MEXICO CITY -- On Sept. 12, Rene Solorio, a 30-year-old crime reporter for the network Television Azteca, was pulled over by four men armed with pistols. They bound him, covered his eyes, put him on the floor in the back seat of a car and took off.
Solorio at first thought it was a robbery.
But over the next eight hours, his abductors told him repeatedly they were going to kill him for what he had shown on television. A few days earlier, Solorio had filmed a group of armed robbers at work on a busy city street, with police doing nothing. It had aired on the network's news show.
He offered up his car and his money for his life. His attackers were interested in neither. But even when they fired a gun near his head several times, even when they put a plastic bag over his head and watched as he began to suffocate -- even through all that, Solorio didn't break down.
"But when they told me they'd already killed my family, and gave me their names and described them, I couldn't handle it and just went into shock," he says. "I asked them to kill me. I just thought of God and my family."
As the sun came up, Solorio was left on a highway leading out of town. And his family was safe.
Solorio believes his attackers were police officers, or former officers, based on the way they spoke, their appearance and their behavior.
His is one of five recent abductions in which crime reporters here have been tortured and threatened by people who seem connected to the police.
Another Azteca reporter was kidnapped and beaten the same day as Solorio. A reporter for the daily El Universal was attacked and threatened by three men near the prison she covers. Two reporters for the daily Reforma investigating police ties to drug dealers have been tortured in recent weeks.
Television Azteca has offered $25,000 reward for information. The Mexico City Legislative Assembly has set up a commission to ensure that the attacks are investigated. Several journalist organizations have condemned the attacks and called on President Ernesto Zedillo to give priority to an inquiry.
"We trust that through his participation there will be a serious investigation," says Ricardo Trotti, a spokesman for the Inter American Press Association in Miami, which met this month with Zedillo about reporters' safety in Mexico. "These kinds of things can be a form of sending a message to all journalists and to see how authorities and journalists react. If authorities don't clarify the case, we run the risk of seeing this thing again."
Zedillo has said the attacks would not deter his administration from the conviction "that it is urgent to move forward, rigorously fighting criminality."
Mexican journalists say one problem is that the law regarding the news media has remained unchanged since about the time of the Mexican Revolution. Reporters have no guarantee of anonymity for their sources. Nor is there a public records law requiring government agencies to make information available.
It means that reporters "are working in an atmosphere of a total lack of protection," says Juan Bautista, president of the Fraternity of Reporters of Mexico.
The background to the abductions includes Mexico's prolonged economic crisis, which has caused crime to skyrocket, and a justice system that is crumbling under the weight of incompetence and corruption.
At the same time, a new society is emerging, one more open and critical of authority.
Mexico is moving away from its centralized political system, in which government controlled many areas of civic life. As part of that opening, the news media have found greater independence.
"As the system of controls breaks down, journalists are feeling more at liberty to investigate things that are considered relatively mundane in other countries, like police corruption," says Joel Simon, a spokesman for the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, and who was a free-lance writer in Mexico City.
Mexican reporters are also better educated and have a better grounding in journalistic ethics. In the past, reporters were paid subsistence-level wages and were expected to take the envelopes stuffed with money that officials offered in return for not making waves.
Now, news agencies fire reporters who take the envelopes. They are also hiring younger, better-educated reporters who haven't been tainted by the old system.
"They're better prepared, more able to do analysis and more ethical in their principles," says Bautista. "There's another way of seeing journalism."
But that trend has collided with another, more sinister one: After the devaluation of the peso in December 1994, crime in Mexico City soared.
In 1995, the rate of serious crimes rose more than 30 percent, a one-year increase on a scale that criminologists say has otherwise been recorded only in societies during wartime -- Tokyo in 1945, for example.
And crime became organized. Instead of the lone burglar or armed robber, residents of the capital now face organized bands of criminals -- armed robbers, truck and bus hijackers,kidnappers, bank robbers, car thieves and drug dealers.
Many of the gangs are believed to include former police officers or have police protection.
It's likely that the robbery Solorio filmed and aired was one such group in action.
"There's no doubt that organized crime has penetrated the public safety agencies in this city," Solorio says.
"The violence in Mexico City has really been around only in the last three years. Now it's not just one person. It's several, and they're very well-organized."
For now, journalist organizations await a response from the authorities.
Earlier this week, Bautista's group met with Attorney General Jorge Madrazo, who promised investigations into the attacks against the five reporters in Mexico City, as well as the murder of three journalists in other parts of the country.
Bautista said the journalists' organization will next month send to Congress a proposal to amend the legal code to include guarantees and protections for reporters and their sources.
But journalists for now remain exposed. And they are left to ponder what it means that the attackers in the recent cases did nothing to hide their faces.
If the point is to scare reporters off stories, Mexico, and Mexican journalism, may have changed too much already for that to happen: Television Azteca aired another video this week, showing car thieves dismantling vehicles on a public street during the day.
Pub Date: 9/27/97