The State of Mexican Journalism

An address from Grupo Reforma president Alejandro Junco de la Vega

Nowhere in the Americas is it more dangerous to practice journalism than in Mexico. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, twenty-one journalists have been killed in Mexico since 2000, seven of them in direct reprisal for their work. Those deaths, and the many other assaults that are a constant threat to Mexican journalists, mirror a rising trend of drug-related violence in the country.

Earlier this month, Columbia’s Journalism School hosted a conference, “Scared Silent: Mexican Journalists Under Attack by Drug Mafias,” to foster awareness of the threat Mexican journalists face in their work and to increase cooperation among those who are trying to aid them. Sponsored by the Knight Foundation, the conference brought many journalists to Columbia University from Mexico to provide a safe venue for discussion and to meet their U.S. counterparts.

Delivering the keynote address at that event was Alejandro Junco de la Vega, president of Grupo Reforma, which publishes seven daily papers in Mexico, among them outlets in Mexico’s three largest cities: Mexico City (Reforma), Guadalajara (Mural) and Monterrey (El Norte). The publishing conglomerate, and its president, have been instrumental factors in the evolution of journalism in Mexico. And the powerful speech Junco delivered highlighted not only the many challenges Mexico’s press faces, but also his abiding faith in the power of truth to effect change.

You can listen to audio of the speech here; the transcript of the talk is below. We found it compelling, and we hope you do, too.

—The Editors

“Scared Silent” Keynote Address
by Alejandro Junco de la Vega

Ladies and gentlemen,

You will often see people being interviewed on T.V. There was an explosion, or a train wreck, or some other kind of terrifying ordeal. The people interviewed will sometimes tell the reporter that their scary experience was “just like the movies.”

The implication I take from that, is that for many people, day to day life does not feel “just like the movies.”

I wish I could say the same.

Perhaps you have seen some of these movies; on one of them we even appeared: Man on Fire. Traffic. Godfather. Scarface.

And you may also know the clever T.V. drama, Weeds. The most recent series took its heroine south of the border and into the arms of a wealthy, urbane, blood-drenched politician whose drug ring was carrying vast quantities of narcotics and weapons across the border.

If you watched it, you must surely have flinched, to see his men, take to the face of an F.B.I. agent with a power tool, and then summarily shoot him the moment his agonized confession had been extracted.

You may have watched the story unfolding, and may have wondered if it was fanciful; exaggerated.

I wish it were so.

Mix the elements of that T.V. show and all those movies – together – in one noxious, toxic cocktail, and you will have a pretty good taste of Mexico as it is today.

Ladies and gentlemen, from what I heard and I can see, from the program ahead of us, that you will be hearing a dispiriting litany of the problems that beset us. It has come in great detail.

As it all unfolds, you could be forgiven for thinking that the problem is intractable. I will confess to pessimism myself; I cannot say I am confident that we will easily, or soon, awaken from our nightmare.

But I remain confident in the capacity of people to change. This is the context of my remarks.

I want to begin with the very personal and move out to the very broad.
You are being well-served by expert commentators today. They bring hard data and precise details. I only want to provide a context for it.

You might have been feeling in recent weeks, with so much talk about economic turmoil, and memories of the Great Depression, that things could not possibly be more grim.

Let me tell you: as bad as that spectre might be … it can be worse.

It can be worse when teenagers are kidnapped and murdered by people who drive police cars and wear badges and police guns.

It can be worse when intimidation can be presented in the form of a decapitated head on the hood of a car … when the City Morgue can have 80 corpses waiting in line because four doctors can’t keep up with the autopsies.

It can be worse when 5-year-old-children can paint colorful scenes of executions instead of puppies and clouds … when grenades are thrown into newsrooms.

It can be worse when you find no-one willing to take the job of Mayor because of a the sentence of intimidation and, possibly, death, that it carries.

That is our reality. It pains me to have to say so. It pains me as someone who has pride in his nation. It pains me as someone who has championed freedom of speech and justice and democracy and the rule of law. 

I have spent my entire life publishing newspapers that have crusaded for those causes, I have argued that they will make Mexico a better country.

Indeed, they have made life better.

But calling the name of democracy and justice and the rule of law does not – inevitably – bring those things in a torrent and neither does it bring their bounty in a rush.

