In many ways, The Narco News Bulletin would not exist had I never encountered the work of Mario Renato Menéndez Rodríguez on February 14, 1999.
I was sitting at a small, empty, restaurant in Mérida, Yucatan, at that moment a semi-retired journalist, wondering why I had put my cleats on again to cover the "anti-drug" summit of President Bill Clinton and his Mexican counterpart Ernesto Zedillo. This was my first assignment in three years from the Boston Phoenix, where I had labored three years as political reporter in the mid-1990s.
The White House press corps, along for the ride, was so meticulously controlled by their handlers, kept in luxury hotel rooms and restaurants that were guarded by US secret service agents, offered junkets to Mayan ruins and beaches in exchange for not spending their time investigating or reporting. Everything reminded me of why, in 1996, I got out of the business of journalism.
On the table there were totopos -- corn chips -- and three sauces: mild, mild and spicey hot. I sampled them while looking through the three major daily newspapers in Mérida. Like the salsas in front of me, there were two mild newspapers -- with typical officially-manufactured "coverage" of the presidential summit -- and the third, a brightly colored spicey-hot daily named Por Esto!
Por Esto! had a banner headline with the name of the powerful banker who hosted the presidential anti-drug summit. It said: "Roberto Hernández Ramírez: Narcotraficante."
There were photographs, dozens of them, of cocaine, of once-pristine beaches littered with cocaine containers, of the dead body of a narco-sailor washed upon the shore, of a private airfield on the banker's beachfront properties... all supported by witness testimony, documents, facts, and something that one rarely sees in the US media: historic memory. The article was part of a three-part series that Por Esto! ran on that Valentine's Day weekend of '99.
The implication was staggering: if the United States President was holding an "anti-drug" summit at the hacienda of a man publicly accused for over two years of drug trafficking, then the US war on drugs had reached a new level of impunity and immunity in the press corps.
Of course, I had to consider the distinct possibility that the story was not true. And so I dedicated the next three months to researching and investigating the story. I listened to all sides. I even listened to NY Times correspondent Sam Dillon when he called me one day out of the blue to find out what I had learned and, as explained in a related story in Narco News today, made a threat to use his power to destroy my credibility and that of the Por Esto! publisher. Ironically, it was Dillon's unsolicited phone call that caused me to drop all other stories I was investigating and devote my time exclusively to the case of the presidential host.
The preponderance of the evidence eventually converted into what lawyers call "beyond a reasonable doubt." Indeed, the banker was a drug trafficker, and, more startling, the US Ambassador to Mexico and the White House knew it when they agreed to hold the "anti-drug" summit on his land.
After the presidents came and left, I made my way to the offices of Por Esto! in Mérida, and asked to see the journalist who had written the story. I knew nothing about Mario Menéndez then, not what he looked like, not his age, not his history. All I knew were his words, his three days of reports on the narco-banker and on all the events related to the Clinton-Zedillo summit.
I did not know that Menéndez, in 1963, had been the first foreign journalist to interview Fidel Castro in Cuba. Nor did I know that in 1966 the Colombian goverment had sentenced him to death after he refused to give them information he had collected while two months in the jungle with the Army of National Liberation (he was freed at the insistence of other world leaders, but still cannot set foot on Colombian soil, where a life sentence at hard labor hangs over his head for his journalistic work.)
The previous October, in 1998, I had read a New York Times story by the same Sam Dillon about the 30th commemoration of the October 2, 1968 massacre of student protestors in Mexico City. I had attended the 30th anniversary protest and spoken with many of the 100,000 plus youths in the nation's capital who had historic memory of events that shamed the world even before they were born.
That same NY Times story by Dillon mentioned that only one publication in Mexico, in 1968, had published photos and reports of the massacre -- which, 30 years later was the subject of dozens of books and widespread press reflection -- and that the magazine had been closed down by Mexican officials. (What kind of a pendejo would not then tell the name of that heroic magazine or the courageous journalists behind it? One with a hidden agenda.) The Times story declined to inform that the magazine, the only one to tell the truth of the 1968 massacre, was named "Por Qué?," or "Why?" and that it was edited and published by Mario Renato Menéndez Rodríguez.
"Por Esto!" means "That's Why!" And again in 1999, as in 1968, Menéndez was being persecuted for being the only journalist to tell the truth about what in future years will be viewed as major historical events.
