Freedom of expression includes freedom of the press and access to information to promote social progress and better standards of life. Without these freedoms, democracies are not complete, and other human rights may be in danger.
Reporters Without Borders (RSF, by its Spanish acronym) defines press freedom as “the ability of journalists, as individuals and collectives, to select, produce and disseminate news in the public interest independent of political, economic, legal and social interference and in the absence of threats to their physical and mental safety.”
Press freedom is included in the Atlantic Council’s Freedom and Prosperity Indexes, as part of the civil liberties indicator in the Political Freedom Index. Mexico, considered Mostly Free, ranks 82nd of 174 countries included in the overall Freedom Index, with a score of 58.2 out of 100. Regarding Political Freedom specifically, it ranked 88th, scoring 60.8 out of 100.
Mexico is very different to its neighbors to the north: the United States had an overall score of 79.2 and Canada 87.8, ranking them at 29th and 11th respectively in the Freedom Index. One southern neighbor, Belize, also outperforms Mexico on this Index, scoring 61.9 in 2021, although Mexico came out slightly ahead of Guatemala, which scored 54.3 in the same year.1Dan Negrea and Matthew Kroenig, “Do Countries Need Freedom to Achieve Prosperity? Introducing the Atlantic Council Freedom and Prosperity Indexes,” Atlantic Council, accessed February 9, 2023, https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/in-depth-research-reports/report/do-countries-need-freedom-to-achieve-prosperity.
In this chapter, we analyze press freedom in Mexico, considering the socio-territorial particularities and political landscape of the country. Specifically, our analysis includes the presence of drug cartels and transnational criminal organizations (TCOs) throughout the territory, the levels of marginalization, and the Mexican president’s stance on the press.
Another objective of this chapter is to examine the outcomes of the Protection Mechanism for Human Rights Defenders and Journalists that the Mexican government implemented to confront violence against those who seek to uncover the truth and uphold human rights. In addition to the diagnosis made by the Office in Mexico of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights,2Office in Mexico of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Diagnóstico Sobre el Funcionamiento del Mecanismo, OHCHR, July 2019, https://hchr.org.mx/wp/wp-content/themes/hchr/images/doc_pub/190725-Diagnostico-Mecanismo-FINAL.pdf an anonymous interview was conducted for this research with a journalist who requested protection under the Mechanism and experienced, first-hand, its advantages and limitations.
According to the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), fifty-five journalists were murdered worldwide in 2021, seven of them in Mexico.3UNESCO, “Journalist Killings Decline in 2021 But Alarming Threats Remain,” press release, last updated April 21, 2022, https://www.unesco.org/en/articles/journalist-killings-decline-2021-alarming-threats-remain. Journalists work to strengthen public interests, including freedom of expression, but unfortunately their integrity is often violated in different countries and under different circumstances. The past decade has revealed new trends. Long ago, murders of journalists occurred mostly in countries experiencing armed conflicts; but now, they are regularly committed in countries at peace, in two regions in particular: Asia-Pacific and Latin America. Most of these murders are committed in countries with large social inequalities and/or high rates of violence and crime.
Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights established that everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression.4UN, “Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” accessed February 28, 2023, https://www.un.org/en/about-us/universal-declaration-of-human-rights. This right includes the freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas through any media, regardless of frontiers.
In Mexico, press freedom has been recognized by law since 1917 when the current constitution was enacted; nonetheless, censorship comes in the shape of threats and direct attacks from both sides: organized crime and the authorities. Also, new technologies add a different dimension: on one hand, they offer the possibility of a broad and rapid distribution of information, but on the other, journalists are exposed to online threats and harassment—and even to surveillance, making them and their informants more vulnerable. The low cost and high quality of surveillance technology mean these tactics are very easy and cheap to implement.
It is also worth noting that most of the media in Mexico are in the hands of big national companies, which makes it difficult to rely on the quality of the news. But not only that, since the election of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) in 2018, he has started a campaign against journalists, whom he accuses of supporting the political opposition, calling them “biased,” “unfair,” and “the scum of journalism.”
Mexico is considered one of the deadliest and most dangerous countries for journalists; a correlation between levels of organized crime and violence perpetrated against journalists is evident. From 2000 to 2022, 163 journalists were murdered in Mexico, thirty-eight of those during President AMLO’s tenure.5Data from ARTICLE 19 lists 157 journalist killings between 2000 and 2022, 37 of which occurred during AMLO’s presidency: “Periodistas Asesinadas/os en México,” ARTICLE 19, accessed February 28, 2023, https://articulo19.org/periodistasasesinados. Our own research gives a slightly higher figure of 163 killings, with 38 of those in AMLO’s term. For instance, the murder of Diego García Corona (December 2018) is not included in the ARTICLE 19 list: “Gobierno de AMLO Trabaja en un Plan Para Proteger a Periodistas,” El Universal, December 6, 2018, https://www.eluniversal.com.mx/nacion/sociedad/gobierno-de-amlo-trabaja-en-un-plan-para-proteger-periodistas. For the authors’ full data set, see the digital version of this chapter on the Atlantic Council website. Moreover, most of the killings occurred in states where some of the most prominent drug cartels operate.
To protect journalists and human rights defenders from continued violence, the Mexican government launched a program in 2012 called the Protection Mechanism for Human Rights Defenders and Journalists.6Ley para la Protección de Personas Defensoras de Derechos Humanos y Periodistas, (June 25, 2012) https://www.cedhnl.org.mx/somos/legislacion/Ley-para-la-proteccion-de-personas-defensoras-de-derechos-humanos-y-periodistas.pdf. Although the Mechanism was deployed ten years ago, 2022 became the deadliest year for journalists in that period, proving that it has not been enough to safeguard journalists’ lives. In the following section we will describe the context of Mexican journalism, and discuss the Mechanism’s impact, ten years after its implementation.
