Unlike Iraq, there is no war in Mexico. At least officially. Despite that, the country is one of the most dangerous to work in as a journalist in the world, second only to Iraq.
A recent report by Reporters Without Borders showed that last year nine journalists were murdered and three were abducted. Local organisations say that the situation is getting worse and that Mexico’s culture of impunity means that those responsible are not brought to justice.
Nearly half of the threats against journalists are physical, says Alexandra Jimenez, information coordinator for Fundacion Manuel Buendia, an organisation founded in memory of a murdered journalist. ‘There are other forms of intimidation such as emails, anonymous phone calls and disappearances. All these have increased since last year and the number of murders in 2006 was a record in our history,’she says.
The main source of the violence and intimidation is organised crime and Mexico’s enormous narco-traffic network, she says. It’s not an official war, but Mexico has been battling with its drug-trafficking problem and its related crime for decades.
Lydia Cacho Ribeiro, a Mexican journalist living in Cancun, has first-hand experience of how heavy-handed the Mexican authorities and powers that be can be with journalists who threaten their interests. After publishing a book that documented a child prostitution ring in Cancun and implicated a number of government officials, politicians, businessmen and drug traffickers, she was arrested, driven to a beachfront pier and told to jump. Her network of connections sprung into action and a phone call to the authorities saved her life. But that wasn’t the end of her ordeal.
‘I was taken to jail and tortured, and I’ve received many death threats,’says Cacho Ribeiro. ‘After more than a year I was finally released from the charges and the threat of going to jail.”
Cacho Ribeiro, who has been recognised by Amnesty International USA for her achievements as a defender of the human rights of women, is the first woman in Mexico to file a federal suit against a governor, district attorney and a judge for corruption and attempted rape in prison.
It isn’t only Mexican journalists who are at risk. Brad Will, a journalist for Indymedia in New York, was shot and killed in October 2006 while covering a strike in the state of Oaxaca, and three young foreign journalists were detained and exposed to violent and sexual abuse in San Salvador Atenco in May 2006. According to Jimenez, several North American journalists were recalled by their newspaper after receiving threats from narco-traffickers in northern Mexico.
The Mexican government set up a special court and prosecutor’s office last year to investigate physical attacks on journalists. Jimenez says the organ is limited because it cannot investigate cases linked to organised crime, and cannot establish strong local investigations. Cacho Ribeiro puts it more bluntly: ‘The special district attorney appointed by the government to protect journalists is a joke. Things will get a lot worse before they get any better.”