A Review of Surviving Mexico: Resistance and Resilience among Journalists in the Twenty-First Century

by | Nov 22, 2021

Surviving Mexico: Resistance and Resilience among Journalists in the Twenty-First Century by Celeste González de Bustamante and Jeannine E. Relly (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2021)

Mexico is by far the most dangerous country for journalists to work in the Americas, and routinely hovers near the top of the world’s most dangerous, competing with countries like Iraq which are active war zones. Since 2000, 145 journalists have been killed in Mexico for doing their job, according to Artículo 19, a Mexican journalism non-governmental organization. Seven have been murdered so far this year, two of them in October.

In Surviving Mexico, Celeste González de Bustamante and Jeannine E. Relly have written a meticulously researched study of the dangers faced by journalists in Mexico, the impact on their lives, and how they have organized to meet the challenges of working in such a dangerous place. It’s a book that is made lively and moving by the many interviews with Mexican journalists and media owners who themselves tell the stories of the dangers and at times, the horrors, that working reporters routinely face in many parts of Mexico.

For reporters, as well as for all Mexicans, especially the ones who live in the country’s most violent areas, the problem is one of impunity, meaning it’s easy to get away with murder. In 2019, about nine out of every ten homicides in Mexico went unpunished, according to Impunidad Cero. For journalists, the rate of murders that go unpunished is slightly worse, about 95%, says Jan Albert Hooten, the Mexico representative of the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Violence in Mexico and the killing of journalists spiraled out of control in 2006 after President Felipe Calderón engaged the country’s military to win back territory controlled by warring drug cartels. But as Mexican security forces working in concert with the United States killed or arrested many of the country’s top traffickers, large cartels split into smaller groups and the violence grew as would-be druglords fought succession battles or saw opportunities to increase their power at the expense of weakened groups.

The trends now are not good. Populist Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, elected in 2018, has a thin skin for media criticism. Since his election, Surviving Mexico notes, the press has been “on the receiving end of rhetorical attacks.” López Obrador has largely ignored murders of journalists as unwanted distractions from his agenda of centralizing power and rolling back energy reforms. The Mexican president does not seem to have any articulated security policy to deal with the record levels of violence that continue to afflict Mexico, and no detectable desire to build judicial or police institutions able to investigate and prosecute violent crime and create a deterrent that at present doesn’t exist.

Surviving Mexico finds that almost all of the assassinated journalists share a similar profile. Most are, in the authors’ words, “doubly peripheral.” That is, they tend to be poorly paid reporters and photographers covering crime beats for multiple outlets, or working freelance, often in small towns and villages in areas remote from the safe bubble that is Mexico City.

Gregorio Jiménez de la Cruz worked as a crime reporter and moonlighted as a photographer in the small town of Villa de Allende in Veracruz, the deadliest state in Mexico for journalists where 30 have been murdered since 2000, according to Artículo 19. Endemic government and police corruption makes the state a breeding ground for the violence that has taken so many journalists’ lives.

At the time of Jiménez de la Cruz’s death in 2014, Veracruz was governed by Javier Duarte, a notoriously corrupt official now serving a prison sentence for criminal association and money laundering. Shortly after the reporter’s death, Duarte fled to Guatemala to avoid corruption charges. Months later, police found a clandestine cemetery, Mexico’s largest, from where the remains of more than 250 people, victims of forced disappearance, have been dug up.

The clandestine cemetery was just a few miles from the Gulf coast city of Veracruz, one of Mexico’s largest seaports, indicating that local and state authorities knew full well what was going on and at the least did nothing to stop it. Time and time again, police in Veracruz have been purged and disbanded after being found to be in collusion with drug traffickers, and even acting as death squads for politicians.

In this world, Jiménez de la Cruz made about $230 a month working for an array of media outlets. After writing about the disappearance of a friend, a local union leader, he was abducted from his home in front of his four children. Days later, his body, decapitated, and with his tongue cut out, was found in a shallow grave. Unlike most cases of murdered journalists, his killing sparked a short-lived national outcry. But the killings of journalists have become so commonplace, and Mexicans so jaded, that, with the exception of the most brutal massacres, killings are hardly noted.

