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Unfreedom of the Press: A War on Journalists in Mexico

Just after 7 a.m. on February 5, 2014, Gregorio Jiménez de la Cruz, a crime reporter in the eastern coastal state of Veracruz, Mexico, was dragged from his home and torturedhis body tossed in a mass grave. Law enforcement quickly detained six suspects: five armed men who ambushed Jiménez and a woman who said she’d put the hit on him because of a personal dispute, according to Mexican news reports. But Jiménez’s family said the murder was retaliation against his reporting.

Jiménez was a tragic casualty of Mexico’s war of attrition on journalists. Last year, Mexico ranked just behind Syria and Iraqboth international warzonesas the most fatal country in the world for the press, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. In Veracruz, violence against the press spiked in 2010 due to a corrupt governorship and a turf war between rival cartels. Israel Hernández, a young reporter and Veracruz native, said in an interview there was “an epidemic of assassinations” in his state.

But violence against the press is not just a problem in Veracruz. Work conditions for journalists have deteriorated across the country. Since 2000, more than 100 journalists have been killed. At least 39 of those murders were due to their work, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

And this year shows no sign of improvement: at least three journalists have died in 2018 in connection to their coverage.

The 21st century has heralded an increasingly complicated era for the press in Mexico. When journalists served as the mouthpiece of the ruling Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI), which monopolized politics from 1929 to 2000, antipress violence was rare. Now, while journalists are more investigative than before, reporting is more dangerous than ever. The problem is rooted in Mexico’s broken judicial system, rampant narco violence, and corrupt local bosses, according to journalists, academics, and press freedom advocates. Journalistsespecially those in conflict-prone areasdescribe the feeling of wading through a minefield: one misstepoffend the wrong person, ask too many questionsand you, too, may find yourself in a mass grave.

Following Jiménez’s death in 2014, some journalists, including Hernández, protested the low pay, regular harassment, and murders they faced. Their efforts gained little traction. Hernández was among the most outspoken, and he started to receive threats. He got mysterious phone calls at work and saw strange men taking photographs of his house.

“At any time,” he said, “it could be any one of us for whatever reason.”

***

On December 16, 2005, Lydia Cacho was arrested in Cancún by at least ten men who threw her in the back of a van. Some were police officers, and the others were private security agents for Mexican textile tycoon José Kamel Nacif Borge. Cacho’s kidnapping would soon become a national scandal and the subject of international condemnation. Her story, published in a recent report by the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, shows that journalists face threats not only from criminal organizations, but from public officials and businessmen, too.

A few months before her kidnapping, Cacho published a book titled The Demons of Eden: The Power That Protects Child Pornography, which exposed the pattern of sexual abuse in Cancún that was protected by politicians, law enforcement, and businessmen. Cacho named Nacif in the book as the friend of the leader of a child pornography ring. Nacif, who resides in the southern state of Puebla, filed suit against Cacho for defamation and slander.

The author was arrested in Cancún and was driven 20 hours to Puebla. During the car ride, she was not allowed to eat or sleep. One of the police officers shoved his pistol into her mouth, making semi-circular motions and sexually explicit comments. He forced open her legs and pointed the weapon at her genitals.

Cacho was released on bail days later. In an article published in the popular Mexican daily La Jornada on December 21, 2005, Nacif admitted that he colluded with the governor of his state, Mario Marín. “I pleaded with the governor that this woman was slandering me and he told me, ‘Here no one is being slandered’ andboom!they issued the arrest warrant,” he told the paper. In February 2006, La Jornada and a Mexican radio station released the content of phone calls in which Marín and Nacif discussed Cacho’s arrest.

“Yesterday I finished hitting that old bitch over the fucking head,” Marín said in a phone call. “I told her that in Puebla the law is respected and there is no impunity and whoever commits a crime will be called a delinquent.” Nacif called Marín “the hero of the movie” and promised two bottles of cognac for his help.

