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Testimony #1: “We got out of Tamaulipas alive”

Most of the times journalists are kidnapped in Mexico, it ends in murder. Raymundo Pérez Arellano got lucky—he survived. He tells PEN/Opp what happened and why he was kidnapped.

Credits Text: Raymundo Pérez Arellano Translation from Spanish: Stuart Shield March 09 2013

I can give you an account of the censorship and intimidation of journalists in this absurd war being waged in Mexico. On 3 March 2010, I was kidnapped, along with a cameraman, in Reynosa, Tamaulipas, by a group of organised criminals. We were covering the war between los Zetas and the Gulf Cartel.[1] I felt the cold steel of a pistol being held to my head and heard the sentence of death: “Take them away and finish them off!” In the end they didn’t kill us. But they warned us: “We don’t want to see any press people around here; you guys publish stuff and make things too hot for us.”

I am a victim of that war, a survivor; which is why I am able to come here and tell you about it.

I was lucky, very lucky. Many who were caught up in similar situations never came back. They were found dead—at best. Others have vanished without trace. In the days prior to my abduction, five local media reporters disappeared in Reynosa. Only one returned. Nothing is known about the other four. Another reporter died in mysterious circumstances.

Since 2010, little has changed. There are still parts of the country where we reporters are unable go in search of a story; we cannot report what is taking place.

In February 2010, many people were very concerned to know what was taking place in Tamaulipas, particularly in Reynosa, one of the border towns along the Mexico-US border. Fragmentary reports were coming in to the editorial desks in Mexico City: shoot-outs, roadblocks, assassinations; in short a city caught up in a frenzy of violence. But the media in the capital had trouble piecing together a picture of the events taking place in that part of the Mexican border region.

Reynosa, like Matamoros and Nuevo Laredo, is the historical seat of the Gulf Cartel and its then armed wing, Los Zetas. In early 2010, however, relations between the older members of the organisation began to change. Where once there were pacts and fellowship, today there is only confrontation, treachery and death.

The Gulf Cartel emerged from a grouping of Tamaulipan drug traffickers who originally exported liquor to the United States and imported electronic products during the prohibition era. The business later evolved, and moved into drug and human trafficking.

Los Zetas, a group of former elite soldiers who had deserted from the army, were enlisted as hitmen by Osiel Cárdenas Guillén, head of the Gulf Cartel. In time, as they became more directly responsible for acts of extortion, kidnappings protection rackets and illegal operations such as prostitution or piracy, they abandoned their role as a private army and transformed themeselves into a new criminal organisation.

Today, the Mexican authorities officially recognise Los Zetas as another cartel among those operating in the country, and rank it as the organisation with the most firepower.

I arrived at Reynosa towards the end of February 2010 to document the war being waged between these groups.

Classes at the University of Tamaulipas had been suspended due to the confrontations. Day and night, our peace was shattered by violent stand-offs between armed groups, in which the army and navy were also intervening.

The day of the kidnapping, 3 March, 2010, I received an e-mail message. The source was reliable; he told me that four reporters from Reynosa had not turned up for work. Between the last days of February and the first few days of March 2010, six simultaneous abductions of media workers were reported in Reynosa, an unprecedented event in Mexico. One had died in a local hospital in mysterious circumstances.

Pedro Argüello and David Silva of the newspaper El Mañana, Amancio Cantú of La Prensa de Reynosa, and Miguel Domínguez of La Tarde were the names cited in that message. Later, I learned that Guillermo Martínez, director of the portal Metro Noticias del Golfo, had also disappeared.

José Rábago Valdez, a reporter on Radio Rey, died while in an alleged diabetic coma in a local hospital. According to one version, his high blood sugar level was due to the beatings he received while in captivity. They found him sprawled in the street, where they had thrown him, his face swollen from the beatings he had received. Though still alive when the Red Cross paramedics picked him up, he didn’t survive.

I jotted their names down in my notebook and went to cover a shoot-out reported on Twitter. Out on the street, we saw a convoy of seven vehicles, filled with armed men. The windows of the pickup trucks had been marked with the letters CDG (Cartel del Golfo—the Gulf Cartel).

