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Interview with a Mexican drug figure: Journalism or propaganda?

Proceso cover What happens when one of Mexico's most respected journalists gets a sit-down interview with one of Mexico's most wanted narco suspects? Strangely, not very much. And that's got a lot of readers and journalists in Mexico scratching their heads and wondering whether the reporter fell into a propaganda trap.

In the current issue of the hard-hitting news weekly Proceso, the magazine's legendary founder, Julio Scherer Garcia, tells of receiving an invitation to meet Ismael "El Mayo" Zambada, a top associate of the chief of the powerful Sinaloa cartel, Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman. Scherer accepts -- "I don't have a chauffeur, I reject protection and generally I travel alone" -- and then finds himself riding in four different cars to an unidentified rural location, presumably in the hills of the northwestern state of Sinaloa. Face to face, journalist and accused drug smuggler meet in a rustic ranch house, watched by armed bodyguards, and before a spread of "milk, meat, beans, tostadas, cheese [and] sweetened coffee."

The interviewee, one of the most wanted men in both Mexico and the United States, does not allow Scherer to use a recorder. But the exchange, as told by Scherer, doesn't reveal much anyway. Zambada says, perhaps predictably, that if he were killed or captured, the smuggling of narcotics to the United States would continue unabated. He also describes escaping capture by the Mexican military several times.

"I have my wife, five mistresses, 15 grandchildren and one great-grandchild," Zambada says. "The six of them live here, in the ranches, children of the mountain, like me."

"How did you get started in the narco trade?" Scherer asks.

"Just cuz," Zambada responds. (In Spanish, the slang term is nomas.)

"Just cuz?" Scherer prods.

"Juz cuz," Zambada says again.

As Internet buzz about the Scherer-Zambada interview spreads in Mexico, some are arguing that the old journalist was taken, or, at least, that his magazine comes off looking like a tool of the cartel. The issue's cover photo shows Scherer and Zambada posing, with the trafficker's arm over the journalist's shoulder, as if they were old friends or relatives.

In the daily Milenio, a writer wonders why Scherer didn't ask Zambada about the many criminal accusations against him. "How many journalists have 'El Mayo' Zambada or 'El Chapo' Guzman killed?" the writer asks. "How many do they have sentenced, threatened, or kept in sight? How many have they silenced or bought off?" 

But in the media and journalism magazine Etcetera, another writer defends Proceso: "Let's just accept it, journalism also is not a profession for saints. [...] I am convinced the magazine and the journalist, as the classics say, did what they had to do."

Unfortunately, the people of Sinaloa will not have a chance to look at the interview in print to decide for themselves. The press run of this week's Proceso in the state of Sinaloa was "bought" in its entirety, according to reports.

Proceso's site requires a subscription, but the interview is open live for now.

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City.

Photo: The cover of the current issue of Proceso magazine. Credit: Proceso.com.

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