"Mexico demands justice". Credit: Ruben Espinoza. All rights reserved.
On 31 July 2015 the photojournalist Rubén Espinosa was tortured and murdered in a house in Mexico City. His four female companions, including an activist from Veracruz, were raped, tortured, and also killed. While Veracruz, the city in which Espinosa worked, is known to be a hostile environment for journalists and activists, this is the first time that a journalist from Veracruz has had his safety compromised in the capital. The slaughter of Espinosa demonstrates not only how dire the situation for journalists in Mexico has become, but is exemplary of the way in which formally democratic countries like Mexico deal with political challengers.
According to Article 19, the international organization that promotes press freedom, Espinosa is the twelfth journalist from Veracruz to be killed since 2010. In light of that number, Veracruz can call itself the most dangerous state for journalists in Mexico, and, according to Reporters Without Borders, even one of the most dangerous places in the world.
While clientelism, corruption, and a climate of fear have already resulted in the fact that only a limited amount of journalists still write critically about the state government, most people that do engage in critical journalism await the same fate: masked men knock on the door, often followed by torture, rape, and murder, and finally a statement from the federal chief prosecutor in which he emphasizes that the murder is not necessarily politically driven. In other words, the victim was in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Recently, a team of investigative journalists discovered that the Veracruz state police had kept a secret file on 20 activists regarded as “security risks”. It’s a list of names that shares an important similarity with the string of victims in Veracruz: people who have openly criticized the state government, and have published about corruption and repression by that government. It is clear that the recent killings, and those before Espinosa, are politically driven. Human Rights organizations such as Amnesty International and Civil Rights organizations such as Article 19 recognize this. But policy-makers and commentators around the world continue to misunderstand the nature of this repression.
A mural in Veracruz, painted by a collective of artists and journalists. Some rights reserved.
Take the minister of foreign affairs of the Netherlands, Bert Koenders, for example, who praised the Mexican government for its international promotion of human rights after his latest diplomatic visit. In a press release, he noted that the Netherlands and Mexico are becoming more alike in their political ambitions. Koenders emphasized that Mexico wants to take more responsibility for promoting peace and safety in the world – by supporting UN peacekeeping missions. He described the efforts of the Mexican government to curb international drug problems as “admirable.” This while numerous journalists who have investigated the links between politicians and drug cartels have been brutally killed. Koenders’ statement is characteristic of the way in which policy-makers only address the official position of a country when it comes to human rights, and leave out the empirical position.
Human rights and civil rights organizations are less positive about the Mexican government, and such organizations have repeatedly tried to put pressure on the government to end the extra-judicial killings of journalists and activists. This is made difficult given that the state repression of dissidents in Mexico is exercised in a decentralized fashion. But some of the blame over the misinterpretation of repression must also be directed at non-governmental organizations themselves. One of the most influential democracy watchdogs, Freedom House, evaluates Mexico as an average performer when it comes to the state of civil rights and political freedom. This is in contrast to countries like China which does badly on such ratings. The reason why Freedom House is relatively generous to Mexico is the same reason why the Dutch minister of foreign affairs is so positive about the political ambitions of the Mexican government: both are essentially saying something about official government policies, not real practice.
The kind of reporting used by Freedom House mainly targets the legal freedoms people enjoy in a country, such as the right to participate freely in elections or the right to conduct journalism unhindered. In Mexico, these freedoms are indeed reasonably well protected by the law in comparison to China. But these measurements do not say much about how countries live up to those legal standards. The consequence of this is that countries like China, where political opponents are prosecuted via national law, have worse ratings than countries where political opponents are tortured and murdered in their own homes.
In countries where politicians do not have the formal means to repress political opponents, another toolbox of repression is often opened – the execution of repression in collaboration with organized criminality, while federal politicians turn a blind eye. Any solution must separate political repression in its most essential form from the manifestations of repression, define repression as a fundamental intolerance to political opposition, and be open to the ways in which this intolerance can be manifested. If we use these new lenses, we might be able to better understand new and more nebulous forms of repression.