Mexico and its press, in context
Mexico is a country of 126 million people, with 43.9 percent living in conditions of poverty. Twelve of Mexico’s thirty-two states have more than 50 percent of their population living in poverty.7“Medición Multidimensional de la Pobreza,” Consejo Nacional de Evaluación de la Política de Desarrollo Social (CONEVAL), accessed February 28, 2023, https://www.coneval.org.mx/Medicion/MP/Paginas/Pobreza_2020.aspx, Cuadro 1. Medición multidimensional de la pobreza. Also, Mexico is multicultural, with seventy-one indigenous groups representing more than seven million people who speak an indigenous language. Social, cultural, and economic inequalities are, as expected, concentrated in those indigenous groups, and disproportionate numbers live in states where illegal drugs are either produced or transported. Also, it is well known that corruption is a major problem in the country. Even though the current federal government declared it to be one of its top priorities, results show that actions have been too weak. The Mexican Institute for Competitiveness (IMCO), a non-partisan, nonprofit public policy research center, created its own Corruption Risk Index, focusing on public procurement by analyzing 260 institutions from 2018 to 2021. IMCO’s key findings included that federal institutions do not prioritize public bidding processes, that contract documents are often unavailable, and that contracts are frequently awarded to risky suppliers.8Instituto Mexicano para la Competitividad (IMCO), Índice de Riesgos de Corrupción: Compras públicas en México 2018–2021 (Mexico City: IMCO, 2022).
Along with poverty and corruption, Mexico has another major problem: transnational criminal organizations (TCOs), commonly referred to as “drug cartels” and “drug trafficking organizations” (DTOs). In 2006 the federal government launched a war against DTOs, fragmenting the larger and more stable organizations and sparking greater violence. TCOs are not limited to producing and/or transporting drugs; instead, or in addition, they are responsible for kidnappings, extortion, and inflicting terror on communities.
With prevailing poverty, corruption, and organized crime, national, regional, and local governance is poor. The press, thus, plays a central role in bringing relevant information on the most important local and/or national issues to public attention. Whether those issues include corruption in some government office or illegal activities of organized groups in a village, journalists are exposed to a very volatile, highly dangerous environment.
Television is the most important format for news media in Mexico, but there is also radio, journals, magazines, blogs, and social media. There are dozens of national news media outlets, but broadcasting is controlled by Televisa, which in 2021 merged with US-based Spanish-language network Univision. There are seventy daily newspapers, twenty-four radio stations, and forty-four websites, all of them led by the Mexican Editorial Organization.9“Mexico,” Reporters Without Borders (RSF), accessed February 28, 2023, https://rsf.org/en/country/mexico. Grupo Imagen is also an important multimedia conglomerate; other actors include newspapers such as El Universal, Reforma, and Milenio, and the news portal Latinus. There is also Azteca Noticias group.
In Mexico, a privately owned commercial broadcasting system was developed over the years through the concession of a public good to a handful of private individuals—a flawed structure common to most Latin American countries. This concession system permits the federal government to apply pressure and influence over the press, and in some cases dictate what the press is to say.
The relationship between the press and the government in Mexico has changed over the centuries. During the colonial period, the first press publications were conceived as an instrument of propaganda for the Spanish monarchy and ecclesiastical elites. Then, in the post-independence period in the nineteenth century, the press was a weapon that helped impose ideologies of groups that contended for power. Different media were controlled through newspaper closures, restricting access to paper, and, of course, censorship. Also, journalists were jailed or tortured. In the twentieth century, government strategies changed—at least on paper—especially after the revolution of the 1910s and the 1917 constitution, when press freedom began to be seen as a synonym for democracy.
While Mexico’s constitutions of 1824, 1857, and 1917 showed progress in terms of citizenship and democracy, they also made it clear that the existence of laws did not guarantee citizens access to principles, rights, and freedoms. Undeniably, one of the revolution’s main causes and slogans was an electoral demand: “real democracy, no reelection.” However, the Mexican political system for many years was far from democratic.
For much of the twentieth century, Mexican politics and public institutions were under the quasi-dictatorship of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). While the PRI allowed the opposition to participate in elections, they retained control over the media, which helped to ensure that the opposition had no chance of reaching any elected office. The PRI dominated for more than seventy years, from the end of the revolution in 1917 until the 1990s, and it maintained a regime that controlled municipalities, governorships, congress and the presidency. The latter office concentrated many constitutional powers, making the holder the central figure of the political system.
During this period of presidential authoritarianism, the government changed its strategy toward the press and kept journalists close, at least those of them willing to support the regime. Some were even on the payroll of public bodies. As a result, the press became economically dependent on the government, and government influence over the content of the press was very large.
