In the last several weeks, since the mass killings of staff members of French satire magazine Charlie Hebdo by Islamic extremists in Paris, millions of people have marched in France and around the world in support of the slain journalists and freedom of the press. The slogan #JeSuisCharlie became a rallying cry at marches and on social media.
Likewise, grief, anger and shock have spread through the United States, Europe and now Japan after the release of online videos showing the horrific beheadings of their nations’ journalists and aid workers by Islamic State militants, prompting millions to take to social media in outrage and mourning.
Yet, more than 90 Mexican journalists have been assassinated since 2000 – with at least 20 more disappeared the past decade and more than a dozen fleeing for political asylum – and the international response has been mostly a deafening silence.
Last week, Mexican authorities in the gulf state of Veracruz announced the discovery of the corpse of yet another Mexican journalist – the decapitated body of Moisés Sanchez – the journalist and publisher of “La Union,” a weekly newspaper in the town of Medellin de Bravo. Sanchez, who covered violence and government corruption, had been taken by armed men from his home weeks earlier on the heels of death threats and his persistent reporting on the local mayor.
After the discovery of Moisés Sanchez’s decapitated body in a ravine, Veracruz state authorities announced they had arrested a former police officer turned narco hitman, claiming he confessed to kidnapping Sanchez with the help of five other men – all on the orders of the town’s deputy director of police and allegedly under instructions of the town’s mayor.
Since then 36 members of the local police have been brought in for questioning, with three so far implicated in Sanchez’s killing.
Perhaps the lack of international condemnation or response stems from a belief that these killings have no import on our lives. That we have no connection to them. That – accompanied by a resigned shrug – we relegate them to Mexico’s ongoing drug war, which we somehow believe does not have the same implications for press freedom and civil society compared to the killings by Muslim extremists.
The record paints a much darker truth – one to which the United States is intimately tied.
As one Arizona journalist noted in a recent column, the killings in Mexico pose possibly a greater undermining of press freedom and civil society because in many of them, such as Sanchez’s, those implicated included Mexican government authorities, the military and police officials at local, state and federal levels.
With his slaying, Sanchez became the 11th journalist killed in the state of Veracruz in just the last four years, according to Article 19, a London-based human rights organization advocating for freedom of expression. The group called Veracruz the most dangerous Mexican state for journalists in a country deemed one of the most deadly for journalists by numerous international journalism associations, including Reporters Without Borders.
From 2000 through the first quarter of 2014, Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission documented the killing of 88 journalists. In the past decade, at least another 20 disappeared.
Of course, journalists are not the only ones getting killed. So have more than 100,000 people in the past decade, many of them under former president Felipe Calderón’s so-called federal (and U.S. funded) offensive against drug trafficking during his six-year presidency (2006-2012). That included everyone from young women working in borderland sweatshops, to business owners, store keepers, priests and innocent bystanders, as well as massacre victims found in mass graves. Many of these crimes go unsolved or are not investigated at all.
The Mexican public is not waiting for the international community to respond to the everyday terror and official impunity in which they are living. Vigilante groups are spreading, fighting back against the drug cartels and the military units supposedly sent in to protect residents. Grassroots journalism groups and networks are growing to post photos and keep pressure on officials over missing or killed colleagues.
Also, in what has become an international scandal for Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto, mass protests have broken out all across Mexico in the last several months since the September 26 disappearance of 43 students of a rural teaching school in Ayotzinapa, occurring in the southwestern city of Iguala.
The official Mexican government version of events is that the students were kidnapped, killed at a trash dump and incinerated, their remains put in bags and thrown in a river. Iguala’s mayor has been arrested, accused of ordering the local police to detain the students, before they were turned over to a drug gang known as Guerreros Unidos.
But in contrast to this version – which relatives of the missing students don’t believe – an investigation published by Mexico’s Proceso magazine reveals that the culpability rises much higher within the Mexican government.
The investigative news report provides evidence that federal police were involved in shooting the 43 students and that the federal government had been covering up the Federales’ role in the case.
The reporters included Anabel Hernández, one of Mexico’s most prominent investigative journalists, and Steve Fisher, with the support of the University of California-Berkeley’s investigative journalism program.
Their reporting also contradicts frequent claims by Mexican and U.S. authorities that Mexico’s violence is attributable solely to the drug cartels or gangs, their victims also portrayed as criminals. Mexican authorities also routinely attempt to claim journalists’ deaths can’t be linked to their jobs.
Yet it is precisely when Mexican journalists write about or investigate the ties between the drug violence and government officials – implying that it is not a war on drugs but rather a war for drugs and a piece of the multibillion-dollar business – that they are most in danger.
Most of the violent attacks against journalists – 330 in 2013 alone – are attributed not to the cartels but to public officials, according to Article 19.
