Israel Vázquez, 31, a journalist mainly devoted to stories of human interest, spent the last hours of his life in November covering the discovery of a group of dismembered people left behind in a church in Salamanca, Mexico.
Vázquez was preparing to do a show on Facebook when two men on motorcycles passed by and shot him at point blank range. He died after receiving at least eight gunshot wounds.
“We were very sad. We still are, because he was just doing his job. The violence has increased too much, ”said Víctor Ortega, director of the El Salmantino website, where Vázquez worked.
Vázquez’s murder is still under investigation, but he was not the only journalist killed in Mexico in 2020. At least eight journalists were killed there last year, which Reporters Without Borders said makes Mexico the deadliest country for journalists, a macabre distinction the country has had for years.
The state of Guanajuato, where Salamanca is based, had at least 922 victims of extreme violence in 2020, the highest number in the country, according to Causa en Común, a nonprofit that records acts of violence in Mexico. . Celaya, another city in the state about 50 km from Salamanca, was considered the most dangerous city in the world in 2020, according to a classification by the Citizens Council for Public Safety and Criminal Justice. Last June, 20 murders were recorded there in 24 hours.
Vázquez, who held two jobs and was an avid football fan, was taken to the football field one last time as his friends and colleagues carried his coffin.
“ A threat to the entire press and to society ”
Journalist María Elena Ferral was shot and killed eight times in broad daylight in Veracruz on March 30. In the same state, Julio Valdivia was beheaded on September 9. Jorge Miguel Armenta Ávalos was shot dead on May 16. Jaime Daniel Castaño, director of a media outlet in Zacatecas, took photographs of two bodies left in the street and, shortly after, he was shot dead in December. Víctor Fernández was dismembered in Acapulco and his remains were found in April.
All of these cases are still under investigation and most of the hypotheses about the killings focus on the work of journalists to expose corruption or organized crime.
According to a report by the US State Department, 94% of crimes committed in Mexico go unreported or investigated. The civic organization Impunidad Cero estimates that nearly 9 out of 10 homicides go unpunished.
“In Mexico, we are living a crisis of generalized violence, human rights violations, disappearances, femicides, executions, and we are all victims,” said Itzia Miravete, prevention coordinator at Article 19 , an organization that defends the right to freedom of expression. “In the case of journalists, it becomes important to make it visible because when a journalist is attacked, the intention is to prevent his information from reaching me, to reach society.”
May 3 marked World Press Freedom Day, a date set by the United Nations to commemorate the Windhoek Declaration, when a group of African journalists called for media pluralism and independence in 1991.
Some journalists have to travel the world to report on conflicts and wars. But for many Mexicans, massacres and shootings are imminent, in the neighborhoods where they grew up, in the cities where they live.
“When a journalist is killed – in any region – for covering a matter of public interest, it is not only a message against the media to which he belongs, but it is a threat to the whole of the press and of society, “Pedro Vaca, Special Rapporteur for the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, Noticias Telemundo said. “Colleagues who knew the reporter was investigating a corruption case or was behind an organized crime story hear this message and will think long and hard about it before reporting these much needed stories.”
Desecration of corpses, torture, massacres, dismemberment, calcination, murder of minors, attempted lynching, femicides, mutilations, rapes and, of course, murders are daily occurrences for journalists who cover the escalation of violence in a country which, according to official data, has recorded its two darkest years in its history with 34,681 murders in 2019 and 34,552 in 2020.
Amnesty International’s annual report denounces a series of actions carried out by Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who during his morning lectures tends to attack national media such as Reforma or international media such as the New York Times or El País. Amnesty International has said that this weakens the press and fosters an “environment conducive to censorship, administrative sanctions and the misuse of the law to intimidate the press”.
“Many heads of state in the region forget that by voluntarily engaging in public debate they expose themselves to criticism and must be tolerant,” said Vaca, who is concerned about the stigmatization of journalists in countries like Mexico. “But most importantly, they are the guarantors of human rights, of freedom of expression, not just of those who applaud them but of those who criticize them.”
