A Mexican news reporter for the largest producer of media content in the Spanish-speaking world has been fired after a video emerged this week showing the journalist taking cash from one of Mexico's most-wanted drug lords in exchange for tips on how to improve the capo's image in the press.
The clip sparked another scandal for Televisa, the media juggernaut that dominates the Mexican television market and sends weepy telenovelas to dozens of countries in Latin America and around the world.
The incident has also served as a reminder of the profound infiltration of organized crime into seemingly all aspects of Mexican society, from politics to the press, especially in the violence-weary state of Michoacán.
First aired Monday, the clip shows Servando Gómez Martínez, the leader of the fearsome Knights Templar cartel, sitting down with Eliseo Caballero, an on-air correspondent for Televisa in Michoacán. A second journalist is present in the meeting, Jose Luis Díaz Pérez, the owner and director of Esquema, one of several small news agencies that operate in the state.
The reporters tell the drug lord, also known as "La Tuta," that he must reach out to the press more effectively. They cite the example of Michoacán's armed citizen militias, known as autodefensas, and their practice of approaching news reporters on the ground when news breaks related to their activities.
At one point, La Tuta expresses exhaustion with the way news outlets treat him, saying with irritation, "I'm tired."
"Tell me, is there a law that says a reporter can't interview a narcotraficante?" La Tuta continues in the clip.
"There isn't, but no one follows the laws in Mexico," Díaz Pérez replies.
Televisa quickly moved to dismiss the reporter and, in a statement released Monday, disavowed the company of any prior knowledge or complicity in the contents of the tape. In a sign of how damaging the leaked video could be for the company, Joaquín López Dóriga, Televisa's senior news anchor, read its statement on the matter during his primetime newscast Monday.
Televisa's role in Mexico is omnipresent and wrought with controversy.
A grassroots student movement known as #YoSoy132 flourished during the 2012 presidential election as protesters took the streets decrying Televisa's cozy links to the powerful Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI. The PRI eventually won with the election of President Enrique Peña Nieto.
Televisa has long been blamed for using its influence and media bias to prop up political allies and tear down rivals. While Mexico's government has passed measures to chip at Televisa's grip on the nation's lucrative TV market, the company remains prosperous. Televisa grossed about $5.5 billion in 2013.
Last week, however, the media empire lost an appeal to avoid heavy new regulations to end its market dominance.
Fighting the Knights Templar. Watch the VICE News documentary here.
The origin of the tape showing the two reporters with "La Tuta" is mysterious.
A USB carrying the 25-minute video arrived September 16 at the offices of the news outlet Noticias MVS, addressed to the networks' marquee anchor Carmen Aristegui. It showed up in a makeshift paper envelope adorned with the seal of the Knights Templar cartel and a short message, the news program said in its own report.
It was the second time in two days a package with the video arrived at the Noticias MVS studio. The September 16 note read, "We sent you a little gift against your friends at Televisa a few days ago, and nothing has come out about it. This material will come out. We hope it is on your program."
According to their report, Noticias MVS spent three days confirming the authenticity of the video before airing it Monday morning. Aristegui also interviewed the journalists seen on the tape. The two defended their actions, claiming they were coerced into the meeting with Gómez Martínez.
"I assure you one does not go to a meeting with these people for fun," Díaz Pérez said in the radio interview.
But the tone of the recorded encounter is visibly casual and amicable.
Noticias MVS released the entire 25-minute video on YouTube.
The three men sit around a simple table in an unadorned room as they chat. The video appears to be shot from a fixed point several feet away from the table, with only ambient audio captured.
The reporters are seen accepting payment for the consultation with the drug lord in the clip. The cash amount is not specified. Caballero then asks "La Tuta" for cameras, saying they are expensive, and Díaz Pérez asks for a vehicle — for moving gear, he explained.
"If you hook me up, I'll have something to work with, señores," the Televisa reporter tells the drug lord.
'Now apparently the cartels aren't only buying police officers and mayors, they're also buying journalistic consciences.'
Speaking to Aristegui this week, Caballero said he did not recall taking the drug lord's money, but added he might have taken a little "for gasoline."
For his part, Díaz Pérez released a separate video defending himself, and condemning authorities for not addressing the challenges working journalists face in Michoacán, where the most recent interim governor is behind bars for alleged links to the Knights Templar.
"The reality is, when organized crime took control of the state, the things we end up doing, many times, are against our will," the reporter said.
Díaz Pérez describes an October 2010 incident in which he was kidnapped and tortured for reporting on the drug trade. He sought help from authorities and showed documents in the video meant to indicate he had reported the attack, but to little avail.
On Wednesday, Alejandro Olmos, a Televisa corporate spokesman, declined to answer questions from VICE News about how the news outlet will further react to the leaked tape.
"This is a blow to the credibility of Mexican journalism, to the credibility of the journalism we should have — critical, independent, and autonomous from the forces of power it covers," political analyst Denise Dresser said in response to the tape.
Organized crime, she added on a Noticias MVS program, has become a "second law" in the country.
"Now apparently the cartels aren't only buying police officers and mayors, they're also buying journalistic consciences," Dresser said.
Pat downs for kids? It happened at Mexico's official Independence Day fiesta. Read more here.
Photo via Flickr.