Who Is Really Killing Mexican Journalists?
Reporting in Medellín de Bravo, Mexico
Jorge Sánchez appears 12-feet tall as he sits across from me in the patio of his breezeblock-home near the coast of Veracruz; he hits me with his pure courage.
The 36-year old journalist lives in the exact same house where a “commando” of men with ski masks and rifles burst in and took his journalist father away in 2015. Three weeks later his father’s corpse was found hacked up and stuffed into a plastic bag. Most of us who lived through such an atrocity would flee. But Jorge not only stays in the house with his mother and his own family, but has taken over his father’s reporting.
I ask where he gets his courage, whether it is from a belief in God. But he reveals he is agnostic.
“The only thing that we know we have, this is something that my father taught me, is this life. And we have to do something with it. There are problems. There are a certain threats. I have been in bad situations. But this shouldn’t stop us.”
It’s a stormy evening and there are few lights on his dirt street, although plenty of barking dogs and squawking chickens; Medellín de Bravo is a semi-rural sprawl that leaks south from the carnivalesque port of Veracruz. Here his father Moisés Sanchez produced a newsletter, La Union, in which he documented how the mayor embezzled funds and worked with a local faction of a drug cartel.
The case of Moisés Sánchez is one of a handful of murders of Mexican journalists in which there have been arrests, although it’s a messy investigation that is far from resolved. The killers, Jorge says, were cartel hit men working with local police officers, who watched the abduction from two blocks away, ignoring calls from neighbors. A hired thug involved in the kidnapping was arrested and confessed but seven years later, he still hasn’t been sentenced. Two police officers were each given 25 years, but this was later reduced to six, so they are out. The mayor, who Jorge believes was key in ordering the hit, has been indicted but still roams free.
Yet the case lays bare a central feature underlying the slaughter of journalists in Mexico over the last two decades: the lethal combination of paramilitary organized crime entwined with corrupt police and politicians. In other words: narco politics.
This slaughter of Mexican journalists is back in the news after killers took the lives of at least six here in the first nine weeks of the year. On Thursday, the European Parliament passed a resolution condemning the bloodshed and criticizing how President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (known as AMLO) handles the media. The Mexican government hit back with a statement calling EU lawmakers “sheep,” and accusing them of siding with “coup mongers.” The journalist murders have become a diplomatic liability.
The deaths this year do represent the fastest ever rate of Mexico’s journalist homicides. But they continue a trend that I am gutted to say I have reported on through my 21 years here.
Back in 2004, I wrote about the stabbing of Nuevo Laredo editor Roberto Mora, and talked to his alleged assassin before he was himself murdered in prison. I worked with Michoacán reporter Mauricio Estrada and traveled with him to the mountain town of Aguililla before he disappeared in 2008. I did a TV report on the wave of murders in 2010 including how 21-year old intern Luis Santiago was shot on his lunchbreak in Ciudad Juárez. I worked on a press freedom report on the botched investigation into the strangling of Veracruz reporter Regina Martinez in 2012. I drunk beer with, took advice from, and deeply admired the prolific Sinaloa journalist Javier Valdez, until he was gunned down in 2017. And I am again doing TV stand ups on the deaths this year.
Above: A cartoon at the site where Javier Valdez was killed in Culiacan, 2017.
It’s heartbreaking that this bloody story keeps repeating, like it’s on a fucking loop. And it’s tragic that measures journalists have campaigned for - a special federal prosecutor to go after journalist killers and a protection mechanism that journalists in danger can enroll in – have utterly failed to stop the deaths.
It’s also frustrating that with a largely dysfunctional justice system in Mexico, there is much we don’t know about the murders. Most are unsolved and the ones that are officially solved often have dubious case files. Which makes it harder to answer the central question, “Who is really killing Mexican journalists?”
But there are things we do know about how Mexico is one of the most perilous countries for reporting on the planet.
