The Sam Dillon Story

All the News That Wasn't Printed

May 28, 2000 -- Special to The Narco News Bulletin by Al Giordano


MEXICO CITY, MAY 2000: The New York Times has announced the replacement of its Mexico City bureau chief, Sam Dillon, only weeks before the July 2nd presidential election in that country.

The new bureau chief is former Baltimore Sun Mexico correspondent Ginger Thompson, 35. She will be joined in September by the Times' new Mexico correspondent, Tim Weiner, 43, formerly of the Philadelphia Enquirer. Village Voice "Press Clips" columnist, Cynthia Cotts, who wrote the February 2000 story that may have ended Mr. Dillon's troubled stint in the world's largest metropolis, calls the new line up of Ms. Thompson and Mr. Weiner "a dream team."

Also leaving the Times Mexico City bureau, according to Ms. Cotts' recent column, will be Mr. Dillon's spouse, Julia Preston.

Mrs. Dillon-Preston is a former Boston Globe correspondent in Nicaragua whose bias against the elected Sandinista government made her a favorite of Reagan administration officials. In January of 1985, she actively lobbied a group of international reporters and observers on a press bus in Managua to oppose the Sandinista government. (This strange display was made in front of witnesses that included the late North American radical Abbie Hoffman and his then-assistant: the now publisher of The Narco News Bulletin.) At that very time, the Reagan administration was engaged in a covert campaign of counter-intelligence in Nicaragua that included the illegal smuggling of hundreds of tons of Colombian cocaine to provide arms for the paramilitary "contra" troops -- and corresponding manipulation of US press coverage to destabilize the Nicaraguan government.

The Dillon-Preston term at the Times' Mexico bureau was marked by a questionable concentration of Times Mexico coverage in the hands of one family. The coverage -- guided by Mr. Dillon's stated journalistic theory that only "official sources" count -- became easily manipulated by Mexico's ruling regime and the Salinas-allied bankers who control it.

The Dillon years were also marked by the repeated and unsubstantiated claims in the New York Times that Mexico now has free and fair elections. But as the July 2nd national vote nears, electoral fraud, vote-buying and repression against political opponents and international election observers remains the hard Mexican reality.

Mr. Dillon's career moment came when he won part of a Pulitzer prize due to a story on Mexican state governors involved in drug trafficking. But as Mr. Dillon himself has curiously said when defending the narco-banker Roberto Hernández, charges of drug trafficking against public officials usually have "a political agenda" behind them. His award has left a shadow over the Pulitzer -- much as the Nobel Peace Prize was tainted by its award to former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. This year, the Pulitzer committee, for the first time in 14 years, declined to give the Times a single award.

Mr. Dillon has been the subject of a journalistic investigation by The Narco News Bulletin since March, 19, 1999. Mr. Dillon's downfall began in December of 1996, when the Mérida-based daily Por Esto! published photographs and a major investigative report on cocaine trafficking in the Caribbean beachfront properties of Roberto Hernández Ramírez, owner of BANAMEX, the privatized Mexican National Bank.

In September of 1998, when US and Mexican officials had chosen Quintana Roo governor Mario Villanueva to take the fall for the institutionalized drug corruption permitted by both governments, Mr. Dillon headed for Cancún. There, the cocaine trafficking in the Mr. Hernández's properties -- complete with private airfield and 43 kilometers of beaches for Colombian cocaine boats to enter -- continued to rage as a public controversy.

Mr. Dillon co-authored a November 1998 Times story, based on unnamed official sources, that noted that Mr. Villanueva's head was about to roll. But Mr. Dillon made no mention in his story of the feud that Villanueva had with the banker Hernández (a close friend of Mexican president Ernesto Zedillo) over Caribbean beachfront properties in "the cocaine triangle" region south of Cancún.

