A daring journalist who has spent her career reporting on drug cartels and corruption in Mexico, Anabel Hernandez is the fifth person — and first woman — to receive the Deutsche Welle Freedom of Speech Award.
Mexican investigative journalist and author Anabel Hernandez will be awarded the 2019 DW Freedom of Speech Award.
"With gratitude and hope I accept the award on behalf of all the brave journalists who are doing their job every day," Hernandez said.
For the fifth consecutive year, Germany’s international broadcaster is awarding the prize, which was created to honor a person or initiative for the outstanding promotion of human rights and freedom of expression.
"Anabel Hernandez investigates thoroughly and always very close to the story. She follows cases of corruption, collecting legal evidence for years. Her fight against hush-ups and impunity is an impressive example of courageous journalism," DW Director General Peter Limbourg said in Mexico City on Tuesday, February 19.
She will be presented with the award at a ceremony during the Global Media Forum in Bonn, Germany, on May 27, 2019.
Drugs, corruption and murder
Born in Mexico, Anabel Hernandez began her career in journalism in 1993, working for the newspaper Reforma while still a student in university. In the decades that followed, Hernandez has made a name for herself as one of Mexico’s leading investigative journalists, publishing stories of government corruption, sexual exploitation and drug trafficking.
That groundbreaking reporting, which includes two books investigating the interconnections between Mexican government officials at all levels and the leading drug cartels in the country, has come with a price. Hernandez currently lives in exile, having fled Mexico after credible death threats directed at her and her children.
"During this dramatic period in Mexico’s history, silence is killing men, women and children, ordinary members of civil society, it is killing human rights defenders, it is killing government officials, and it is killing journalists," she said when accepting the Golden Pen of Freedom Award in 2012.
"But breaking the silence can also be deadly," she added.
Hernandez has intimate knowledge of the dangers that citizens in Mexico face as a result of the country’s criminality. Her father, who initially discouraged her ambitions of becoming a journalist, was murdered in Mexico City in 2000. His killing remains unsolved as her family refused to pay the officials who were tasked with the investigation. Hernandez said that his murder is what drives her work.
Hernández's reporting on then-President Vicente Fox's expenditures, known as Toallagate, brought her accolades — and threats
The journalist broke her first major investigative piece in 2001 looking into extravagant expenditures under then-President Vicente Fox. For her work, she was awarded the 2002 Mexico National Journalism Award. Shortly thereafter, Milenio, the newspaper she worked for, froze her publications in a move that has become increasingly common in Mexico as media outlets self-censor as a means of protecting themselves.
Despite the freeze, Hernandez continued her investigations, connecting with sources on the street to learn of crimes that were otherwise going unreported. In 2003, she was recognized by UNICEF for her reporting on slave labor and the sexual exploitation of Mexican girls in San Diego, California.
Mexico's war on drugs
After five years of research, Hernandez published the book Los Senores del Narco in 2010 (released in English in 2013 under the title, Narcoland: The Mexican Drug Lords And Their Godfathers). The book thoroughly explores those behind the drug cartels. It shows how utterly interwoven the "narco system" is into the fabric of everyday life in Mexico and the complicity of politicians, the military and businessmen in the drug trade.
"Between them all, they have turned Mexico into a graveyard," she wrote.
The detailed accounting of corruption was a best-seller upon its release in Mexico. It also earned Hernandez numerous death threats. She was later assigned bodyguards for around-the-clock protection.
"After I published Los Senores del Narco in Spanish — now Narcoland in English — I received death threats. Last June, someone left decapitated animals in front of my house," Hernandez told The Nation magazine in October 2013. "It’s sad to say, but I didn’t receive the threats from the drug cartels. I received the threats from the federal government, from the most powerful chief of police in Mexico."
When 43 students disappeared
Using her sources in the drug trade, Hernandez went on to research the disappearance and presumed murder of 43 students from a teacher-training school in the city of Iguala. The resulting book, La verdadera noche de Iguala, was released in Spanish in 2016 (A Massacre in Mexico: The True Story Behind the Missing Forty-Three Students came out in English in 2018).
Hernandez provides a forensic accounting of a mass murder by piecing together witness accounts and contrasting them with official reports of the night the students went missing after commandeering two buses to attend a protest in Mexico City. The buses they took, she revealed, contained two million dollars' worth of stashed heroin. In her reporting, she linked the murders to corrupt public and police officials, members of the Mexican military and the drug gangs.
This investigation, however, had her on the receiving end of even more threats. Hernandez left Mexico for the US, where she was twice named a fellow in the Investigative Reporting Program at the University of California, Berkeley in 2014-2015 and 2015-2016.
"I received threats immediately," she told NPR in October 2018. "I have to say that the wife of one of the persons disappeared. In the middle of my investigation, one of my sources was murdered in the streets. But I think that this is my job. And I'm convinced that if I put some light in this darkness, it's more important than my own safety."
She has since left the US and is living in exile.
The disappeared students had commandeered busses to travel to a demonstration commemorating the 1968 Tlatelolco massacre
DW Freedom of Speech Award
Since 2015, DW has been honoring individuals and organizations with the Freedom of Speech Award. The first laureate was Saudi blogger Raif Badawi, who remains behind bars in Jeddah.
In 2016, Sedat Ergin, former editor-in-chief of Turkish newspaper Hürriyet received the award. The following year, DW honored the White House Correspondents’ Association from Washington DC and in 2018, Iranian political scientist Sadegh Zibakalam.