The Mexican graveyard

Every 22 hours, a member of the press is attacked in Mexico. Always going too far to find the truth comes with the job description. Being shot, however, should not. Español

Manuel Nunes Ramires Serrano
5 October 2016

Journalists protest the murder of their colleague from Veracruz state, Gregorio Jimenez, and other slain journalists in Mexico City. February 23, 2014 AP Photo/Marco Ugarte. All rights reserved.

Two journalists were killed last month in Mexico – twelve so far this year. The country is one of the world´s most dangerous places for journalists to do their job. Harassment, intimidation and physical attacks occur with clockwork regularity. Corruption and impunity remain the main stumbling blocks for justice, with local and federal authorities seemingly incapable at dealing with the situation.

The deadliest country for journalists in the Western hemisphere

In Mexico, journalists do their job knowing that the truth may cost their lives. Aurelio Cabrera Campos and Agustín Pavía were the latest to pay the ultimate price. The former, founder and editor of El Gráfico de la Sierra, was shot on September, 14, as he was heading home, in Puebla. Two days before, radio journalist Agustín Pavia was killed while getting out of his car, in Oaxaca.

The journalists’ personal lives are being pointed out as the motives for their deaths, but few are buying it, and especially not Emmanuel Colombié. The head of the Reporters Without Borders desk in Latin America has stated that “Mexico is in the process of turning into a graveyard for journalists”. And he has asked for more resources to be devoted to the strengthening of the security forces in charge of the protection of journalists and the tracking down of the murderers.

23 journalists have disappeared in Mexico since 2003 and 99 have been killed for possible connections to their work since 2000 - 26 of them during the presidency of Enrique Peña Nieto. And the situation is not getting any better. In fact, the number of journalists’ deaths has increased every year since 2013 and last year alone attacks on members of the press increased by 21.8% - that is, one every 22 hours.

23 journalists have disappeared in Mexico since 2003 and 99 have been killed for possible connections to their work since 2000. 

Violence against journalists often comes from drug-related organizations. The criminal networks’ relationship with local media is usually strained and they are known to press journalists into favorable coverage. When they do not comply, violence ensues. The situation is such that, according to Freedom House´s 2016 Freedom of Press Index, Mexico is “one of the world’s most dangerous places for journalists and media workers”.

In most cases, the state is not directly responsible for the attacks on journalists. Still, corruption at the local level and widespread impunity help explain why the land of the drug cartels has become the western hemisphere’s deadliest country for the media, according to the World Press Freedom Index for 2016.

Drug cartels, government officials and security forces target the media without fear, and journalists are fully aware that writing about corruption, crime or violence can entail serious threats to their lives, especially in states like Veracruz and Oaxaca, but also in Mexico City.

Widespread impunity

In Mexico, violence against journalists comes hand in hand with impunity. After Rubén Espinosa, a Mexican photographer, was killed last year, 700 writers addressed a letter to Mr. Peña Nieto demanding a solution for the journalists´ “extreme vulnerability”. Corruption amongst state officials is well-known and widespread, and journalists have no one to turn to. The journalists’ distrust with Mexican authorities explains why Rubén Espinosa did not even consider joining the federal´s government protection program.

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), “99% of the journalists´ killings in Mexico go unresolved”. The impunity rating more than doubled since 2008, while the authorities lack both the political will or the capacity to bring to justice those responsible for these crimes.

Over the last ten years, Mexico has created the figure of a special prosecutor for crimes against media workers, has passed special laws to federalize such crimes, and has established mechanisms to protect journalists considered to be in danger. But the fact remains that Mr. Peña Nieto’s crusade against drug-related violence and corruption is having no real impact.

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 99% of the journalists´ killings in Mexico go unresolved.

Legislation drafted in 2013 eased the transfer of crimes committed against journalists to the federal prosecutorial system, so that the Office of the Special Prosecutor for Crimes against Freedom of Expression (FEADLE) would take over investigations from state prosecutors. The Office was granted the power and the legal framework to do so, yet it has not done so in the majority of the cases and when it has, less than 1% of its preliminary investigations has led to convictions.

Adopting new institutional structures and legal frameworks has fallen short of expectations, as Mexico suffers from an endemic implementation gap.  State prosecutors remain incapable of carrying out impartial and independent investigations, while legal procedures often suffer from grave irregularities.

Mexican journalists do their jobs knowing that the truth in Mexico may cost them their lives. And that, more likely than not, no one will be convicted when that happens.  

Democracy in danger

The protection of the freedom of the press is obviously not only for journalists´ sake. Journalists hold governments, private individuals and organizations accountable, and informed citizens make for quality democracies. If the cycle of impunity and violence in Mexico is not broken somehow, democracy will be in danger – if it is not already.

Corrupt local authorities and ineffective institutions are only part of the problem. Since Mr. Peña Nieto came to power December 1, 2012, freedom of expression and assembly has been curtailed in Mexico. Violence against those exercising their freedom of expression - from indigenous activists to independent journalists - has increased and government officials have been reported to actively participate in this violence instead of preventing it.  

Mr. Peña Nieto promised to leave Mexico´s ghosts in the past. He has done the opposite. The safety of Mexico´s journalists has decreased, the crackdown on activists has increased and human rights enforcement remains elusive. Journalists are just one of the groups being targeted, albeit an essential one for democracy.

Mr. Peña Nieto promised to leave Mexico´s ghosts in the past. He has done the opposite.

The future of democracy in Mexico is linked to the future of its press. Violence against journalists should be understood for what it is: an attack against human rights, democratic institutions, and the rule of law. It is an attack on Mexico itself. Today, there is no safe place for journalists in Mexico, much as there is no safe place from violence and corruption for its citizens. Citizen support for basic democratic guarantees – among them, freedom of expression – and putting pressure on the political establishment is the only way forward for Mexico and its journalists.

Albert Camus once said that journalists “always have to go too far, because that is where you will find the truth”. Going too far to find the truth comes with the job description. Being shot, however, should not.

At the close of this article, it is reported that a Canadian photographer, Barbara McClatchie Andrews, has been found dead on the side of a highway that connects Cancún with Mérida, bringing the journalists’ death toll in Mexico up to thirteen this year – so far.

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