Journalists Face Threat of Death Like Never Before in Mexico

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Mario Segura, a Mexican reporter, created a website for citizens to alert each other about violence and corruption. He was kidnapped and beaten. Emilio Lugo’s news site reported on crime in Acapulco that newspapers had suppressed. His home was broken into. Veronica Basurto interviewed kidnappers about holes in the justice system. Her life was threatened.

Journalism in Mexico has long come with risks. But in recent months the danger has risen to unprecedented levels. Hundreds of writers and editors are now living underground in a government-sponsored program and publishing privately. Despite such precautions, 2015 looks set to break records for the number of Mexican journalists murdered.

“The longer these hostile killings go on, the less chance that there will be anyone left to challenge the prevailing sense of impunity,” lamented Vanda Felbab-Brown, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington. “It’s one of the most tragic aspects of how hollow President Enrique Pena Nieto’s promise to focus on reducing violence has become. And the more pervasive the lack of rule of law seems, the worse it is for investors.”

For the past three years, the government has been trying to help by providing threatened journalists with guards and confidential placement in an apartment equipped with video cameras and deadbolts. The refuge program has 460 journalists and rights activists, up two thirds from last year, according to Pablo Romo, head of the program’s independent advisory council.

Mexican journalist Mario Segura during an interview about his security procedures.

Mexican journalist Mario Segura during an interview about his security procedures.

Photographer: Bloomberg

Unattended Claims

Romo says, however, that there are numerous problems with the program. Some 15 percent of claims go unattended due to lack of staff, the coordinator has changed twice in three years, and failure to appoint a director to its victim-tracking unit shows what he considers a great lack of political will. The interior ministry didn’t respond to requests for comment.

President Pena Nieto said Wednesday that he’s called on the ministry to “keep strengthening” its protection of journalists.

Lugo, the Acapulco crime reporter, no longer trusts the program. He entered in 2013 but recently got alarmed after refuge officials failed to investigate a man he recognized who followed him home. He has gone on the run again with his family, including his 8-month-old daughter, this time relying only on himself and people he trusts.

The issue of violence against journalists exploded into public consciousness again late last month when photojournalist Ruben Espinosa, activist Nadia Vera, and three other women were murdered, execution-style, in a middle-class Mexico City neighborhood. Both Espinosa and Vera had said in taped interviews that they fled death threats by officials in the state of Veracruz. Espinosa declined federal protection because he didn’t trust it; Vera said that if anything happened to her Governor Javier Duarte should be held responsible.

Most Dangerous in Hemisphere

Fourteen journalists have been killed in the Gulf state of Veracruz since Duarte, who belongs to the party of President Pena Nieto, took office in 2010, according to Article 19, a media advocacy group. That’s an outsized portion of the 88 murdered since 2000 in all of Mexico. Duarte has denied any involvement and said some local journalists are linked to criminal groups targeted by rival gangs.

The Committee to Protect Journalists counts this year at least three deaths of reporters targeted because of their jobs through early July, the most for that period since it began collecting data in 1992. Espinosa’s death is not included because it is still under investigation. The organization calls Mexico the most dangerous country for journalists in the Western hemisphere.

Segura, the writer who created the violence alert, was kidnapped in 2012 in the eastern state of Tamaulipas, where he lived. After his captors pistol-whipped his knees, bloodied his face and fed him only a slice of bread over eight days, he curtailed his reporting.

Apart from removing the citizens’ alert from his website, as the kidnappers demanded, he received pressure from other sources: Tamaulipas, an advertising client, asked him not to report negatively on the governor or his wife, which he accepted, as others from his border state have done, he said.

The press office for Tamaulipas state didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Insidious Threat

Mexican journalist Mario Segura in his apartment equipped with video cameras and deadbolts.

Mexican journalist Mario Segura in his apartment equipped with video cameras and deadbolts.

Photographer: Bloomberg

He lives in hiding with his family in a cramped apartment fitted with security cameras whose feed he can view on a computer from his bed. His panic button finally works after the government acknowledged the one it had issued didn’t have a tracking device, he says.

Apart from violence, a more insidious threat to press freedom comes from the use of government advertising to control content. Fundar, an organization that tracks monetary intimidation, says such advertising is used widely by local governments.

Forced into isolation, journalists like Segura, Lugo and Basurto struggle to decipher the myriad threats they face and to come to terms with the danger they are bringing to their families.

“Sometimes you suspect that what you’re doing is benefiting a criminal group,” said Segura, who still reports on violence in the state, although he no longer names traffickers. “Your family is in danger because of you.”

Lugo, for one, says he is not abandoning journalism. The authorities offered to buy ads on his website and to buy the site in its entirety, he said. When he declined both, it was shut down. But he is not through.

“If I quit, then they win,” he said.

(An earlier version of this story corrected Governor Duarte’s comment and that this year’s three deaths are the most over such a period since 1992.)