Nor did I know that Menéndez has logged more miles in the mountains and jungles of Latin America with guerrilla movements than any other reporter alive: El Salvador, Guatemala, Venezuela, Colombia, Mexico and more. In the 1970s he toured as a journalist alongside of Vietnamese General Giap in combat against regimes in Laos and Cambodia. I knew from my brief moments "on the mountain" that this is the toughest kind of journalistic assignment. Why then, in all my years in journalism, had I never heard of Mario Menéndez?
Perhaps the reluctance of too many "journalists" to admit that Mario Menéndez exists is best explained by Orianna Falacci -- who was with Menéndez in Tlalteloco plaza during the 1968 student massacre and was injured during the shooting -- in her 1974 book, "A Man," about her years with the late Greek revolutionary Alexandrous Panagoulis. The overriding theme of that book is that when a real man or woman appears in history, too many less courageous individuals feel instinctively threatened and seek to wish him or her out of sight, out of mind. They realize that they cannot control him or her, and so they go to all lengths to discredit and ignore the presence of greatness among them.
The fact remains that, in 1968, the Menéndez-published Por Qué? enjoyed the largest circulation of any periodical in Mexican history: 2 million copies. When we consider that today, in 2000, all the daily newspapers in Mexico combined sell just one million copies a day, perhaps it is time for print journalists to offer more serious study -- as some European journalism schools have begun to do -- of the Menéndez form of journalism. After all, isn't it a popular theme among print journalists that the printed word is dying, or at least struggling? Perhaps Menéndez -- who in nine short years of publishing a daily after his return to Mexico from exile has conqured more than five percent of the national newspaper market -- could offer the Free Press some answers as it seeks to stay alive.
What happened to Mario Menéndez after he reported on the 1968 massacre? He was given sanctuary in the forests by Mayan indians in Kanxoc, and when the Mexican military came looking for him the indigenous populations throughout the states of Yucatán, Quintana Roo, Campeche, Tabasco and Chiapas guided him, by foot, through the jungles, from community to community to protect him.
In the early 1970s, he kept publishing Por Qué? and developed a form of journalism since made globally famous through the internet by the Zapatista Subcommander Marcos. Por Qué? began to publish, uncensored and unedited, written communiqués by guerrilla leaders from the state of Guerrero: Lucio Cabañas and Genaro Vásquez. And so the Mexican ruling regime found Menéndez one day in Mexico City, arrested him, took him to an infamous prison called The Black Palace, where they tortured him and anyone they thought who knew him, with brutal violence.
The guerrilla movement in Guerrero then kidnapped the regional director of Coca-Cola, and won the release of 40 political prisoners in exchange for the business magnate's freedom. Mario Menéndez was released by that act, but officials did not let him go onto Mexican soil. First, they blew up the offices of Por Qué? with a bomb, destroying everything. Then they put Menéndez on a Mexican airforce plane, took away his passport, and dumped him in Cuba, were he lived for almost a decade teaching journalism and studying philosophy.
In the early 1980s, the influential Masonic Lodges of Mexico, with a strong base in the Yucatán peninsula where Menéndez was born and raised, began a campaign to have him allowed back into his homeland. Then President José López Portillo had Menéndez flown to Mexico to speak to him personally. He made one demand in exchange for allowing Menéndez to return: That he not re-start the magazine with the name Por Qué?
Thus, Por Esto! was born, first as a national magazine, and later as a regional daily that now grows in national and international influence. From "Why?" to "That's Why!"
The other key set of facts I did not know about Mario Menéndez in early 1999 regarded the new method he had developed of making journalism. Alone among editors and publishers in North America, Menéndez puts his newspaper to the test of public fire every two weeks. On every second Saturday, he travels to a town or city on the Yucatán peninsula, often in isolated areas where the Mayan language is spoken more frequently than Spanish. Por Esto! invites the people of the communities to come forward and speak their minds, openly, for hours and hours, until everyone has said what they want to say. The people know that their words, no matter what they say, will be published in Por Esto! They can criticize the newspaper or its editor, and the newspaper will print it. Hundreds of citizens come to each of these meetings, and often thousands attend in town squares and other public places.