While they are absent, poverty remains, and poverty brings its own evil. And so, for all the change our advocacy has brought us, we, Mexico’s journalists, find ourselves as the title of this event declares: Under Siege.

Not from businesses, not from politicians, not from the courts, not from any of the adversaries who have stood in our way over the past four decades.

We find ourselves under the siege of drug lords, criminals; and the more we expose their activities, the harder they push back.

Life is cheap. They push hard.

Two reporters from our Monterrey paper recently pursued a story. They had heard that a man running a tire rethread shop in a nearby town was being shaken down for protection money because this is how the drug rings have been “diversifying.”

Our reporter and photographer paid a visit to the town. Not ten minutes after they had arrived, armored vehicles pulled up outside, blocking their exit. They were thrown to the ground. Their laptops, their camera equipment, their phones, their I.D. with their addresses were all taken. And they were beaten.

With broken eardrums, shoulders, ribs … they both quit their jobs. This is not the first time such a thing has happened and the criminals have made it plain that unless we leave them alone, it will not be the last.

That threat hangs over all our reporters. We are, without question, under siege. But are we, as today’s title also proposes: “scared silent”?

Demonstrably, a reporter who has been hospitalized and who has resigned his job, has been scared silent. But as a newspaper, we remain dedicated to our creed: the truth must be known, it must be investigated, it must be published.

We continue to run the stories. But we find ourselves risking an ever higher price. So we adjust, make changes, and our lives are the worse for it.

We no longer run our reporters bylines. We vary our commuting route to evade kidnappers. Our families cannot be habitual in their daily lives. And this year, for the second time in four decades, I have had to move my entire family to a safe haven in the U.S.

We have every reason in the world to drop the stories. We have every reason to look the other way. But how can we do so? How can we ignore the words of Edmund Burke: “All that is necessary for evil to succeed is for good people to remain silent.”

If we adapt the famous words of Martin Niemeoller they would say:

First, there was violence between drug traffickers, but I’m not a drug trafficker, so I didn’t speak out;

Then, they kidnapped rich people, but I’m not rich, so I didn’t speak out;

Then, they came for conflictive people, but… I don’t have problems with anyone, so I didn’t say anything.

Finally, they came for me, and there was no one left to speak out for me.

It is our resolve to speak out: we will continue to report all that we know about the problem, and will continue to ask questions. We hold to the faith that if we ask enough questions we may finally come upon a solution.

Let me take you – briefly — through what we know so far.

I’ll begin with a conundrum: crime pays. In my country, you are more likely to fail in business than you are in organized crime. Seventy-five percent of Mexican business startups die within the first two years. 80 percent are gone within the first three years. 90 percent by the end of the first decade.

By contrast, your risk of failure as a criminal – outside of death – is ludicrously small. Only 5 percent of crimes are reported. Of those, only 15 percent of victims press charges. Only one – very unlucky – criminal out of 100 will go to prison.

You only need to spend a week trying to file a police complaint to learn why this might be so. Our equivalent to the District Attorney’s Office, our MP’s, are not law enforcement or prosecution agencies. They are form filling factories.

The forms you fill out have many fields, just one of them would make any member of this audience fail in your attempt to have justice done. That field is called “pre-existence.” If someone stole the tire of your pickup truck, in order to file a complaint successfully you must demonstrate that:
a. the tire exists and
b. that it is your lawful possession.

Now, could someone in the audience please demonstrate to the group that your stolen spare tire:
a. exists and
b. that you are the legitimate owner?

Of course, this all assumes that the office behind the counter will be honest and diligent. It assumes that he is not in the pocket of organized crime.

Getting into this pocket is not easily evaded. During the campaign, an emissary of some Trans NAFTA Corporation, dressed in a smart suit, walks into the candidate’s office carrying a briefcase full of money. He is bearing good wishes – no strings attached – for a successful political career. Once that happens, there is no choice. The Mayor must collaborate. Plata o Plomo. Silver or Lead.

Many political leaders pay lip-service to the assumption that if drug users on this side of the border were taken off their addiction and consumption stopped, the problems on our side would be solved.

Not so. They run deeper.

The real damage the drug trade has done has been to the rule of law and to our fledging democracy. It has rendered it impotent.

