On Tuesday, July 30, Rogelio Barragan was found in the trunk of his car in the state of Morelos, near Mexico City. The journalist’s body was wrapped in a blanket. His family had searched desperately for him since the day before. The 49-year-old was head of the news website Guerrero al Instante. According to newspaper reports, Barragan had received threats because of his work. He was murdered while trying to seek safety.
Barragan is the eighth journalist this year to have been killed in Mexico. According to UNESCO, the country is the most dangerous place in the world for people working in this sector. The journalists Norma Sarabia, Francisco Romero, Telesforo Santiago, Jesus Eugenio Ramos, Rafael Murua, Omar Ivan Camacho und Santiago Barroso were also brutally murdered this year. In the last 18 years, more than 158 journalists in Mexico have been assassinated. The vast majority of the victims were tortured before they were killed. In 99% of the cases, their murderers are still at large.
And it’s not just the murders: Those who dare to uphold society’s legitimate right to information are publicly humiliated. For every journalist who is murdered in Mexico, dozens are indirectly forced to be silent.
The murders are not a scandal just for my country but for the international community as well. It always expresses shock and consternation, but cannot or does not want to find a way to prevent these crimes in a country that is officially a democracy, not a dictatorship or a “failed state” — after all, Mexico is the leading economic power in Hispanic America and one of the 15 largest economies in the world.
During the time that Vicente Fox was president (2000-2006), 36 journalists were murdered. While Felipe Calderon (2006-2012) was in government, the number was 47. Under Enrique Pena Nieto (2012-2018) there were 66 deaths and in the nine months of left-wing President Andrés Manuel Lopez Obrador, nine have already been killed — that is, one per month. If this trend continues, 2019 will be the year with the most murdered journalists in decades.
The government says nothing
Despite the high toll, the government of Lopez Obrador is doing nothing to ensure that these crimes targeting journalists are properly investigated and solved. It hasn’t even bothered to publicly state its position. On June 18, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) organized a summit on press freedom in Mexico. The planned event was postponed for five months while organizers waited for word from the president whether he would participate at the event. No response from the office of the president ever came.
Last March, the secretary-general of Reporters Without Borders, Christophe Deloire, requested a face-to-face meeting with the Mexican president to emphasize the alarming situation for journalists in his country. When the meeting was confirmed, Deloire traveled from Europe. The president didn’t receive him.
The history of violence against journalists in Mexico is also my own personal history and the history of hundreds like me in my country. I have survived to tell the tale; many other friends and colleagues have not.
It was in 2008 that the number of journalists murdered in Mexico began to alarm the international community. Unfortunately, the war between the drug cartels over the past 18 years has distracted attention from the real reason why journalists in the whole country have been being murdered, threatened, censored and harassed. The Mexican government has regularly put forward the violence committed by the drug cartels as an explanation for the crimes against journalists. But there is no indication that the one has anything to do with the other.
The violence against journalists is, in fact, a consequence of widespread corruption. Mexico is considered to be one of the most corrupt countries of the world. In 2018, the country landed on 138th place from a total of 180 nations on the Transparency International Index. What is more, 96% of crimes go unpunished, from pickpocketing on the street, rape, kidnapping, extortion, murder, embezzlement of public funds and money laundering to drug trafficking.
According to official statistics, 11.5 million crimes were registered in Mexico between 2010 and 2016. In reality, 200 million crimes with 151 million victims were committed. No charges were filed in most of the cases because the victims did not trust the justice authorities. The discrepancy is particularly conspicuous in the case of kidnappings. A total of 1,131 kidnappings were reported to authorities in Mexico over this six-year period. But official government statistics put the number at 66,842. That means that 98% of all kidnappings were not reported.
In 2017, the renowned Universidad de las Americas in Mexico City published a study that concluded that the justice system had collapsed in 26 of the 32 Mexican states. The person who commissioned the study, Alejandro Gertz Manero, was formerly the head of the university and is now the attorney general in Mexico.
This collapse of the justice system means that those who commit a crime in Mexico today know that their impunity is practically guaranteed. Politicians and civil servants are not afraid of being held to account for being in cahoots with the drug mafia or for embezzlement of public funds, nor are those who kidnap people, use blackmail or sell drugs.
But in spite of everything, there is one force in society that is fighting this rampant crime: independent journalism. It is Mexican journalists, and not government or justice authorities, who are to be thanked for bringing to public notice the most brutal human rights violations, massacres perpetrated by police and members of the army and cases of embezzlement, sexual abuse in the church and corruption at all levels of the state in the past 18 years.
I could write dozens of columns about cases in which journalistic research has achieved justice and uncovered the truth for Mexican society.
The one source of truth
Criminals are not afraid of the authorities. They are scared of journalists. As the human rights organization Article 19 has been documenting for years, it is not primarily drug traffickers who kill or threaten journalists, but government representatives or politicians. Violence against journalists is increasing not only in Mexico but worldwide. According to a UNESCO report from 2018, 1,000 journalists across the world have been murdered in the past 10 years, with 89% of the crimes going unpunished. Mexico topped the list as the country with the most murders.
Fifty-five percent of the murders happened in countries that were not at war. Rather, the victims were researching cases of corruption. I think their deaths are part of a phenomenon that resembles the situation in Mexico. That is why protecting free, rigorous and independent journalism is an international duty, and one that is just as valuable as protecting a country’s democracy or the lives of its citizens. For, in countries like Mexico, journalism is the only source of truth. And only truth leads to accountability.
Journalist and book author Anabel Hernandez has been covering Mexican drug cartels and corruption for many years. After receiving death threats, she was forced to leave Mexico and now lives in Europe. Hernandez won the 2019 DW Freedom of Speech Award at the Global Media Forum in Bonn for her work.