In Mexico, ‘It’s Easy to Kill a Journalist’

Relatives at the coffin of Pedro Tamayo Rosas, a crime reporter in Tierra Blanca, Mexico, who was gunned down on his front stoop last summer. (Credit: Daniel Berehulak for The New York Times)

The calls come often now: another body discovered, broken and left in rags, felled by bullets. They surface at daytime, midnight and dawn, the deaths keeping to no clock.

Members of the tribe gather to pay their respects, the grainy photographs and stripped-down dispatches a testament to another journalist killed here in the Mexican state of Veracruz. It is the most dangerous place to be a reporter in the entire Western Hemisphere.

“We have lived in this hell for some time now,” said Octavio Bravo, a journalist staring at the coffin of a colleague gunned down in Veracruz last year. “You can’t imagine the frustration, the impotence we are feeling.”

Mexico is one of the worst countries in the world to be a journalist today. At least 104 journalists have been murdered in this country since 2000, while 25 others have disappeared, presumed dead. On the list of the world’s deadliest places to be a reporter, Mexico falls between the war-torn nation of Afghanistan and the failed state of Somalia. Last year, 11 Mexican journalists were killed, the country’s highest tally this century.

And there is little hope that 2017 will be any better.

March was the worst month on record for Mexico, ever, according to Article 19, a group that tracks crimes against journalists worldwide. At least seven journalists were shot across the country last month — outside their front doors, relaxing in a hammock, leaving a restaurant, out reporting a story. Three of them died, dispatched by armed men who vanished without a trace.

The reasons for such killings are often varied: cartel assassins annoyed at aggressive coverage, corrupt public officials targeting critics to silence them, random violence and even reporters crossing over into the criminal worlds they cover.

But according to government data, public servants like mayors and police officers have threatened journalists more often than drug cartels, petty criminals or anyone else in recent years, imperiling investigations and raising questions about the government’s commitment to exposing the culprits.

Cases include journalists tortured or killed at the behest of mayors, reporters beaten by armed men in their newsrooms on the order of local officials, and police officers threatening to kill journalists for covering the news.

But of the more than 800 serious cases of harassment, assault or homicide committed against journalists in the past six years, the federal office created to prosecute crimes against the freedom of expression has convicted suspects in only two.

“It isn’t that they can’t solve these cases, it’s that they either don’t want to or aren’t allowed to,” said a senior Mexican law enforcement official who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution from the government. “This is a political issue. Dead journalists look bad for the government, but it’s even worse if they were found to be killed as a result of their work.”

The government balks at the criticism, noting that it has passed laws to protect journalists, giving them panic buttons, surveillance equipment and even armed guards if the threat is severe enough.

Officers patrolling Xalapa, capital of the state of Veracruz, which is the most dangerous place to be a reporter in the Western Hemisphere. (Credit: Daniel Berehulak for The New York Times)

“It is an undeniable fact that freedom of expression exists in Mexico,” the Mexican attorney general’s office said in a statement, noting that “the constant exercise of it has created risks and obstacles.”

Attacks on the media are fully investigated, and exhaustive measures are taken to protect journalists, it added, demonstrating the care “that the Mexican state is taking to uphold this right and oppose any threat against its free exercise.”

Not one of the hundreds of journalists under the government’s protection in recent years had been killed — until last summer, when a crime reporter with multiple threats on his life was shot dead on his front stoop.

But even the officials who run the protection program acknowledge that spending millions to keep journalists from being killed cannot solve the problem.

“We know this isn’t a situation we can fix one by one,” said Roberto Campa, the Interior Ministry’s deputy secretary for human rights. “The challenge of impunity is massive.”

The consequences for Mexico are far greater than a few more deaths in a country where 98 percent of murders go unsolved. In the eyes of many Mexican journalists, crime, corruption and indifference are killing the basic promise of a free press in Mexico — and with it a central pillar of the nation’s democracy.

“Freedom of expression here becomes a myth,” said Daniel Moreno, director general of Animal Político, an independent news organization in Mexico. Given “the fact that the authorities have proven they are incapable of solving most crimes against journalists, and are often the perpetrators of this violence themselves, then we can legitimately say that journalism is in a state of emergency in this country.”

After nearly a decade of growing violence against the media, whether from local officials or organized crime, the press has adapted by severely cutting back on what it reports. Self-censorship is not only common; it is often the standard.

Last month, when a respected reporter was fatally shot eight times while leaving her home, a newspaper she wrote for abruptly announced that it was shutting down, warning of the deadly landscape journalists were forced to inhabit.

“We fought against the tide, receiving attacks and punishments from individuals and governments for having exposed their bad practices and corrupt acts,” the editor of the newspaper, Norte, wrote in a front-page letter. “Everything in life has a beginning and an end, a price to pay,” he added, saying, “I am not ready for one more of my collaborators to pay for it and I am not either.”

President Enrique Peña Nieto, who rose to office vowing to push his nation past the drug war, has pledged to address the violence visited on the media.

But the federal government has consistently decided that crimes against journalists are not attacks on the freedom of expression, which means they do not warrant federal involvement. Federal investigators have reviewed 117 killings of journalists going back to 2000, but have chosen to pursue only eight. One has been solved.

Sometimes the government states, only hours after a journalist is found dead, that the killing had nothing to do with the person’s work, well before an investigation has even begun.

The nation’s supreme court rejected the government’s standard last month, writing that all crimes against journalists should go to the federal courts. But the ruling is not yet binding and may apply only to new crimes, meaning that scores of murder cases will stay where they are, in local courts, where resources are slim and vulnerability to corruption is high.

“In Veracruz, it’s easy to kill a journalist,” said Jorge Sánchez, whose father, Moisés, was murdered two years ago.

Moisés Sánchez published a newspaper, La Unión, for over a decade. But he waded into deadly territory, his family said, when he started writing stories about a local mayor pilfering money as the small town grew more dangerous.

A surveillance system in the home of Jorge Sánchez. After the remains of his father, Moisés, were found in 2015, Jorge took over publishing his newspaper. (Credit: Daniel Berehulak for The New York Times)

In January 2015, armed men came to Mr. Sánchez’s house and dragged him away as his family watched helplessly. Days later, the pieces of his body were discovered in three black trash bags.

For months, relatives and journalists in Veracruz demanded that the federal government investigate the case as an attack on the freedom of the press. But the special federal prosecutor’s office established to protect free speech resisted.

“We could not find a single piece of evidence to support that claim,” said Ricardo Celso Nájera Herrera, the head federal prosecutor.

The refusal bewildered Mr. Sánchez’s family because officials in Veracruz had obtained evidence that the killing was politically motivated. A bodyguard for the mayor of the town, Medellín de Bravo, admitted that he had been ordered to abduct and murder Mr. Sánchez on behalf of his boss.

“This case is absolutely related to his journalism,” Luis Ángel Bravo Contreras, the former chief prosecutor of Veracruz State, said late last year.

After two years of relentless pressure, the federal government has agreed to take the case. But years have passed, only one of the six suspects has been captured and the former mayor is nowhere to be found, having gone into hiding long ago.

Like dozens of journalists interviewed in Veracruz, Mr. Sanchez’s family has little hope for justice. The deaths of journalists, they say, fall into a graveyard of impunity, true of almost all murders in Mexico.

“The only thing we can do,” said Jorge Sánchez, who has continued publishing his father’s newspaper, “is make a fuss.”

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