On a Monday in early January, in the Floresta area of Veracruz, a port city on Mexico’s east coast, the body of a man dressed in blue jeans and a brown shirt was found on the street. He had been stabbed at least seven times. At first it looked like an armed robbery gone wrong. But four days later he was identified as José Luis Gamboa, the founder and editor of news websites Inforegio and La Noticia, which, despite the risks of such reporting, frequently published stories alleging links between organized crime and government officials in the state of Veracruz.
One week later, on the opposite side of the country in the border town of Tijuana, just south of San Diego, the prominent photojournalist Margarito Martínez Esquivel made a brief stop at his home between assignments. He was stepping out of his car when he was shot from a passing vehicle. His wife and teenage daughter rushed outside, but he died before they could get him to a hospital. Martínez was a veteran journalist who primarily covered crime, and his photos appeared in local publications like Zeta Tijuana and La Jornada as well as international outlets like the BBC, the Los Angeles Times and the San Diego Union-Tribune. Martínez had faced repeated threats and physical harassment as he worked.
In 2021, Mexico was the second-deadliest country in the world for journalists, after India. Since the late 1990s, 153 journalists have been murdered and another 29 “disappeared.” In just the first three months of 2022, another 9 journalists were murdered—the same number that were killed in all of 2021.
Before Martínez’s murder, Tijuana seemed like a refuge from the violence—a journalist had not been killed there since 2004, when Zeta columnist Francisco Ortiz Franco was murdered in front of his children. “There will now be a new generation of journalists who have to deal with the same old problems,” Sonia de Anda, a local journalist of thirty years and a close friend of Martínez’s, said.
In the weeks prior to Martínez’s death, Ángel Peña, a local blogger, had accused him on social media of running anonymous Facebook pages dedicated to exposing crime in the city. The posts included Martínez’s face and license plate, among other identifying details, and were shared on channels known to be used by local criminal groups. “What that blogger did to Margarito was put a target on his back,” de Anda said.
A series of narcomantas—handmade cloth signs placed in prominent places, used by criminal groups to make public statements—appeared around Tijuana after his death. They seemed to be from the local Sinaloa Cartel and they alleged that the person who killed Martínez was a member of the rival Jalisco New Generation Cartel. In late February, after weeks of global media attention, ten suspects with ties to organized crime were arrested in connection with Martínez’s murder, as well as Peña, though most were not publicly identified. The investigation is still underway, and no formal charges have been brought so far.
At a local vigil for Martínez, Lourdes Maldonado López, a Tijuana television anchor known for her fierce and confrontational reporting style, took the microphone. “Margarito was always the first to arrive. He had the most dedication, the best photographs, and the best data,” she said to the crowd. In the past, Maldonado had also been threatened, shot at, and had her car windows smashed. “Every year that the government and authorities do not respond to our questions and demands, we will remember him and shout even louder. We will never forget the cowardice of the damned day that ended Margarito’s life.”
A few days later, on the evening of January 23, Maldonado had just parked her car outside her home when she, too, was fatally shot.
It is conventional wisdom in Mexico that in most assassinations, there are two assailants: the “triggerman,” or the actual killer who commits the crime, and the “mastermind” or “intellectual author,” the person who ordered the hit.
Among journalists, it is suspected that the masterminds of these killings are senior cartel leaders or public officials, or both, operating with resources and connections. According to data from the Mexican government, as of April 2021, about 44 percent of the “probable aggressors” in the murders against journalists and human rights activists were public servants.
In 2019, Maldonado became well-known for telling the country’s president at a press conference that she “feared for her life” because of her critical reporting and an ongoing lawsuit against Jaime Bonilla, the former governor of the state of Baja California.
Bonilla—the wealthy owner of several radio and TV stations—was Maldonado’s former employer at the news publication Primer Sistema de Notícias. She had filed a labor lawsuit against him, alleging she was unjustly fired, and four days before her death a judge had ruled in her favor, entitling her to significant compensation. Bonilla was quoted saying he’d “rather liquidate all his assets than give her any money.” He publicly denied any involvement in Maldonado’s murder.
At least three men were arrested in the days following her death. Though their names have not been released, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the Mexican president, dedicated one of his daily press conferences to the importance of bringing Maldonado’s killers to justice, in what was broadly criticized as hypocritical grandstanding. A top-ranking public safety official, Ricardo Mejía, gave reporters detailed accounts of the suspects’ movements.
But in the past thirty years, only three journalists’ murders have resulted in convictions: Miroslava Breach, Javier Valdez, and Maximo Rodríguez, all in 2017. Natalie Southwick, the Latin America and Caribbean coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists, said that though the problem has deep roots, “it’s fair to say that press freedom and safety is clearly not a priority for the López Obrador administration.”