In 1968 the government demonstrated that there was no freedom of the press nor freedom of expression, after former president Gustavo Díaz Ordaz ordered a brutal repression of the students’ movement, whose most urgent demands were freedom for political prisoners, public dialogue, and full freedom of expression.10Museo Universitario Arte Contemporaneo (MUAC), “Imágenes y Revuelta: La Gráfica del 68,” accessed March 8, 2023, https://muac.unam.mx/exposicion/imagenes-y-revuelta-la-grafica-del-68?lang=en. But, instead of negotiating or acceding to these demands, the result was the Tlatelolco Massacre, in which “hundreds of people were killed.”11“Matanza de Tlatelolco,” National Human Rights Commission (CNDH), accessed March 3, 2023, https://www.cndh.org.mx/noticia/matanza-de-tlatelolco. The press, subjugated to the will of the government, stigmatized the students’ movement from the beginning, labeling them as “strikers,” “agitators,” and “terrorists.”12“Así Amanecieron las Portadas el Día Después del 2 de Octubre de 1968,” Forbes, October 2, 2018, https://www.forbes.com.mx/asi-amanecieron-las-portadas-tras-el-2-de-octubre-de-1968; Carlos Reyna, “¿Cómo Reportó la Prensa la Masacre del 2 de Octubre de 1968?” Gatopardo, October 3, 2018, https://gatopardo.com/arte-y-cultura/titulares-del-3-de-octubre.
After this dark episode in Mexican history—and confronted with the anger of the people and the loss of credibility—the national press began a period of professionalization that created space for independent and critical publications. However, it should be understood that professional, autonomous, free, and critical journalism has had to develop despite the media system and its elite owners and not because of them.
The twenty-first century brought major commercial competition and political democratization. New electoral laws stated that political parties must be provided with resources to advertise themselves and the media was obliged to cover campaigns fairly and free of costs. But this just meant that media owners and publishers simply benefited from having a more diverse range of patrons. Social media has also provided cost-free opportunities to be informed, and this has become a challenge for the government-supported press, very often criticized for its bias and lack of objectivity.
Despite some improvements, critical journalism has always had to paddle upstream to sustain its dissident model. Of course, this kind of press tends to face threats and violence, with aggressions coming from two sides: the government and organized crime.
Press freedom and violence
RSF present the annual World Press Freedom Index to compare the level of press freedom enjoyed by journalists and media in 180 countries and territories.13The index’s methodology can be found at: https://rsf.org/en/index-methodologie-2022?year=2022. The 2022 index, which comprises the period from January to December 2021, ranks Mexico at 127th with a score of 47.57 out of 100, thus classifying the situation for journalists as “difficult.” This did, however, represent an improvement on the 2021 index, in which Mexico ranked 143rd. Considering the events that took place in 2022, it seems very likely that the country will slide back down the rankings in the 2023 index.
Physical threats and intimidation are the most widespread form of attacks against journalists, followed by physical assaults and kidnappings.14Comisión Interamericana de Derechos Humanos (CIDH) and Relatoría Especial para la Libertad de Expresión, Informe Especial sobre la Situación de la Libertad de Expresión en México, Organizacion de los Estados Americanos (OAS), June 2018, https://www.oas.org/es/cidh/expresion/docs/2018_06_18%20CIDH-UN_FINAL_MX_report_SPA.pdf. Also, among the most recent and alarming challenges are digital attacks against journalists and their sources, harassment through social media, and unmonitored covert surveillance. As the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights says, the most extreme and violent method of curtailing the right to freedom of expression is the murder of journalists. This annuls the victim’s right to life, and entails other consequences besides: it has an intimidating and silencing effect on journalists’ peers; it affects the rights of the victims’ families to psychological and moral integrity; and it violates the rights of individuals and soci-eties to seek and receive information.15Comisión Interamericana de Derechos Humanos (CIDH) and Relatoría Especial para la Libertad de Expresión, Estudio Especial Sobre Asesinato de Periodistas por Motivos que Pudieran Estar Relacionados Con la Actividad Periodística: Periodo 1995-2005, Organizacion de los Estados Americanos (OAS), June 2018, https://www.cidh.oas.org/relatoria/section/Asesinato%20de%20Periodsitas.pdf.
The World Press Freedom Index comprises five indicators: political context, legal framework, economic context, socio-cultural context, and safety. What should be noted is that in the 2022 index, Mexico was ranked 179th out of 180 in the safety index—unsurprising, given that Mexico was the deadliest country for journalists for four consecutive years.16“This is Already the Deadliest Year Ever for Mexico’s Media,” Reporters Without Borders (RSF), August 25, 2022, https://rsf.org/es/2022-es-ya-el-a%C3%B1o-m%C3%A1s-mort%C3%ADfero-para-los-periodistas-en-la-historia-de-m%C3%A9xico.
From the year 2000 to 2022, 163 journalists have been murdered, most of them men.17For the full data set, see the digital version of this chapter on the Atlantic Council website. In addition, twenty-seven journalists are registered missing as of January 2023,18“Abduction of Three Men Highlights Climate of Terror for Local Reporters in Mexico,” Reporters Without Borders (RSF), January 13, 2023, https://rsf.org/en/abduction-three-men-highlights-climate-terror-local-reporters-mexico. including Cándida Cristal Vázquez, who disappeared on July 21, 2022 and who worked as a reporter and radio newscaster in Mazatlán, Sinaloa.19Carlos Velázquez, “Cándida Cristal Vázquez: Cuerpo Hallado no Corresponde a la Periodista, Dice Fiscalía,” El Financiero, August 30, 2022, https://www.elfinanciero.com.mx/estados/2022/08/30/candida-cristal-vazquez-cuerpo-hallado-no-corresponde-a-la-periodista-dice-fiscalia. Between AMLO becoming president in December 2018 and the end of 2022, thirty-eight murders and five disappearances have been counted; in 2022 alone eighteen journalists were murdered.20For the full data set, see the digital version of this chapter on the Atlantic Council website. Sources include: “Periodistas Asesinadas/os en México,” ARTICLE 19; “This is Already the Deadliest Year Ever . . .,” RSF, 2022; Jon Martín Cullell, “México Vive Su Momento Más Letal Para los Periodistas Desde Que Hay Registros,” El País, December 17, 2022, https://elpais.com/mexico/2022-12-18/mexico-vive-su-momento-mas-letal-para-los-periodistas-desde-que-hay-registros.html; Almudena Barragán, “Yesenia Mollinedo y Johana García: La Pareja de Periodistas Asesinadas en Veracruz que Pone Cara al Terror de Todo un Gremio,” El País, May 12, 2022, https://elpais.com/mexico/2022-05-12/yesenia-y-johana-la-pareja-de-periodistas-asesinadas-en-veracruz-que-pone-cara-al-terror-de-todo-un-gremio.html; “The Journalist Pedro Pablo Kumul is Assassinated in Xalapa, Veracruz,” November 22, 2022, https://www.animalpolitico.com/seguridad/asesinan-al-periodista-pedro-pablo-kumul-en-xalapa-veracruz.