The Fog of Drug War
It’s a sad paradox that while journalists are dedicated to gathering information, there is confusion on the information of their deaths. Anyone who has delved into it will know there is a not even agreement on the number of media workers who have been murdered in Mexico.
There are also some misleading notions that are common to hear. These include variations of the following: It’s nothing new, journalists have always been killed in Mexico. Not a single journalist killer has been arrested. Drug traffickers murdered all the reporters. Actually, police and soldiers kill the majority of media workers. Most homicides are under AMLO.
I’ll go through how these notions are largely mistaken. But to do this we need to look more closely at the raw numbers - although it feels cold grinding stats on lost human lives.
Press groups including the Committee to Protect Journalists, Reporters Without Borders and Article 19 all monitor the murder of journalists in Mexico and around the world. However, they use varied methodologies; some only count cases when they find sufficient evidence that the murder was connected to the journalist’s work; others count all homicides.
There can also be uncertainty about whether the deceased was really a journalist. Doubts come in cases when they left the trade, or didn’t appear to publish. And there are many journalists, like my colleague Mauricio, who disappeared, but there is no body.
Article 19 counts 151 journalist murders in Mexico since 2000. By any measure, this is a horrific number and shows a systematic attack on the profession here. But Mexican media outlets often count more, with many reporting that it is not six but seven killed this year.
While it pains me to cite for its methodological issues, Wikipedia does a decent job of citing press stories it can find on all potential cases of murdered and disappeared journalists. It also looks right back to the nineteenth century.
Tallying cited press reports, we see the following totals of recorded potential deaths and disappearances of journalists in Mexico in each decade since the eighties.
1980 to 1989 – 57
1990 to 1999 – 45
2000 to 2009 – 84
2010 to 2019 – 161
2020s so far - 27
There are various points to take from these numbers. Yes, Mexico does have a serious problem of journalist murders going back decades. But the current level of violence against the media is relatively new; between the 1990s and 2010s, the reports of deaths and disappearances almost quadrupled. Furthermore, this doesn’t simply correlate with the broader rates of murders in Mexico, which first went down after the 1990s and then went up.
There is, however, a clear surge in the murders following the tidal wave of organized crime killings and the military offensive against cartels, known broadly as “Mexico’s drug war,” which has been raging in earnest since 2006. Indeed, the murders in the 2000s, are overwhelmingly in the second half of the decade. This is confirmed by Article 19, which counts 13 confirmed murder cases between 2001 and 2005 compared to 42 between 2006 and 2010.
This “drug war” is actually about a lot more than drugs. “Cartels” could be better called “organized crime networks,” which are involved in a portfolio of rackets, from people smuggling to oil theft to the extortion of gold mines. But drugs are still a huge earner, especially fentanyl and crystal meth.
The “cartels” fight over drug profits, but drugs also finance their other ventures, including capturing political power, especially at a municipal and state level, forging the narco-political networks. Meanwhile, the soldiers and federal police assigned to fight the cartels have carried out massacres and disappearances, and don’t want journalists reporting on this.
The murder of journalists has certainly continued under AMLO. But in the first three years of his government, there were similar numbers to under the previous two presidents. Nevertheless, while AMLO inherited rather than created the problem, he has done virtually nothing to stop it, and he now governs over this unprecedented spike in cases.
Above: An interview I did with journalist Temoris Grecko, author of “Killing The Story.”
Not All Journalists Are Targeted Equally
The data also tells us about who the victims are. Despite the fact many foreign reporters work in Mexico, the vast majority of deaths are of Mexican citizens. The few exceptions include the Americans Bradley Roland Will, shot dead during protests in Oaxaca in 2006, and Philip True, strangled in the Sierra Madre in 1998.
But not all Mexican journalists are targeted equally. Although there is a big concentration of media in Mexico City, it only counts for two of the 151 journalist deaths in the Article 19 database. One of these is photographer Ruben Espinoza, who had fled threats in Veracruz.
