The Media Today

Behind the scenes of The Cartel Project

December 8, 2020

In early January, Fidel Ávila Gómez, a radio anchor who had been missing for over a month, was found dead in the Mexican state of Michoacán. His family feared that an organized crime group may have targeted him in response to his work. Ávila was the first of at least eight journalists to be killed or found dead in Mexico this year. In March, assailants gunned down Maria Elena Ferral, a correspondent for El Diario de Xalapa who had recently written on Facebook about the murders of local politicians in Veracruz state. In May, gunmen killed Jorge Miguel Armenta Ávalos, the founder and owner of two publications in Sonora state, as well as a police officer who had been assigned to protect him; in August, Pablo Morrugares, the founder and editor of PM Noticias, in Guerrero state, was murdered in a restaurant, also alongside a protection officer. In September, the headless body of Julio Valdivia, a reporter with El Mundo, a newspaper in Veracruz, was found near train tracks. In late October and early November, three reporters were killed in the span of two weeks: Arturo Alba Medina, a TV host in Ciudad Juárez who previously worked across the US border in El Paso and recently covered police corruption; Jesús Alfonso Piñuelas, who founded two blogs in Sonora and covered crime and security; and Israel Vázquez Rangel, a reporter with El Salmantino, in Guanajuato state, who went to cover a discovery of human remains and was about to broadcast live on Facebook when he was shot.

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, Mexico is the world’s deadliest place to be a journalist in 2020—an escalation of a longer-term trend that, since 2000, has seen over a hundred reporters killed there, often with impunity. The country was thus an obvious potential subject for Forbidden Stories, a Paris-based group that works with newsrooms around the world to finish the work of reporters who have been silenced, in death or otherwise. Over the course of the last year or so, the group has been building on the legacy of Regina Martínez—a correspondent with the investigative magazine Proceso who, in 2012, was beaten and strangled to death in her home in Veracruz, where she reported on links between politicians and organized crime; she had recently discovered mass graves that, she believed, officials had filled with the bodies of people who had mysteriously disappeared. (In the years after Martínez was killed, thousands of mass graves were revealed across Mexico.) Local authorities claimed that Martínez had been killed in a burglary and put a suspect behind bars—but the evidence for their conclusion was extremely thin, and the suspect said that he only confessed under torture. “Many more journalists were killed after the killing of Regina, because of the impunity,” Laurent Richard, the founder of Forbidden Stories, told me yesterday, explaining part of the reason that his group chose to focus on Martínez. “This is what’s killing the journalists over there.”

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On Sunday, Forbidden Stories and its partners started to publish their findings under the rubric of “The Cartel Project”; in total, sixty journalists in eighteen different countries and from twenty-five outlets—including Proceso, the Washington Post, The Guardian, Le Monde, the South China Morning Post, and Daraj, in the Middle East—contributed to the package. Reporters investigated the circumstances of Martínez’s murder and issues around the electronic surveillance of Mexican journalists (the editor of Proceso, for instance, was targeted with spyware while working on the Panama Papers, in 2016), but also expanded on Martínez’s outlook by tracking Mexican drug cartels’ networks around the world, from fentanyl supply chains in Asia to underground meth labs and weapons sales in Europe. “We wanted to show that the killing of a Mexican journalist is not only a Mexican story,” Richard told me. “That’s also a French story; that’s also a North American story; that’s also a Chinese story.”

To mitigate the dangers inherent to such work, Forbidden Stories researched Mexican journalists’ existing safety protocols, focusing, in particular, on threats emanating from the “gray zone” between politics and organized crime. “Collaboration brings protection,” Richard says; when his group requested comment from potentially dangerous subjects, those people knew “that it’s not only a single journalist from Veracruz, but twenty-five news organizations from the Washington Post to Le Monde. It doesn’t make sense to kill journalists if sixty others will continue the work and publish the information and expose your crimes.” The Cartel Project built on on-the-ground reporting, but also on a great deal of deskwork—a pandemic-era necessity that was not overly inconvenient in this case, Richard says, since sending large groups into dangerous areas brings its own risk of detection. The pandemic stretched partner newsrooms’ resources and delayed publication of the project by a couple of months, but the reporters working on it had already had a chance to meet in person—they gathered in Paris in early March, a matter of days before mass lockdowns in Europe. “One week later, it would have been such a problem,” Richard says. “For this kind of collaboration, you need a lot of trust, and you cannot have the same trust with a Zoom conversation.”