Also, the Press Emblem Campaign (PEC)—an international, independent nongovernmental organization dedicated to media safety and rights—found in its 2022 annual report that, along with Ukraine, Mexico was the most dangerous country in 2022 for journalists.21Press Emblem Campaign (PEC), “14.12.2022. PEC Annual Report. Ukraine and Mexico Most Dangerous Countries in 2022 for Journalists,” press release, PEC, December 14, 2022, https://pressemblem.ch/pec-news.
In Mexico, as in most parts of the world, no one is held accountable for journalists’ murders. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) in its 2022 Global Impunity Index says that the vast majority of journalists’ killers continue to get away with murder. The index ranked Mexico in sixth place for impunity, and it would be even higher but for the index calculation factoring in Mexico’s relatively large population. Despite this, the CPJ considers Mexico to be the western hemisphere’s most dangerous country for journalists as it has the most unsolved journalist murders in the past ten years with twenty-eight cases.22Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), Killing With Impunity: Vast Majority of Journalists’ Murderers Go Free. 2022 Global Impunity Index. New York: CPJ, November 1, 2022, https://cpj.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/10/CPJ_2022-Global-Impunity-Index.pdf.
It is true that the news media has lost people’s confidence and that we live in the era of “fake news.” Young people now opt for social media as their main source of news, replacing journalists with influencers. But in Mexico, the connection between journalism and the public has weakened even further with the president’s daily attacks.
Every morning, from Monday to Friday at 7 a.m., AMLO gives press briefings known as the mañaneras where he speaks about what he considers are some of the most relevant issues concerning Mexico.23“AMLO Mañanera,” accessed March 8, 2023, https://lopezobrador.org.mx/temas/amlo-mananera. He includes sections regarding security, impunity, and others, including fake news in a segment called “Who’s Who.” In this section, the president and the web content coordinator at La Jornada de Oriente, Ana Elizabeth García Vilchis, point out journalists and publications that they consider unprofessional and articles they consider untrue.
Some of the journalists who have been name-checked in these briefings have indicated that they have been harassed online after being criticized by the president. In response, they accuse the president of using his briefings as a way to silence the independent press. But the president has his own point of view and classifies the media into two groups: the “good,” the media who cherish his pol-icies; and the “bad,” who he labels as neoliberal, corrupt, and elitist.
President López Obrador has singled out several journalists and media outlets for particular criticism, most frequently the Reforma newspaper. He has even labeled foreign press like the New York Times and the Washington Post as “unethical.”24President AMLO, in his morning press conference on Wednesday, December 14, 2022, pointed out that these are “unethical newspapers that serve powerful interests and governments.” https://lopezobrador.org.mx/2022/12/14/version-estenografica-de-la-conferencia-de-prensa-matutina-del-presidente-andres-manuel-lopez-obrador-871. Some journalists interviewed by the CPJ in 2019 agreed that AMLO fosters a hostile atmosphere and that his comments seem like aggression or threats. Another freelance journalist said that AMLO, even if “he has always been somewhat authoritarian,” is better than previous governments, especially in terms that “he respects what the media can publish.”25Jan-Albert Hootsen, “López Obrador’s Anti-Press Rhetoric Leaves Mexico’s Journalists Feeling Exposed,” Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), May 6, 2019, https://cpj.org/2019/05/mexico-president-lopez-obrador-press-rhetoric-threatened.
On December 15, 2022, after the attempted murder of renowned Grupo Imagen journalist Ciro Gómez Leyva, a group of 180 journalists, reporters, editors, and other media professionals signed a letter accusing the president of being “politically responsible” for the crime and demanding an end to the harassment of their profession.26Mario Andres Landeros, “Tras Atentado a Ciro, 180 periodistas Exigen a AMLO Cesar Hostigamiento,” El Universal, 20 December, 2022, https://www.eluniversal.com.mx/nacion/tras-atentado-ciro-177-periodistas-exigen-amlo-cesar-hostigamiento. The journalists that signed the letter are mostly from Grupo Imagen, TV Azteca, Latinus, El País, Reforma, El Universal, ADN, and Foro TV and identify themselves as critical journalists, but some others—including the president—consider them old servants of the PRI regime. So when AMLO responded to their letter during the mañanera, he accused the signatories of being “spokespeople for conservatism” who served special interests, and criticized them for their lack of balance regarding AMLO and his regime.27Eduardo Dina, “‘Puro Periodista del Régimen’: AMLO Se Lanza Contra Comunicadores Que Se Solidarizaron Con Ciro Gómez Leyva,” El Universal, December 21, 2020, https://www.eluniversal.com.mx/nacion/amlo-se-lanza-contra-quienes-se-solidarizaron-con-ciro-gomez-leyva-puro-periodista-del-regimen; Eduardo Dina, “La Mañanera de AMLO, 21 de Diciembre, Minuto a Minuto,” El Universal, December 21, 2022, https://www.eluniversal.com.mx/nacion/la-mananera-de-amlo-21-de-diciembre-minuto-minuto-0. He even took the chance to point out that there is a fierce campaign against his government, and that the attempted murder may have been a bid to try to destabilize the government.28Natalie Kitroeff, “Ciro Gómez Leyva Recibió Disparos. El Presidente de México Dijo Que no Descartaba Que Fuera un Atentado Para ‘Afectarnos a Nosotros’,” New York Times, December 21, 2022, https://www.nytimes.com/es/2022/12/21/espanol/ciro-gomez-leyva-amlo.html He also commented that information should not be left in the hands of journalists, and assured viewers that he was not involved in the attack, and that he does not lead an oppressive state.