The warmth that the working people of the Yucatán have for the Por Esto! editor provides a stark contrast with how most citizens view the news media. They feel that Por Esto! is their newspaper. Often, as in Playa del Carmen, Quintana Roo, last year, when local citizens discovered that underwater cable lines were damaging fragile coral reefs, the citizens themselves went and took underwater photos of the damage and gave them to Por Esto!, which immediately published them. When the attorney general's office then threatened the citizens with prosecution -- shamelessly, the rumored charge was that the citizens damaged the reefs when they took the photos -- Por Esto! launched an all-out campaign to defend the citizenry.
It is this bond between publisher and public that protects Mario Menéndez on the Yucatán. It causes governors to fear him. And it is a bond that simply doesn't exist between the US press and its readers. And perhaps if this bond did exist, the newspaper industry would not be failing, but thriving again. And perhaps, sadly, this explains the unwarranted hostility that lesser lights like Sam Dillon of the NY Times, who has never met him, have toward him. It is nothing more or less than the envy and jealousy of "powerful" people who are not free toward political outsiders who, in fact, for the support of the public, are more free to tell the truth.
One critic of Menéndez -- a lesser journalist who also has never met him but who avidly reads Narco News where we have praised Menéndez and his work before -- said to me, almost in accusation, "Obviously, you're his friend."
That's a compliment.
When I wrote the story of Mario Menéndez and his reports about the narco-banker and the Clinton-Zedillo summit, he was just a subject of my own journalistic investigations. The first time I ever socialized with Menéndez outside of his office was seven months after publishing the story; on New Year's Eve for the Millenium, in Mérida. He and his creative intellectual wife Alicia, a Cuban who met him during his exile there, invited me to their home.
There was additional cause for celebration that night, because the powerful narco-politician Emilio Gamboa Patrón -- the darkest of figures in the campaign team of Mexican ruling party candidate Francisco Labastida -- had told various sources that "Mario Menéndez will not live to see the next century." Gamboa Patrón has been linked by various sources, including former Mexican federal prosecutor Eduardo Valle, to drug trafficking and corruption. Gamboa is also from Yucatán. He wanted to run for federal senator from his home state. But he felt the continued existence of Por Esto! and its publisher would make victory impossible. And so the ruling PRI party put Gamboa in charge of picking its candidates, and he placed himself at the top of the list as one of its non-regional candidates, assuring that he will soon be a federal senator. Still, his threat against Menéndez proved impossible even for a dark fixer like him.
And so, when the clock struck midnight, Menéndez had once again proven his powerful enemies wrong. When Menéndez returned from the office at 1:30 a.m. -- there are no days off at Por Esto! -- I put down my cigarette and raised a glass of Yucatán beer to toast another century of Mario Menéndez. Mario, who neither drinks nor smokes (and is thus a better voice for drug legalization than I) raised his glass of water.
This new century has brought the birth of The Narco News Bulletin, and a new will by its publisher to revive Authentic Journalism. It was inevitable that we would eventually name Mario Renato Menéndez Rodríguez as Drug War Hero of the Month. But the timely fall of Sam Dillon, who lost control of his small piece of international journalistic turf precisely because he was not capable of understanding Menéndez, makes May 2000 the perfect month in which to do it.
The recent visit by Mario Menéndez, his wife Alicia Figueroa, and three of his children -- Mario, Miguel and Alicia -- to New York City showed me that it is not only on the Yucatán where real people connect so strongly and identify with Mario. His presentation at Columbia University -- upon which his new work, Dare to Legalize, is based -- came at 3 p.m. on a Saturday, after two days of forums and workshops at the Law School. The hall filled up, and although the presentation was scheduled to end at 5 p.m., everybody stayed well beyond that hour, at the edge of their seats, to listen and speak with Menéndez, in English, about his investigations and his work.
And so, to end this tribute to the May 2000 Drug War Hero of the Month, it is fitting to print a translation, below, of the message that Mario Menéndez published last week in Por Esto! thanking so many of the New Yorkers who left an impression on him. And may the powerful but morally bankrupt forces behind US drug policy understand: Mario Menéndez counts not just with my support and protection. He counts with the friendship and goodwill of people across this planet, from the small towns of the Yucatán peninsula, to the Big Apple of New York.
from somewhere in a country called América,
The Narco News Bulletin
Message of Appreciation from Mario Menéndez
The editor and publisher of Por Esto! offers his profound gratitude to the authorities of the prestigious Columbia University, its President, its body of respected professors, the dean of the Law School, and its students, in particular, the student leaders: the incomparable Kiovanna Rodríguez of the Latin American Law Students Association, to a large degree responsible for a dynamic and unstoppable student movement oriented toward understanding the consequent fight for respect of human rights, leader of this effort in the United States, and who guaranteed the success of the symposium on "The War Against Drugs" that was held in New York's highest center of education.
