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Mexico aims to protect reporters from cartel violence

Image: Friends, colleagues and family members mourn the death of Luis Carlos Santiago during his funeral in Ciudad Juarez
Friends, colleagues and family members mourn the death of Luis Carlos Santiago during his recent funeral in Ciudad Juarez. Santiago, a 21-year old news photographer working with Juarez-based newspaper El Diario, was killed Thursday in an attack by gunmen.Alejandro Bringas / Reuters
/ Source: msnbc.com staff and news service reports

President Felipe Calderon announced a plan Wednesday to protect journalists in Mexico, where violence against reporters has surged since the government launched a crackdown on drug traffickers nearly four years ago.

The plan includes an early warning system in which reporters would have immediate access to authorities when threatened, the creation of a council to identify the causes behind attacks on reporters, legal reforms, and a package of "best practices" in journalism, according to a statement from Calderon's office.

Coming almost a week after a newspaper photographer was killed in the violent border city of Ciudad Juarez, Calderon's announcement was issued after he met with members of the Committee to Protect Journalists and the Inter-American Press Association. The program will be implemented starting next month.

The Inter-American Press Association raised the need to make attacks on the news media a federal crime, establish higher penalties and ensure no statue of limitations be set on these cases, said the group's vice president, Gonzalo Marroquin.

"We came to Mexico with the intention of expressing solidarity with the government, with the people of Mexico, and with journalists and media in this country," Marroquin said in a statement.  "We want to build a common front against violence and thereby protect the fundamental right of citizens to be informed."

President Calderon on Wednesday also announced the arrest of a suspect in the murder of leading Ciudad Juarez reporter Armando Rodríguez Carreón in 2008, a slaying shook and demoralized Mexico's press corps. The suspect and his accomplices had been motivated by Rodriguez’s coverage of drug trafficking, Mexican officials said.

Spiraling violence
Gang violence has spiraled upward in Mexico since Calderon began an offensive against organized crime when he took office in December 2006. Drug violence has taken more than 28,000 lives as rival cartels fight each other and stage increasingly bold attacks on security forces, government officials and journalists.

At least 22 Mexican journalists have been killed and at least seven others have gone missing over the past four years, according to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists.

Mexico's plan resembles one put in place in Colombia at the height of drug related violence in the South American country, Marroquin said. He said the program in Colombia was successful and included moving threatened journalists out of the areas where they worked and not adding bylines to stories on Colombia's cocaine business.

Calderon's announcement comes a week after the killing of a photographer for the El Diario newspaper in Ciudad Juarez. Luis Carlos Santiago, 21, was ambushed last Thursday while driving a car linked to a Chihuahua state human rights commission member who had received several threats in what authorities say in possibly a case of mistaken identity.

The largest newspaper in Ciudad Juarez on Sunday called for a truce with the border city's warring drug cartels after the killing of its photographer, the second of its journalists to be slain in less than two years.

In a front-page editorial, El Diario de Juarez asked the cartels what they want from the newspaper so it can continue its work without further death, injury or intimidation of its staff.

Marroquin said that as long as measures such as the journalists' protection plan are implemented and authorities pursue killers, a message will be sent to organized crime that there will be consequences for the attacks.

"The media should be very firm so that organized crime understands that when a journalist is assaulted they are attacking all of society," he said.