democraciaAbierta: Opinion

How can the deadly violence against Mexican journalists be stopped?

Between cartels and corrupt politicians, the country is among the most dangerous to be a journalist. Eight have been killed so far this year

Amigzaday López Beltrán
19 April 2022, 12.01am
A protest after three journalists were murdered in Mexico in January 2022
Alamy Stock Photo

The murder of journalists in Mexico continues unabated. Earlier this year, Armando Linares López and Roberto Toledo, both from media outlet Monitor Michoacán, were killed just 43 days apart in Zitácuaro, Michoacán, in west-central Mexico – brutal examples of the failure of the justice system and the impunity that prevails in the country. Linares, who was shot eight times, is the eighth journalist to be murdered in 2022, but sadly, he will not be the last.

Linares was the director of Monitor Michoacán. After his death, the publication shut down. This forced closing of media outlets, due to fear of further attacks, is common – it mirrors the vulnerability that plagues the press. Linares, whose death was preceded by dozens of threats, had previously pointed to those at fault in a video: “We hold the municipal authorities of Zitácuaro, Michoacán, responsible for any attack on our staff.”

Following Linares’ death, the deputy director of Monitor Michoacán, Joel Vera, said in a statement on Facebook: “The Special Prosecutor's Office for Crimes against Freedom of Expression has in its possession evidence of the perpetrators of the murder of our director. However, the state government and the attorney general's office have shown a lack of interest in finding those responsible, both the perpetrators and the masterminds, since the killers are among the ranks of both.”

So far, no one has been arrested. Arrest warrants have been issued for two of the alleged perpetrators, but the plotters remain at large.

The journalists were targeted because they were investigating political corruption and the incursion of organised crime in Michoacán, a state that drug cartels have fought over since 2000.

Their deaths starkly exemplify the systematic murder of journalists in Mexico that began two decades ago in the wake of the rise of organised crime. Since then, the country has been plunged into a spiral of violence: 2,000 murders were recorded in January alone. The impunity that prevails in the country protects murderers.

The figures are shocking: from 2000 to date, 153 journalists have been murdered in Mexico

This violence, which affects all Mexicans, is the fruit of decades of large-scale political corruption and repression. In reality, it represents just the tip of the iceberg for the evils that have shaken Mexican journalism and continually threaten freedom of expression in the country.

The tragedy of press freedom in Mexico, particularly among journalists who are ordinary citizens, has three fronts: the media companies that work journalists to the point of servitude; political power, which threatens them with harsh criticism; and organised crime, which, in alliance with political power, attacks them with shameful and rampant impunity.

The figures are shocking: from 2000 to date, 153 journalists have been murdered in Mexico, 141 men and 12 women, according to statistics from human rights organisation Article 19.

This situation makes Mexico one of the most dangerous countries in the world to be a journalist, according to Reporters Without Borders. At the centre of this extremely dangerous setting is the state of Veracruz, located on the Gulf of Mexico, where 31 journalists have been murdered since 2000, the highest number in the entire country.

The city of Veracruz is one of the most important ports in the region and a strategic route for drug trafficking disputed by drug cartels. Veracruz is also the third-largest state in Mexico, allowing a thorough analysis of the situation faced by journalists and perhaps suggestions to put an end to these massacres.

Working conditions

In Mexico, journalists face three main challenges. The first, and most scandalous, is the working conditions, which make journalists highly vulnerable. In most cases, this leads to a high degree of dependence on political and even criminal power.

Freelance reporters often receive 50 pesos (about $2.46) a story, while those on a payroll have monthly salaries of around 5,000 pesos ($245). This means that to make a living wage, journalists must work in three or even four media outlets with no employment benefits, such as health or housing insurance. The consequences are job insecurity and poor quality work.

