It's a sad day for journalism when a newspaper is pressured into stopping its reports on crime because the criminals are too intimidating.

After seeing two of its reporters killed in less than two years, the leading newspaper in Mexico's Ciudad Juarez has issued a remarkable plea for guidance on its coverage from the drug cartels.

The move acknowledges that drug barons, not the government, effectively run Mexico's most violent city.

In a front-page editorial on Sunday, El Diario de Juarez addressed the two cartels fighting for control of drug trafficking in the city, located just across the Rio Grande from El Paso, Texas.

The paper asked the cartels to say what they want from the newspaper so it can continue to operate without further death or intimidation of its staff.

"We ask you to explain what you want from us, what we should try to publish or not publish, so we know what to expect," said the editorial, addressed to "leaders of the different organisations that are fighting for control of Ciudad".

"This is not a surrender," the newspaper insisted, but the loss of two reporters since 2008 had been an "irreparable sorrow for all of us who work here". Even in war, it noted, there were guarantees and protocols aimed at protecting the journalists whose job it was to cover the fighting.

The editorial was the second on the subject by El Diario since gunmen last week attacked two of its photographers, one a new employee, the other an intern. The new employee, the 21-year-old Luis Carlos Santiago, was killed and the intern was badly wounded as they left the office to have lunch on Thursday.

In 2008, one of the paper's crime reporters was shot dead outside his home while taking his daughters to school.

The Chihuahua state attorney yesterday insisted that Mr Santiago's death was because of a "personal problem" and was "not related to his work as a journalist". But there is little doubt about the risks associated with journalism in Mexico.

According to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), 22 journalists have been killed since President Felipe Calderon sent in the army to eradicate the cartels in 2006.

At least seven more have gone missing and other journalists have had to leave the country, the CPJ says in a report to Mr Calderon.

But despite the price in blood - an estimated 28,000 people have died in drug war-related violence since 2006 - the cartels still hold sway. "Even in one of the places where violence is worst, El Diario was still doing a lot of good reporting," Carlos Lauria, a CPJ official, told the Associated Press. "The fact that they're giving up is really bad."

In its editorial, the paper accused the government of doing nothing to protect the press, despite promises from Mr Calderon when he was a candidate. It had addressed its plea to the cartels because they were now the real authorities in Ciudad Juarez.

Despite the efforts of thousands of Mexican troops and elite federal police, violence between rival cartels in the past two years has made Ciudad Juarez, with a population of 1.3 million, one of the world's most dangerous cities.

Some 5,000 people have been killed there as Joaquin "El Chapo" ("Shorty") Guzman, Mexico's most wanted drug lord, seeks to wrest control from Vicente Carrillo Fuentes, the long-time head of the Juarez drug cartel whose annual business is worth $6bn or more.

Hillary Clinton, the US Secretary of State, recently compared Mexico with Colombia at the height of its drug wars in the 1980s and early 1990s. She acknowledged, however, that a root cause of the problem was Americans' colossal appetite for illicit drugs of all kinds.

In its report, the CPJ warned that criminal organisations were now "trying to directly influence and battle for the control of information," Mr Lauria said. This state of affairs was "a national crisis" that extended far beyond the press and affected the fundamental rights of thousands of Mexicans.

It accused Mexico's federal government of "failing to take responsibility for widespread attacks on free expression," noting that less than 10 per cent of crimes against media representatives had been successfully prosecuted.

The report also said some Mexican journalists have been corrupted by the cartels.

- INDEPENDENT