Some of what AMLO says is true: the press does sometimes serve the interests of elites and powerful groups. But two days prior to the attempt on Gómez Leyva’s life, AMLO said that listening to Gómez Leyva’s program was “bad for the health” and that “if you listen to them too much, you may even get a tumor in your brain.”29Ariana Paredes, “AMLO: Es Dañino Escuchar a Gómez Leyva, Loret y Sarmiento, Hasta Puede Salir un Tumor en el Cerebro,” El Universal, December 14, 2022, https://www.eluniversal.com.mx/nacion/amlo-es-danino-escuchar-gomez-leyva-loret-y-sarmiento-hasta-puede-salir-un-tumor-en-el-cerebro. At the time of writing (January 2023), no arrests have been made relating to this crime but the Attorney General’s Office of Justice of Mexico City is working on the case. Anyways, the message for the entire press after this attempt is that prominence does not guarantee security.
Mexican authorities tend to say that the aggressions against journalists are not related to their work. However, President López Obrador launched in 2021 an open attack not just on journalists, but on ARTICLE 19, an international organization created to docu-ment censorship, to defeat the censors, and to help the censored. López Obrador said during a mañanera that the organization—and other “conservative” groups—was waging a “conservative” campaign against him. ARTICLE 19 responded with an article saying that the attack highlights his “grim record on impunity,” with 98 percent of journalist killings going unsolved.30“Mexico: Attack on ARTICLE 19 by President López Obrador Highlights his Grim Record on Impunity,” ARTICLE 19, March 31, 2021, https://www.article19.org/resources/mexico-attack-on-article-19-by-president-lopez-obrador-highlights-his-grim-record-on-impunity. It should be noted that the term “conservative” is, for AMLO, any person or policy that opposes or differs from his goal of “transformation.” It does not relate to any political or economic stance.
Violence and electoral violence related to transnational crime organizations and drug-trafficking organizations
Mexican transnational criminal organizations (TCOs) are present in 70 percent of the country and participate in a wide range of criminal activities beyond drug trafficking.31Instituto Nacional Electoral (INE), “Violencia Criminal Impacta el Trabajo Periodístico y las Elecciones, Coinciden Especialistas,” November 23, 2022, https://centralelectoral.ine.mx/2022/11/23/violencia-criminal-impacta-el-trabajo-periodistico-y-las-elecciones-coinciden-especialistas. Before 2006, there were only four dominant drug-trafficking organizations (DTOs), but after former president Felipe Calderón Hinojosa’s war on drugs, they fragmented into nine major groups:
- Beltrán Leyva Organization
- Cartel Jalisco New Generation (CJNG)
- Gulf Cartel
- Juárez/Carrillo Fuentes Organization
- La Familia Michoacana (The Mexican Family)
- Los Rojos (The Reds)
- Los Zetas and Cartel del Noreste
- Sinaloa Cartel
- Tijuana/Arellano Félix Organization
The CJNG is the group with the most presence and fastest growth in the country. It controls various demarcations in the east and west, and is increasing its influence in northern and southern states. The current criminal landscape in Mexico is dominated by the battle between the emerging CJNG, which bases its operations on the trafficking of synthetic drugs, and the Sinaloa Cartel, historically the dominant organization in Mexico.
These groups also act as umbrella organizations for many smaller local criminal groups; counting all of these, the number of TCOs grows into the hundreds. Many of them are involved in extortion, human smuggling, arms trafficking, oil theft, kidnapping, and homicide, among other crimes. These smaller crime groups are part of the big cartels’ strategy, dubbed “proxy war,” through which the national cartels control the distribution of drugs in various parts of the country.
Organized crime is characterized by the fact that it seeks to neutralize governments and the state through corruption, preventing the investigation, arrest, prosecution, and detention of its members or their profits. For this reason, part of the DTOs’ profits is used to coerce public servants, intimidate politicians, and influence elections; criminal organizations are responsible for most of the political violence at the local level.
During the 2017–18 federal and local electoral process, when more than 3,400 positions at the local and federal level were being contested, including the presidency, a total of 1,203 aggressions against politicians and non-elected officials took place. These resulted in 523 murders: 152 politicians and 371 public employees. This was the most violent electoral process in Mexico’s recent history.32Etellekt Consultores, Séptimo Informe de Violencia Política en México 2018, Etellekt Consultores, July 9, 2018, https://www.etellekt.com/reporte/septimo-informe-de-violencia-politica-en-mexico.html.
The second most violent electoral process occurred just a few years later, during the 2020–21 electoral process: 1,066 aggressions resulted in 265 murders, most of them public servants and politicians, and in some cases their colleagues and relatives. It is worth noting that 75 percent of the candidates and contenders attacked were competing for municipal offices, and that 75 percent were candidates of the opposition to the state government. The state of Veracruz experienced the worst aggression of all, with 117 cases.33Etellekt Consultores, Cuarto Informe de Violencia Política en México 2021, Etellekt Consultores, May 5, 2021, https://www.etellekt.com/informe-de-violencia-politica-en-mexico-2021-A30-etellekt.html.
