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Mexico's Journalists Speak Truth To Power, And Lose Their Lives For It

Journalist and activist Gildo Garza, right, reads the names of murdered journalists at a demonstration outside the federal attorney general's office in Mexico City.
Courtesy Gildo Garza
Journalist and activist Gildo Garza, right, reads the names of murdered journalists at a demonstration outside the federal attorney general's office in Mexico City.

MEXICO CITY — When Gildo Garza finally fled his home state of Tamaulipas in 2017 and arrived in Mexico City, he knew where to go first: the federal attorney general's office. Even if the chances were slim, he had a sliver of hope investigators would find and prosecute the narcos and corrupt politicians who wanted him dead for his reporting.

But as he described the threats and violence he faced, further anxiety filled Garza's thoughts. He didn't know how he could afford to care for his family in the Mexican capital. Most reporters in his home state are paid between $75 to $150 per month and he scraped by on multiple jobs, freelance work and consulting gigs.

"Have you been to see the Mechanism?" an attorney in the office asked him.

Garza would soon fall into the safety net that is the Federal Protection Mechanism for Human Rights Defenders and Journalists, an agency formed in 2012 to address rising violence against activists and reporters. Today, approximately 1,500 human rights defenders and journalists are officially receiving support.

"Mexico has levels of violence - and impunity in that violence - that are comparable to open war zones, even though Mexico is not officially a country at war," says Jan-Albert Hootsen, the Mexico representative for the Committee to Protect Journalists. CPJ's Global Impunity Index lists Mexico at No. 6, only behind active conflict zones like Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Somalia and South Sudan.

When a journalist is in danger, they can contact the Mechanism for an assessment.

After evaluating individual risk factors, the agency can provide journalists with a range of protective measures, like a bulletproof vest or a bodyguard; security cameras at their home or office; targeted police patrols; a panic button to alert authorities if they're in immediate danger. The agency also links journalists to mental health services.

Garza's reporting put his life on the line

"In 2017, I documented two cases of corruption between the state government and the Los Zetas cartel," Garza told NPR. He was no stranger to violence: he'd already been kidnapped three times and a close colleague was murdered in 2013.

But this case was different. The cartel hung a banner telling Garza he had 24 hours to leave the state or they would kill him, his wife, his children and "even the dog."

"In the assessment with the agency, the government of my home state Tamaulipas said I could never return there, that they could not guarantee my safety," he says. Because of this, the Mechanism set Garza and his family up with an apartment in Mexico City and gave them additional financial support, in addition to a bodyguard.

Garza is appreciative of the support during the worst moments of his life, but over time, he has seen major gaps in the agency.

"It is a beautiful and comprehensive framework on paper," he says. "But our bureaucracy is indifferent to the needs of victims."

Garza saw colleagues back home struggling to get protection in critical moments and started the Association for Displaced and Attacked Journalists to further advocate for them. CPJ's Hootsen shares similar critiques of the agency.

"In reality, it doesn't always function really well," he says. "Many of those [protective] measures actually don't have the effect. There are a lot of problems in the communication and coordination from the federal mechanism."

Hootsen says funding for the Mechanism is in jeopardy and that it's desperately in need of additional staff. The Mexico City-based bureaucrats often don't understand the unique struggles of being a vulnerable reporter in rural Mexico, he says. Slow responses are a common complaint among journalists who need immediate help

A recurring complaint NPR heard from reporters who have received help from the agency concerned the panic button. This little cellular device allows a reporter to send a geolocated SOS that will immediately alert the agency and trusted police forces when a reporter is in danger. But the devices are often old and faulty and they rely on cell signals.

"The panic button doesn't work where I live," says Jorge Sánchez, a reporter in Veracruz state. "I'm sitting in my office and it doesn't get a signal here. I know lots of others who have it and it's just useless for most of us."

Seemingly minor slip-ups at the agency can have mortal consequences. In June, a crime reporter in Oaxaca state, Gustavo Sánchez (not related to Jorge Sánchez), was murdered five months after asking the agency for help. They had officially listed him as "protected" but hadn't actually done anything to protect him. Hootsen says Sánchez is at least the seventh reporter killed while under government protection.

He wants the government of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador to put more money, plus more and better trained staff into the agency. But the real driver behind violence against journalists is a fundamental failure of Mexican society: impunity.

A failure to prosecute crimes against journalists means no deterrence

"The vast majority of these cases, I would say anywhere from 90 to 95%, end up lingering in impunity," says Hootsen. In some cases, the person who pulled the trigger may end up in jail, but the mastermind behind that crime almost never will.

"It's very, very rare in Mexico to get full justice," he says. "In fact, I think there may be just two or three cases where this actually happened."

Jorge Sánchez knows this pain well. Every January since 2015, Sánchez has protested in front of the Veracruz state government headquarters over his father's murder that year. Moisés Sánchez ran La Unión, a small online newspaper based near the port city Veracruz. He was a thorn in the side of local politicians, Jorge says.

"He often clashed with local authorities," he says. "I think he took pride in being hated by them. He received plenty of threats in his life but I guess he never took them seriously."

When Sánchez published a report linking the mayor to organized crime in late 2014, threatening calls and messages poured in. On Jan. 5, 2015, masked armed men burst into their home and kidnapped him. His body was found 20 days later.

After years of investigating, there is still only one police officer in prison for the crime, even though he presented evidence that the mayor had ordered him to "make [Sánchez] disappear."

"Even though the governments have changed [and] there have been three governors from three different parties, the impunity is still here," says Sánchez's son, Jorge. "People will let me know when they see [the former mayor] having a coffee or out with his family. He's just free."

Jorge's mother left their hometown after his father's death, but he insisted on staying. In an act of defiance, Sánchez decided to continue publishing La Unión in his father's name. He doesn't make any money from it and his collaborators are all volunteers. They've been able to keep reporting because Sánchez has had a bodyguard and other security measures provided by the Federal Protection Mechanism since 2015.

He's happy to have the protection and hopes he won't have to flee like Garza did. But Sánchez finds his situation, and the situation of so many journalists in Mexico, perverse.

"The criminals are the ones who should be thinking about where to go to hide," he says. "Not us, not the victims."

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