November 15th marked the six-month anniversary of the assassination of Javier Valdez Cárdenas, a correspondent at La Jornada and the editor of Riodoce, a newsweekly known for covering organized crime and cartel violence in Mexico’s embattled state of Sinaloa. Valdez was no stranger to Mexico’s endemic cartel violence, having covered the ‘narco’ beat for years.
Journalists in Peril
Valdez isn’t the first reporter to be killed in Mexico’s drug war. 11 journalists have been killed in 2017 alone. Nevertheless, Valdez’s murder became emblematic of the attacks against journalists and the impunity surrounding these attacks. The 50-year-old crusading journalist and author of numerous books on the drug war and its societal impact—including Narcoperiodismo and Huérfanos del narco (The Drug Lord’s Orphans)—was gunned down in broad daylight, on a busy street in Culiacan.
According to Article 19, the human rights group cited 111 journalists have been killed in Mexico since 2000 and an additional 23 journalists have disappeared since 2003. Journalists and media workers recognize the threat they face. On the day he was killed, Valdez had just attended a meeting with colleagues about his increasingly precarious security situation. Commenting on the brutal murder of his colleague Miroslava Breach on the 23rd of March 2017 in Chihuahua, Valdez tweeted "They killed Miroslava for having a big mouth. They should kill us all if that's the punishment for reporting on this hell. No to silence." Breach was a contributor to El Norte, the newspaper in Ciudad Juárez that closed its doors to protest the cartels targeting journalists. Breach had covered collusion between drug traffickers and political actors, clandestine graves (narcofosas) and femicides in Chihuahua.
In June 2017, Salvador Adame, founder of news channel 6TV in Michoacán was abducted in what’s called a ‘levantón’ and killed after being threatened for reporting collusion between local government and organized crime. In October 2017, Edgar Daniel Esqueda, a photojournalist who complained about receiving threats from the state prosecutors office was abducted from his home and later found dead from bullet wounds in San Luis Potosí. Last year Anabel Flores Salazar was abducted by an armed group in Veracruz and found dead in Puebla according to Mexico’s State Commission for the Care and Protection of Journalists (CEAPP).
As IFEX has noted, death is a constant for journalists in the Americas (other parts of Latin America, including Brazil, face a situation similar to Mexico’s where attacks and a culture of impunity reign). In El Salvador gangs (maras) threaten journalists as seen in the case of Jorge Beltrán, who had reportedly also been harassed by government officials for documenting territorial control of Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Barrio 18 (Mara 18) in San Salvador’s neighborhoods. Corruption, killings and impunity are a serious concern in Guatemala where the President recently tried to deport the head of the UN’s anti-impunity commission (CICIG) and Honduras where mareros allegedly linked to Mara 18 killed telejournalist Igor Padilla in a coordinated attack in San Pedro Sula in January 2017. Transnational gang links are suspected in the murder in Veracruz of Edwin Rivera Paz, a Honduran cameraman and associate of Igor Padilla, who sought asylum in Mexico after Padilla’s street execution. Some observers believe the state is not only complicit but plays a major role in both attacks and the resulting impunity. Impunity abounds. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) calls it “Getting Away with Murder.”
The violence against journalists in Mexico and elsewhere in Latin America is tainted by extreme impunity. Very few of the attacks against journalists, photojournalists and media workers result in arrests and convictions of the responsible actors. This endemic impunity creates an extreme threat to journalists, obscures the full extent of the violence and atrocities committed by cartels and gangs, as well as protecting corrupt officials that operate in collusion with the gangsters.
According to the CPJ’s 10th Annual Global Impunity Index, Mexico ranks sixth worldwide in terms of impunity for attacks against journalists with 21 unsolved cases (while Brazil ranks eighth with 15). The CPJ ranking uses a conservative estimate of deaths that thoroughly documents each verified instance. According to the CPJ, the 21 cases of total impunity are likely linked to criminal gangs, like narcotraffickers targeting local journalists reporting on cartel crime and narcopolitics. According to Reporters sans frontières (RSF), Mexico is the Western Hemisphere’s deadliest country for media, where most crimes go unpunished due to pervasive corruption fueling impunity. It ranked near the global bottom at 147 (out of 180) on the 2017 World Press Freedom Index.
Attacks on journalists do more than silence their voices. They are a not-so-subtle tool for intimidation of adversaries, are used to shape the cartel operating environment and obscure government collusion with criminal enterprises. Attacks become instrumental tools of influence and an integral component of cartel information operations. In some cases journalists self-censor their content; in others they become virtual mouthpieces for the cartels and their hitmen known as sicarios. The cartels use violence, bribes, and coercion to shape perception. The traditional media (newspapers, radio, and television), along with social media and public banners (narcomantas) become the mechanisms for asserting cartel influence. The continuum of interaction ranges from collusion to coercion to competition. In all cases, the coverage or lack thereof colors community perceptions of insecurity and cartel capacity vis-à-vis the state and rival cartels.
Attacks on journalists are a major component of criminal cartel strategy in Mexico’s drug war. Corruption, collusion, intimidation and impunity are significant factors enabling and exacerbating the violence against journalists and media outlets in Mexico and other areas challenged by transnational criminal gangs and cartels. Addressing impunity is now widely recognized as a core component in tackling transnational organized crime and containing drug and crime wars.