Among this extraordinary group of Columbia Law School faculty and students were also: Nicole Cuda, Salvador Escalón, Noemi Flores, Frank Mena, Luis Avila, Alejandro Badillo, Hanah Breslin-Otero, Alejandro Figueroa, Larissa Garriga, Nancy Maldonado, Richard Rosales, Julissa Reynoso, Sandy Santana, Freddy Taveras, Andrés Alvarez, Juan Arteaga, Eneida Boniche, Kenneth Figueroa, Steve Olivas, Helen Thomas-Castillo and Luís Vélez.
The editor and publisher of Por Esto! equally expresses his most sincere recognition to the members of the panel: Judge Jerome W. Marks, retired justice of the Supreme Court of the State of New York; Winnifred Tate, of the Washington Office on Latin America; the artist and social-fighter Anthony Papa, attorney formed by the twelve years that he suffered a cruel and unjust prison sentence; and our friend and collaborator Al Giordano, brilliant analyst of the Boston Phoenix with expertise on the subject of Mexico, and publisher of The Narco News Bulletin on the internet, for his invaluable and generous solidarity towards Mario Renato Menéndez Rodríguez and his family during their visit to New York.
The editor and publisher of Por Esto! clearly identified with Paul DiRienzo and Joannie Marie Moossy, great journalists and hosts of the prestigious FM radio station WBAI, where they keep their doors open to denounce all types of injustices, as are the doors of the program of Robert Knight, a grand family that opened its arms to the Yucatán journalist.
To the wide circle of democratic intellectuals of New York who also opened their arms: respected personalities like William H. Schaap and his partner Ellen Ray, outstanding editors of books that have shaken Washington and more than a few governments of the Middle East, incomparable defenders of the Cuban revolution and directors of the combative magazine Covert Action Quarterly; to attorneys Michael Ratner, distinguished professor at Harvard University, and Michael Steven Smith, authors of the highly praised book "Che Guevara and the FBI," and Margie Ratner Kunstler, widow of William Kunstler, the infatiguable attorney of Leonard Peltier, in prison since 1974, after a confrontation with the FBI in the reservation of Pine Ridge, leader of the Lakota-Sioux, and the most important political prisoner in the United States; Johanna Lawrenson, widow of the revolutionary writer Abbie Hoffman ("Steal This Book" among other titles), daughter of the maritime union founder Jack Lawrenson and the author Helen; the notable multi-talented writer and academic Michelle Stoddard and others.
To the Rev. Douglas F. Wilson, pastor of the Unitarian Universalist church in Massachusetts; Debby Kozikowski, vice chairman of the Massachusetts State Democratic Party and talented novelist; human rights attorney Richard Evans, and the talented musician and actor Court Dorsey, whom traveled more than four hours from Massachusetts to Kate's Corner restaurant on New York's Lower East Side to attend the reception organized by Al Giordano.
To the distinguished personalities of US journalism: Danny Schecter, vice president and producer of Globalvision and editor of The Media Channel, author of the famous book "The More You Watch: The Less You Know"; Carl Ginsberg, former NBC news producer; columnists of the size of Teresa Gabriel (the New York Times); Cynthia Cotts (the Village Voice); Dan Gardner (the Ottowa Citizen); Bill Weinberg (High Times); Colin Moynihan (the New York Times); Armando López; Vicente Echerry; cinematographer Ashley Hunt; photographer Brent Casper; actors Bina Sharif and Kevin Martin; author Dana Beal ("The Ibogaine Story" with Paul DiRienzo, about the Staten Island Project to cure drug addiction); and all the musicians, artists, poets, writers and others who united at the restaurant of Kate Halpern in the Lower East Side neighborhood of immigrants so close to Chinatown and Little Italy: to them, and to so many more, our appreciation. Thank you for your unmeasurable solidarity.
Mario Renato Menéndez Rodríguez
published in Por Esto!, May 22, 2000