Cacho’s case raced to the Mexican Supreme Court, which ruled that her liberty had not been violated. But in July 2018, the United Nations Commission on Human Rights condemned Mexico for its treatment of Cacho. For press freedom activists, the decision validated a common complaint: the state was part of the problem. But journalists say it is unlikely the UN resolution will do much to change the reality of their situation.

***

I met one of Mexico’s top reporters, Alejandra Xanic von Bertrab, in a café on a cloudy August afternoon in Mexico City. Xanic, as she is called, helped lay a foundation for investigative journalism in the 1990s, when the country’s press was almost entirely co-opted by the PRI. She has seen journalists in Mexico become more independent and assertive than ever.

In 1992, after snooping around the site of a gas leak in Guadalajara, Xanic got her first major scoop. She saw a meter on a machine that read 100 percent “explosividadand filed a story with a sketch of the danger zone for a paper the next morning, April 22. Hours later, five miles of the street exploded, leveling the neighborhood and killing hundreds. Xanic’s report was prescient, and she covered the fallout of the explosion for more than a year. Her reporting was a milestone for the Mexican pressa rare example of a local newspaper challenging the state’s narrative on a national story.

“In order to serve the public, we had to have a very different relationship with power,” she said. “There’s such a long tradition of another relationshipone where the reporters were dependent, submissive, and took orders.”

Xanic, writing for The New York Times in 2013, helped uncover how Walmart de México had bribed public officials to alter zoning procedures in a corrupt effort to build a store near the ancient ruins at Teotihuacán. Along with her co-writer David Barstow, Xanic won a Pulitzer Prize for the report, making her the first Mexican woman to win the award for investigative reporting.

In recent years, Xanic said, the press has become more aggressive. An important change came under President Vicente Fox (2000—2006), who established an information request system similar to that provided by the U.S. Freedom of Information Act. Prior to the reform, “the only public information was the phone book,” she said. After, journalists could access official documents on atrocities and corruption, expanding reporters’ access to information for decades to come.

***

But coverage that challenges power can trigger violent backlashas Steve Fisher, a freelance journalist from western Pennsylvania, recently learned the hard way.

Fisher, for the Los Angeles Times, was covering a dicey topic: Mexican soldiers who were growing frustrated with the direction of the war on drugs. He knew of the Mexican government’s spying capabilities, so he was cautious when communicating with sources. He used burner phones and encrypted apps to talk to Oswaldo Ortega, a disgruntled former military police officer who spoke on the record about the conflict.

Fisher traveled outside of Mexico City to interview Ortega. But an hour before their scheduled meeting, Ortega called Fisher to say that he had been kidnapped by a group of armed men. Ortega believed them to be from the state prosecutor’s office. Ortega was held for hours, waterboarded, and tortured with electro-shocks to the testicles by the captors who specifically asked why he wanted to talk to Steve Fisher.

Fisher believed the captors meant to intimidate him by using his name. “They knew exactly what they were doing using my full name,” he said. “They said [to Ortega], ‘If you ever meet with this journalist again, your family will find your body cut in two on the side of a highway.’

***

Despite Fisher’s scare, it is rare that American correspondents, with the security of a United States passport, or high-profile journalists like Xanic are harassed or killed. Local reporters, like Israel Hernández from Veracruz, face the greatest risk.

Hernández began studying at the University of Veracruz in 2009, dreaming of becoming a journalist at a time when there was not so much violence against the press. But in 2010, he said, two major things changed: Javier Duarte de Ochoa started his corrupt governorship and a gruesome turf war began between two of Mexico’s most ruthless cartels. By 2017, according to the nongovernmental organization Reporters Without Borders, Veracruz was the deadliest area in the Western Hemisphere for journalists.

In 2014, the same year as Gregorio Jiménez de la Cruz’s death, Hernández began to investigate the kidnappings of at least ten young men, some of whom were accused of being petty thieves. After a year of reporting, Hernández published the article, “Where are the disappeared, Artúro Bermudez?” in a Veracruz news blog, referencing the Veracruz public security secretary. Bermudez is now under criminal investigation for his role in the dozens of disappearances that occurred during his tenure.