López Obrador—who assumed office in December 2018, after establishing his own center-left party—has a fraught relationship with the media. He holds televised press conferences each morning, in which he has occasionally echoed the anti-media rhetoric of right-wing counterparts Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro, though he maintains he is ideologically opposed to their politics. Described as a populist and a nationalist, he frequently denounces journalists who are critical of him. In the wake of the killings of journalists this year, instead of offering condolences and reassurances to the public, he went on a brief tirade about how the media is unethical and unfair to him.
Article19, a nonprofit organization dedicated to press freedom and protection, places the rate of impunity for those accused of murdering journalists and human rights workers at more than 99 percent. Out of 1,614 cases of violence (including murder) registered between 2010—when a national data collection program was established—and 2019, only 14 sentences have been handed down to perpetrators.
“Most of the aggressions that I know of against journalists in Baja California are committed by public servants of the state or police forces,” alleged Antonio Heras, the veteran editor of La Jornada and Zeta Tijuana. “They work deliberately to generate a climate of impunity, so that when they need to silence a journalist, they can.”
Similar links are evident across the country. Joel Vera, a journalist at Monitor Michoacán, a news site focused on covering local politics and corruption in the city of Zitácuaro, some eighty miles west of Mexico City, recalled that in late 2021 the entire team at his newspaper had been threatened “because we were reporting against the municipal government of Antonio Ixtlahuac, the police, and the attorney general’s office.” Monitor had also upset supporters of Silvano Aureoles Conejo, the former governor of Michoacán, whom it had accused of corruption. In January of this year, Monitor had posted a brief article accusing the police and state officials of falsifying drug charges.
On January 31, Vera was at home with a colleague, Roberto Toledo, when the doorbell rang. Toledo opened the door. He was shot multiple times by attackers from the street and died immediately. Vera was unharmed.
According to the Michoacán state prosecutor’s office, a police investigation into Toledo’s murder is ongoing but no suspects have been named. “They had no mercy. They killed him because we were writing against corruption, the abuse of power, and the misappropriation of public resources,” Vera said.
“The Monitor Michoacán team has been suffering a series of death threats for months,” Armando Linares, the director of Monitor, said, in a brief video posted on the publication’s Facebook page shortly after Toledo’s death. “Today, finally, the threats were carried out. And one of our comrades lost his life.” He went on to allege corruption in the Mexican government and asserted that he and his team would not be deterred. “We are not armed. We do not carry weapons,” he said. “Our only defense is a pen.”
On the afternoon of March 15, Linares was shot several times and killed outside his home.
At the time of his murder, Linares was in the process of being enrolled in a federal protection program. (The prosecutor’s office did not provide details on whether any protection services were underway.) In 2012, the office of the Special Prosecutor for Attention to Crimes Committed against Freedom of Expression—known colloquially as feadle––was established. Officially called the Federal Mechanism for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders and Journalists, the program funds protection efforts directly from the federal government. In addition, each of Mexico’s thirty-two states has its own state protection mechanisms, administered by local committees. But both the federal and state programs are understaffed and under-resourced. The federal program has an annual budget of $20 million—less than the Mexican government spends on its baseball team.
When a journalist seeks protection from feadle, a committee comes together to conduct a risk assessment. They interview the journalist to collect information about their circumstances, and determine what kind of protection is most appropriate—police escort, security details, regular police patrols or check-ins, video surveillance, panic buttons, emergency helplines, or, in cases of extreme and imminent danger, immediate relocation to another city or state. Sometimes, the federal mechanism defers the actual implementation of protective measures to the state committees.
Since 2012, feadle has enrolled 563 journalists and 449 human rights defenders, which may include their families, into the protection mechanism. In 2021, 30 journalists were officially admitted into the federal program, according to government data. Almost 90 percent of those who apply are granted protection, though the length and quality of those protections vary greatly and a small percentage may not receive any actual services at all.
While it’s hard to measure the program’s effectiveness, at least 10 journalists who were enrolled, or in the process of being enrolled, were killed, including Maldonado, Martínez, and Linares.
“Margarito had sought out the federal mechanism, and told me he received it. I assume he was protected and given precautionary measures, but when he was killed, I found out he was never given any kind of protection. Instead the federal system referred him to the state, and he just got lost in the bureaucracy,” said de Anda, who is a member of the administering body for Baja California’s state protection mechanism.
“Lourdes had asked for the protection last March, and we only meet once a month, so she got enrolled in April,” she said. “In her risk assessment she told us all the times of day she feels most vulnerable. She practically described the moment they were going to kill her. Six days after Margarito, when she was killed precisely as she had predicted, I found out that all her police escorts and monitoring had been withdrawn.”
A number of other prominent journalists who have been through the program, or are currently part of it, had their own issues with the system. Heras, the Zeta editor, who lives in Mexicali in Baja California, said that in his case “the panic button doesn’t work, and no one answers the helpline.”
