The skyrocketing number of journalists murdered in Mexico

The skyrocketing number of journalists murdered in Mexico: AMLO’s polemic against reporters


26 | 05 | 2022


The deadly attacks against members of the press have increased during López Obrador's mandate; it has prompted a profoundly political dispute, with many accusing Mexico’s government of failing to stop the slaughter

In the image

President López Obrador during one of his early morning press conferences, known as ’Las mañaneras’ [Mexico Gov.]

The systematic murder of journalists in Mexico began two decades ago as a result of the rise of organisedcrime. Since then, the country has been plunged into a spiral of violence against journalists that has gone through many tragic moments with more than 150 journalists murdered since the year 2000. According to Reporters Without Borders, Mexico is one of the most dangerous countries in the world to practice journalism.

The three years of Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) as Mexico's president have been the most violent period against Mexican journalists on record. Article 19, a civil organisation that defends freedom of the press, has recorded 36 murders during AMLO's mandate, 50% more homicides compared to the previous governments of Felipe Calderón (2006-2012) and Enrique Peña Nieto (2012-2018), when 26 and 19 journalists, respectively, were murdered in their first three years. Article 19 highlights that there have been 1,945 attacks against the press since AMLO is president, 85% more attacks.

The past 9th of May, unions and journalistic groups had called for a mobilisation in twenty cities throughout the country to protest the murder of reporter Luis Enrique Ramírez, which had occurred the week before, when they received the tragic news that two colleagues had just been shot in Veracruz. Protesters had to paint new signs to include the names of Yessenia Mollinedo and Johana García on the list of 11 journalists killed in Mexico so far this year, which means that on average now, a journalist is murdered every 10 days in Mexico.

Besides the security crisis, the rhetoric of the President López Obrador towards journalists has been very polemic, as it represents another serious challenge that journalists must face. In fact, it is believed that his position has actively contributed to the intensification of their vulnerability. The European Parliament passed a resolution on March 10th that condemned the killings of journalists in Mexico and denounced the “populist rhetoric” of the president. As a matter of fact, Mexico’s government blamed the “slanderous” European resolution on conservative politicians “with a colonialist mindset.” The People's Tribunal on the Murder of Journalists, a project organised by Reporters Without Borders and Free Press Unlimited, has pointed to state failures to protect journalists. Emmanuel Colombié, director of Reporters Without Borders in Latin America, explained at the end of April: “We want to show that the Mexican authorities have failed in their mission to protect journalists.”

The president’s controversial remarks

President López Obrador assumed power at the end of 2018 with the promise of pacifying the country and blaming the former presidents for the insecurity issues the country was facing. However, he recognised challenges when containing homicides, witnessing a record during his first year of presidency in 2019 with 34.600 homicides. In the following years, the number of homicides slightly decreased but still remains in a very high level.

Before becoming president, he announced in his campaign that if he was ever elected, he would introduce daily morning conferences in the Palacio Nacional known as ‘Las mañaneras’ to talk to press, engage with his audience in freewheeling discussions and outline political plans. He implemented them in December 2018, and as a matter of fact, three years performing “Las mañaneras” since December 2018 to December 2021 have had an estimated cost of at least 1.5 million euros (30 million Mexican pesos).

On the one hand, these briefings are perceived as a meritorious political strategy for a country where its leaders have usually been perceived as distant and arrogant. On the other hand, there is great controversy around them, as in these conferences the president also excoriates neoliberalism, rebuts “fake news” and talks about journalists in a divisive “us versus them” approach that recalls the former US President Donald Trump, with whom he rarely otherwise agreed. Journalists have been called “defenders of interest groups,” “neoliberals” and “mercenaries” when opposing to AMLO’s ideas.

On February 22nd he stressed that journalists “are allied with a conservative bloc, the purpose is to harm us (...) there is a lack of ethics in journalism.” Ten days before, on February 11th he discredited Carlos Loret de Mola in a conference by publicly speculating about his income, which was qualified on social networks as an excessive attack of revenge for the investigation he carried out about an oil company that rented a house to the president’s son in Texas. Carlos Loret de Mola concluded in an interview that “While he says that his government does not persecute any journalist, within a few minutes, he slanders me and reveals personal data for investigating the luxuries of his son… AMLO has his sights set on me.”