What has been exposed by the success of the drug trade is the fact that we are powerless to stop criminal activities – in general. Once lawless people see there is no rule of law, you have an altogether bigger problem.

If you can run drugs without fear of being caught, then you can also kidnap, extort, rape and kill, and disregard any law that impedes you, all with impunity.

How has it come to this?

Perhaps the answer is rather less complicated than we might imagine. Perhaps is lies in this motto of many criminals in Mexico: “I rather live a week like a king than a lifetime eating shit.”

Make no mistake: for millions and millions, daily life in Mexico can be one daily spoonful of manure after another. At times, it feels as though it is the national sport, not only of the government, to make your life difficult.

Even the best days can be lousy. Your team finally gets into the national championship! And now for the bad news. If you want to buy tickets, you’ll have to get up at 2 a.m., stand in line and weather the elements.

Red tape is everywhere, and it is so thick on the ground that daily life is Kafka-esque.

Wages can be meager … prospects bleak. Who can be surprised that a young man will risk a bullet for the possibility – at least a short time – of liberty from a joyless grind?

Of course the answer, we’ve been hearing, is supposed to be simple. Change your economic settings. Free the markets, privatize, open the borders, unfetter the invisible hand and let all the boats rise.

For many years it has been regarded as all but heretical to question this wisdom in many political and economic circles. This argument has been blunt: get these macroeconomic settings in place, stick to them and you will soon be on your way to first world prosperity.

Perhaps the turmoil of the past few weeks in the First World might persuade everyone to reconsider. Perhaps simple recipes may not be enough. Perhaps we ought to look more closely at the human beings involved in the economy.

Let us ask what motivates them to work hard and contribute, and what discourages them from taking part. Let us ask what work we can all do, and how we might better share the proceeds.

Let me put it this way: the person who stands on the South side of the border can look like a lost cause: lawless, disaffected, unwilling to work, unwilling to contribute.

Move him just three meters forward, across the border and into the United States, and witness a transformation that is quite remarkable.

No longer does he have his hand out for money; he has it out for work. He toils, he applies himself, he does – all he can – to embrace his new life. He flourishes. Sends money back home.

Who is this man who changed fundamentally by moving just three short meters?

The answer is obvious: Most human beings are not innately bad or lazy, or incapable, or lawless. Given the right circumstances and an opportunity, given the hope of a better life, they respond.

I know this. I have seen it with my own eyes. Forty some years ago I came north to Austin, Texas as a young man to learn about journalism.

I learned about freedom of the press, I learned about transparency, I learned about Thomas Jefferson, I learned about democracy.

I went back home to Monterrey, to our family newspaper, then number two in a provincial city, and applied everything I had learned.

Our people there had been shackled and corrupted by the prevailing system. We would print only what people with power and money decided should be printed. Right across the country, reporters and publishers took order.

We changed all that/ Wed educated our reporters to report the news without fear or favor. We banned old practices. Changed paradigms. And the people changed. They came alive.

The same people who had been taking bribes and cutting corners became dedicated reporters and principled citizens. We went from number two in the province to number one in the nation.

It was the beginning of a revolution in my profession, in my city and country.

Ladies and gentlemen, we need three other revolutions: one that respects merits, one that respects property rights, one that brings public trials and the rule of law. And I have no doubt we can bring them about.

A colleague once shared with me the story of a shipwrecked sailor, who spent three years on a deserted island. He is overjoyed one day to see a ship drop anchor in the bay. A small boat comes ashore, and an officer hands the sailor a collection of newspapers. And this is what he tells the shipwrecked sailor:
Sir: “The captain suggests that you read what is going on in the world. When you’ve read it, let us know if you want to be rescued.”

In all the time I have been a newspaperman, I have never stopped believing that tomorrow’s edition could bring better news, no matter how discouraging the stories might be today.

I have seen enough in the capacity of human beings to make each new day better; to convince me that there is always hope.

We are – all of us – members of communities and there is not a community in the world that cannot be better protected by a good newspaper who speaks out.

And ladies and gentlemen, there is not a criminal alive that can scare us silent.

God bless you for your interest. Thank you very much.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

The Editors are the staffers of Columbia Journalism Review.