The front line of Mexican media is DIY community radio

May 3, 2019
Photo via Madeleine Wattenbarger.

To reach the broadcast room of Radio Amiltzinko, 100.7 FM, Leo Perez leads me through the dusty streets of Amilcingo, Morelos, a town about two hours from Mexico City that is home to several thousand residents of the Nahua, an indigenous group.

We go through the open first floor of a house, across a courtyard dotted with cats and chickens, and climb stairs scattered with beer caps to a cinder block room. A heavy wooden desk in the corner supports a dusty PC and a microphone. Above it is a portrait of Samir Flores, the radio station’s founder, who was murdered on February 20. Outside is the radio transmitter, which Perez and fellow radio host Hugo Franco Guzman now fix themselves whenever there’s an issue. Before, it was always Flores: he was small and slender and scaled the roof like it was nothing.

A few weeks before Flores’s death, another community radio journalist—Rafael Murúa, who was 34, and who founded Radio Kashana in the town of Santa Rosalia, Baja California Sur—was abducted and then murdered. Murúa, who had criticized the local municipal government on air, had received threats prior to his death.

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Perez and Guzman suspect, along with the state attorney general and Amnesty International, that Flores was murdered because of his activism against the Proyecto Integral Morelos, an energy project involving the construction of a gas line and a thermoelectric plant in the region. He often decried it, and its potential effects on his community, on air.

The community radio station is one of the most humble, hyperlocal institutions in the Mexican media. Many of the 51 community stations across the country are in poor rural and indigenous areas that lack other forms of media. They’re often prominent advocates in local human rights struggles, giving voice to social movements not covered in the mainstream press. In a country where both journalists and activists face serious repression, community radios are at the nexus of the struggle for freedom of expression.

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Mexico is one of the most dangerous countries for journalists in the world. Community radio’s role in indigenous struggles for recognition and land rights “has made them an object of repression and violence” by “state actors, economic interests and organized crime,” according to the Mexican representative for the freedom of expression non-profit Article 19. Jan-Albert Hootsen, the representative for the Mexico chapter of the Committee to Protect Journalists, says that the lack of resources and remote location of many community radios make them particularly vulnerable to state violence.

“These radio stations criticize and report on organized crime and abuse of power by elected officials,” he says, “and this makes them a target for organized crime or officials who want to do them harm because they see their interests threatened.”

Many community radios also exist in a legal limbo that compounds their vulnerability. Irina Vazquez, the executive coordinator of Mexico’s chapter of the World Association of Community Radios (AMARC), lists a range of obstacles that prevent them gaining an official sanction: a lack of access to information about the process, the technical details of filing an application in Spanish, and the costs of transportation to Mexico City for appointments at government offices.

Radios operating illegally risk being fined and having their radios shut down. In more extreme cases, the illegal use of the airwaves can be considered robbery and radio operators imprisoned.

In 2010, a judge in the state of Nuevo Leon sentenced Hector Camero, of the community radio Tierra y Libertad in Monterrey, to two years in prison for unauthorized use of the radio spectrum. Because they typically lack economic and legal resources “an attack on a community radio almost guarantees impunity,” CPJ’s Hootsen says.

For some, operating without official sanction is also a political decision, rooted in the origins of the community radio movement, which began in the 1960s in the midst of indigenous struggles for autonomy and self-determination. “For people who’ve said, ‘We don’t want anything that has to do with the government’ and they’re defending their territory against corporations, the air is also part of the territory,” Vazquez explains.

Radio Amiltzinko, for instance, goes without. The radio station was founded, like many community radios, without a budget. Perez and Guzman, along with Flores and a handful of other friends, started broadcasting throughout the town over speakers that they moved from house to house, sending greetings to friends and family, singing to anyone who had a birthday, shouting out whoever was selling tacos or tostadas out of their house that day. People selling food would send them dishes of pozole as a thank-you for their advertising.

Soon the team started gathering money to buy a radio transmitter, which would cost around 30,000 pesos—over $1,500 US, several months of wages for a Mexican minimum wage worker. “People would say to us, you all are crazy, you probably just want the money to buy beer, but here you go, 50 pesos,” Guzman says. “Before we realized it, we had the money.”

Perez says that the radio gave the town a channel to voice complaints with the local government, like police misconduct or the water or electricity supply going out. “Some people thought we were a new political party,” he says, “and some people thought we were troublemakers, that we were causing division in the community.”

In Amilcingo, two months after Flores’s death, the town is covered with murals commemorating him. His murder, Perez says, only strengthened the community’s support for the radio. The prior week, they’d had a problem with the antenna and had stopped transmitting for several days. “The old ladies scolded us,” he says. “They asked us what we needed, if we needed money, if we needed new machines, whatever.”

While Perez emphasizes that Flores wasn’t the leader of the radio–they always worked in a horizontal structure—he had been the one to bring up the idea for the project, and had always been its spokesperson.

“Samir’s dream was that the people would be informed of any project, including what our own representatives in the capitol were doing, that people would be informed how much money was allocated to the town, how much money arrived,” Perez says. “He wanted for the people to not have their eyes closed, for the people to be respected, for the people to be given their rights.”

That included, especially, Proyecto Integral Morelos, the energy project intended to generate electricity to fuel industry in the eastern part of the state. The project includes two thermoelectric plants, an aqueduct that would divert water from a river used by farmers and a gas duct that Samir warned could pollute the water supply. Crucially, construction on the project began without the government conducting the prior informed consultations it is legally required to perform before projects that affect indigenous land. Samir told the people of Amilcingo that he felt the project endangered their access to water and instead favored foreign corporations making money from their natural resources.

On February 19, Flores had attended a government-organized forum on the project, where he’d voiced his concerns. The next morning, two trucks pulled up outside his house in Amilcingo. When he left home, he was shot twice in the head. A referendum on the energy project had been scheduled to take place in Morelos a few days later. Despite protests calling for cancellation, the vote went on as planned, though no polling locations were opened in Amilcingo, where dissent against the project had been strongest. The project was approved.

In Santa Rosalia, the murder of Murúa, whose body was found on the side of the road with wounds to his abdomen, left a deep impact on his community. Murúa had been a well-known figure in the small town, and the members of the radio are still figuring out how to move forward. Because the radio’s permit was under Murúa’s name, Hernandez says, Radio Kashana has temporarily stopped broadcasting as they work out the legal details.

Radio Amilcingo also stopped broadcasting live for two weeks after Flores’s death. The team didn’t know what to do. “Samir always told us, when you talk on the radio, get ready, be in a good mood, let the people feel that you’re excited. You can’t show up and get behind the microphone and be sad,” Guzman says. They knew, though, that Flores wouldn’t have wanted the project to end with him. And in recent weeks, Guzman says, the town has reinvigorated the project. More people have shown up wanting to have their own radio program.

Guzman and Perez, along with the rest of the members of the radio—about 15 right now—are more committed than ever to the task of giving voice to the community via the radio. “The truth is, yes, there’s fear,” Guzman says. “But who’s going to do this work? Who’s going to inform the people? Who’s going to do all of this? We have to continue with the idea to inform the people, to open their eyes.”

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Madeleine Wattenbarger is a freelance journalist based in Mexico City, where she primarily covers human rights, politics and social movements. Her work has appeared in The Nation, Vice and the Baffler.