The Cartel Project was not Forbidden Stories’ first ambitious partnership. Since its founding three years ago, it has convened a major collaboration investigating the death of Daphne Caruana Galizia, an investigative journalist who was killed in a car bombing in Malta in 2017, and launched “Green Blood,” a project that dug into environmental damage wreaked by mining companies in Guatemala, Tanzania, and India—establishing itself as a new player in a global reporting-network scene that has generally been a bright light in a dark period for journalism around the world. Richard points out that Sandhya Ravishankar, an Indian journalist whose threatened work Forbidden Stories boosted as part of Green Blood, worked on the Cartel Project as a regular partner, investigating Mexican-crime links in her country. “It’s about the story itself,” Richard says, of his group’s mission. “It’s not only a press freedom statement. It’s really about what the journalists have been killed for.”

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The darkness, though, cannot be escaped, with press freedom in decline worldwide, and not just in particularly dangerous countries like Mexico. When I first spoke with Richard in 2017, he told me that Forbidden Stories had been inspired, in part, by a massacre in Paris in 2015, when two terrorists raided the offices of Charlie Hebdo, a satirical magazine that had published cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed, and murdered twelve people, eight of them journalists; Richard worked at the time for Premières Lignes, a documentary company whose offices were next to Charlie’s, and so he was one of the first outsiders on the scene after the attack. “It changed my life,” Richard says now. “It was a traumatic experience for all of us.”

In September this year, amid a new trial in the Charlie case, another terrorist went looking for the magazine’s offices; they were no longer in the same location, but Premières Lignes’ offices were, and the terrorist attacked two of its staffers with a knife. The victims are recovering, though one remains in hospital. “It was just a signal that the terrorism is still there and the profession of journalism is very at risk—more than ever, actually,” Richard told me yesterday. “There’s a lot to do, again.”

Below, more on press freedom:

  • Mexico: Forbidden Stories’ main article on Martínez references the work of Marcela Turati, another Mexican journalist who has worked to map clandestine graveyards, finding two thousand of them across the country. Last year, Stephania Taladrid profiled Turati for CJR’s magazine on journalism around the world. “She started by covering poverty, but soon could not avoid making violence her subject,” Taladrid wrote. “She approached both beats in much the same way: focusing less on planning ahead than on finding stories at the right time.”
  • Malta: This time last year, I wrote in this newsletter about a series of high-profile arrests in the case of Caruana Galizia; the investigation had just implicated officials close to Joseph Muscat, Malta’s prime minister, who resigned as a result. Since then, though, progress has been slow; as The Guardian’s Juliette Garside wrote in October, on the three-year anniversary of Caruana Galizia’s murder, the main suspects in the case had yet to face trial, and “justice for the widower and three sons that Caruana Galizia left behind remains uncertain.” There has, at least, been a public inquiry. Last week, Muscat testified, and said Caruana Galizia was “irrelevant” at the time of her death. “I know her family won’t like this, but it’s mind boggling,” he said. “Whoever did this crime is stupid.”
  • Algeria: Last week, authorities in Algeria blocked access to three news sites including the Casbah Tribune, an outlet whose founder, Khaled Drareni, has been jailed since March. According to Reporters Without Borders, a group that Drareni has served as a correspondent, the blockages continued a broader crackdown on press freedom in the country, and came at a moment of public speculation about the health of President Abdelmadjid Tebboune, who has been hospitalized overseas after contracting COVID.
  • Syria: Yesterday, the Washington Post’s Press Freedom Partnership launched a new campaign to raise awareness about the case of Austin Tice, an American reporter who was detained while reporting in Syria in 2012 and has been missing ever since. (In October, it was reported that American officials had traveled to Syria to discuss the release of prisoners including Tice, but that story has since gone quiet.) The Post is handing out bracelets bearing the message #FreeAustinTice; you can request one for free here.

