Journalists dying for the truth in Mexico

Since 2000, 55 journalists in Mexico have been killed. Most of them brutally shot or tortured for doing their job. Maria Elizabeth Macia Castro from the city of Nuevo Laredo wrote online under the pseudonym ‘The Girl from Laredo’, reporting the activities of criminal groups in her area. She used Twitter to push the information she uncovered to a wider audience.

In September 2011 Maria’s decapitated body was found on a road outside the city; a note next to Maria said she had been murdered by a criminal group and identified her writing as the reason. The year before, Valentin Valdes Espinosa, reporter with Zocalo de Saltillo, was abducted. The next day his body was found. He had been shot several times, his arms and legs had been bound and his body showed evidence of torture.

A handwritten message alongside Valentin’s body read: “This is going to happen to those who don’t understand. The message is for everyone.” The local state attorney general’s office said at the time that an organised criminal gang was behind the brutal murder. In 2009 Bladimir Antuna Garcia’s body was found, showing signs of strangulation. Earlier the same year Bladimir, a seasoned crime reporter in Durango, had been shot at while leaving his home. When his body was found, a note found at the murder scene said: “This happened to me for giving information to the military and for writing too much.”

These tragic tales go on and on – shootings, stabbings, decapitations, strangulations, torture – with the majority of them linked to the rampant and lawless drug cartels that plague Mexico. And against such odds, local Mexican law enforcement is crumbling, with nearly 90 per cent of journalists’ murders going unsolved.

It is estimated that seven major drug cartels operate in Mexico. The country is the largest marijuana producer for the US and most of the cocaine and heroin trafficking that reaches the US goes through Mexico. About 80 per cent of the drugs trafficked in Mexico end up on the US market and 80 per cent of the guns used by the cartels are brought in from the US. In 2006 President Filipe Calderon launched a national crackdown on the drug cartels; since then more than 50,000 people have been killed in drug-related violence - including gang members, security forces, police, journalists and innocent bystanders

The job of the journalist is to uncover truths that are in the public interest – things we need to know in order to make sound choices, to protest, to support, to protect ourselves, our wellbeing and our livelihoods. Right now the overwhelming threat imposed by the drug cartels is forcing reporters and media outlets to curb their coverage and investigation of organised crime and associated power networks. In a world where very little is ever black and white, this is. Evil happens when good men do nothing, as Edmund Burke nearly said; but here the good men and women are dying again and again for doing the right thing and yet evil is flourishing.

In September 2010, after two of its staff were murdered, El Diario newspaper in Cuidad Juarez ran a front-page editorial which asked the drug cartels, ‘What do you want from us?’ This extraordinary move, which gained coverage across the US and Europe, as well as Latin America said: “We don’t want any more dead. We don’t want any more injured or any more threats. It is impossible to exercise our function in these conditions. Indicate to us, therefore, what you expect of us as a news outlet. This is not surrender...This is about a truce with those who have imposed the force of law upon this city, so long as the lives are respected of those who dedicate themselves to the task of informing.”

But from this dark, dark situation a significant ray of hope has emerged. Last month the Mexican Senate approved a constitutional amendment that, if passed by a majority of states, would allow federal authorities to take over cases of crimes against freedom of expression. That would mean the better-resourced and stronger structures of the Mexican federal police could take over from state authorities to tackle cases of murdered journalists or those living under threat from the drug cartels. This is a massive step in the right direction by President Calderon and his government and an acknowledgement that the killings must stop.

Those who have already died for the truth in Mexico and those who continue to fight every day in whatever way they can, deserve to be remembered and applauded and revered. The Silenced is a sadly growing group of murdered journalists who need to have their stories told and their sacrifice to a vital cause held up in the spotlight.

CAFOD has joined forces with The Guardian and the Committee to Protect Journalists to create a photo exhibition to commemorate these silenced voices. The Silenced: Fighting for Press Freedom in Mexico launches on World Press Freedom Day on 3 May 2012 and runs for one week at The Guardian offices in London.

For Maria, Valentin, Bladimir and all those other journalists and media workers who have been killed, please come and read their stories. As director of CAFOD Chris Bain has said in response to those who have died fighting for press freedom: “If the world is looking for heroes, here they are.”

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(c) Pascale Palmer is Senior Press Officer (Policy & Campaigns) for the official Catholic aid agency CAFOD - www.cafod.org.uk

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