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VICE News

Fatal Shooting Highlights Threats Facing Community and Indigenous Radio Stations in Mexico

A recent attack on a community radio host's family sheds light on issues these stations face, with the main threats coming in the form of government regulations.

by James Fredrick
Aug 13 2014, 10:45pm

Photo by Natasha Pizzey

In the early hours of August 2, radio journalist Indalecio Benítez and his family arrived to their home in the small town of Luvianos, Mexico, where they were met with sudden bursts of gunfire from unknown assailants in a taxi. Aiming for Benítez, the armed men instead shot his 12-year-old son, Juan Diego, who later died.

Benítez operates a low-power FM community radio station called La Calentana, which he founded in November and broadcasts out of a shack alongside his house in the state of Mexico, near its borders with Guerrero and Michoacán states. It is a region that in recent months has seen an alarming uptick in violent attacks and confrontations between Mexican military personnel and suspected drug traffickers.

"A child of only 12 years, only 12 years," Benítez wept on-air after the attack, according to an audio clip published by the press-freedom watchdog group Artículo 19. "This is a station that does not have a political party, does not have a religion, nor a gender. We were straight up with everyone."

"We've never served as falcons for anyone," Benítez went on, referring to the cartel lookouts who are hired by powerful crime syndicates across Mexico, in some cases small-town reporters.

Benítez told VICE News that he was certain he was attacked for his radio work. On the air, he'd call for listeners to be "watchdogs" in their community.

The morning program he hosted focused primarily on music and hyper-local commentary on the news. Maricarmen Aguilar Franco, who works at La Calenata, told VICE News that Benítez had been critical on his program of a road repaving project that he called deficient.

"He complained, and he asked listeners to complain at city hall about the poor quality of the roads," Aguilar said. "This started two weeks before his son's murder."

The Luvianos area in the state of Mexico, which belongs to the region known as Tierra Caliente, suffers from a news blackout the kind more often identified with the violent border regions of northern Mexico.

Benítez confirmed to VICE News on Tuesday that he had "lent his services" at one point to a local criminal group, without naming it. He prepared its members meals under order, he said, adding: "And not just me. Everyone in town had to give them services. They were the lord and barons, and still are to this day."

On August 6, after the attack that left his son dead, Benítez signed off, telling listeners he was at a bus station and would be traveling to an undisclosed location in order to protect his family.

This latest lethal attack against a local journalist in Mexico — called the most dangerous country in the Western Hemisphere to practice the profession — is shining light on the threats facing community-based radio stations across the country, coming mostly in the form of government restrictions.

New reforms target community radio

On July 14, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto signed an antitrust telecommunications reform package that essentially makes small stations like La Calentana government targets. The reform package is meant to bring community and indigenous radio stations out of the shadows, giving them legal recognition under Mexican law. But voices in the sector claim the reform will end up doing the exact opposite — or worse, criminalize their activities.

The legal changes require that community stations acquire concessions for broadcasting on a radio signal. The reform forces stations to sell advertising exclusively to government agencies, and increases rules and fines that could shut down low-power, unlicensed stations that are often crucial community binders in Mexico's neglected countryside.

Mexico's government has largely avoided addressing the topic of the future of community and indigenous radio under the new telecom laws. Politicians who were in favor of the legislation during congressional debating told other lawmakers the reform would be a step forward for community radio.

"For the first time, community radios are being recognized," Ana Lilia Garza, a lawmaker belonging to the officialist Green party, said in an address to Congress. "For the first time, they are being given a space and a financing scheme."

In a March press conference regarding the reform package, the director of Mexico's Federal Telecommunications Institute, said the new rules would apply to all types of radio stations, without mentioning the particular context of the community-based signals. The institute did not respond to a request for clarification or comment.

Either way, signs indicate that the government will be enforcing the new laws.

In early August, federal regulators stormed and shut down two community radio stations, Radio Axocotzin in the state of Puebla, and Radio Zacatepec in the state of Morelos, Artículo 19 reported. Authorities said the two stations were operating without permits. 

"The new laws discriminate, choke, and push community radios to the background," Aleida Calleja, a representative of Observacom, a regional monitor of communications public policy, told VICE News.

Why activists don't trust Mexico's new antitrust telecom laws. Read more here.

