A year ago, at least eight gunmen in military fatigues stormed the home of the crime reporter Anabel Flores near the city of Orizaba and dragged her away from her pleading family. The next day her body was found on a road; she was dead at 32, just a few weeks after giving birth to her second child.
In May and August, police arrested two suspected members of the Zetas drug cartel for the killing, but haven’t released their names or more details, leading the Committee to Protect Journalists to report that “the case remained opaque” — like the homicides of so many of her colleagues here.
Last year was one of the most deadly for Mexican reporters in recent history. Even the total number of victims is hard to pin down, thanks to botched investigations and confusion about how many of the dead officially worked as journalists. But most press groups count at least nine slain here in 2016, some as many 16. Reporters Without Borders said Mexico was the third most perilous country in the world for journalists, after Syria and Afghanistan — in other words, the most perilous outside a declared war zone.
When these annual numbers were released in December, they didn’t make much of a splash. People have become accustomed to grisly stories of Mexican gangsters dragging reporters from their homes, ambushing them in their cars or leaving severed heads outside their newsrooms. Since 2000, the total journalist body count here has reached 100, according to the press freedom group Article 19. The murder of Mexican journalists is old news.
Reporting from Mexico since 2001, I have written stories about journalists being shot or decapitated or disappearing more times than I can count. At one point, I was working in an international news agency when a colleague raised the question of whether we should continue to cover media murders at all anymore. Are they actually more important than the other 20,000 or so homicides that happen every year in Mexico?
I argued we should. The least we can do is publicize their names, give a last tribute to their work. But it’s more than that. The murder of journalists is not only the killing of human beings; it is also an attack on free speech. It has turned many parts of the country into black holes, granting immunity to corrupt officials.
Most journalists murdered in Mexico work for smaller media outlets in the provincial towns and cities where the state is weakest and organized crime strongest. The killers feel they can target reporters with minimal consequences. And they are right.
The national and international news media need to keep covering these journalists’ stories to both show solidarity and create pressure for justice. In an age when journalism is under attack from all sides, we need to defend our profession, and that starts with stopping our colleagues from being murdered.
Press freedom groups, including Mexico’s Periodistas de a Pie, have done great work training reporters in security measures like identifying escape routes before they go into difficult areas. Hundreds of threatened journalists have also enrolled in a protection program run by the federal government since 2012, getting panic buttons with which they can alert police if they are in trouble, or occasionally assistance moving to a different, safer city.
But these measures don’t do anything to fix the problem at its source. If we want criminals to stop killing journalists, we need something else: justice. Murder investigations are often handled by ineffective, and sometimes suspect, state prosecutors. In some cases, victims are kidnapped in one state and killed in another, leading to different prosecutors handling, or too often manhandling, the evidence.
A key problem is that local officials are often working with the drug cartels, and occasionally were even themselves involved in the attacks. A police officer in Oaxaca State was arrested in the killing of a journalist last year. The year before, an arrest warrant was issued for a mayor in Veracruz State for the murder of another reporter.
There is a designated federal prosecutor for crimes against journalists, but his office takes only a limited number of cases that fulfill particular legal requirements — like evidence that local police were involved. But the circumstances around a lot of the killings are murky, so many of the probes are left to those local officials.
The end results are poor. In at least two-thirds of journalist murders last year, no one was even arrested. When there were arrests, the police often acted suspiciously, sometimes refusing to release the names of the suspects.
One solution would be to make the office of the federal prosecutor on journalists head the investigation of every single media homicide. The office needs to have the resources and teeth to take on the difficult cases and reduce the impunity. And it should be responsible for solving those cases; if it doesn’t, the prosecutor should be replaced.
By taking the cases away from the states, you move them farther from the corruption networks that may be complicit in the journalists’ murders. And you push them into one central office that press groups can deal with — and pressure for results. But it needs to be transparent in its investigations. The Committee to Protect Journalists puts profiles of each case on its website, information that the special prosecutor itself should be providing.
Mexico is knee deep in problems, including rampant corruption that strangles the economy. Journalists are a key part of the solution, but they can expose the country’s rot only if they have the basic protection from being murdered. We should not become accustomed to the killing of our colleagues.
Ioan Grillo is the author of Gangster Warlords: Drug Dollars, Killing Fields and the New Politics of Latin America and a contributing opinion writer.