Drug cartels and others know they can attack the media with little fear of consequences.
Anabel Flores, a 27-year-old mother of two toddlers, was kidnapped by armed men who stormed her house in the early hours of Feb. 7 in the Mexican city of Orizaba, state of Veracruz. The facts are dramatic, but it’s also an old story: Flores was a reporter, and her fate was similar to that suffered by more than 100 journalists in the past 15 years.
Her body was found two days later, on the evening of Feb. 9. Like many of her slain colleagues, Flores covered the crime beat. And in the state of Veracruz, one of the most violent in Mexico, fraught with violence by drug cartels, this is a high-risk job. Her death was another chilling reminder that a kidnapping almost surely means death for a Mexican journalist. It is a trend that Mexico shares with Middle Eastern countries such as Iraq and Syria, also among the world’s most dangerous places for journalists, where the murder of American reporters Jim Foley and Steve Sotloff at the hands of the Islamic State let the world know that a kidnapping is more likely to end in death than release.
In Mexico, this has been the case in more than half of the 17 murders of journalists since 2014, as documented by the Journalists at Risk project supported by ICFJ and Freedom House. Nine of those 17 reporters, editors or news anchors were kidnapped before being killed. Their bodies were found after their abductions had been reported, and in all cases the authorities launched search operations. But the final, tragic outcomes prove that the government’s response, at both the local and national level, is woefully inadequate.
Journalists have been missing for days before their bodies are found. When Flores was kidnapped, the Veracruz state government announced an operation to look for her. It didn’t work, and she was found dead two days later. The authorities can be even more clueless, as evidenced by the case of Moisés Sánchez, also in Veracruz. He was kidnapped in the town of Medellín on Jan. 2, 2015, and according to police reports, he was killed the same day. However, authorities took 22 days to find his body — even though they had several suspects in custody who had admitted the crime.
Those are just the cases in which a homicide could be determined. In addition to those nine kidnappings that resulted in death in the past two years, two more journalists remain missing after being abducted. María del Rosario Fuentes, a blogger in the state of Tamaulipas, was last seen in October 2014. She was presumed dead after pictures of what appeared to be her body circulated in her social media accounts, but her remains have not been found. Mario Crespo Ayón disappeared in the state of Sinaloa in December 2014 and did not leave a trace.
All told, 11 journalists who were kidnapped in Mexico in the past two years are either dead or still missing. Only five journalists kidnapped in the same period were lucky enough to be released.
The problem of missing journalists is not new. The organization Article19 has documented 23 disappearances since 2003. “Mexico is the country with more missing journalists in the world. A disappearance represents a continuing crime and a sign of despair in the pursuit of justice,” says Dario Ramirez, Article19’s director in Mexico.
In the past 10 years, the Mexican government has created a special prosecutor for crimes against journalists, passed special laws federalizing those crimes and set up protection mechanisms for journalists at risk or under threat, measures that were implemented as attacks against the media grew at the turn of the decade. Since then, government officials and legislators routinely promise to improve the guarantees for a free press.
The result? The situation is worse. In 2005, the Mexican press was ranked “Partly Free” in an index by Freedom House that serves as a worldwide reference. In 2015, even after the creation of laws and institutions designed to “protect” the press, Mexico was ranked “Not Free.” Mexican journalists are now less safe than ever, and as they struggle to protect themselves and form support networks, the response from authorities amount to no more than window dressing.
For example, the state where Flores’s body was found already knew it had a problem. If Mexico is one of the most dangerous countries for journalists, Veracruz is the most dangerous part of Mexico. In the past five years, 15 journalists have been killed there, and seven of the 17 Mexican journalists killed since 2014 were either murdered in or working in Veracruz. Four were killed there, and three others were murdered outside Veracruz but did their work there, including Rubén Espinosa, who had fled for Mexico City, where he was killed last summer. Veracruz also accounts for three of the seven missing journalists since 2011.
Other southern states are almost as bad, though, such as Oaxaca, where six journalists have been killed since 2014, and Guerrero, where threats and attacks are frequent but not always reported.
This means that violence against the media has shifted: In the early part of the decade, the northern states were the riskier places for journalists, mostly due to the violence unleashed by organized crime. Since then, as violence went down in the north, it went up in the south. More alarming, it’s not just organized crime groups killing journalists in southern Mexico, as it was in the north. Attacks or arbitrary detentions of members of the media come from criminal groups, but also from government officials or security forces. The murder of Moisés Sánchez is a case in point: Investigations alleged that his kidnapping was ordered by the mayor of Medellín, the town where Sánchez edited a small magazine, because he didn’t like stories that appeared in La Unión, the magazine that Sánchez published. Officials in Veracruz say that the hit was carried out by criminals hired by the local police chief — a macabre form of “outsourcing” violence against journalists.
For years, Mexican journalists have known that stories about corruption, crime or violence can trigger tragic repercussions from those affected: drug cartel bosses, government officials, police chiefs. Violence has been unleashed on the Mexican media in an unprecedented scale, especially at the local level. Reporters and editors in small or medium cities are the most affected, and protection is absent. Impunity in crimes against journalists is rampant and it is the cause of every new aggression: Anyone who today plans to attack a journalist or news organization can do it because the ones that did it before got away with it.