Translated from the Spanish by Annie McDermott
‘I’m alive because I know who’s in charge. People follow the orders of the Gulf Cartel around here,’ says Francisco, a journalist from the city of Matamoros in Tamaulipas, which is considered to be one of Mexico’s ‘narco-states’.
Francisco does not only receive instructions from his editor. He also takes calls from the ‘boss of the plaza’, who orders him to put in or take out images of shootings and dead bodies: ‘If you care about your family, keep that shooting yesterday out of the papers. Otherwise, you’re fucked.’ And Francisco obeys – to save his life, to keep his job.
Francisco, like so many others, suffers from ‘self-censorship’. This is an increasingly common phenomenon in Mexico, the most dangerous country in Latin America for journalists, and one whose citizens’ right to information is being severely violated by attacks on the press: more than 120 journalists have been killed in recent years, and 22 have disappeared. In this country, journalists are murdered because of what they publish and because of what they refuse to publish. Every 26 hours, a journalist will be the victim of an act of violence. Last year alone, 326 attacks on communicators were recorded, five of which were murders. And it isn’t only organised crime that’s killing journalists. Most of the attackers are officials or agents of the Mexican state.
The murders are getting bloodier and crueller, and they involve every kind of torture. The violence against female journalists is particularly terrible, and often gender-specific: the majority of those killed were also raped or mutilated, and some were even decapitated. We’re tired of watching the bodies of our colleagues and friends being taken away, and the pain and suffering their spilt blood leaves in its wake.
The relentless assault on freedom of expression is getting worse. By choosing not to guarantee the safety of journalists, Enrique Peña Nieto’s government has succeeded in silencing important independent critical voices. Bullets, censorship, self-censorship and government control of advertising and TV and radio concessions have led to a serious lack of correct and timely information, and a dearth of news about key issues such as state crimes committed by the army, the navy and the various police forces. There is not enough coverage of the phenomenon of narcopolitics, the collusion of corrupt authorities with the powerful drug cartels that dominate the Mexican territory, or the smuggling and piracy that have, with the cooperation of the police, passed into the hands of organised crime. State violence – forced disappearances, extrajudicial killings and torture – hardly receives any attention in the televised media. There are parts of the press under the thumb of the government or the drug cartels. There are forbidden topics and forbidden journalists. The idea is to instil fear, horror and silence.
Those of us who dare to break the barrier of silence have to confront all kinds of threats. We work in conditions of war, but without the protection that reporters covering armed conflicts would normally receive. Here there are no bullet-proof vests or helmets. Press signs on vehicles mean nothing, and neither do the press cards that are supposed to ensure your personal safety in neutral territory.
Faced with the drug barons’ Kalashnikovs, we have only our pens. Among the mighty rifles of the army or the police, there are only our notebooks and computers. We are an easy target. It doesn’t cost much to kill journalists in Mexico, and the murderers know that it’s highly unlikely anything will happen to them afterwards. Impunity is the only constant. Over 90% of murders go unpunished, despite the existence of the Office of the Special Prosecutor for Attention to Crimes Against Freedom of Expression, which last year recorded a backlog of 120 pending cases. The Public Prosecutor’s Office is a smokescreen. The Mexican state would rather carry on pretending than actually take action to protect the country’s journalists.
This is an unequal war. As journalists, we have words. The people attacking us have bullets. Mexican journalism is wounded; information is mutilated.
Why do we stay here, why do we carry on? Out of dignity and a commitment to the truth. Our mission is to search for that truth in spite of everything. Mexican journalists have learnt to work under hostile conditions, completely undefended. We live with persecution and harassment. But we don’t let fear paralyse us – on the contrary, it helps us to measure the risks and stay alive, to continue giving a voice to the voiceless and shining a light on dark secrets that are normally kept silent.
Staying here and carrying on, that’s the mission, although we can smell the predator’s rotten breath, although we can hear the bullets, although we know that words cost lives. Freedom has a high price in Mexico, but it’s the only way we have of reaching the truth.
Read ARTICLE 19 Mexico’s annual report ‘State of Censorship’, which examines freedom of expression in Mexico.
Sanjuana Martínez is a featured writer in English PEN’s 2015 Mexico focus. Read about her case and take action here.