS], in order to do reporting on this topic. BOB RIVARD: Well, first of all, you've got to be completely bilingual and bicultural. Mariano happens to be a Peruvian-born U.S. citizen and he moves and blends in with the local population very effectively. And he varies the routes he's taking. We've changed his cell phone. You just try to think of everything that you can think of and take the advice of experts in how to conduct yourself in a way that minimizes your exposure. You don't go across the border at night to drink margaritas. BOB GARFIELD: I'm just wondering, when you describe these precautions that you've taken for Mariano Castillo and your other reporters, how much it slows down the process of doing the kind of reporting that you need to do on this subject. BOB RIVARD: There's no question about it. When I was a young reporter on the border 30 years ago, I could cross with total abandon. I could stay up at all hours of the night. I could go into any corners of the town and my press card was a shield of sorts.
And there were drug cartels back then, though not operating at this level. There were all the problems Mexico has had. But I was able to report quite freely and never really worried about my own personal security, as long as I acted smart. It's a very different world today than the one I experienced. BOB GARFIELD: Well, Bob, thank you very much for joining us. BOB RIVARD: Well, thanks for helping us share this message with an audience that may not realize that right down here in this part of the United States it's so very different than where they live. BOB GARFIELD: Bob Rivard is editor of The San Antonio Express-News. His book about Mexico, Trail of Feathers, has just come out in paperback, published by Public Affairs in New York. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]