We waited until the traffic, which had halted at the sight of the convoy, began moving again. Two blocks further along, we turned right and saw them again. In a public park, the gang members—over twenty of them—were climbing down from the seven pickups and preparing for battle. Some were checking their weapons, others were putting on their bullet-proof vests, while three or four kept look-out. They came straight for us the minute they spotted us. They ordered us out of our car and into the back of a pick-up. They drove us to the public park where we had seen the hit-men preparing their weapons just minutes before. The convoy leader came up to us.

He punched my face again and again, each blow punctuated by accusations delivered with the same force and vehemence: “You’re a lousy Zeta, aren’t you?” “You’re a f***ing soldier! You're a federal agent! You’re watching us. You’re a spy; tell us the truth; this is your last chance, or we’ll whack you right here!” “We’re reporters. We’re from Mexico City; we came to write a report for the Twitter account created by the Reynosa government. The editorial office phone numbers are on my ID. Call Mexico City and you’ll see we’re telling the truth,” I managed to reply.

But reason was powerless against the logic of war. The slaps and blows resumed, and in desperation at not getting the answers they wanted, they launched into the preliminaries of an execution.

They rummaged through our belongings, including my reporter's notebook, where I had written down the names of the disappeared colleagues from Tamaulipas. The leader of the gunmen recognised their names and asked us where we had got the information.

“What do you want to know about them, why did you write their names down in your notebook?” He thought for a moment, then added: “Take them away and finish them off. Kill them!”

They handcuffed the cameraman, Juan Carlos Martínez. I was luckier as they couldn’t find another pair of handcuffs. They covered our heads with black hoods, marched us up and onto the Escalade, and ordered us to bow our heads.

The truck moved off, our captors still holding a gun to our heads.

They took us to a safe house, where the blows and interrogations continued. “Who were we, who did we work for, were we Zetas, were we the military, or the police?”

After a few minutes, the leader got on the telephone and reported that they were holding two reporters. I assume he was informing his superiors.

“How much money did you have on you,” asked the leader. Juan Carlos said he had about four thousand pesos; I had a couple of thousand. “Here are your things, your money, your wallets, everything. We’re not thieves.”

The leader continued his harangue: “Our beef is not with you; right now our dispute is with the Zetas. But you guys come here, talk a lot of crap and bring the heat down on us. The next thing we know, we’re up against the military.”

He was categorical: “We’re letting you go, but we don’t want to see you around here again,” he said. “If you come back, we’ll pick you up and whack you. And nothing happened here, got it? If you start shooting your mouths off in Mexico City, we’ll come after you. We have people operating in the Federal District and they'll come looking for you.”

Today, the situation in Reynosa has changed. Though they haven’t stopped altogether, shoot-outs between cartels are less common. Confrontations between Los Zetas and the Gulf Cartel have moved to other states: Veracruz, Nuevo Leσn or Coahuila. Increasingly evident, meanwhile, is the presence of army and navy units conducting operations against organised crime.

What hasn’t changed is the content of media reports in Reynosa. They deal with water leaks, chronicle hard times in local communities, even cover violence in other states like Chihuahua or Guerrero, but they don’t inform their readers how, where and when organised crime groups are operating in this city.

Of the five journalists kidnapped in Reynosa last year, only David Silva returned alive. Of Amancio Cantϊ, Pedro Argόello, Miguel Domνnguez and Guillermo Martνnez nothing more is known. Not even the PGR[2] opened an investigation into their disappearance. Nor has an effort been made to clarify the circumstances in which the reporter Josι Rαbago Valdez.died.

[1] Los Zetas (Zetas, Zs) is a powerful and violent criminal syndicate in Mexico, and is considered by the U.S. government to be the "most technologically advanced, sophisticated, and dangerous cartel operating in Mexico." The origins of Los Zetas date back to 1999, when commandos of the Mexican Army's elite forces deserted their ranks and decided to work as the armed wing of the Gulf Cartel, a powerful drug trafficking organization. In February 2010, Los Zetas broke away from their former employer and formed their own criminal organization.[Source: Wikipedia]

[2] Procuraduría General de la República: Attorney-General of Mexico.

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