Other notable stories:

  • Yesterday was a bumper day for media-jobs news. The Wall Street Journal reported that Rashida Jones, a senior executive in the NBCUniversal News Group, will replace Phil Griffin as president of MSNBC; she’ll be the first Black leader of a major cable network. Elsewhere, Monica Richardson, a senior editor at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, has been appointed executive editor of the Miami Herald, becoming the first Black person ever to hold the role. Marc Lacey, national editor at the Times, is being promoted to assistant managing editor with oversight of live journalism. And Clare Malone was laid off from her job as a political writer at FiveThirtyEight, and Twitter was unimpressed.
  • Also yesterday, David Roberts announced that he’s leaving Vox to start Volts, a Substack newsletter about clean energy and politics. (Unlike some recent Substack converts, Roberts insists that he isn’t “fleeing groupthink,” or his editors.) Substack’s founders have likened the platform to the “penny papers” of the 1830s, but the media scholar Michael Socolow takes issue with that comparison—since Substack has a paid-subscription model, he writes for The Conversation, it may have more in common with even older papers, which “were relatively expensive and generally read by elite subscribers.” (For much more on Substack, read Clio Chang in CJR’s latest magazine.)
  • Also for our magazine, Adam Piore surveys the recent history of opinion journalism, starting with John B. Oakes, who founded the op-ed page at the Times in 1970 (and was trying to fight groupthink). Today, Oakes “would be satisfied—there is no question that we now have ‘diversity of opinion,’ which he called ‘the lifeblood of democracy,’” Piore concludes. “Nobody is worried anymore about a lack of published thoughts. The problem today is democracy, and making sure the opinions that circulate are those that serve it.”
  • For The Atlantic, Zeynep Tufekci writes that Trump is trying to pull off a coup, even if his acts “do not meet the technical definition” of that word. “People are using the term because it captures the sense and the spirit of the moment,” Tufekci writes. Elsewhere, the media critic Dan Froomkin assesses the claim that mainstream coverage of Trump’s election-subversion attempt has been admirably tough; to the extent that this is true, he writes, it “does not mean lessons have been learned” and “is no cause for optimism.”
  • In late November, Trump pardoned Michael Flynn, his former national security adviser; since then, the Daily Beast’s Will Sommer writes, Flynn has been on a right-wing media tour, hitting Fox News but also “far fringier” outlets including various podcasts devoted to the QAnon conspiracy. Last week, Flynn told one such podcast that he couldn’t talk for long because he was trying to avoid assassins. (“I gotta make sure I’m a moving target.”)
  • Armed police in Tallahassee, Florida, raided the home of Rebekah Jones, who designed the state’s official COVID-19 data dashboard, then claimed she was fired for refusing to manipulate its data. (Officials said she was fired for being “disruptive.”) Jones, who has since been running an independent COVID dashboard, says that the officers confiscated her technological equipment. The Tallahassee Democrat has more details.
  • The Guardian’s Dominic Rushe profiles the Desert Oracle, a pocket-sized magazine in California that “looks like a cross between a guide book and a punk zine” and “explores the stranger side of desert life.” Ken Layne, the Oracle’s founder, worked with Gawker and briefly owned Wonkette, but came to see the internet as “the absolute worst place for a writer to be.” The Oracle, accordingly, does not have a meaningful web presence.
  • Tanja Babich, a news anchor on ABC 7, in Chicago, wore glasses on air last week in an act of solidarity with her daughter, who had been reluctant to wear hers during online schooling for fear of being teased. Babich invited viewers to share photos of their own kids in glasses so she could tell them “how beautiful they look,” and the internet obliged. Heidi Stevens, of the Chicago Tribune, has more.
  • And this morning, Britain became the first Western country to begin vaccinating its residents against COVID-19, and William Shakespeare was among the first in line for a shot. No, really.

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.