Reporting under the Gun

Miroslava Breach and Javier Valdez (
The lives of Mexican journalists

Editor’s Note: The below piece is an expanded version of a piece we have in the current issue of National Review.

MEXICO CITY — Outside of war zones, such as Syria, Mexico is the most dangerous place in the world to be a journalist. The murder of journalists is practically routine here. There are also kidnappings, beatings, and other forms of intimidation and repression.

“Journalists often put themselves in harm’s way by going abroad to report on a war,” says Javier Garza. “But here, you’re in harm’s way just by going about your daily work right where you live.” Garza is a prominent journalist in northern Mexico, and an example of persistence and bravery. Also of prudence: He trains other journalists to take precautions.

Statistics concerning crimes against journalists are hard to nail down. Many, many crimes go unreported. There are “black numbers,” as people say here (i.e., numbers of crimes and victims that are unofficial). Also, can you be 100 percent sure that a journalist was murdered for his journalism and not for some other reason? Usually you can, sometimes you can’t.

But everyone agrees that, since 2000, there have been more than a hundred journalists murdered — and that the year just past, 2017, was a particularly bad year. There were at least six journalists murdered, and probably more like twelve. This is in addition to more than 500 “aggressions,” as Article 19 says.

Article 19 is an international organization that defends journalists. Its name refers to the part of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that honors freedom of expression. By “aggressions,” the branch of the organization in Mexico means everything from surveillance to blackmail to slashed throats.

Why the upsurge in 2017? There are a couple of reasons. First, there were elections throughout the country, and politicians were especially concerned about coverage. So were their backers in the drug world. All of these actors put extra pressure on journalists. I have a macabre thought: Talk about “shaping stories”! But second, there has been an outbreak of crime in general, as drug gangs fight for turf.

Journalists are killed, yes, says Jan-Albert Hootsen, whose job it is to monitor such things: He is the Mexico representative of the Committee to Protect Journalists. But everyone else is killed too, he notes: mayors, priests, musicians — you name it. The rule of law is in shambles.

David Luhnow cites Ernesto Zedillo. The former is the Latin America editor for the Wall Street Journal, who was born and raised in Mexico; the latter was president of the country from 1994 to 2000. Mexico needs three things, Zedillo once said: “the rule of law, the rule of law, and the rule of law.”

Luhnow himself has this to say: “The failure of Mexico to build working judicial institutions is, in my mind, the single greatest challenge this country faces, and without addressing that challenge it is never going to be a modern country.”

When you kill a journalist, you’re not punished. You’re not even bothered with. Hell, if you kill anyone, you’re not punished or bothered with. There is a “culture of impunity” here, as people say.

More from David Luhnow: “The incapacity of the state to do anything about the murder of journalists is just a reflection of its broader incapacity to do anything about the murder of anyone.”

Ana Cristina Ruelas is the director of Article 19 in Mexico. She says that she can remember three cases — three cases in which a perpetrator of a crime against a journalist was punished somehow. She puts the impunity rate at 99.75 percent.

I would like to spend page after page telling about the journalists who have been killed: their work, their families, their colleagues, the circumstances of their deaths. The website of the Committee to Protect Journalists can give you dozens of bios. I will mention just two – a paltry two. Two lives, two murders.

Miroslava Breach reported on the political world and the drug world, and the connection between those worlds. She was murdered in March of last year. She was shot in her car as one of her children sat by her.

In 2011, Javier Valdez won the International Press Freedom Award from the Committee to Protect Journalists. After the murder of Miroslava Breach, he wrote, “Let them kill us all, if that is the penalty for reporting this hell. No to silence.” Less than two months later, he too was killed. He had twelve bullets pumped into him.

José de Córdoba, Latin America correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, tells me that the number could be significant — almost poetic, if you like: Valdez co-founded a weekly newspaper with the word “twelve” in it, Riodoce.

After the murder of Valdez, something unusual happened: The president of Mexico took an interest in it. Never before had a Mexican president taken an interest in the murder of a journalist. Enrique Peña Nieto called the crime “a profound wound” to the country and vowed that the government would move heaven and earth to bring the perpetrators to justice, and to protect the journalists of Mexico.

And then . . . nothing happened. Nothing at all. Life went on as usual. As Javier Garza says, what message does that send? What does it tell you when the president of Mexico makes the murder of a journalist a personal and federal priority, and still nothing happens? It tells you that you can murder any journalist you like, on any day for any reason.

You have perhaps noticed my use of the passive voice: Miroslava Breach “was shot in her car”; Javier Valdez “had twelve bullets pumped into him.” Who commits these crimes? Who are the murderers and repressors of journalists? Drug lords or elected officials? The “bad guys” or the police? This is tricky to answer, for the lines between the two sides are very blurry. You can hardly separate one side from the other.

Mexicans have an expression: “narco-politicians.” The country has no shortage of them.

You can be killed for what you report and for what you don’t report. You can get caught between rival drug gangs and rival political factions. You don’t always know whom to answer to, or be concerned about, or tremble before. Dudley Althaus, another Wall Street Journal man, uses an apt word: “riptide.” Reporters in towns all over Mexico can get caught in a riptide, which can be fatal.

