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Why Mexican Journalists Keep Getting Killed — And It’s Not Just Narcos

Three journalists were killed in the first three weeks of 2022, sparking nationwide protests. But not only narcotraffickers are to blame: The state, corrupt private companies, and even media companies themselves hold responsibility for leaving journalists vulnerable on the frontline.

photo of a vigil of two women holding candles and photo of slain journalist Lourdes Maldonado

A vigil Wednesday in Tijuana after the murder of journalist Lourdes Maldonado and photojournalist Margarito Esquivel,

Raquel Natalicchio/ZUMA
Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

The photograph of a cinnamon-colored pitbull waiting in front of a house cordoned off by the police has spread around Latin America. The dog, named “Chato,” was the companion of Lourdes Maldonado, the Mexican journalist shot dead Sunday in front of her house in Tijuana.

Maldonado’s murder came just days after the killing of photojournalist Margarito Martínez, spurring demonstrations this week across 62 cities in Mexico, as the brazen targeting of journalists in the country is in back the spotlight several years after narcotraffickers stepped up their campaign to eliminate those reporting on their activities.

And yet the latest spurt of killings, and Maldonado’s in particular, has highlighted the reality that many of the journalists killed were focusing their attention on other investigations, including government wrongdoing.

Workplace dispute

Maldonado had a legal dispute for nine years over alleged unjustified dismissal and unpaid wages by the communication company, owned by the former governor of the Mexican state of Baja California. The media owner Jaime Bonilla comes from the same party as Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador.

Five days before her murder, Maldonado announced that she had won a 2013 lawsuit against her employer, ordered to pay her 568,000 pesos ($28,000). She had been under a government program meant to protect journalists facing threats, which once again failed to avoid a targeted assassination.

Political power has also been the perpetrator of many crimes.

Alex Castro, the co-founder of the Quintana Roo network of journalists who helped organize this week’s protests, says the government continues to emphasize the narrative that narco criminal bands are always to blame for the killing of journalists.

Yet he believes the murder of Lourdes Maldonado is a chilling example of how the state not only fails to defend the safety of journalists, but it is also part of the problem. “Political power has also been the perpetrator of many crimes,” Castro said. “There are alliances between politicians and organized crime.”

Castro believes the precarious conditions of journalists puts them at risk of violence and denies them a decent livelihood. “What happened to Maldonado is very revealing because, when she said that she feared for her life it was about a work issue,” he said.

Demonizing the victims

Maldonado is the third journalist murdered in Mexico in just the first three weeks of 2022. Mexico remains the deadliest country to be a journalist, with 148 journalists murdered since 2000, according to Artículo 19, a journalists' protection organization.

Lilia Balam, an independent investigative journalist specializing in human rights, gender and environmentalism, was physically attacked by a former university official while interviewing him, and was not supported by her boss. “If even your work team does not give you guarantees of anything, then you are left alone, especially with the unworthy salaries that we have, not everyone can afford to pay a lawyer.“

Artículo 19 says that in the Yucatan region the main threat to the media is municipal governments. Attacks, physical aggression, threats, bullying and harassment have been recorded. There is also a more widespread problem throughout Mexico of the government regularly demonizing journalistic work to protect its interests.

photo of journalist wearing Prensa vest

Three journalists killed in the first three weeks of the year.

Raquel Natalicchio/ZUMA

A broken justice system 

Astrid Arellano, an environmental journalist from Sonora, winner of the National Prize of Journalism says the murder of a journalist is not the ultimate goal in itself, but rather to silence others in the future. “It is terrible to live in fear that the list of murdered colleagues will continue to grow. It could be any of our friends, it could be me,” says Arellano. “But the most terrible thing is that this seems to make no noise in the federal government or in the state institutions that should protect us.“

There’s a sense of impunity among those who might decide to target a journalist.

She says the Interior Ministry office dedicated to protecting journalists and human rights workers has major gaps and inefficiencies that share some of the blame for the rising death count. President López Obrador said that the protection mechanisms were being reviewed and that“agreements would be sought with state governments to better protect journalists and activists.

Arellano says that increasingly there’s a sense of impunity among those who might decide to target a journalist looking into their affairs — which means that the very job description of being a journalist in Mexico means: “enduring attacks, intimidation, feeling vulnerable in spaces that you considered safe.” Even in your own home.

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