The rest of the victims are spread across the country often in small towns. They largely don’t have prestigious jobs at top outlets but often work for local media, and suffer from poor pay and little back up. While a handful of Mexico’s most famous journalists are millionaires, those working in the countryside scrape by.
It’s evident that states with a major cartel presence count for the lion’s share of the murders. Ten states, including those on the border, major drug producing areas (Sinaloa, Michoacán, and Guerrero), and Veracruz, which is key for trafficking, count for more than two thirds of the journalist murders.
There are exceptions, however, most notably Oaxaca, which suffered 15 journalist murders. While there is drug production and trafficking in Oaxaca, it has not been an epicenter of cartel bloodshed. But it does have a lot of old-school gangster politics and feuds between local power players.
Mexico ranks alongside countries that have suffered wars, such as Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and now Ukraine, in its journalist deaths. In these more traditional warzones, journalists are often killed by bombs, artillery and stray bullets.
In a few cases in Mexico, journalists have also died covering gun battles. One was Carlos Guajardo, who reported on a ferocious firefight between Mexican marines and Gulf Cartel gunmen in Reynosa in 2010. However, the majority of victims are killed in what appear to be targeted hits, the assassins striking them in their own homes or radio stations, or as they leave their newsrooms.
Many of the victims cover what is known as “la nota roja,” reporting on dead bodies, and police raids. This exposes them directly to gangsters, who can turn up at the crime scenes, and to police, who can be on the cartel payroll.
Cartels put immense pressure on journalists, especially those on la nota roja, about what they can cover, and can suppress certain massacres and shootouts if they don’t want to bring unwanted attention or “heat up the plaza.” Such news is sensitive as the government can respond to it by sending in military operations. An editor at a Sinaloa newspaper described to me the torrent of phone calls he got giving him orders about what he could and couldn’t print.
The pressure can include beatings and in one case, a decapitated head left outside a newspaper. I witnessed firsthand how a cartel operative dictated to a journalist how he couldn’t report on a major shootout in a border town. Talking to me later, the journalist broke down in tears describing the pressure he was under. It is in these conditions that some newspapers have stopped covering crime, and there are blackholes of information in chunks of the country.
There are also several high-profile cases in which victims reported on political corruption. These include Moisés Sánchez and Regina Martinez in Veracruz, and Miroslava Breach in Chihuahua. However, in most of these cases, the politicians investigated are themselves collaborating with cartels. Operatives of the Veracruz government worked the Zetas and the Jalisco Cartel, while Miroslava investigated links between Chihuahua politicians and the Sinaloa Cartel. Which gets back to this central feature underlining the tragedy: narco politics.
License to Kill Journalists
So how many of these murders are really solved? This gets into the battle over numbers as well as to definitions. Punitive rates are often based on when at least one person has been sentenced for a murder. Following this, Mexico’s Undersecretary on Human Rights Alejandro Encinas said in January that there had been sentences in 10 percent of cases under AMLO, making an impunity rate of 90 percent. This terrible record is about the same as Mexico’s overall impunity rate on homicides. And when you have a one in ten chance of getting caught for murder it isn’t much deterrent.
However, even when a person is sentenced, there can be other culprits who are free. Often a triggerman is caught but not the mastermind. Furthermore, prosecutors can put innocent people in jail, creating a double tragedy.
In the case of Regina Martinez, a court sentenced Jorge Antonio Hernández Silva for taking part in her murder along with another man known as El Jarocho, who has disappeared. The prosecutors argued it was a robbery by Silva and Jarocho, who Regina was romantically involved with (which Regina’s friends all denied).
I talked to Silva in a video call to his prison for the press freedom report. He was an often-homeless sex worker who was functionally illiterate and had HIV. He claimed he was innocent but police held him hostage in a safehouse, tortured him, took him to the crime scene, and forced him to make a confession. “I was handcuffed. They blindfolded me using Kleenex for women (sanitary towels),” he told me. “They told me, guilty, or in the ground.” (Culpabilidad o piso).