Nationally-respected Mexican journalists from Julio Hernández López of La Jornada to Carlos Ramírez of El Universal have reported what NY Times readers never learned: that Mr. Villanueva's dispute with the BANAMEX president played a central role in the former governor's downfall. Now a fugitive, Mr. Villanueva has openly blamed the banker Mr. Hernández as "the hand behind" federal government prosecution of him.

During his brief sweep through the Yucatán peninsula, Mr. Dillon interviewed reporters at the Cancún bureau of Por Esto! about the Hernández story, but strangely declined the opportunity to interview the newspaper's very formidable veteran editor and publisher Mario Menéndez Rodríguez, based in Mérida.

The Por Esto! editor was, at that time, under fierce attack by a BANAMEX lawsuit and persecution by the federal Attorney General's office; they alleged that Por Esto! had illegally trespassed on the banker's properties when they took the photographs of cocaine trafficking. The federal Attorney General -- long one of Mr. Dillon's favorite "official sources" -- had, in fact, refused to investigate the criminal complaint filed by Por Esto! against Mr. Hernández for drug trafficking, environmental destruction and damage to ancient Mayan ruins on his properties.

In other words, to the Mexican Attorney General, the photos of cocaine trafficking on Mr. Hernández property were good enough to wield as evidence against the Por Esto! photographer González Subirats and the other authentic journalists at the newspaper for trespassing, but the more serious crimes that the photographs exposed would remain above the law.

In September of 1999, the Mexican Supreme Court dismissed the BANAMEX lawsuit against Mr. Menéndez, saying, "All the reports by Mr. Menéndez were based on the facts."

Although Mr. Dillon refused to interview the director of Por Esto! he did in fact go to Mérida, where he met with the sister of the narco-banker Mr. Hernández. There, Mr. Dillon's "investigations" apparently stopped until March 19, 1999.

And Mr. Dillon never interviewed the fishermen of the Cozumel Cooperative who first blew the whistle on Mr. Hernández's cocaine trafficking. Their story remains to be told in the New York Times.

Nor did Mr. Dillon report the story of US citizen Cynthia Robinson -- told by the Associated Press and published in the Wall Street Journal in September 1999 -- who was was threatened off her small plot of Caribbean paradise by operatives of Mr. Hernández, who left her with the distinct impression that they could arrange her own arrest on false drug charges if she did not sell her plot to BANAMEX. Fearing for her life, she fled her land.

In February of 1999, Mr. Hernández was host to the "anti-drug" summit near Mérida of US President Bill Clinton and Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de León.

It was precisely at that meeting that the prosecution of the narco-banker's competitor Mr. Villanueva was traded in exchange for the US certification of Mexico, an official charade that took place fifteen days later. (None of this was a secret to informed Mexicans: La Jornada columnist Jaime Avilés had predicted in December 1998 that the "anti-drug summit" would result in the offer of the head of Mr. Villanueva as tribute to US officials.)

Most of the US reporters covering the trip were so controlled in their two-day schedule that they had no idea that the people of the Yucatán peninsula widely considered the presidential host to be a major drug trafficker. Nor did they know, at that time, that the US Federal Reserve Bank was investigating BANAMEX for drug money laundering, invoking "The Fed's Death Penalty" statute against Mexico's largest bank.

But Mr. Dillon later confessed that he did, in fact, know of the charges against the presidential host. "I decided it would be a cheap shot," to report those facts, he told Narco News publisher Al Giordano on March 19, 1999.

That was the day that Mr. Giordano received an unsolicited phone call from Mr. Dillon, whom he did not know. The Pulitzer prize winner first pumped the relatively powerless freelance reporter for information; he wanted to know what Mr. Giordano "had on Hernández," according to Mr. Giordano's notes of the conversation.

This sad tale of abuse of power by the NY Times reporter was alluded to on May 6, 2000 in The Narco News Bulletin, in an essay by Mr. Giordano on corrupt drug war journalism:

"When I took on the Menéndez story a little over a year ago, the threat against me was not delivered by the narco, nor by anyone in government. The dark messenger was a powerful, prize-winning reporter, whom I did not know, but whom called me by telephone and made various threats of what he would do to discredit me if I published the story. I would like to mention his name here but to do so would distract from the higher purpose of this story, and probably assure that nobody beyond my own on-line newspaper would publish it."