In this context, the media become highly dependent on political and governmental power, since many journalists rely on access to public funding. Additionally, there is endemic corruption within the press, which has led many journalists, out of necessity or ambition, to accept money, known as the famous ‘chayos’. To survive, many media outlets are forced to seek agreements with governments, putting their editorial line ‘for sale’, working almost hand in hand with the political power in power.

The result is a uniform press, which offers little criticism of the government and its unhindered use of public money. It is important to underline that these conditions put investigative journalists and critical media that go beyond the status quo at a total disadvantage and in a hostile environment.

Political power

The second challenge is political power, which, according to several NGOs, is the main threat to the press. Working conditions and the government's power to control public money through advertising create double vulnerability for journalists and the media.

The current government's mentality towards the press is the same as that expressed by former president Gustavo Díaz Ordaz in the 1960s: “I don't pay to be beaten.”

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Regina Martinez not smiling.jpeg

By bartering public money, the government protects itself from criticism because media outlets or journalists who step outside the norm and criticise the political establishment reduce their chances of accessing advertising, often putting them at a significant economic disadvantage compared to others.

Most politicians in Mexico do not tolerate criticism and react with threats, beatings, kidnappings and even assassinations. Recent examples are the murders of Lourdes Maldonado López and Jorge Celestino Ruiz Vázquez, both of whom were critical of those in power and, as a result, political power is allegedly either involved or directly responsible for their killings.

Here again, impunity plays a decisive role. According to El País, 90% of crimes against journalists worldwide have not been solved and in Mexico, this figure is as high as 94.8%.

Journalists are threatened, tortured and silenced, forcing many to end their investigations. Displaced, they leave journalism or even the country, often with severe post-traumatic stress disorder.

Organised crime

The third challenge facing journalists is organised crime, which, on many occasions, is intrinsically linked to political power. The so-called ‘narco-politics’ that have taken power in Mexico. According to journalist Ricardo Ravelo Galó, these politics are present in almost every municipality in the country and are a very relevant factor in the deaths of journalists.

Investigative journalists or media outlets that try to reveal corruption or criminal groups, end up attacked, tortured, threatened or killed on too many occasions.

Stopping crimes against journalists goes hand in hand with rectifying the country's judicial system

This has created a culture of silence in the country. One cannot mention anything related to criminal groups; one cannot talk about the number of deaths; one cannot talk about the relations between organised crime and narco-politics, and so on. This is seen in the cases of Regina Martínez, Gregorio Jiménez de la Cruz and Javier Valdez Cárdenas, among other courageous reporters who dared to put their finger on the sore spot of narco-politics, which ended up costing them their lives.

Organised crime has infiltrated the Mexican media. Some journalists have been forced to work for criminals, as seen in the case of the now-deceased Veracruz photographer, Gabriel Huge Córdova, who told me first-hand how he was threatened to take pictures of what they wanted to publicise. Journalists are forced to join criminal plots out of ambition, necessity or simply for survival.

Treated as an enemy

Amid this triple victimisation, the Mexican press is today threatened and treated as the enemy. President Andrés Manuel López Obrador's record of criticising the press and categorising it as either ‘good or bad’ is risky. It could be seen as a way to protect crimes and could even give society concessions to attack journalists.

This is a dangerous and irresponsible attitude because he, as president, has the responsibility to crack down on crimes against journalists and, of course, the impunity of those committing them.

Stopping crimes against journalists goes hand in hand with rectifying the country's judicial system, guaranteeing reporters immediate protection against threats and generating a dynamic of zero impunity for attacks and murders. These crimes must also be accurately labelled as a direct consequence of journalistic work.

With this, we could begin to identify and bring to justice the perpetrators and masterminds of the murders of journalists, who are more at risk than ever and whose deaths leave a very dark stain on Mexican democracy.

Obrador must stop claiming that “the state is no longer the first violator of human rights as in previous administrations” and take action. Until he does so, the murder of Mexican journalists will continue unceasingly, leaving the country to sink into zones of silence.

This article was originally published in Spanish on 3 March and has been updated to include new figures.

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