DTOs have sought to influence elections in a number of ways, including violence at polling places, intimidation and coercion of voters, and control of candidate selection—for instance, via campaign financing. This last point is a major problem, and includes issues such as unreported donations and the use of illicit resources to finance political campaigns, to mention just two avenues for corruption. This contributes to Mexico’s ranking of 64th in the Perception of Electoral Integrity Index.34The Perception of Electoral Integrity Index covers the national presidential and parliamentary elections from July 1, 2012, to December 31, 2021. Experts measure each country one month after polls close and are asked to assess the quality of national elections on eleven sub-dimensions: electoral laws, electoral procedures, district boundaries, voter registration, party registration, media coverage, campaign finance, voting process, vote count, results, and electoral authorities. These items sum to an overall Electoral Integrity Index score from 0 to 100. For the index data set see: Holly Ann Garnett, Toby S. James, and Madison MacGregor, Perceptions of Electoral Integrity (PEI-8.0), (2022), Harvard Dataverse, https://doi.org/10.7910/DVN/YSNYXD. By controlling municipal government DTOs can access privileged information and public resources and obtain protection from the municipal police.
On election day in 2015, ARTICLE 19 registered twenty-seven aggressions against journalists covering the electoral process in different Mexican states.35Juan Vázquez, “Durante Jornada Electoral, 27 Agresiones Contra la Prensa,” ARTICLE 19, June 7, 2015, https://articulo19.org/durante-jornada-electoral-27-agresiones-contra-la-prensa These aggressions included equipment theft, reporters being illegitimately asked to delete their photos, threats, physical aggressions, identity theft on social media, information blackout, arbitrary detentions, and cyber-attacks on news portals. The five states with the most cases were Oaxaca (five), Puebla (five),36Juan Vázquez, “En Contexto Electoral, Cuatro Casos de Agresiones Contra Directores de Medios y Periodistas en Puebla,” ARTICLE 19, June 2, 2016, https://articulo19.org/en-contexto-electoral-cuatro-casos-de-agresiones-contra-directores-de-medios-y-periodistas-en-puebla. Veracruz (four), Guerrero (three), and Campeche (two).
Also, on the 2016 election day, the same organization documented nineteen aggressions that included harassment, arbitrary detentions, intimidation, threats, and physical assault. The states where the aggressions occurred were Chihuahua (five), Mexico City (four), Sinaloa (four), Aguascalientes (three), Puebla (two), and Veracruz (one). In Veracruz, the day prior to the election, journalist Jorge Sánchez, director of the local newspaper La Unión de Medellín, received a call with a death threat. Sánchez is part of the Protection Mechanism for Human Rights Defenders and Journalists and the son of journalist Moisés Sánchez, who was murdered in 2015 in Medellín de Bravo municipality in Veracruz.37Juan Vazquez, “Durante Elecciones, 19 Agresiones Contra la Prensa en México,” ARTICLE 19, June 8, 2016, https://articulo19.org/durante-elecciones-19-agresiones-contra-la-prensa-en-mexico.
Other media outlets whose staff were attacked during the 2015 and 2016 electoral processes included La Unión de Medellín (Veracruz); El Sol de Puebla, Status, and e-consulta (Puebla); Yradiamos, Notimex, and El Heraldo de Aguascalientes (Aguascalientes); La Revista NCG, El Diario del Noroeste, Akronoticias, and Más Noticias (Chihuahua); Noroeste (Sinaloa); and Reforma (Mexico City).
In the 2015 electoral process, four aggression cases were perpetrated by political party personnel or activists, and in 2016 journalists were harassed and intimidated, also by political party employees or members. On election day 2021 (June 6), sixteen aggressions were registered against journalists and a total of fifty-five since April 19, when ARTICLE 19’s hashtag to document such incidents was activated: #RedRompeElMiedo.38“Red Rompe El Miedo” (RRM), meaning Break the Fear Network, is a hashtag created by ARTICLE 19 in 2013 to track aggressions against journalists while covering high-risk events in Mexico, such as social protests and electoral processes. See https://informaterompeelmiedo.mx. Again, most of the aggressors (50.9 percent) came from political parties, and their actions included harassment, intimidation, threats, physical aggressions, and information blackout.39“La Red Rompe el Miedo Documenta Agresiones Contra la Prensa en un Clima de Violencia Política Durante las Elecciones,” ARTICLE 19, June 8, 2021, https://articulo19.org/la-red-rompe-el-miedo-documenta-agresiones-contra-la-prensa-en-un-clima-de-violencia-politica-durante-las-elecciones. This time, the abuses were registered in Baja California (six), Aguascalientes (five), Jalisco (five), Guanajuato (five), Guerrero (four), Sinaloa (four), and Yucatán (four).
Many local journalists report the crimes of these DTOs, as well as corruption, and the links between politicians and criminals. Thus, it is not surprising that violence against journalists increases during electoral processes, nor that there exists a direct correlation between this violence and the presence of drug cartels in a territory.
Also, we can see that the states with the highest rates of journalist murders are among the poorest in the country. Take the example of Veracruz, which, during Javier Duarte’s governorship (December 2010–November 2016), was the most lethal for communicators with eighteen journalists killed.40“Periodistas Asesinadas/os en México,” ARTICLE 19. These are the territories where TCOs tend to settle, due to geostrategic characteristics.
The following table presents the five states in which most murders of journalists took place between 2000 and 2022.
