A month ago, as The Global Journal was preparing its May/June issue, I interviewed Adela Navarro Bello. Adela is a Mexican journalist. She has worked for the magazine Zeta for over 25 years, and is now its Editor-in-Chief. Crimes against journalists were amongst the various issues we discussed.
Adela's magazine, well known in Tijuana and Mexico for denouncing local and national corruption -including collusion between officials and 'narco-trafficants' - had itself been in the line of fire. She told me these threats were still present.
At the time, Adela and I did not know the extent to which her statement would apply this month. Since the beginning of May, five of her peers have been killed on account of their profession, while two newspapers have been attacked.
Mexico’s wave of violence is endemic. Over the last five years, fighting between government forces and drug cartels has led to the killings of an estimated 50,000 individuals. There is currently an additional factor, however, exacerbating the climate of fear: the ongoing presidential campaign ahead of elections scheduled for the beginning of July. Drug cartels have launched a national-level offensive, whilst at the same time building local networks with corrupt politicians. Civil society and its journalistic voice are their main victims. The six deaths described below - all murders - are a reminder of the price of a free investigative press.
Marco Antonio Ávila García from Ciudad Obregón reported for magazines El Regional de Sonora and Diario Sonora de la Tarde. His most recent assignment included covering anti-drug operations. He was found dead on May 18 with strangulation marks.
A week before, the headquarters of newspapers El Mañana from Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas and Hora Cero from Reynosa (also in Tamaulipas) were the target of gunfire. The staff of El Mañana was immediately granted federal protection. El Mañana also announced its decision to henceforth self-censor in order to protect the lives of personnel. The state Attorney-General's office of Tamaulipas initially denied the attacks on Hora Cero, however, altering the official version of events only after the identification of bullet evidence.
In the meantime, in Cuernavaca, Morelos, René Orta Salgado was found dead from suffocation in the trunk of his car. Orta Salgado was a former journalist who worked for over 20 years investigating crimes. He had recently decided to quit journalism to support candidate Enrique Peña Nieto of the Institutional Revolutionary Party.
At the beginning of May, photographers Gabriel Huge, Esteben Rodríguez, Guillermo Luna from Notiver and Irasema Becerra, Luna’s partner, who also worked for a newspaper, were all found dead in Boca del Río, Veracruz. The three photographers were covering police affairs and organized crime. The body of their colleague, reporter Regina Martínez, had been found five days before. Huge worked for Notiver, Luna for Veracruznews, Becerra for El Dictamen, Martínez for Proceso and Rodríguez had retired from Veracruznews.
For human rights group Reporters without Borders, this violence can be explained because Mexico is a country “marked by a culture of violence towards the media that has taken a deep hold.” The organization’s latest Press Freedom Index ranked Mexico 149th out of 169 nations surveyed, after the Democratic Republic of Congo (145) and Kyrgyzstan (108) and just followed by Afghanistan. If the latest position is disappointing, it is made even worse by the worsening trend: Mexico ranked 15 positions higher five years ago.
The UN Office of the Commissioner for Human Rights, together with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, has called on the Mexican Government to act. The organizations issued a joint-statement in which they appealed for an effective end to these killings. They also urged the government to implement its Law for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders and Journalists, emphasizing that the cycle of impunity had to be broken.
In the meantime, the government appears powerlessly silent to condemn crimes against the 'fourth estate'. When murders and attacks of this kind are ignored, or not denounced forcefully, it suggests an implicit acceptance. This was the initial message sent by authorities in Tamaulipas. Lack of criminal investigation and pursuit have become the rules; justice - for which these journalists fought - the exception. Self-censorship becomes the only means of survival in a climate of vulnerability.
It is a pity. The only solution to enable Mexican society to emerge from this vicious spiral is to fight against impunity. A pro-active government response is essential.
(Photo © DR)