I spoke to dozens of Mexican journalists across the country, and nearly all said appeals for transfers to safer beats or hiring armed sentries were laughed off. Salaries are low—the average monthly wage is $650—and employment so scarce that reporters are often scared to push for their rights. Forget about strong unions. “My editor expected me to return to work right after being beaten,” one reporter from a border town told me.
At least at this stage, it is hard to imagine Mexico adopting a mechanism akin to the Colombian Regulation and Risk Assessment Committee. That body, set up a decade ago, comprises representatives from FLIP, other NGOs, and the government. They review protection requests of 16 vulnerable groups—including journalists—and provide bodyguards and bulletproof cars for those in need.
Mexico also lacks a robust judicial system to bring killers to justice. Earlier this year, Mexican lawmakers approved an amendment to the Constitution that made attacks on journalists a federal crime, and gave federal authorities the power to prosecute in geographic areas that normally fall under local or state jurisdiction. But the legislature must still pass follow-up laws to define the process.
Two years ago, frustrated by the lack of federal muscle, the Human Rights Commission in the border state of Chihuahua drew up its own list of procedures for journalists at risk, based loosely on the Colombian model. These include rotating crime reporters so they don’t fall victim to corrupt sources, and instructing police to respond immediately to threats against the media. The commission says it has also helped 20 journalists by financing armed guards or plane tickets so they can fly to other cities. Still, independent reporters say the beneficiaries are largely aligned with state authorities, and that most journalists must rely on themselves—communicating in code to avoid eavesdropping by complicit officials, for example, or traveling in large groups to crime scenes.
One local leader is Rocio Gallegos, a feisty editor of El Diario de Juárez, from the border town that long held the dubious distinction of being the world’s homicide capital. She is reminded of the dangers every day, as she sets her briefcase down across from the empty cubicle of Armando Rodríguez, a crime reporter gunned down in 2008. His work station has served as a memorial, with wilted orange flowers and a dusty portrait. The colleague on the other side of Gallegos has festooned her desk with police cordons and bullet cartridges found at drug-crime scenes.
Things got so bad in Juárez two years ago that El Diario begged drug lords to define the rules so that its journalists knew what was off-limits. WHAT DO YOU WANT FROM US? asked the editorial, which ran on the front page.
Editors never got an answer, so Gallegos took matters into her own hands. Last year, she formed an informal association of independent-minded reporters fed up with self censorship. They team up on stories and invite experts to explain such things as password protection and altering routines. They regularly check on each other’s emotional state. It’s sort of a combination support group and professional development union. “We established alliances between individual journalists so that we can watch each other’s backs,” explained Gallegos. “Scoops take second place.”
The word is spreading. A reporter from Chihuahua city who attended one session left so fired up that she formed her own chapter back home. Members are vetted to ensure they are not serving as informants of drug dealers as distrust in the newsroom is a common complaint. “We had to take the initiative,” said Patricia Mayorga, of the online publication Omnia. “No one else is looking after us.”
Yet such measures remain elusive for reporters in places like the border city of Nuevo Laredo, where the Zetas cartel commands such terror that many people don’t utter its name out loud. In July, El Mañana newspaper announced that it would stop covering violent disputes among rival groups after a second grenade attack against its offices in two months. Residents of the town rely on Facebook to learn about shootouts, which are often referred to by the euphemism “parties.” This leaves journalists wondering how they can do their job properly again.
“Collaboration wouldn’t work, because we don’t cover news any more,” dryly noted Daniel Rosas, the online editor of El Mañana. “I like the idea, though.”
So has he given up completely?
“Not at all,” Rosas said. “The decision by Ginna Morelo of Colombia to break her silence really impressed me. We have to find a way to do it here.”