The Mexican government and Mexican media outlets often tally homicides differently due to restrictions placed on reporting, and crime groups’ attempts to cover up the numbers and identities of their victims (although other times they show off their crimes as a strategy to intimidate or to incriminate another group). Also, there are the so-called “silent zones” that neither the government nor journalists can reach. With impunity being the norm after journalists are killed, the result is silencing and self-censorship of communicators.
At this point, there is something that we should highlight: most of the journalists killed in recent years worked in local news. Similar to the rest of Latin America, 95 percent of journalist killings are committed in small cities, rural areas, transit areas, or border zones.41Comisión Interamericana de Derechos Humanos (CIDH) and Relatoría Especial para la Libertad de Expresión, Zonas Silenciadas: Regiones de alta peligrosidad para ejercer la libertad, Organizacion de los Estados Americanos (OAS), March 15, 2017, http://www.oas.org/es/cidh/expresion/docs/publicaciones/zonas_silenciadas_esp.pdf. Many of those murdered were covering security and political subjects and were the victims of organized crime. Sometimes journalists receive death threats before being killed, like Lourdes Maldonado López, who was killed in January 2022 and had even used a presidential mañanera in 2019 to appeal for the government’s help with protection.42Nic Newman, Richard Fletcher, Craig T. Robertson, Kirsten Eddy, and Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, Reuters Institute Digital News Report 2022, (Oxford: Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism and University of Oxford, 2022).
As we can see, there is a fine line between the two “sides” that exercise violence against journalists and communicators. Corruption makes it hard to know what comes first, but what is a fact is that most of the recent murders, disappearances, and kidnappings of journalists are concentrated in states where organized crime has a strong presence. As noted by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, the journalists who are targeted most often are those covering local news on corruption, drug trafficking, organized crime, public safety, and related affairs.43CIDH and Relatoría Especial para la Libertad de Expresión, Zonas Silenciadas . . ., 2017.
Some of the journalists who are subject to violence and intimidation may opt to align with one powerful interest or another, which sometimes means failing to report or remaining silent. But, for those willing to keep covering sensitive news after receiving threats, the Protection Mechanism for Human Rights Defenders and Journalists was developed. This mechanism is discussed in the following section.
The Protection Mechanism for Human Rights Defenders and Journalists
As the state (i.e., the Mexican federal government) has failed to implement an effective response to criminal organizations, and as it is responsible for protecting, promoting, and guaranteeing human rights, including journalists’ rights, in 2012, it created the Protection Mechanism for Human Rights Defenders and Journalists. The Mechanism is a federal agency under the Ministry of the Interior backed by the Law for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders and Journalists, issued in the same year.
Although it protects journalists and human rights defenders, this chapter will focus only on journalists. The Mechanism recognizes a journalist to be:
Individuals, as well as public, community, private, independent, university, experimental, or any other type of communication and dissemination media, whose work consists of collecting, generating, processing, editing, commenting, expressing opinions, disseminating, publishing, or providing information, through any means of dissemination and communication that may be printed, radio, digital or image.44Secretariat for Home Affairs (SEGOB), “Mecanismo de Protección para Personas Defensoras de Derechos Humanos y Periodistas,” Government of México, May 3, 2016, https://www.gob.mx/segob/acciones-y-programas/mecanismo-de-proteccion-para-personas-defensoras-de-derechos-humanos-y-periodistas-81609.
The Mechanism pledges to guarantee the life, safety, and personal integrity of journalists and human rights defenders through three types of measures:
- Urgent Protection Measures: actions and means to immediately safeguard the life, integrity, freedom, and security of people, to be implemented within nine hours of the request.
- Protection Measures: actions to protect from risks and safeguard the life, integrity, freedom, and security of people, but are not required to be implemented in a defined period.
- Preventive Measures: actions and means to prevent the completion of the aggression.
When a journalist reports an aggression or threat, the Mechanism evaluates the risk and designs a protection plan. Until 2019, when the Office in Mexico of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, at the request of the Undersecretariat for Human Rights of the Ministry of the Interior, published its diagnosis and recommendations to strengthen the Mechanism, 903 people were under its protection.45OHCHR, Diagnóstico Sobre el Funcionamiento del Mecanismo. This number included both human rights defenders and journalists.
In summary, the recommendations from the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights included the following:
- The President’s Office and the Ministry of the Interior must serve as examples for state governments by fully adopting the recommendations.
- The Mexican state and the state governments must ensure personnel and financial resources for the protection measures and the daily operation of the Mechanism.
- It would be desirable to have an effective system to monitor the correct implementation of the protection plans and promote relevant sanctions when it detects non-compliance with the corresponding obligations.
As the principal approach of the Mechanism is avoiding the realization of aggression or damage, it is expected that 2,400 people would need protection from the Mechanism by 2024. This number may be untenable and will make the Mechanism more inefficient; there is already insufficient personnel to process the files of those that currently have protection.
Noting that the Mechanism did not address the root causes of risk, the UN High Commissioner also recommended that a new paradigm be adopted: a prevention approach. Also, the report recommended that the causes of risk should be eliminated, as the Mechanism cannot be the sole response to violence against human rights defenders and journalists.
For the development of this chapter, we interviewed a journalist who joined the Protection Mechanism after receiving death threats in 2017 and 2019. This journalist sees the Mechanism as a positive—but small and reactive—response to a complex situation. In his view, it was created by the federal government to serve a privileged few, considering the general state of violence that the whole country lives in.
