Dozens of journalists will congregate today in the northern Mexican state of Chihuahua to commemorate the fifth anniversary of the murder of investigative reporter Miroslava Breach Velducea, shot dead in the state capital on Mar. 23, 2017. Today, the shock and sadness of the murder — which was followed less than two months later by the brutal slaying of her colleague Javier Valdez Cárdenas – remains fresh. Both murders rallied reporters to the streets across the country, demanding an end to violence against journalists and impunity.
Fast forward five years, and not much appears to have changed. On Jan. 25, hundreds of reporters throughout Mexico took to the streets to protest violence against the press. They shared their grief, desperation, and anger after photographer Margarito Martínez and news anchor Lourdes Maldonado were shot dead less than a week from each other in Tijuana, which borders the United States.
It was a spontaneous show of strength and solidarity by the country’s press, battered by years of deadly violence and a failing government mechanism that left journalists highly vulnerable. Martínez and Maldonado were just two of five journalists and media workers killed in four different Mexican states in less than a month.
To make matters worse, both Maldonado and Martínez had asked state and federal authorities for protection. In 2019, Maldonado told President Andrés Manuel López Obrador that she feared for her life. Her enrollment in a Baja California state protection scheme could not prevent her death. Martínez was killed before the process of enrolling in a federal protection program was completed; the reasons for the delay are still unclear.
Even in a country where more than 100 reporters have been killed since the start of the century, the recent wave of violence is shocking, with troubling implications for the future of journalism in Mexico, a critical pillar for public accountability. Nine out of ten of those murders are never solved, resulting in an abysmal sixth place on the latest edition of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ)’s Global Impunity Index, topped only by countries that are active war zones. (Author’s note: I am the CPJ Mexico representative.)
Impunity in Mexico means that, in practice, few crimes are ever solved, often because of incompetence of authorities or their unwillingness to do their job. As a result, only a tiny fraction of crimes are even reported in the first place. And while less than ten percent of all crimes ever lead to a conviction, an even lesser number of crimes against journalists is ever solved.
Entire regions of the country have now become “silenced zones” and no longer have meaningful critical or investigative reporting, with local news offices shut down to avoid attacks. In states like Tamaulipas, corruption and organized crime are no longer covered at all, effectively cutting the public off from vital information during, for example, elections in a country where many public officials and political candidates have been accused of corruption and ties to organized crime. The violence is a direct threat to Mexico’s still young and vulnerable democracy.
Meanwhile, López Obrador often appears to see a country that doesn’t exist, routinely labeling critical journalists as corrupt and dishonest. His claims that “impunity is over” ring hollow; at least 34 journalists have been killed since he took office.
The Mexican government has not been fully indifferent to the pervasive murders. During the past decade, dozens of laws have been proposed by both state and federal legislators to improve the protection of journalists and human rights defenders. The most important of those laws was passed by the federal congress in 2012, creating the Federal Mechanism for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders and Journalists (the Federal Mechanism).
The Federal Mechanism provides dozens of protective measures, including camera systems, a panic button, and police protection, as well as relocation of journalists at risk of violence. Under normal circumstances, a journalist reports a threat and is then enrolled via an intake form. A periodic risk evaluation, usually every six months, determines the natures of the security measures and whether protection will be (dis)continued. The responsibility for the protection rests fully with the federal government, although many of the measures are often implemented in coordination with state authorities. As of early 2022, the federal government says it enrolled over 1,500 people in the protection scheme. Around a third of them, or about 500, are journalists, up from just over 350 in 2019.
Federal officials responsible for the program claim that increased numbers of journalists enrolled in the protection program are a sign of its success and that the Mechanism has saved lives. It has indeed protected hundreds of reporters, but the Federal Mechanism has fundamental flaws that, combined with institutional negligence or failures, in some circumstances even add to the circumstances that may have led to the murders of reporters enrolled in its protection.
For starters, it is not easy to gain protection. Numerous journalists I spoke with say the protective measures are mired in red tape and sometimes take dangerously long to be implemented. Such was the case with Margarito Martínez; according to officials of the Federal Mechanism, he had first reached out to the agency more than a month before he was killed about enrollment in a protection scheme. For reasons that remain unclear, the process was never finished before he was murdered.
The Mechanism is also chronically underfunded and, consequently, understaffed. Based in Mexico City, it employs fewer than fifty officials, most without a background in human rights. And although Alejandro Encinas, the federal Undersecretary for Human Rights, who oversees the Mechanism, repeatedly boasted that the Mechanism’s 2022 budget is the highest since its inception, its budget of 500 million pesos (approximately $25 million) is not enough to meet the need. Those weaknesses can cost lives. At least ten reporters and dozens of human rights defenders were, like Maldonado, murdered while nominally under protection from the Mechanism.
The Federal Mechanism isn’t the only institution of its kind in the country. A number of state authorities have also created institutions on the state level that, at least on paper, provide protective measures to journalists and human rights defenders. Very few of them, chiefly those in Mexico City and Veracruz, can boast a meaningful budget, autonomy, and capacity, however, and journalists in a number of states have informed CPJ over the past few years that those institutions are rudimentary at best. As of 2022, the Federal Mechanism remains the only meaningful government agency of its kind in the country.
Mexico is not the only country in Latin America plagued by impunity, crimes against the press, and protection programs that have proven to be ineffective. Many of the issues bear similarities to the rocky history of Colombia’s more than 20-year old national protection program and Honduras’ seven-year-old protection mechanism, both of which exist mostly on paper.
Mexico remains, however, the country where journalists are most likely to be murdered for their work. The increasing frequency with which these killings take place is an alarming sign that the violence and impunity will spiral out of control to the point when Mexico is no longer a country with silenced zones, but a silenced zone in and of itself.
There may be signs for optimism, however. The López Obrador government now says it wants to drastically reform the existing legal and institutional frame to protect journalists. A proposal may be sent to the federal congress as early as September.
For such a reform to be successful, the Mechanism’s responsibilities, scope, and size must be significantly expanded. More money and personnel are needed, but the federal government must also make sure that officials coordinating protective measures know and understand both human rights and the unique nature of the work of journalists. The Mechanism must also become more transparent and accountable. Despite its relatively small size and budget, little is publicly known about how the funds are spent, nor is it clear who can be held responsible when a journalist or human rights defender is killed despite being assigned protection.
If the Mechanism and state and federal protection laws are reformed, the Mexican government must still understand that this is only part of the solution. The culture of impunity that incentivizes violence against the press must be addressed. In the longer term, a strengthened protection mechanism will be weakened if nothing is done to end corruption in local police forces, prosecutors, and courts.
For the López Obrador administration, the ongoing Federal Mechanism reform process could be a last chance for meaningful action to make Mexico safer for its journalists. Enrique Irazoque, who oversees the Mechanism’s day-to-day work, told CPJ on March 10 that a proposal should be ready to be introduced to federal Congress in September 2022 and, if conditions are favorable, signed into law by the end of the year. He added that fully implementing a reform would take another one or two years.
One milestone likely on the government’s mind is the 2026 FIFA World Cup, when thousands of foreign journalists will descend on the country and local and national reporters will be forced to work in a country where journalism is become more perilous every year. But there are also more immediate concerns, namely the safety of journalists, the chilling effect of the violence on Mexico’s press, and the infringement on the Mexican people’s right to accurate information about what is happening in their own country. The president and his allies have a choice: they can either be remembered for taking action, or for turning a blind eye while the country is silenced.