MEXICO CITY — After decisively winning Mexico's 2018 presidential election, Andres Manuel López Obrador made a solemn vow in his victory speech: “We are not going to allow the assassination of journalists."
But that didn’t help Jesús Hiram Moreno, who was shot in the back in Oaxaca last week, despite being enrolled in a federal program meant to keep reporters safe. Moreno survived the assassination attempt, but reporter Santiago Barroso wasn’t so lucky. He was shot dead on March 15 by armed gunmen when he opened the door to his home in the border city of San Luis Rio Colorado. And on Sunday, the body of sports journalist Omar Iván Camacho was found under a bridge in Sinaloa.
Journalists are still getting murdered with impunity under Mexico’s new president. Six journalists have been murdered since he took office on December 1, adding to a grisly toll of 71 reporters that have been killed in Mexico over the past decade, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Mexico ranks as the deadliest for journalists among countries that aren’t at war.
López Obrador, known as AMLO, inherited a country where corruption and impunity are rampant, and critics acknowledge change isn’t going to happen overnight. But they also say the president hasn’t articulated a concrete plan to address the dangers faced by journalists — and that doesn’t bode well for the future.
“The problem is, these promises need to translate into meaningful policies in protecting journalists and combating impunity. And that’s where the wheel stops turning. Because we haven’t seen any real progress in what this government is proposing,” said Jan-Albert Hootsen, the Mexico representative for the Committee to Protect Journalists, a press freedom group.
“We are going to do everything in our power to protect them”
On Monday, López Obrador reiterated his promise that his administration would do everything in its power to stop the assassinations, while stopping short of specifics. “No journalist will be limited to his right to express himself,” he said. “We are going to do everything in our power to protect them, to prevent them from being attacked.”
In addition to the 71 journalists confirmed murdered in Mexico, another 21 have disappeared and are presumed dead, according to the Mexican National Human Rights Commission. No arrests have led to a conviction at the federal level, and there have only been a handful of state convictions. Of those convicted, most have been the shooters but not the people who ordered the killings.
While international correspondents still face danger, they haven’t experienced nearly the same level of violence or harassment as local journalists, and none have been murdered since American filmmaker Brad Will in 2006. He was shot and killed while filming teacher protests in Oaxaca, and his case remains unsolved.
Nearly 300 reporters and 500 human rights activists in Mexico participate in a federal protection program intended to keep them safe. They receive panic buttons, home security, and bodyguards in some instances. But Hootsen said the federal program, which began in 2012, remains severely underfunded.
López Obrador is also reorganizing the federal attorney general’s office, but it’s unclear what will become of a special prosecutor’s office created in 2010 to investigate crimes against journalists.
Meanwhile, assassinations continue. Mexican journalists who dare to write critically about organized crime and government corruption, or — most perilously — the links between them, are especially at risk.
On March 20 in the state of Oaxaca, a hitman riding a motorcycle targeted journalist Moreno as he was leaving a convenience store. Moreno survived and told a local broadcaster that the man raised his shirt to pull a gun and immediately started shooting at him. Moreno was shot in the back after he turned and ran.
Moreno covered crime, corruption, and local politics for the local newspaper “Evidencias,” or “Evidence,” and on March 5, he’d reported on allegations that state police had tortured three teenagers, one of whom later died.
On March 15, a group of armed men shot and killed reporter Barroso when he opened the door to his home in San Luis Rio Colorado, according to Sonora Reporters Network. The most recent episode of his daily one-hour radio show had talked about how smugglers were crossing Central American migrants into the U.S. in broad view of Mexican authorities.
In February, local news radio host Jesús Eugenio Ramos Rodriguez was shot and killed while having breakfast in the southern Mexico state of Tabasco.
And in January, reporter Rafael Murúa Manríquez, general director of a community radio station in Baja California, was found dead from an execution-style shooting. Two months before the murder, he critized local mayor Felipe Prado’s security policies on Facebook and said he had received warnings that “they were going to kill me soon.”
Prado couldn’t be immediately reached for comment. In an interview with a Mexican newspaper, he rejected the suggestion that he had anything to do with Murua’s murder, saying his administration “respects freedom of expression.”
The most well-known journalist in Mexico to be murdered in recent years is Javier Valdez, who was assassinated in May 2017 in Sinaloa. A prize-winning reporter known for his work at RioDoce covering organized crime, Valdez’s murder sparked outrage and showed that even international renown offers no guarantee of safety.
Mexican authorities have arrested two gunmen suspected of committing the murder, and a third was killed in a 2017 shootout. But the cartel leaders who ordered the killing have never been definitively identified, and last week, the internet watchdog group Citizen Lab reported that Valdez’s widow, Griselda Triana, was targeted with a spyware program called Pegasus 10 days after his murder.
It’s unclear who attempted to secretly install the program on her phone, which would have allowed her calls, texts, and other information to be monitored, but human rights groups report that the Mexican government under former President Enrique Peña Nieto purchased Pegasus from Israeli security firm NSO Group and used it to spy on activists and journalists. Several of Valdez’s colleagues at the newspaper RioDoce were also targeted with the spyware.
Hootsen said even if López Obrador’s government isn’t responsible for spying on Valdez’s window and colleagues, “they are responsible for achieving justice in this case and every other case that is still open and hasn’t been solved yet. And they can’t walk away from that.” López Obrador didn’t talk specifically on this case but reiterated Monday that his administration would not tolerate complicity from government officials.
Mexican journalists remain pessimistic about the dangers they face.
“I think the harassment of human rights defenders and journalists are going to continue at least in the mid-term,” said Andres Villarreal, a RioDoce editor who worked with Valdez. “This administration is still not able to contain the spiral of violence. The change of government doesn’t resolve or stop the activities of criminals, much less organized crime.”
Several Mexican journalists have sought asylum in the U.S., but they have found that safety isn’t guaranteed north of the border. Journalist Emilio Gutiérrez Soto fled death threats a decade ago because of his reporting on drug cartels and abuses by the Mexican military, but in February, an immigration judge in Texas rejected Gutiérrez’s latest asylum request, saying he hadn’t shown he would be targeted if he returned to Mexico. Now, two Michigan congressmen have introduced a bill that would specifically protect him and his son from deportation.
Gutiérrez’s attorney, Eduardo Beckett, said there are high hopes that López Obrador will make Mexico safer for journalists, but it’s probably not going to happen any time soon. “This situation is going to take years,” he said.
Cover image: Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, Mexico's president, gestures towards attendees following a presentation on the Mexico Food Security program in the town of Cedral, San Luis Potosi state, Mexico, on Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2019. (Photo: Mauricio Palos/Bloomberg via Getty Images)