In that column, the publisher of The Narco News Bulletin signaled to the powers-that-be at the New York Times and the greater journalistic community that the threat made against him -- and against the Mexican journalist Mario Menéndez Rodríguez -- by the Times correspondent Mr. Dillon was not a closed matter. The column continued:

"Once the Menéndez story was published in the Phoenix, I did send a memo to the newspaper of that "journalist" relaying my notes on his threatening phone call to me. There was no response. That esteemed institution didn't even bother to question me, to discern the accuracy or inaccuracy of my claims. And the "journalist" in question responded by calling my neighbor -- maybe he thought she lived with me -- and yelled at her. That "journalist" is still on the job. Impunity is not the sole realm of politicians. It runs amok in journalism as well.

"That experience sensitized me to the question of corrupt journalists. I have begun to look more suspiciously at my colleagues, and to view what forces benefit from their reporting, along with keeping an eye on their economic status, on how they live. Yet law enforcement agencies need not always buy a reporter with money. There is an implicit racket of information: a reporter who looks the other way at the abuses of power is often rewarded with scoops and documents by those very same officials. He becomes their informational hit man against their enemies. And the authentic journalists among us thus work even harder, digging for facts, poking around where we are unwelcome, having signaled our non-cooperation with journalistic racketeering."

Mr. Dillon's retention of control at the important Times Mexico City bureau perhaps was not helped when, on May 15, 2000, his fellow Minnesota native James Romenesko published a link to that essay on his Media News publication, a must-read daily web site frequented by US journalists.

The Narco News Bulletin, in fact, signaled that Mr. Dillon was under investigation by our online newspaper on our first day of publication, April 18, 2000, in a sidebar titled "The New York Times' Sam Dillon Problem," reprinted here:

The New York Times' Sam Dillon problem:

See the New York weekly Village Voice "Press Clips" column by Cynthia Cotts of Feb. 23-29 in which Mr. Dillon admits that, since 1998, he has known about the narco-accusations against BANAMEX owner Roberto Hernández. And view his lame reasons for why he never published that story.

And Mr. Dillon acknowledges that even when President Bill Clinton visited Hernández's Yucatán hacienda -- for an "anti-drug" summit! -- in February 1999, he decided not to inform Times readers that Hernández is widely regarded in that region as a major narco-trafficker.

Perhaps Mr. Dillon's discounting of the Cárdenas candidacy was a punishment for the candidate's audacity to criticize the New York Times' protected informant, the "narco-banker," Roberto Hernández.

According to Proceso magazine, Hernández was the silent hand behind press accusations - including in the NY Times? - against his arch-rival in the competition for coastal lands in "the Cocaine Triangle" south of Cancún; the now fugitive ex-governor Mario Villanueva.

The transparent dismissal by the Times scribe of the Cárdenas candidacy - its newsworthy surge be damned - was to "report" that Fox now represents the only serious opposition to the PRI. (Numerous Mexican journalists and commentators have referred to FOX's National Action Party, or PAN, as "the domesticated opposition," in sum, just another head on the same hydra.)

The vote is on July 2nd. The next ten weeks will tell. And Narco News asserts that the Mexican electoral situation is far more complicated and volatile than NY Times readers can grasp based on the scant information they are provided. The game underway in Mexico is not what US voters would call a normal election, despite the persistent efforts by the likes of Mr. Dillon to spin the incredible party line that democracy exists south of the Border.

Advice to New Yorkers who want accurate news on US-Mexican relations: seek alternate routes. Thanks to Mr. Dillon -- subject of an ongoing Narco News investigation -- Times readers now know who polished Mr. Fox's boots. Discerning readers can also see which powerful media correspondent is licking them. But why? There are answers to that question and Narco News is hot on the trail: Stay tuned.