On paper, the Mexican state has several ways to protect journalists. There is the National Human Rights Commission, for example, and the Special Prosecutor for Crimes against Freedom of Expression. There is also el Mecanismo: the Mechanism to Protect Human-Rights Defenders and Journalists. This is an agency that provides an assortment of things to journalists at risk. Like what? Like panic buttons, bullet-proof vests, armed escorts, relocation . . . Yet there are problems with the Mechanism.

First, you need to be threatened to get protection. And, as Javier Garza says, sometimes you’re not threatened before you’re attacked. Moreover, journalists often decline to report threats, as Ana Cristina Ruelas says. They worry about inviting more trouble. They “normalize” threats, says Ruelas, as part of a Mexican journalist’s lot.

Also, the Mechanism relies on local authorities, and they can be the very ones endangering the journalists! So, it’s a case of “the fox guarding the henhouse,” as Garza says. Real protection, says Ruelas, would be an end to impunity. If you punished the murder of journalists – and others – you’d get less of it.

When a journalist is killed, the authorities reflexively claim that the murder had nothing to do with journalism. The victim was in a romance gone bad, the authorities might say. Or the victim was involved in the drug trade himself. They “criminalize” the victim, as Jan-Albert Hootsen puts it.

Yet once in a while, it’s actually true: The victim was involved in the drug trade, or entangled in political corruption, or otherwise compromised. Journalists in Mexico earn next to no money. Some cut corners, taking money from either side of the law, or “law.”

Relatively few are the independent media outlets in Mexico. The government often accounts for the lion’s share of a newspaper’s or TV station’s advertising budget. Journalists are under heavy pressure to toe a line. Self-censorship is a given. Freedom of expression is sharply limited in this country.

Does the government deliberately target journalists? Go after them, sideline them, kill them, the way the Erdogan regime does in Turkey? Or are they simply collateral damage in a violent, lawless country? There is a debate about this in Mexico. Which side is right, this (foreign) reporter can’t say.

Most of the crimes against journalists take place far from Mexico City, “out in the provinces,” to use a Mexico City phrase. Journalists from more violent parts of the country come to the capital to be safe. Indeed, there are safehouses for them here. People refer to Mexico City as la burbuja — the bubble — and a pleasant bubble it is. But bubbles are fragile, as Article 19’s Julio César Colín points out. They can certainly be pierced.

In 2015, a journalist named Rubén Espinosa fled Veracruz for Mexico City. He was murdered here, with four female friends of his, who had gathered in his apartment. All were tortured before they were murdered; the women were raped. Later, the authorities claimed that Espinosa was a drug addict and the women prostitutes. This is a lie, according to Article 19.

Some journalists go into exile abroad. They may go for a few months, just until things cool off. Or they may go for longer, even forever. Many journalists have sought political asylum in the United States, usually without success. Probably the best-known case is that of Emilio Gutierrez Soto, who fled in 2008 after the military put a price on his head. (He had reported on the military’s corruption.) Gutierrez is now imprisoned in El Paso, facing deportation. His advocates say that deportation for him would be a death sentence.

Some journalists close up shop altogether. One newspaper owner told José de Córdoba, “I want to let them know that they have beaten me.” In Ciudad Juárez, a paper ran a banner, and final, headline: “¡Adiós!” The murder of Miroslava Breach had been the last straw.

The attitude of many Mexicans is fatalistic, resigned: This is the way it is, this is the way it has always been, this is the way it will be. Some people view corruption as part and parcel of the Mexican system — not a symptom of it, but a fundamental component of it. “Corruption is the grease that makes the political wheels turn here,” one man tells me.

So, fatalism, yes, and weariness, and resignation. But some journalists press on, despite the dangers. They insist on reporting about the corruption that has a chokehold on Mexico. Why do they do it?

“Because we like it,” says Javier Garza, with a chuckle. Also, it is necessary, because how can there be a democracy without a free press, or a risk-taking and striving press? Many journalists think of their work as a calling, as Hootsen notes. And Colín makes a simple, rather touching statement: “We want to make Mexico better.”

Journalists write about other journalists, as I am doing here. And I think about myself, as one does. “If I received threats back home,” I tell Ana Cristina Ruelas, “I’d call the police.” She laughs, with understanding. Here, you don’t call the police. “If I were a Mexican journalist,” I continue, “I wonder whether I’d look for another line of work.” Ruelas tells me about a journalist she knows who took to writing children’s stories.

A journalist like me, in the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave, risks very little. Mean tweets? Nasty “comments” under Web articles? Professional friction? Some of my Mexican colleagues are positively noble, to use Ioan Grillo’s word. He is a British journalist, long resident in Mexico. He observes that journalists around the world are portrayed in a bad light, despised and defamed. We should tip our hat to those who risk their neck to find out the truth, and report it.

The year 2018 is young, but there are murders on the books. The latest victim, as of this writing, is Leslie Ann Pamela Montenegro, in Acapulco. She did YouTube videos under the name “Nana Pelucas.” Wearing a funny costume, she delivered satirical commentary, not sparing the local government. They — whoever “they” are — shot her dead.


The Latest