“Supporters of the president may view this degrading speech as permission, encouragement, to attack journalists,” Vaca said. “And if this is done in a country considered to be the deadliest for the press in the world, I think it borders on recklessness because in a way it has been shown that the maturity of public debate is not reached and leads to violence against the media. “
In February, Human Rights Watch warned in a report that more than 80 governments had used the Covid-19 pandemic to justify violations of basic rights such as freedom of expression and assembly. In April, Reporters Without Borders denounced that journalists must work under partial or total restrictions in two-thirds of the world.
Using laws to silence critics
In 2020 alone, 39 cases of legal harassment were committed against journalists in Mexico, according to a new article 19 report titled “Laws of Silence.” Between 2015 and 2019, the organization recorded 69 cases of legal actions to intimidate and hinder the work of journalists.
In July 2016, Sergio Aguayo, Mexican journalist and human rights activist, was prosecuted for moral injury by Humberto Moreira, former governor of Coahuila and former national president of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, who believes he was affected by the publication of ‘an opinion. column.
“The working hypothesis is that Moreira is suing me to inhibit or punish me for my research on violence in Coahuila state – of course, in part, during his time as governor.” , said Aguayo.
In March 2019, the journalist was acquitted of all charges, but the former governor challenged this decision. The conviction was overturned and the journalist was ordered to pay 10 million pesos (approximately $ 500,000) in moral damages in favor of Moreira.
“The laxity of judges accepting extravagant claims like Moreira’s is absurd, not because this is a moral prejudice trial – I think there should be such a mechanism,” Aguayo said. , “but because they accept such an absurdly high claim for compensatory damages.”
A 2016 decision eliminated maximum limits for sentences based on moral damages, a decision which has been widely criticized by human rights organizations and which explains the disproportionate amount demanded from Aguayo. His case has received wide media coverage and is before the Supreme Court, where a final conviction is expected in the coming months.
“ When I entered I was beaten ”
Pedro Canché, a Mayan journalist from the state of Quintana Roo, was charged with sabotage for documenting the violent eviction of residents of the town of Felipe Carrillo Puerto in 2014. Residents were protesting outside the Drinking Water Commission and state sewers.
Canché was arrested and placed in a local prison. He spent nine months in prison.
“When I entered, I was beaten,” the reporter said. “They took me to the basketball court they have there, outside the cameras, and about 20 of them beat me, with kicks, slaps and punches. “
Canché sustained injuries to his shoulder blade and lungs, and his arm was broken. He said he was still suffering from his injuries.
“I recently went to the doctor because I still have this very severe pain. I have to take pills for life because of the pain, ”the reporter said. “Sleeping is a problem because they destroyed my cervical spine, so there is no way to position my head.”
He said there was a feeling of impunity around his case; some officers were sentenced, but some were released soon after. Canché continues to be attacked by smear campaigns and false accusations about his reporting, denouncing the abuse of power in Quintana Roo.
Several projects attempt to focus on violence against the press.
“Killing Nobody” is a type of digital memorial in which 100 journalists and editors from the Reporteras en Guardia organization contribute to the demand for justice in cases registered over the past 20 years.
The Cartel Project brought together an international network of journalists to continue investigating Mexican journalists killed in their efforts to report on the country’s criminal organizations and their international relations. This includes journalist Regina Martínez, who was killed in 2012 while investigating links between politicians and criminal organizations in Veracruz state.
Keeping these cases in the spotlight so that the work of murdered journalists is not in vain is a battle many Mexican journalists say is worth fighting.
“At the end of the day, what matters to us is that what is happening in our regions is known,” Canché said. “Let not all the corruption be forgotten, all the attacks. That is why we are doing this.”
If you have information on cases of abuse against journalists in Mexico or Central America, you can send an email to email@example.com.
A version of this story was first published in Noticias Telemundo.
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