Other assassinated reporters worked in provincial cities such as Acapulco, Reynosa and Ciudad Juárez, places torn apart by turf warfare between drug gangs who at first fought each other over drug routes to the United States and the profits from domestic street sales. Today, these criminal organizations fight for control of territory where drug trafficking is just one of many criminal enterprises.

In these areas of the country, rule of law is largely non-existent. In the last two decades, the number of drug cartels has exploded, going from three large transnational organizations to at least ten major cartels with more than seventy offshoots and gangs operating around the country. Criminal organizations have expanded their lines of business from drug trafficking and drug dealing to include kidnapping and trafficking of migrants. They also practice widespread extortion of businesses, which translates into a parallel system of taxation affecting everything from taco stands to multinational mining companies and the farms and packing houses of Mexico’s more than $1 billion a year avocado agroindustry.

More likely than not, police and civil authorities in these out-of-the-way areas are controlled by, or indistinguishable from, organized crime groups. If a criminal organization controls a particular area, it expects local media to act in its interest, covering events from the killing of a rival to the distribution of toys and food donations to the poor, these sometimes stamped with the local drug boss’s image.

Earlier this year, the head of the U.S. Northern Command caused a stir when he said that between 30% and 35% of Mexico’s territory was “ungoverned areas” where government authority hold no sway and transnational criminal groups rule. That is indeed the case in a number of Mexican states which have suffered the most attacks on journalists, such as the border state of Tamaulipas where Artículo 19 lists some 14 reporters who have been killed since 2000.

Killings of journalists are fewer and violence in general is much less in areas of Mexico where dominance has been established by one cartel or criminal organization, unlike in places where rival cartels are fighting for control of a key drug distribution point, territory and drug routes.

That’s what happened in Nuevo Laredo, Reynosa, and Matamoros, major border cities in the state of Tamaulipas—first when the Sinaloa cartel expanded into territory controlled by the Gulf Cartel, and again later when the Zetas, the enforcers of the Gulf Cartel, broke with their original Gulf Cartel employers in 2010. The result was a bloodbath for Tamaulipas with thousands of killings and forced disappearances. For journalists, as Surviving Mexico chronicles, it meant that newsrooms were targeted, reporters were routinely “levantado” or abducted. Some never returned, others came back with messages to editors about what news could be printed and what news could not.

Among other stories, Surviving Mexico tells the saga of the El Mañana newspapers of Nuevo Laredo, Reynosa and Matamoros, owned and sometimes run by members of an extended Mexican newspaper family whose publications have managed to survive some of the worst violence in Mexico. In addition to political pressures, for instance, the newspaper offices in Nuevo Laredo have been bombed and machine gunned by suspected cartel members. A police reporter was shot several times and left paralized by gunmen who attacked the newsroom. One of the sons of the owner, a newspaper director, was also kidnapped. Family members now live in Laredo, on the Texas side of the border.

One powerful section of Surviving Mexico deals with the impact on individual reporters of working in areas that have become war zones, where the combatants use performative violence to terrorize the population: bodies cut into pieces and left by a public monument, or in green plastic garbage bags or hanging from bridges. “They were executed, mutilated, and dismembered,” said Ricardo Chávez Aldana, a radio reporter in Ciudad Juárez who estimates he covered up to 3,000 murders during the city’s most violent years before seeking and being granted asylum in the United States.

Throughout this violence, reporters in many cases were largely left to their own devices. To survive, they formed regional groups for mutual support and to share best practices. They have also reached out to international journalism organizations to pressure the government to provide protection for journalists and even to investigate cases that the Mexican government has failed to do. But in peripheral Mexico, survival continues to be a difficult and dangerous enterprise.

Fall 2021Volume XXI, Number 1

Jose de Cordoba is the correspondent for The Wall Street Journal in Mexico City. He is a 1997 recipient of the Maria Moors Cabot Prize for outstanding reporting on Latin America and a former board member.

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