Mario Menéndez vs. the Drug War

He’s the Voice of the Mexican People

In Mexico, untouchables are people who are protected by the power they wield. Two such men are Sam Dillon, who runs The New York Times's bureau in Mexico City, and Roberto Hernández, who owns Banco Nacional de Mexico (Banamex), the country's biggest bank. But this is the story of another untouchable: Mario Menéndez, the 63-year-old editor and publisher of Por Esto!, a newspaper chain that might be called the Village Voice of the Yucatán Peninsula.

Menéndez's only weapon is calling it as he sees it: He believes, for example, that Hernández is a "narcotics trafficker," Dillon is in the pocket of government officials, and U.S. "authorities" are managing the illegal drug trade in Mexico. He advocates legalization as the only solution to the drug war. Yet his papers flourish in a country best known for repression, and in March, he will travel to the U.S. at the invitation of Columbia Law School. His friends fear that by speaking his mind, he is risking his life.

When Menéndez launched Por Esto! in Mérida in 1991, he says, his aim was to start a newspaper "that was open to all beliefs. The only condition I insisted on was to tell the truth. It was very radical." El Diario de Yucatán, the paper of record, still displays the conservative, Catholic outlook that has dominated the region for years.

Por Esto! is a daily tabloid, designed a bit like USA Today with lots of short articles and color photos. The three-paper franchise is privately owned and boasts a paid circulation of 46,000 in the Yucatán state, 21,000 in Quintana Roo, and 4000 in Campeche. Some critics say Menéndez's one-sided and anti-establishment tone hurts his credibility, but then again, he publishes a variety of viewpoints and rare coverage of rural areas such as the Mayan villages of Chiapas.

Menéndez says, "I'm the only editor in chief of any paper in southeastern Mexico who does not own a yacht, an airplane, and several houses." Every two weeks he stages public assemblies in small towns, where thousands flock to complain about their papers and politicians. Por Esto! then publishes full transcripts, asserting what Menéndez calls "the voice of the people who do not have a voice in civil society."

Al Giordano, a former political reporter for The Boston Phoenix who now writes about Mexico, calls Menéndez's writing style "hyperbolic" yet "irresistible." "It's a very personal kind of class warfare . . . against the historically powerful of the region."

Allen Wells, an expert on Latin American history at Bowdoin College, says, "To be an advocacy journalist in Mexico is not a growth industry. For a gadfly like Menéndez to survive in that kind of climate, he must have his own powerful friends as well—because you don't print the kind of stuff that he does for long and survive."

But Menéndez seems fated to be a recording angel. In October 1968, after he and Oriana Fallaci saw student protesters gunned down in Mexico City, he published photos and reports of the massacre in Por Qué?, his now defunct magazine. In response, the Mexican police closed the magazine and threw him in jail. Upon his release, he was exiled to Cuba for 10 years.

Cut to December 16, 1996, the day Por Esto! published the first in a long series denouncing Roberto Hernández as a "narco-trafficker." After Menéndez got a complaint from a fishing collective whose members felt they were victims of a land grab by Hernández, Por Esto! reporters found packages of cocaine washed up on the banker's beaches.

Hernández is a former stockbroker who won Banamex at auction when it was privatized in 1991. In the last election cycle, he held a million-dollar fundraiser for the dominant political party, the PRI, and his company is now worth $2.5 billion. One thing he has done with his money is to scoop up property on the Caribbean coast of Quintana Roo, turning assorted pockets of environmental paradise into luxury hotels. As the Times has reported, the so-called Mexican Riviera is a convenient transfer point for the Colombia-to-U.S. drug trade.

But that doesn't make Hernández a drug trafficker. In 1997, even as Por Esto! filed criminal complaints against Hernández for drug trafficking and other counts, Hernández asked the government to file a criminal libel action against Menéndez. (In Mexico, such actions are regularly used to silence journalists.) Por Esto! continued to investigate, and the allegations reached Sam Dillon in September 1998, when he traveled to the Yucatán to pursue alleged ties between Mario Villanueva, then governor of Quintana Roo, and the ever present drug trade.

Dillon recalls talking to Por Esto! reporters. "We gave him the material and said go verify it for yourself," reports Menéndez. But Dillon was too busy to pursue the story. According to one source, "He talked to the sister of Roberto Hernández, a member of the divine caste of Mérida, but couldn't find the time to talk to the fishermen."

Dillon was unmoved. "As far as I could determine," he says, "the only evidence Por Esto! had for their claims was that people were landing cocaine along [Hernández's] properties along the coast of Quintana Roo. That's the stupidest thing I've ever heard. Cocaine lands all along that coastline, and no one suggests that the people who own those beaches are running the drug.

"You rarely encounter an allegation about someone's involvement in the drug trade in Mexico that doesn't have some political vendetta behind it," Dillon continues. And indeed, everyone seems to agree that Hernández and Villanueva had some kind of . . . business dispute. Aside from the sources, the Hernández allegations sound eerily similar to the Villanueva allegations reported in an A-1 Times story by Dillon and Tim Golden on November 26, 1998.

One of the Times's sources was a senior Mexican official, who declared the odds better than even that Villanueva would be indicted after his term ended in April 1999, under the suspicion that his state police were involved in the drug trade. Sure enough, on March 28, Villanueva went on the lam, shortly before a warrant was issued for his arrest. He called the charges politically motivated, telling the Mexican magazine Proceso, "Behind this smear campaign . . . I see the hand of Roberto Hernández."

One big difference between the Hernández and Villanueva accusations is that the latter were backed up by authorities. As Dillon points out, "One of the problems in covering the drug trade . . . is that the intelligence agencies of the U.S. and Mexican governments have a near monopoly on reliable information." He calls Por Esto!'s allegations "so silly that no one's ever paid any attention to them." Indeed, Dillon found it unremarkable that when President Clinton met his Mexican counterpart last year, the setting was Mérida's Hacienda Temozon, a fancy hotel owned by Hernández.

And yet, the Hernández controversy burns on. Al Giordano reported on it in the Phoenix last May, and in September 1999, the Associated Press's Mark Stevenson published his investigation, calling the drug charges inconclusive but finding convincing evidence that Hernández was a land grabber. Two days later, on September 6, a Mexican judge threw out Hernández's libel suit because, according to the judge's order, "all the accusations formed by [Menéndez] were based on facts." Hernández did not return calls for comment.

"Every newspaper kept silent about the October 1968 massacre," says Menéndez. "That doesn't mean it didn't happen." The publisher's trip to the U.S. coincides with Congress's annual March debate over Mexico's progress in the drug war, and drug czar Barry McCaffrey's visit to Mexico earlier this month. The drug czar also has corruption on his mind, according to a news brief filed by Dillon on February 11. Noting that Mexican officials had "documented a $60 million bribe from the drug lords," McCaffrey said, "That's getting close to my price."

ccotts@villagevoice.com

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