Above: From the prosecution’s case file on Regina Martinez.
In other cases, arguments are more convincing that the real culprits locked up, especially if it is handled by the special federal prosecutor. Following pressure, a court handed out 50 years in prison to an affiliate of the Sinaloa Cartel for masterminding the murder of Miroslava Breach in 2017. A former mayor was also given eight years for his involvement. For once, narco politics was punished.
While police don’t solve cases, journalists do their own investigations. Jan Albert Hootsen probes many of the murders for the Committee to Protect Journalists and makes recommendations such as whether there is evidence the victim was killed because of their work. He also has his own great Substack, which you should check out here.
I asked him what his sense was of who the killers were.
“In the majority of the cases we have determined, at least when we are looking at the murders of reporters, there is a strong case to make for organized crime being the principal perpetrator. To a lesser degree, corrupt authorities, principally municipal police officers, policia ministerial, in some cases state police have been involved. And in some cases there is a mix of the two, and we basically call that narco politica.”
This get back to the central question. There are various players killing journalists. But the networks of organized crime, often working with authorities, are a very common culprit.
There is a caveat to this. Article 19 also tallies complaints by journalists of total acts of aggression they have suffered, including beatings, harassment, and arbitrary arrests. There were a total of almost 5,000 incidents between 2007 and 2020. Of these, 2393 were committed by police, soldiers or other public officials and 2533 were committed by other sources.
The many cases of police and soldiers beating or harassing reporters is certainly a serious issue. However, the murder of more than 150 journalists is far graver, and sometimes these numbers can be conflated.
Alongside the murders and beatings, journalists also suffer threats that upturn lives, making them flee their homes. They often take refuge in the relatively safer Mexico City, where there is a whole community of displaced reporters. Others flee the country and some have successfully won asylum in the United States. Hundreds are enrolled in the so-called mechanism to protect journalists and many carry panic buttons. But this is no guarantee of safety. Several journalists enrolled in that mechanism have been murdered.
What Kills Mexican Journalists?
Based on what we do know, I think we can cautiously make some conclusions about the murders, although there is more to learn.
Mexico has long suffered from some corrupt police and politicians who will use violence against journalists they cannot bribe. This problem continues but has also mixed with the rise of powerful and brutal networks of organized crime. These webs of cartels and corrupt officials, or of narco politics, impose control on journalists in chunks of the country and carry out an incessant level of murder.
This cartel control is a Herculean problem that cannot be solved by trying to change the conversation – a tactic of former President Enrique Peña Nieto. But bloodied soldiers and police assigned to fight the gangsters also commit their own abuses against journalists. And amid such violence, there are other local players who kill journalists for different reasons and are able to get away with it.
State prosecutors have a dismal record of solving the murders, and sometimes detain the wrong people. This can be because of sheer incompetence and the fact that with over 30,000 murders a year, Mexico’s justice system is overwhelmed. But there are also cases of state prosecutors protecting cartels they work with, or shielding other government officials or politicians, who often collaborate with the cartel too.
Adjusting the central question then, we could ask, “What kills Mexican journalists?” The answers include: a dysfunctional justice system; a failed war on drugs; narco politics; poverty and terrible working conditions; and the failure of broader society to tackle these issues.
What can actually be done about this is for another piece. As is going more deeply into the current fight between AMLO and the press.
But I want to end by getting back to the courage that blew me away sitting in front of Jorge. I encounter that courage in journalists throughout Mexico, from the towns at the foot of the Sierra Madre to the bullet-ridden streets on the Rio Grande. There are black holes of information. But there also thousands of journalists doing great exposes and crónicas and just hard daily reporting.
In my time in Mexico, I’ve worked alongside an extremely talented generation of reporters from the big stars on national radio to those sweating till the crack of dawn to document what is happening in their communities. The murders of journalists in Mexico is a tragedy. But the resilient reporting by journalists in spite of it is a story of heroism.