He says his life changed entirely during the “five years, one month, and four days” that he lived under protection of the Mechanism. He was accompanied by security escorts, although this was “a daily reminder that you are at risk,” and meant that there was no privacy in his life. He added: “Even to go with a lady to the hotel, you go with an escort.”46Interview with anonymous journalist, January 7, 2023, (interviewer: J. S. González Gallardo).
The interviewee told us that, to protect their lives, some colleagues were transferred from different parts of Mexico to safe houses in Mexico City, under the protection of the Mechanism, although many had lost their jobs as journalists as a result. However, in spite of the Mechanism’s limitations identified by this interviewee, and despite the difficulties that protection imposes on one’s personal and professional life, he is clear that many of his colleagues would be dead without its protection.
Another limitation this interviewee finds in Mexico is that, despite the risky situation in which journalists live, the media sector itself is not prepared to respond. There are no protection protocols or psychological assistance, no courses are provided, and they do not know where to go or what to do in case of imminent danger. He also says that sometimes media organizations promise support, but it never reaches the journalists.
Even if there are many limitations due to lack of funding and other operative deficiencies, the interviewee recognizes the Mechanism as an important measure to protect journalists and human rights defenders. He directs most of his complaints against the prosecuting authorities, specifically the Special Prosecutor’s Office for Attention to Crimes Committed against Freedom of Expression, which has not only failed to advance investigations in his own case, but has even attempted to close it. The interviewee says that the Mechanism should not exist and instead, the government should provide access to justice: “It should be legislated so that threats become a serious crime. Without justice, there is no way the Mechanism can protect all human rights defenders and journalists.”
It seems ironic that López Obrador’s political strategy against DTOs is “hugs, not bullets,” which means he would not pursue a war against the TCOs but would instead target the social conditions that allow criminal groups to thrive. But in the first days of 2023, two violent encounters with mafia leaders left more than a dozen dead and the city of Culiacán (Sinaloa) as a war zone for a second time. Even more ironic is that AMLO’s morning press conferences are regularly used to single out journalists instead of criminal leaders.
Journalists are victims of violence from both the government and the DTOs. As our interviewee and the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights stated, there must be a focus on addressing the root causes of violence and, in the meantime, the Protection Mechanism must be strengthened so that freedom of expression agents can remain alive.
Mexico is experiencing a grave human rights crisis. Violence faced by human rights defenders and journalists on a daily basis, which takes place in a context of practically absolute impunity that incentivizes its systematic reproduction, is one expression of the critical situation. Violence against journalists and its consequent impact on freedom of the press has been studied primarily as the result of two major underlying problems in Mexico: impunity, and the failed strategy against violence, mainly exerted by TCOs.
A way to put an end to impunity is to build greater capacities—in quantity and quality—in law enforcement agencies, with better investigative capacities. Such capacity development involves political will and capital, large sums of public funds, as well as time and patience. But these kinds of actions are not enough when active impunity also exists, that is, a series of actions carried out with the explicit purpose of undermining investigations and not generating results, in which case it can be useful to implement an international mechanism for supervising the administration of justice in Mexico.
Concerning the failed strategy against violence, the security measures adopted by the administration of Andrés Manuel López Obrador, despite the assurances that his strategy was to address the root causes of violence, have been to keep the armed forces as the main tool of public security in the country. It is necessary to strengthen the local police and leave national security challenges to federal bodies, removing the army from its current function. As long as these issues are not solved, violence against journalists will be a matter of statistics: Which year was worse? Which electoral period was more violent? Strengthening local police corps requires better salaries and social security nets, more—and more modern—equipment and weapons, continuous physical and use-of-force training, among others. Such investment of resources will pay in the long run through more secure communities. Therefore, politicians and decision makers must explain to society at large about the time needed for objective improvements to appear. But, since it seems hard to get to a point where the human rights violations crisis in Mexico—in which violence against journalists is immersed—is fully addressed, or that deep reforms are made to the prosecutorial system, it is necessary to keep and strengthen the Protection Mechanism to prevent greater damage. As the Mechanism is based on voluntary adherence, it cannot realistically cover the entire at-risk population. The Mechanism should have a strategic, proactive component coming from the secretary of the interior: if, through a risk analysis, it is found that a journalist or group is at high risk, the Mechanism would be automatically activated.
But measures also need to become more sensitive so that the people under protection do not lose their jobs, their privacy can be respected, and their mental health is taken care of. Media companies need to be ready to act in case of risk: they must have their own protection protocols and provide training that allows journalists and media workers to develop their roles in safer conditions. And, when things become risky, media companies ought to do whatever is necessary to protect their colleagues and collaborators.
It should be pointed out that a system of concessions and awards has deformed the performance of the media in Mexico. Suffice it to say that many media outlets cover the morning news briefings, no matter how absurd they may be, and no matter how much their own journalists are singled out in AMLO’s “Who’s Who” segment; not to do so would risk losing the concession. Journalists and human rights organizations have said that these mañaneras by the president and his spokespeople aggravate journalists’ situation and heighten their risk.
Indeed, the widespread use of social networks and the constant bombardment of information makes it more difficult to filter content. As we have seen, fake news and disinformation have multiplied during the pandemic, and in similar crises like the 2017 earthquakes. But there are professional tools like Verificado—with no ideological bias—for citizens to discriminate real news from fake news.
Freedom of expression is not complete without freedom of the press. As long as journalists and human rights defenders are subject to violence, we can conclude that neither freedom nor prosperity can be fully attained.
Sergio M. Alcocer is president of the Mexican Council on Foreign Relations (COMEXI); former undersecretary for North America in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs; professor at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) and part-time professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio.
Jeziret S. González is a member of COMEXI and columnist with MVS News.