Sourcing from victims’ family and friends, Hernández pieced together a story that indicated the young men were taken by state police officers who terrorized the neighborhood. One of the teenagers was even dragged from his room. The article was the product of tireless investigation, and was also a lamentation of Hernández’s wounded home.

“Historically, Veracruz has always been a violent citysince its founding by the Spanish in 1519, the blood has not stopped running,” he wrote.

Soon after the report was published, Hernández left Mexico to study journalism at a university in Spain. In August 2015, he returned to Veracruz just days after his friend and colleague Rubén Espinosa was tortured and executed in an apartment in Mexico City. Hernández found a note on his car that that contained personal information about him and his wife, as well as private conversations they’d had.

“I realized they had tapped my phone,” Hernández said, still unsure who “they” were. “I understood the message. It told me that this was bad.”

***

Journalists in Mexico often express a deep mistrust for the government, despite the state’s alleged efforts to curb violence against the press.

In 2010, President Felipe Calderon’s administration created a special prosecutors office for crimes against freedom of expression, known by its Spanish acronym, FEADLE. But after eight years of FEADLE-led investigations, the impunity rate for crimes against the press is almost 100 percent. (The national impunity rate for all crimes is 93 percent). The few countries with worse records of convicting those who commit crimes against journalists include Iraq, Syria, and Somalia, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

“With Iraq, [impunity] is a war problem,” said Jan-Albert Hootsen, Mexico’s representative on the Committee to Protect Journalists. He said that in Mexico, however, it is the product of “out of control criminal violence, a completely dysfunctional justice state, and a staggering lack of interest by the Mexican state to seriously address the problem of attacks against the press.”

Hootsen explained that impunity begins the moment a journalist is assaulted or killed. Emergency phone calls are often not taken and police sometimes show up hours late to a crime scene. Evidence collecting is weak and materials can be contaminated. The outcome is almost always the same: the perpetrator goes free and the crimes continue.  

In 2012, under pressure from civil society and the international community, the Mexican government established the Federal Protection Mechanism of Human Rights Defenders and Journalists, which provides journalists in danger with panic buttons, bodyguards, and other security measures. Many states followed with their own systems. According to Hootsen, the mechanism does help some, but many are reluctant to turn to the government for protection when roughly half of all aggressions against the press stem from public officials.

“All these new institutionsthe mechanism, federal prosecutors, federal statutesall these new tools and we have more attacks,” said Javier Garza, former editor of the regional newspaper El Siglo de Torreón. In 2010, when Garza was editor, the city of Torreón became a battlefield for the Sinaloa cartel and Zetas. More than once, the newspaper’s office was shot at and set on fire; multiple reporters were murdered and others kidnapped.  

Still, Garza emphasized public corruption as a major source of antipress violence. He said: “Coordinating with the state governments on policies to help journalists is like putting the wolf in charge of the henhouse.”

***

The specter of death haunts many reporters, who are now forced to adjust to their new reality. One way journalists protect themselves is through self-censorship. In a survey of more than 300 journalists, researchers found nearly 70 percent of respondents have not published something for fear of retaliation. Another way is through organizations like Periodistas de a Pie, which host forums on covering conflict zones and raise awareness for victims of violence.

Arturo Contreras is a 28-year-old reporter at Periodistas de a Pie, where he works as an investigative journalist. Contreras wears round glasses and his hair brushes his shoulders when he walks; he can quote German sociologist Max Weber in conversation without missing a beat. He also recently published a report that revealed dozens of cases in which innocent people had been kidnapped, raped, or murdered over many years by the police in Mexico City.

“I would love to write about art and music,” Contreras said. “But I think there are more necessary things to be done.”

Contreras is based in Mexico City, which makes him feel more comfortable than if he was in, say, Veracruz. In a capital city of roughly nine million, he is less likely to be hunted.

But journalists in Mexico are still harassed daily, and many are killed. The country’s rampant impunity, criminal violence, and public corruption makes some reporters feel as though they are tiptoeing around death.

Either you can live a normal life, but not do a real journalistic job,” Contreras said. “Or you can die trying.