A March 2014 demonstration against the telecom reform package. Photo courtesy of AMARC México.

Community radio stations are technically illegal if they do not undergo an arduous process to be recognized by Mexico's federal telecommunications ministry. Only 19 currently are; 10 more are requesting permits, but complain of waits as long as three years to finish the paperwork, AMARC México, an international group supporting community radio, told VICE News.

Dozens more broadcast without government permits, but no reliable figures exist on their numbers.

State-owned public radio signals in Mexico are less BBC or NPR and more often a government mouthpiece. Community radio stations, on the other hand, usually emerge in far-flung reaches of the country, aimed at meeting the needs of residents neglected or ignored by distant bureaucrats. The low-power broadcasts often become crucial sources of alternative information in Mexico's monopolistic media landscape.

Radio Diversidad in Veracruz, for example, advocates for migrant sugarcane workers. Radio Totopo in Oaxaca is a voice of resistance against transnational wind farms. Radio Uandarhi in Michoacán teaches sexual and reproductive health in the local Purépecha language.

"Most community radios are born out of support for a social movement, like defense of territory or cultural rescue," Gisela Martínez, legal director at AMARC México, told VICE News. "In this way, they become a tool to organize the community."

One of the oldest community radio stations in Mexico, Radio Tierra y Libertad (Land and Liberty), in the northern city of Monterrey, is also rooted in activism.

It emerged in the 1970s while the city was becoming Mexico's industrial hub, and while many of the workers responsible for the boom were living in squalid shantytowns. Using loudspeakers mounted on pickup trucks, Tierra y Libertad began mobilizing laborers to demand decent housing. In that spirit, in 2001, Tierra y Libertad started transmitting its messages over a radio signal.

"We're participant radio," Hector Camero, the station's director, said in an interview. "It's about creating democracy in our country. We want people to talk about how their community or state or country is being governed."

Camero spent years applying for a community radio permit, which was repeatedly denied. His station continued transmitting anyway. In 2008, heavily armed police raided his station and arrested him. Sentenced in 2009 to two years in prison for broadcasting without a permit, Camero has been on bail ever since and fighting his case in Mexico's courts.

"There aren't usually direct threats on community radio," Artículo 19 representative Sebastián Aguirre told VICE News. "Instead, they pressure them with legal mechanisms."

"It's a message: Indians can't make decisions alone. Indians must respond to their government guardians."

The reform also prohibits private advertising on community radio stations. For years, these stations were traditionally forums for local advertising: Juana opened a new bakery … Leopoldo is selling his horse. 

Community stations, which regularly air dissent against local politicians, usually refrain from broadcasting government messages. But from now on, that will be their only source of income. Furthermore, starting a community radio station can be costly, said Martínez. A requisite government feasibility study can cost more than $7,500, on top of a permit fee, taxes, and broadcast equipment. Funding is almost non-existent.

Indigenous stations, broadcasting in languages still spoken by nearly 7 million Mexicans, are in an even worse position. Their radio permits can now only be obtained through the federal government's commission for the development of indigenous people.

"It's a message: Indians can't make decisions alone. Indians must respond to their government guardians," Martínez said.

The fine for broadcasting without a permit could cost an exorbitant US$435 million, or more than 82 million times the current daily minimum wage in Mexico of 69 pesos, or US$5.25 a day, according to a formula laid out in the law. If authorities pursue a criminal case, offenders could serve between two and 12 years in jail. A host of other fines and sanctions exist for not meeting technical standards.

In addition to Héctor Camero of Radio Tierra y Libertad, six other community broadcasters are either serving a sentence or are in court fighting charges. Most were outspoken opponents of energy or mining projects, AMARC México said.

"It's a strategy to keep community radios small, poor, and persecuted," Camero said.

When his station finally received a broadcast permit in 2009, the station requested a 500-watt signal, enough to cover the city but nothing like commercial stations, which get up to 50,000 watts. The government gave Radio Tierra y Libertad just 20 watts, a signal barely strong enough to escape their neighborhood.

"This is persecution. They know exactly what they're doing," Martínez said.

Mexico's government doesn't want to talk about a shooting that left 22 people dead. Read more here.

VICE News staff writer Rafael Castillo contributed to this report.