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Press FreedomMexico

The lawlessness behind Mexico's journalist murders

Sandra Weiss
February 9, 2022

A spate of journalist murders shows that Mexico isn’t just failing to protect its reporters but that lawlessness is a systemic problem and a legacy of the failed "war against drugs," experts warn.

Cars with shattered glass and police cordon
Photojournalist Margarito Martinez was shot dead outside his home in TijuanaImage: JORGE DUENES/REUTERS

For months, Roberto Toledo had been receiving death threats. As a result, he was placed in a federal program to protect journalists and human rights defenders, according to news portal Monitor Michoacan, for which Toledo reported on corruption. But on Monday this week, he was shot dead on his way to an interview.

It wasn't the first killing of a journalist in Mexico this year. On January 10, Jose Luis Gamboa Arenas, the founder of a regional news blog from Veracruz, was murdered.

Exactly one week later, photojournalist Margarito Martinez, who like Arenas had applied for state protection, was fatally shot outside his home in the border city of Tijuana. His colleague, Lourdes Maldonado dedicated an entire radio and television segment to him. Five days later, she too was found shot dead inside her car — despite being enrolled in a federal protection program.

Before February had even begun, Mexico's toll of slain journalists in 2022 stood at four.

A double failure

Two years ago, journalist Lourdes Maldonado is reported to have personally told Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador that she feared for her life. For years, the press rights group, Reporters Without Borders, has called Mexico the most dangerous country in the world for journalists.

Graph showing the number of journalists murder in Mexico over the years

Mexico isn't just failing to protect its journalists, but also in prosecuting the crimes. According to Mexico's Interior Undersecretary, Alejandro Encinas, more than 90% of the murders of journalists and human rights activists remain unresolved. That has emboldened perpetrators.

It's not a new situation. According to experts, widespread impunity has been a systemic problem in Mexico for many decades, affecting everyone.

Mexico has a serious rule of law problem. It's a fact that has been recorded year after year by the World Justice Project (WJP). In 2021, Mexico ranked 113 out of 139 countries in the WJP's Rule of Law Index; within Latin America, it currently polls 27 out of 32 nations. Only Honduras, Bolivia, authoritarian-ruled Nicaragua, Venezuela, and Haiti, which some consider a failed state, are worse off than Mexico in the region.

Reforms watered down

Many experts have conducted studies on Mexico's pervasive problems with lawlessness and corruption. There have been repeated attempts to carry out reforms and overhaul the criminal justice system. In 2008, for example, lawmakers approved a reform for the introduction of oral trials. It was meant to shorten and make more transparent the purely written procedure that dates back to the Spanish colonial era.

A man with a coffin
Journalist Lourdes Maldonado was shot in her carImage: Marco Ugarte/AP/picture alliance

The National Anti-Corruption System, passed in 2018 following pressure from civil society in Congress, was intended to bring greater transparency, accountability, and participation to the judiciary. Both reforms were delayed and watered down by excessive red tape and wrangling between the central government and the states about who would be responsible.

Other plans — such as the establishment of an independent attorney general's office — were torpedoed directly by the president. In 2019, President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador went against civil rights groups to push for his old confidant, Alejandro Gertz Manero to be appointed to head the top prosecutor's office.

Photos of journalists murdered in Mexico
Demonstrations have been held in Mexico to protest the latest killings of journalistsImage: Daniel Cardenas/AA/picture alliance

At the time, Adriana Greaves of the lawyers' group Tojil, that fights corruption and impunity, criticized that Manero's appointment was light years away from autonomous governance: "Instead, he (Manero) uses his office for political persecution and plays the president's watchdog," she said.

A lack of training

Ximena Ugarte of the Mexican Institute for Human Rights and Democracy told DW that individual reforms, though well-intentioned, cannot correct the faults in the system.

Ugarte pointed to two principal flaws in law enforcement: "The local prosecutors' offices, where most murder cases get stuck, are not trained for highly specialized organized crime investigations," she said. "That's why they investigate each murder as an individual case and don't see larger connections, networks or patterns behind it."

Ugarte said the approach leads to a dead end, fuels impunity and creates a "climate of fear" among journalists and the public.

Mafia infiltration of justice system

Mexico lacks the political will to reform the process, according to human rights expert Michael Chamberlin. "The prosecutor's offices are infiltrated by criminal networks, as are many municipal and state governments," he said, adding that it explains the lack of appetite to modernize.

Chamberlin also said the investigations into individual cases were often badly managed. Although individual perpetrators end up in prison — often after confessions forced by torture, as human rights organizations and the UN have denounced — the actual mafia structures behind them go unchallenged.

Chamberlin said the current government had actually reversed some progress.

Another problem, he adds, is the influence of the military, which has grown steadily since the drug war began in 2006.

Police officers standing
Since expanding its 'war against drugs' in 2003, the Mexican military has taken on ever more responsibilities in the country Image: Guillermo Moreno/REUTERS

"If you take the biggest massacres of the past 30 years in Mexico, from Acteal to Ayotzinapa, investigations were always stopped when the armed forces were targeted," the former advisor on the protection scheme for journalists and activists, said. "This is all the more worrying because today the military has taken on a great many civilian functions beyond security."

Chamberlin was alluding to President Lopez Obrador's decision to entrust the military with the construction of airports, train linesand banks as well as gas distribution and reforestation.

Both experts believe it is unlikely that Mexico's entrenched problems can be solved with internal reforms. "We have been arguing unsuccessfully for years for an international commission against impunity, as existed in UN-led Guatemala, or some other independent mechanism under a transitional justice system," Ugarte said.

Chamberlin, however, said he hoped that combined pressure from civil society and key partners like the US might yet make a difference.

This article has been translated from German.

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