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Four journalists released after being held for six days by criminals

(CEPET/IFEX) - On 31 July 2010, after six days of being held by an organised crime group, four journalists were released in Gómez Palacio, Durango (northern Mexico). In an unprecedented case, the journalists were kidnapped on the afternoon of 26 July to force their media outlets to broadcast videos of interrogations carried out by alleged collaborators of a rival group. In exchange, they offered to keep the journalists alive.

The companies that these journalists work for had asked other media outlets and authorities not to reveal the details of the case in order to protect the lives and safety of their colleagues. However, in a radio interview, the secretary of the Durango state government, Oliverio Reza Cuéllar, spoke about the disappearance of the journalists only hours after the kidnapping. Later, the National Human Rights Commission (Comisión Nacional de los Derechos Humanos, CNDH) released a statement calling for their release; the statement was removed from their website following outcry from the country's journalists who thought it was unwise to publicise information about the case.

Jaime Canales Fernández, a camera operator for Multimedios Laguna; Héctor Gordoa Márquez, the head of information from the programme "Punto de Partida" de Televisa México and Alejandro Hernández Pacheco, a camera operator for Televisa Torreón, were kidnapped while covering protests by defendants and families at the Centro de Readaptación Social número 2, in Gómez Palacio. The protestors were asking for the reinstatement of the director, Margarita Rojas Rodríguez, who had been accused of allowing drug dealers to leave the prison and use government vehicles and weapons to kill members of rival gangs.

Around 3:00 p.m., when the journalists were going to the airport after covering the protest, two groups of armed men intercepted their vehicle and ordered them to get out. They were taken captive and moved to a safe house near Invierno and Fresno streets in the Miguel de la Madrid district of Gómez Palacio.

According to the newspaper "Milenio", owned by the Multimedios group, throughout the afternoon of July 26 the journalists communicated with their outlets and confirmed that they had been kidnapped by hired killers and criminals who were upset with the media coverage of the Gómez Palacio prison protests. Jaime Canales told Multimedios that their captors wanted them to broadcast three videos, in which people were interrogated about the alleged complicity of Durango and Coahuila authorities in the activists of the Los Zetas gang.

Around the same time, the Durango Attorney General's Office reported the discovery of two burned vehicles in the Las Huertas district of Gómez Palacio, in which it was assumed the Multimedios and Televisa journalists had been travelling before they were captured.

A fourth journalist, Óscar Solís Gurrola, a reporter with the "El Vespertino" newspaper, was taken from his home on the night of 26 July by an armed group and released hours later on 27 July. No further details are known about this incident.

The demands made by the kidnappers - who have been identified as members a cell of the Pacific Cartel - were met. At 1:40 p.m. on 27 July, Canal 9 - Multimedios Laguna broadcast the videos mentioned by the kidnappers. Despite the fact that the negotiations were very discrete, the secretary for the Durango state government revealed capture of the journalists.

The "Milenio" editorial director, Ciro Gómez Leyva, criticized the indiscretion: "On the afternoon of 26 July we knew that a group of journalists had disappeared. That night, we knew who they were and what had happened, and that some of them had made contact with the media. We learned that their vehicles had been burned and there began the negotiation process, which included one request: to remain silent."

"Talented journalists, our colleagues, did something that is rarely seen: they spoke with other media outlets, asking them to hold reports on the incident, asking for some time so that contact could be made with the people holding these journalists. The mainstream media, the country's leading newspapers, agreed without asking for anything in return."

He also questioned whether the Durango government really thought that these journalists' media outlets didn't know that they had been kidnapped and did not consider the possibility that the media may have been in the process of negotiations. "Did it not enter their minds that not only the outlets directly affected by the kidnapping, but almost all the national media had chosen to stay quiet for a few hours as a show of solidarity? " said Gómez Leyva.

By 28 July most of the national media, as well as "Milenio", had the story on their front pages. On 29 July Héctor Gordoa, from Televisa México, was freed. However, additional conditions were put on the release of the remaining two journalists.

In his Millennium TV newscast, Gómez Leyva presented the "Milenio" and Multimedia position, and announced that the outlets had left the negotiations: "A media outlet is not equipped to negotiate a hostage situation [. . .] the Mexican state needs to lead the management of this crisis, which is not about television, but national security [. . .] Let it be the state's decision whether or not to broadcast a video that is worth the life of several journalists and could trigger all kinds of violence."

On 31 July Federal Police carried out a rescue operation to free Jaime Canales and Alejandro Hernández; both had experienced physical and psychological abuse.

According to federal authorities, the kidnappers fled when police freed Canales and Hernández.

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