Jan-Albert Hootsen, the Mexican representative of the Committee to Protect Journalists said after the European Union passed the resolution that “Mexican journalists are calling for change, and the European Parliament has supported them in their calls. At best, President López Obrador has consistently shown that press freedom is not a priority for him, and at worse he has openly vilified journalists. This resolution must now be part of a concerted move for change, with the EU working in solidarity with journalists on the ground.”

The connection between media and the political class

Journalists have very poor conditions, with an average salary of $7,500 Mexican pesos per month (230 to 460 euros), meaning that in order to complete a salary that is enough to live on, they must work for various media, without employment benefits or health insurance. In this scenario, the media companies have a great dependence on political and governmental power, since they invest large amounts of money in advertising to generate dependency. This means that running a newspaper, a radio station or a television channel in Mexico implies having the government as your only powerful client, but this client also adds a warning: “I do not pay you to criticise me.” This creates what many Mexican media owners, executives and journalists define as a giant presidential brand that can suppress investigative articles, pick covers and intimidate newsrooms that challenge it. It is important to underline that these conditions put investigative journalists and critical media outlets that deviate from the status quo at a total disadvantage and in an environment of hostility.

In addition, inside the media there can be found another sort of connection to the political class through bribes known as the ‘chayotes.’ Numerous journalists driven by necessity or ambition receive these famous bribes that government officials give them in order to induce them to report according to their convenience. When a journalist refuses bribes, politicians and public officials use other types of psychological pressure or aggression, including exclusion, smear campaigns, and defamation, both online and offline.

The connection between organised crime and the political class

It is well known that being an investigative critical journalist in Latin America bothers the political class, which in many occasions, collaborates with organised crime to get rid of journalists that threaten their reputation. “Reporters in Latin American countries are killed because it’s cheap,” says Juan Vazquez from Article 19. “Those who run the greatest risk are the journalists with their pen, computer, recorder or microphone. In the end those who run the least risk are those who pull the trigger.”

The closure of the media outlet “Monitor Michoacán” for fear of suffering more attacks after the murder of its director Armando Linares exemplifies the vulnerability that plagues the press. Linares, before his death preceded by dozens of threats, pointed out those responsible in a video: “We hold the municipal authorities of Zitácuaro, Michoacán, responsible for any attack on our personnel.” Another recent example where the political power is allegedly involved is the murder of Lourdes Maldonado, having warned the president that she feared for her life. Lourdes' murder prevented her from revealing the financial and fiscal irregularities of which she accused Bonilla Valdez, a member of Morena (the party led by AMLO).

The most repeated slogan this year among the Mexican press is “You don't kill the truth by killing journalists”. However, AMLO insists that the murders of journalists during his mandate cannot be considered state crimes since political actors “no longer participate in these crimes.” AMLO has charged against previous governments: “These gangs emerged during the neoliberal period, they were even tolerated by neoliberal governments. You are not talking about the fact that Felipe Calderón's Secretary of Public Security of Mexico had relations with organised crime and that is why he is imprisoned in the United States.”

The spiral of impunity

Moreover, the real issue that relies in this matter besides the murders is the striking amount of impunity that remains. According to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, journalists dying in a country is alarming, but the fact that their crimes remain unpunished is even more. A study published by the Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana of Mexico claims that the interconnections between political corruption and organised crime cannot go unnoticed, since criminal groups tend to interfere in public activities in order to fruitfully carry out their illicit work.

In Mexico, more than 90% of deaths are filed in the Prosecutor's Offices, which means that impunity plays a determining role. That is achieved through judicial corruption: the corrupt actions of certain members of the judicial and prosecutorial career that increase the chances of impunity for some illicit activities carried out by criminal groups. To this end, the organisations themselves can intervene in the selection processes of judges and magistrates in the composition of a certain court that is going to judge them for allegedly criminal acts or even ‘buying’ judicial decisions.