Over the past few years, state officials have filed several legal complaints against Heras. Article19 has described this as a tactic of indirect censorship by the state: pressing arbitrary, falsified charges against journalists so they have to go through a lengthy criminal proceeding, and possibly preventive detention. “They did not [want us to] be protected. Why? Because they were probably the ones after us,” Heras said.
“Both the federal and state mechanisms have a reactive—not preventive—approach,” said Paula Saucedo, protection and defense officer at Article19. “They don’t have a lot of coordination with our authorities, for instance, to investigate cases thoroughly. The government is not creating anything to prevent violence or tackle impunity. And because those conditions aren’t changing, more and more people are asking for support from an underserved mechanism.”
“What we’re seeing is the natural result of many years of severe negligence and indifference by the Mexican state,” said Jan-Albert Hootsen, the Mexico representative of the Committee to Protect Journalists.
One of the strategies that the López Obrador administration used was an austerity policing program in which the National Guard would step in where police forces were inadequate. But, according to Hootsen, it did little to address the poor quality of policing and instead moved the country closer to a militarized state. In some states police officers did not respond to emergency calls for up to seventy-two hours, sometimes due to staffing and financial issues and in others simply due to indifference.
“Many places around Latin America have high rates of endemic violence, but there is something particular about how consistently journalists are targeted in Mexico,” said Southwick, the CPJ coordinator.
In many cases, the police themselves target or assault reporters and others who dissent from the state, which makes it impossible for citizens to trust the institutions meant to protect them. Meanwhile, the country’s judicial system raised the standard for proof in criminal cases.
Combined, these factors have rendered police unable to carry out investigations to the standard required to prosecute murders. In addition, most of the members of the feadle committee do not have a background, training, or interest in human rights, which Hootsen cites as one of the reasons for a poorly planned system of protection.
“It almost seems like by design, the Mexican government doesn’t want to succeed in creating a just state,” Hootsen said. “Corruption has been so ingrained in Mexico’s political system for centuries. And journalism is simply not considered to be a fundamental fourth estate of society that needs to be protected at all costs. A culture of transparency and freedom of expression doesn’t exist, and it isn’t going to magically change overnight.”
Several regions of Mexico—sometimes entire cities—are called “silent zones” because they do not have any press. There is little to no information available in these areas, which are considered extremely dangerous, especially for reporters. Some of them are forced to leave, either through threats and violence or for economic reasons, and in other cases entire media houses are shut down by either local governments or private companies.
“The situation of journalists has been deteriorating in a very critical and serious way,” said Gabriela Minjares, a journalist in Ciudad Juárez—a border town south of El Paso, Texas—which saw nearly 1,500 homicides last year. Minjares, who said that many of her colleagues self-censored or switched professions, started a collective that gives journalists safety training. “Journalists have been cornered and face economic violence to the point of precariousness. The government has sought to maintain control over the media, generating journalism that is comfortable and beneficial to them.”
“I’d love to cover the monarch butterflies or our beautiful towns and the cultural richness of our country,” said Vania Pigeonutt, a journalist in Guerrero who covered the well-known kidnapping of forty-three students by local police officers in 2014. “But it is very difficult for a Mexican journalist to cover anything other than these massacres and violence, because it’s just so present.”
2022 has already become Mexico’s deadliest year on record for journalists.
On February 6, Marcos Ernesto Islas Flores, the editor of Notiredes MX, was shot in his home in Tijuana. On February 10, Heber López Vásquez, who was the director of RCP Noticias, was shot as he entered a home in the coastal city of Salina Cruz, in the state of Oaxaca. The day prior to his death, he published a short piece accusing Arminda Espinosa Cartas, a former municipal official in Salina Cruz, of corruption and voter coercion.
On February 25, twenty-eight-year-old Jorge Luis Camero Zazueta was shot three times in his gym in Sonora. He had recently resigned his role as a private secretary for Sonora’s mayor, Luis Fuentes Aguilar, and resumed his work as a reporter for El Informativo.
On March 4, Juan Carlos Muñiz, who covered crime for Testigo Minero and moonlighted as a taxi driver, was killed in his cab in the Fresnillo municipality of the state of Zacatecas. He became the country’s eighth journalist to be killed in 2022, followed by the March 15 murder of Linares, the Monitor Michoacán editor.
“When so many of our colleagues and friends die, we never get the time to cry, to have catharsis,” said Gaby Martínez, a colleague and friend of Margarito Martínez’s. “All of them deserve our tears. We have the right to be angry and cry and just be human. But we are also journalists, and we have to continue doing the work so someday we don’t have to cry anymore.”
TOP IMAGE: MEXICO CITY, MEXICO - JAN 25, 2022: Members of the media attend a memorial to demand justice for murdered journalists Lourdes Maldonado, Margarito Martinez and Jose Luis Gamboa outside of Mexico's Interior Ministry. On January 25, 2022 In Mexico City, Mexico. (Photo credit should read Luis Barron / Eyepix Group/Future Publishing via Getty Images)