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Mexico’s president has broken his promise to journalists - and it's getting them killed
Watchdogs warn of a "spiral of violence and impunity" as anti-media messaging grows
Jacinto Romero Flores knew his corruption reporting could get him in trouble. The radio journalist had been receiving threats since publishing a story accusing the local police of abuse of authority. “Stop writing shit, you son of a bitch,” read one WhatsApp message reported by the Mexican press. “[...] That [story] was your last.”
One Thursday in August, as he drove his red press car down the central boulevard of Ixtaczoquitlán, armed men gunned him down. He was found dead at the wheel.
Romero Flores’ murder, in the southern Veracruz department, is the most recent of many. Since 1994, 130 journalists have been killed in Mexico, making it the most dangerous country for reporters outside of recent war zones, according to a recent Human Rights Watch report. The job is especially deadly for those who report on the well-established links between politicians and organized crime.
“The cartels don’t care when I write about them,” said Luis Chaparro, a reporter in the famously violent city of Juarez on the US border. “But when I write about the links between government and organized crime, that’s when I start receiving death threats.”
Chaparro fled Mexico in 2010 after being attacked, extorted and threatened by local police following a series of articles on corruption and cooperation with organized crime groups. He was contacted by an informant for the US Drug Enforcement Agency, who provided evidence that local police were working with narcos to smuggle drugs and people across the border.
“It was a bombshell,” said Chaparro. “And when I started to check out the leads, everything checked out.” But the police didn’t like the stories he started printing.
“I was pulled over by police while driving one night. [They] rushed the car with their guns drawn,” he said. “I assumed that my life was over. I got down on my knees and placed my hands behind my head. It’s strange, but at that moment all I could think was ‘well, at least my colleagues will know it was an execution’.”
As the cops argued about whether to kill Chaparro or extort him, he offered his car, all the money he could withdraw and everything he had on him in exchange for two more hours of life, during which he promised to leave the country and abandon his reporting.
Police agreed to the deal, he said. Chaparro lived in El Paso for nearly a year before returning to Juárez. “I learned through friends that the police officers that threatened to kill me had been killed,” he said. “So I knew it was safe to come back.”
RSF, which monitors press freedom globally, rates Mexico 143rd out of 180 countries for press freedom, describing the situation as devolving “ever deeper into a spiral of violence and impunity”.
Only Cuba has a worse rating in Latin America, though it is less deadly for journalists. Latin America generally fares poorly, with ten countries ranked among the worst 80.
Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) promised to address the worsening situation during his election campaign, but has instead spent most of his time denying the problem, calling it “fake news” from “people who want to see me fail.” He has also cut funding to programs designed to protect threatened journalists.
Since he took office less than three years ago, 35 journalists have been killed.
The worsening situation in Mexico reflects a larger pattern in the Americas, according to Natalie Southwick, Committee to Protect Journalists’ (CPJ) Latin America director
“We are seeing a global trend towards authoritarianism,” she said. “We’re seeing more attacks, both in rhetoric and physically against journalists throughout the region. Social media amplifies anti-media messages coming directly from the highest levels of government and encourages people to commit violence against reporters.”
López Obrador gives “lie of the week” press conferences in which he singles out individual reporters whose coverage he has found unflattering. Though packaged as fact-checking, his discourse often veers into Trumpian distortions of reality, such as when he told Jorge Ramos, the Mexican reporter and anchor at US network Univision, that murder statistics provided by his own staff were “slander” that illustrated “anti-government bias” amidst live questioning.
Journalists targeted by AMLO at these conferences are often subjected to organized harassment campaigns by his supporters.
Over 90% of individuals who attack and kill journalists in Mexico never face justice for their actions, according to RSF, and overall, just 1.3% of crimes are solved.
“Mexican nationals, particularly those operating independently, are the most vulnerable,” said Chaparro. “[Unlike with foreign correspondents], police and criminals know that they can threaten Mexican journalists and there will be no consequences.”
To make matters worse, journalists in Mexico operate under extreme financial distress. Despite years of record growth for big media companies, journalism salaries lag far behind even the monthly minimum wage ($390 USD). Reporters earn an average of 4,560 Mexican pesos ($245 USD) per month.
“Most of my colleagues who went into the profession thinking they could improve Mexico have left to take other jobs,” said Chapparo. “They can’t survive on that salary, especially if they’re not writing in English.”
For particularly sensitive stories, Chaparro now shares bylines with foreign reporters, who are much less likely to be killed or threatened for their reporting, or works with media companies that do not name their reporters.
“It’s a shame,” he said. “The police are much less likely to kill someone with a caucasian sounding name.”
Human rights groups and Romero Flores’ family have taken his case directly to López Obrador, who has promised his support.
Local law enforcement has promised to investigate his death. But the question of whether he will ever receive justice remains open: according to his colleagues, the principal suspects are the police themselves.