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American Journalist Disappears in Mexico Drug Cartel Stronghold

Freelance Texas photojournalist Zane Alejandro Plemmons Rosales is shown in this undated photo. (Facebook)(NEW YORK) -- A 30-year-old American photojournalist has become the latest reporter to go missing while covering Mexico's drug war, after he left his hotel room in the violent drug cartel stronghold of Nuevo Laredo to take pictures of a shooting and never returned.

The Mexican newspaper where Zane Alejandro Plemmons Rosales had been working disclosed Friday that the San Antonio resident had gone missing in the border town of Nuevo Laredo, the headquarters of the Zetas drug cartel, on the night of May 21.

"[He] found himself at his hotel and, upon hearing gunshots, left for the street in order to cover the news," said the Mazatlan-based paper, El Debate. "Since then his whereabouts are unknown."

Plemmons' sister, Lizanne Sanchez, told a San Antonio television station that when she contacted his hotel, she was told that two masked, armed men had entered the hotel at 3 a.m., demanded his room keys from the receptionist, and removed all of this belongings. Sanchez said his bank accounts have not been touched.

Mexico is the most dangerous country in the Americas for the press, according to the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas. "Since 2000, 80 journalists have been killed in Mexico -- eight so far this year -- and 17 journalists remain missing," said Summer Harlow of the Knight Center.

Freedom House, an organization that tracks international human rights and civil liberties, says Plemmons is the third journalist to disappear in Mexico this year.

"What's happening in Mexico is that organized crime is trying to control all the information," explained Dario Fritz, a program officer for Freedom House in Mexico City. "The problem of impunity [of the cartels] and persecution is not only a problem for journalists."

Violence against the media is especially acute in Nuevo Laredo; a series of bloody attacks against journalists has functionally silenced the local press in the past year. In September 2011, three different reporters who had published on-line stories about the drug cartels under pseudonyms were found out and murdered. Two were tortured and hung from a bridge, while a blogger was beheaded. Last month, gunmen from the Sinaloa drug cartel attacked the office of a local newspaper in a five-minute shoot-out.

"The community should be appalled that another journalist has gone missing," said Harlow. "And the public should be horrified that journalist after journalist is fleeing Veracruz, and that newspapers in Nuevo Laredo had to take the unprecedented step of stopping reporting on organized crime because it was too dangerous for their reporters. Clearly, things are way beyond 'out of control' and it's long past time for authorities to step in and do something."

Plemmons, a dual citizen, had moved to Mazatlan, a coastal town in the Northwestern Mexico state of Sinaloa, to work for El Debate, a local newspaper. He took photos of crimes scenes, many of them linked to the drug cartels, and began to track the movements of the Sinaloa cartel, the Zetas' main rival for control of Mexico's drug trade. More than 50,000 people have died in Mexico's drug war since 2006 as the Zetas, the Sinaloa Cartel and other lesser drug organizations fight for turf.

Plemmons had apparently traveled from Mazatlan, in Sinaloa cartel territory, to Nuevo Laredo, the Zetas headquarters on the Texas border, in May for both work and personal reasons. He had taken his photographic gear with him, but also planned to visit relatives living nearby.

His family became concerned and reported his disappearance when the relatives he planned to visit never heard from him. El Debate finally made his disappearance public on June 22.

"He was a crime scene photographer, so I know he had seen a lot of graphic things," Lizanne Sanchez told the Fox TV affiliate in San Antonio. "He felt strongly about letting the world see the violence drug cartels are creating in Mexico."

"The fact that he's a U.S. citizen gives me hope that he's got to still be alive," Michael Sanchez, his brother-in-law, told the Fox station. "I'd like to think as crazy as it is down there they don't just kill U.S. citizens."

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio

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