Joel Vera, who worked for the ‘Monitor Michoacán’ media outlet, made a statement with some accusations: “The Special Prosecutor for Crimes against Freedom of Expression “has in its possession evidence of the intellectual authors of the murder of our director. However, the State Government and the Attorney General's Office have shown no interest in finding those responsible, both the material and intellectual authors, since the murderers are among the ranks of both.” In the case of Lourdes Maldonado, after her murder the President prioritised protecting the image of his political party Morena asking not to link Bonilla Valdez to Lourdes' death due to the lack of information on the material and intellectual authors of the murder.

In 2012 the government secretariat created the Protection Mechanism for Human Rights Defenders and Journalists in order to protect all those who are at risk for carrying out their work. However, the Space for Civil Society Organizations (Espacio OSC), an entity set up to guarantee the protection, stated in a diagnosis on the implementation of the Protection Mechanism that it has not managed to achieve a significant change in the situation of defenders and journalists. They say they are understaffed and underfunded, therefore unable to respond quickly with the appropriate measures. Despite some recent progress in terms of protection, according to Reporters Without Borders, Mexico continues to sink into “the infernal spiral of impunity.”

President AMLO recently announced a “zero impunity” program, that will include the launch of a new section in ‘Las mañaneras’ to talk about crimes that remain unpunished and the actions that his government will take to find a solution and arrest those allegedly involved in each of them. However, the Mexican press demands the end of the weekly section “Quién es quién en las mentiras” —Who is who in lies—, in which AMLO attacks journalists who have published news that the government considers false or manipulated.

Who is responsible?

Contrary to former President Enrique Peña Nieto, that spent more money on advertising than any other president in Mexican history (between 18 billion and 24 billion Mexican pesos) AMLO’s strategy to control the media has not been so much focused on advertising, but rather on creating his own daily morning show ‘Las mañaneras’ that, as the president’s office estimates, about 10 million people watch. He promised through his austerity policy to fight against corruption by reducing government advertising spending by 50%. Although this has been accomplished, there have been found other side effects in this government’s saving plan that might have caused inequality and gaps between the media that aspire to benefit through official advertising,” says the organisation Article 19.

Furthermore, AMLO’s media strategy reminds to the populist one of Hugo Chávez with the program ‘Aló Presidente’ where the image of its leader was promoted and sought to solidify his emotionally charged connection with the Venezuelan masses. For AMLO, ‘Las mañaneras’ is a propaganda venue that he uses to express his plans and ideas, but also to attack his critics, which in consequence have put journalists in a very vulnerable position.

Regarding the solutions implemented to the crisis that journalism faces in Mexico, Pedro Vaca Villarreal, special rapporteur for freedom of expression of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) claims that “the government oscillates between being a spectator of violence and a commentator on violence. It seems that the word urgency is not present at the government's conversation tables and yet it is a word that is insisted on by the international community and civil society.” He also added that “this is a time when the government would do well to consider taking additional and urgent action. Especially in the responses that the government has given to the international community, there is an important ingredient of arrogance in the atmosphere. Hopefully that arrogance can move towards much more empathic conversation plans with journalism.”

There is a lack of responsibility in the government when it comes to protecting the life of journalists. Looking at the cases of Lourdes Maldonado and Margarito Martínez, it was possible to document that they had knocked on the doors of institutions prior to their murders claiming protection or reporting their risk, and this did not lead to measures to avoid a fatal outcome. The Administration is failing in terms of effectiveness and therefore the key to the solution lies with the government, both in rebuilding the confidence of journalists and activating the institutional gears to prevent violence against the press and prosecute those responsible.

To sum up, the magazine ‘The Economist’ downgraded Mexico this year in its Democracy Index, where the country's political system went from being considered a ‘defective democracy’ to being a ‘hybrid regime.’ Among the various arguments for this were the concentration of power in the executive branch, including the possibility of electoral reform, and the intensification of AMLO's attacks on the media with intolerance of critics. The analysis predicts that a further erosion of Mexico's democracy is “likely to occur as the 2024 presidential election approaches.”