Drug War on Trial
Jacobs's legal offensive appears to be the culmination of a campaign foreshadowed on national television when, in an interview with PBS's Frontline for its fall 2000 special on the drug war, he announced, "With the lawsuits I [am] getting ready to file, these cockroaches in the government are going to run for cover." Jacobs's choice of "cockroaches" appears to be based on the potential for sending a warning signal to any future investigators--from the government or the press. The Washington Times never heard from Jacobs's legal team. After being contacted by Carlos Hank's lawyers, the Washington Post printed a "clarification" of its earlier story by saying it had mistakenly identified a trucking company as a Hank property. (The Post stands by the rest of its reporting on the White Tiger findings concerning Hank family links to the drug trade.)
Schulz says the suit against him "is part of a larger campaign of intimidation against journalists, scholars and US government researchers who have researched or written about the Hanks. It's an attempt to intimidate and silence everything from El Andar to the US government, or those who speak with the US government. If it succeeds, simply threatening a lawsuit could be used by others to deter government or journalistic investigations."
Another case wending its way through the courts involves a Mexican banker's legal attack against a US journalist, Al Giordano, the editor and publisher of Narco News (www.narconews.com), an Internet magazine that for the past year has been covering the intersection between corruption and the drug war in Latin America. Giordano is facing a libel suit filed by Banamex, Mexico's second-largest bank, for a series he wrote last year asserting that the bank's president, Roberto Hernández, was involved with drug trafficking and money laundering.
Giordano's reports were based on stories in the Mexican newspaper Por Esto!, based in Yucatán. The author of the Por Esto! series was the newspaper's founder and editor, Mario Menéndez, a veteran Mexican journalist who was briefly imprisoned in 1968 after publishing details about the massacre of students demonstrating in Mexico City's Tlatelolco Plaza before the 1968 Olympics.
Por Esto!'s most explosive charges--which Giordano went on to repeat, describing them as "what lawyers call beyond a reasonable doubt"--concerned the appearance of several bales of cocaine on land owned by Hernández along the Yucatán coast. Hernández himself is a leading figure of the Mexican old guard allied to the PRI, having purchased the government's shares in Banamex in 1991, turning that investment into a financial empire. There was no proof of Hernández's knowledge of the shipment, but the Por Esto! series, which ran from 1996 through 1999, included photographs of the cocaine seized on Hernández-owned property and of containers frequently associated with drug-running along the Yucatán coast that were found on Hernández-owned beachfront. The stories proved particularly embarrassing when President Clinton traveled to Yucatán in 1999 for an antidrug conference attended by then-Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo and hosted by Hernández at a local resort.
Banamex responded by suing Mario Menéndez for libel and slander. Two years later, a Mexican judge ruled against the bank; that decision was upheld in May 2000 on appeal (a subsequent effort to pursue Menéndez on criminal libel charges was thrown out of court in Mexico City last October). Having failed to discredit the charges in Mexico, in August 2000 Banamex shifted venue, filing suit on the same grounds against Giordano, Narco News and Menéndez in a state court in New York. The defendants, allege Banamex, defamed the bank and issued "false statements" that interfered with the bank's "prospective economic advantage," based on the fact that the journalists repeated their charges during an interview on New York public radio station WBAI and during a Columbia University conference on Latin America in March of 2000. According to the bank's filing, "Neither Banamex nor its Chairman and General Director are or ever have been engaged in illegal drug trafficking...nor is it funded with such money."
The case represents an unprecedented turn of events for Internet journalism. Narco News, produced and written in English from a town in Mexico, has broken some important stories related to the drug war--including an exposé of the CIA's hiring of mercenaries in Peru, months before an airplane with an American missionary family aboard was shot down by one of those private CIA-contractor teams in the Peruvian jungle. "You've got a Mexican Internet magazine, published in English, being sued in an American court," comments veteran civil liberties lawyer Thomas Lesser, who is defending Narco News. "If they can get away with this, nobody on the Internet will be safe from legal harassment." The suit has been a nerve-rattling experience for Giordano, a former political correspondent for the Boston Phoenix. With no legal insurance and operating on a bare-bones budget, he is conducting a joint defense with Lesser, representing Narco News, and David Atlas, representing Menéndez.
"What was said here in New York about Banamex is mild when compared with what was said about Hernández in Mexico," comments Atlas, who is with the New York law firm of Frankfurt, Garbus, Kurnit, Klein & Selz, noted for its defense of First Amendment cases. "And Mexican courts decided three times that what Menéndez published was not defamatory to Banamex. This is purely an attempt to intimidate journalists, this time in an entirely new venue." In a hearing at the New York Supreme Court in Manhattan on July 20, Atlas, Lesser and Giordano argued that Banamex's suit should be thrown out of court on jurisdictional grounds and because New York law requires malice, which they deny. The judge is considering their request.