The 20 Mexican journalists had flown to the border of Guatemala to discuss how to report on drug activities and stay alive, and they listened attentively as the speakers lined up. Nearly everyone at the conference, from both Mexico and other nations, had lost a colleague or received a death threat from drug gangs that target the media. They craved tips on survival.
A computer geek spoke about encryption. Next came a lecture on dodging assailants. Talk followed about coping when the reporter in the adjacent desk works for assassins.
Then Ginna Morelo stood up, and the room went silent. The tiny but steely investigative reporter from El Meridiano de Córdoba of Colombia recounted how journalists in her country had confronted similar drug violence two decades ago. Colleagues formed a national network that eventually won state protection for the media. Competitors collaborated on investigations, coordinated publication, and even staged a news blackout to protest a killing. They convinced authorities to provide bodyguards.
“I couldn’t remain silent anymore,” she explained of her decision six years ago to co-found an investigative network that now spans the country. The organization now has 87 active members and an email list of 6,000. Reporters in the group work together on stories that would be too dangerous or unwieldy to do alone. “What began with two journalists based in Bogotá snowballed into a national movement,” Morelo said. “Forget exclusivity.”
“Wow,” whispered the reporter next to me. “This is inspiring.”
Mexico is one of the most dangerous places to commit journalism, due to the impunity of drug syndicates. More than 80 journalists have been killed and 16 kidnapped over the past dozen years, because they wrote about the activities of warring gangs. Many reporters have gone into hiding, and still more have been silenced by fear.
Desperate for help, a loose network called Journalists On Foot (PDP) began to reach out to Colombia colleagues for tips, and over the past couple of years, seasoned experts like Morelo have flown over to meet with reporters across Mexico. The common language facilitates communication, as does an understanding of what it’s like to deal with the shadowy world of drug gangs. “We believe that we can serve as a useful example for Mexicans,” said Ignacio Gómez, head of Colombia’s leading press freedom group, FLIP. He has lost track of how many seminars FLIP has conducted in Mexico for colleagues facing danger.
The workshops have spawned an informal association, from Juárez to Oaxaca, of reporters who share things—names of affordable psychologists, a couch if someone needs to flee town, photocopies of countersurveillance guides. And they have begun discussing how to lobby as a group, to win the sort of officially sanctioned protection that colleagues in Colombia enjoy. “We need a law like Colombia’s that obligates the state to act,” said Brisa Solis, who heads the National Center of Social Communication (Cencos), an NGO that has spearheaded safety training in Mexico. “We have no organized way to react. We don’t have the money to pay lawyers. There is no telephone number to call when people are threatened.”
This is not to say the cases of Mexico and Colombia are analogous. They are not.
Colombia enjoyed conditions that were more favorable to building solidarity. For starters, the world of journalism in Mexico is alienated from civil society; the general populace often views hacks as irresponsible vultures, which is not the case in Colombia. And until these recent initiatives, media workers in the hinterland lacked contact with colleagues in other towns, let alone in Mexico City, where power lies. In some cases, the bosses of Mexican newspapers live across the border in the US, and have little contact, if any, with reporters. Colombian journalists tend to be better connected.
Also, unlike in Colombia, Mexico’s media giants seem disinterested in lobbying for protection as a group, according to the Center for International Media Assistance. This leaves provincial reporters out on a security limb with no strong advocates in the seat of government. In contrast, the influential national media in Bogotá joined forces with the political elite, which had been similarly targeted by the Medellín drug cartel.
“Almost all of the attacks in Mexico have been far from the capital city, carried out against local targets, and thus drawing little sustained national attention,” noted a recent report by the center. “There is almost no contact among the local and national media in Mexico, no coordinated efforts by publishers and editors to develop a common strategy to protect their journalists.”