And in our May 15, 2000 publication of our "Open Letter" to New York Times authentic journalist Max Frankel, the publisher of The Narco News Bulletin wrote:

Dear Max Frankel,

Your essay, "Call of the Andes," was marvelous and much needed: a message to the press corps from an Authentic Journalist.

I write from Latin America, and came across your essay through the NY Times Magazine internet site.

In fact, 18 days ago, we launched an online newspaper, The Narco News Bulletin, precisely to help fill the vacuum of authentic bi-lingual coverage of the drug war:

Like your essay, we have praised the coverage of NY Times reporter Tim Golden.

I'm sorry to say -- I might as well tell you up front -- that we have also been sharply critical of the reporting of other NY Times correspondents down here. But we call it like we see it, let the chips fall where they may...."

In fact, on May 12, 1999, one year prior, the Narco News publisher sent a four-page letter to New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis, in that paper's Boston bureau, quoting from his notes of the March 19, 1999 conversation in which Mr. Dillon threatened the freelance reporter. The letter was faxed the day before the Boston Phoenix published Mr. Giordano's story on the Clinton-Zedillo summit having been hosted by a presumed major drug trafficker.

But neither Mr. Giordano nor The Narco News Bulletin believe that their modest efforts have any weight at the New York Times. It took, in fact, the courageous reporting of another New York journalist to blow the lid off the case; an esteemed media critic whose column is also a "must read" among the New York press corps.

Mr. Dillon might well have maintained control over Times coverage of Mexico had it not been for the February 23rd column by the highly respected and scrupulously fair New York media critic Cynthia Cotts of the Village Voice. That was the story in which Mr. Dillon admitted publicly that he knew of the unsavory narco-reputation of Clinton-Zedillo host Hernández but had decided to withhold that information from Times readers.

Ms. Cotts, who also broke the story last week that Mr. Dillon and his family will be replaced at the Times bureau, was so fair and evenhanded that she declined to take credit for being the first US journalist to expose Mr. Dillon. She professionally went on to the new story: identifying the new bureau chief and correspondent for the Times, reporting about them and the challenge before them.

Our role, however, at The Narco News Bulletin, as declared in our opening statement, is to push the US and global media into better, more accurate, coverage of the drug war in Latin America.

And so we now fill in the gaps of our previous stories and identify Mr. Dillon as the "journalist" who threatened our publisher, and through him, Por Esto! publisher Mr. Mario Menéndez Rodríguez.

And we also, on this day in May 2000, utilize the timing of this major media shake-up to award Mr. Mario Menéndez Rodríguez as Drug War Hero of the Month.

Mr. Dillon is leaving the Times bureau. To be replaced only weeks before the historic federal election must be a humiliating experience for Mr. Dillon, as various US reporters have commented to Narco News in recent days. The timing of Mr. Dillon's removal sends a clear signal about his fallen status there. But he brought it upon himself with his own unethical behavior.

Mr. Menéndez is still publishing, 365 days a year, one of the best, most cutting-edge, daily newspapers in the hemisphere. He covers the historic events of Mexico every single day. Today, on May 28, 2000, The Narco News Bulletin publishes a translation of his most recent journalistic tour-de-force, "Dare to Legalize."

It is still unclear what the New York Times will do with Mr. Dillon. He has, after all, been part of a team that won a Pulitzer for the paper. It would be almost unthinkable that the Times would fire him outright. He will probably continue to write occassional stories for the Times (although we imagine they will be more carefully reviewed by his superiors).

At Narco News, we keep pushing to tell the truth about US drug policy abroad, no matter who tries to intimidate us. To those corrupt and unethical journalists who serve official and powerful interests, to those who keep the US public so badly-informed on the drug war, we hold up the story of Sam Dillon as an example: be fair, and be aware, tyrants always fall.

Would anybody else like to threaten us now?