Rarely is anything done about it, according to Reporters Without Borders:
“Impunity continues to prevail in almost all murders and disappearances of journalists. The police and judicial investigations into these murders are often closed quickly or are paralyzed by cumbersome bureaucratic procedures. The impunity is also due to collusion between organized crime and the political and administrative authorities, which have been corrupted or even infiltrated by the cartels at all levels.”
The above-mentioned Hernández knows this all too well.
The winner of the 2012 Golden Pen of Freedom from the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers, Hernández has written numerous books and articles on the growth of the major drug cartels in Mexican society and the history of intractable government corruption. In one of her latest books, Los Senores del Narco (or Narcoland in its English translation), she names names, of crime bosses as well as the politicians, judges, military commanders, businessmen, federal police and task forces who protect them.
She has received death threats, had headless animals left on her doorstep, her home broken into by armed gunmen and her relatives threatened at gunpoint. She lives with bodyguards around the clock, but many of her old friends are too terrified to be in contact or be seen with her lest they get caught in the crossfire the day her assassins arrive.
For many Mexican journalists, that day has come.
Last fall, Octavio Rojas Hernández, a reporter in Oaxaca, had arrived home and was about to sit down to eat when someone called him outside about buying his vehicle, then riddled his body with bullets. This occurred 48 hours after his newspaper published an article that linked the director of municipal police to a gang involved in fuel theft.
Also last fall, a radio host and frequent critic of local authorities in Sinaloa state was shot dead during a live broadcast. Bloggers and “netizens” are also terrorized and have been killed.
For others who seek protection and help in the United States, a new type of adversity begins when they cross the border: proving their case.
Journalist Emilio Gutiérrez Soto fled across the border with his son strapped in the vehicle in 2008 after getting word that a military commander wanted him killed. He turned himself into U.S. authorities asking for protection, was separated from his son and spent more than seven months in a detention center before being released and given a court date. His asylum case is still pending.
While Mexican immigration to the United States has dropped, political asylum claims have skyrocketed, from 2,611 in 2006 to 9,206 in 2012. Yet the approval rate for Mexican applicants is low. By comparison, among Chinese applicants, the biggest group of claims, the approval rate is 42 percent. For Mexicans, the second largest group, it is 1.4 percent.
More than a dozen journalists have fled Mexico for numerous countries. At least four have received asylum in the United States, including photojournalist Miguel Angel López Solano, who fled Veracruz in 2011 after his father – a columnist who wrote about crime and political corruption – his mother and brother, also a photojournalist, were murdered in their home.
In Mexico, those journalists who haven’t fled or been killed put their lives on the line in writing about the drug violence and official corruption – or learn how to write around it in order to survive.
The late American journalist Charles Bowden, who passed away last August, reported from within Mexico and unrelentingly wrote on the violence, the drug trade, connections to the United States, and forms those survival tactics took for Mexican journalists. They included everything from accepting bribes to overlooking stories (including public shoot-outs), removing bylines, moving crime coverage to inside pages, to using vague descriptions of “commandos” about eye-witnesses’ reports of military participation of killings or kidnappings.
All of this raises critical investigative questions for the United States (and its journalists).
In addition to the fact that it is U.S. drug consumption that is fueling this violence and corruption in the first place, why – in light of the historical and ongoing corruption in Mexican government and every single Mexican federal task force ever set up to fight the drug trade – is the United States pouring more than $100 million a year into the Mexican government and military under the Mérida Initiative?
When President Obama announced in December the start of historic reestablishment of ties between the United States and Cuba, he was blasted by the typical chorus from South Florida and some members of Congress and expected presidential candidates for engaging with Cuba considering its human rights record.
And yet, despite the fact that Mexico is imploding under one of the gravest human rights disasters in our hemisphere, the United States does $500 billion in annual trade with Mexico – thanks to the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA.
So far the one voice I have heard raise clear concerns about this in Congress was that of U.S. Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey, the senior Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
According to the Dallas Morning News, he called for concerted efforts to professionalize Mexico’s police and justice system, stating that the country’s violence and corruption could not be overlooked.
“The tragedy of the missing students in Iguala, the discovery of clandestine mass graves, and extra-judicial killing by security forces discourage the investment that a dynamic, modern Mexico deserves,” the newspaper quoted Menendez saying following last month’s visit to the White House by Mexican president Peña Nieto.
By contrast, Obama’s aides reportedly said that Obama will lobby Mexico’s president “for help in encouraging Cuban improvements on human rights, democracy and political freedom,” according to the DMN. I can only imagine that Mexico’s people first would like to have a steadier dose of those things themselves.
Meanwhile, the question remains: who in the international community will take up the cry for Mexico’s slain and persecuted journalists, for freedom of the press in Mexico and an end to the violence? A hashtag name is already on Twitter, with a few dozen followers, mostly from Mexico. It is called #YoSoyMoises. You could join in. Or pick another name. Tragically, there are more than 90 from which to choose.