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Conspiracy of Silence

On violence and press repression in Mexico

Killing the Story: Journalists Risking Their Lives to Uncover the Truth in Mexico by Témoris Grecko, translated by Diane Stockwell. The New Press, 256 pages.

One night in mid-September, with this half-written essay open on my computer, I called an Uber from my home in Mexico City. It was after midnight, and I passed by another journalist’s house to pick her up before we drove into neighboring Mexico State. A friend of ours had been covering a feminist takeover of the state’s Human Rights Commission—a protest against their handling of sexual abuse and femicide cases—when police entered the building. They beat the women gathered and detained them in unmarked vehicles. They took our friend’s phone, which she had been using to livestream the aggression. The video cut off just after she yelled back at officers identifying herself as press. We imagined the worst.

Shortly before we arrived at the prosecutors’ office where they’d taken the women, we heard from someone else that our friend was okay, and when we got out of the car, there she was. The others—eleven women and a handful of children—remained detained. Their family members showed up; nine other journalists, all women, joined us; a group of black-bloc feminists arrived in support and set to breaking the office’s windows. Shortly before 3 a.m., the police retaliated. They sprayed fire extinguishers to drive us from the building’s courtyard into the parking lot, then turned off the outdoor lights. Moments later, they stormed the small crowd outside, throwing chairs and the extinguishers, chasing us with metal tubes and screaming threats.

Mexico is one of the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists—by some counts, the most dangerous non-war zone.

From across the parking lot, I saw several women climb into a car; as they attempted to accelerate away, the police smashed their back windshield. Another car packed with journalists pulled up alongside me, and I scrambled into the backseat where there were already four or five others. We drove away, some of us crying, some yelling, some frantically dialing others who’d been left behind, some in shock. I grabbed my phone and called the representative for the Committee for Protection of Journalists. We pulled over in a gas station to recoup, then jumped back in the car when we saw police cars speeding the other way.

By the morning, we’d ascertained that a handful of additional people had been taken into custody after the attack. All were released around 10 a.m., beaten and threatened; some were hospitalized. Several of the activists still have open cases against them.

We had seen the very least of the night’s brutality, itself but a sliver of the repression that the Mexican state routinely exercises against journalists, activists, and anyone who dares to challenge it. Mexico is one of the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists—by some counts, the most dangerous non-war zone. Five journalists have been killed this year alone; at least 130 have been murdered since 2000. For all its infamy, though, the logic of violence against Mexican journalists is often opaque to outsiders, and I struggle to explain it myself. It often works like a spiral. The state—by which I mean the police, the military, and paramilitary groups—or perhaps not the state, but another group of shadowy interests, understood under the heuristic of organized crime—tortures and/or disappears and/or murders someone. Activists, friends, and family members turn out to protest the violence against that someone, until the same thing happens to them. A journalist covers the new violations, and they, too, become a victim—then the activists who protest for them, the journalists who write about them, and so on.

Both a tribute to Mexico’s persecuted journalists and a lucid analysis of the twenty-first-century Mexican state, Témoris Grecko’s new book Killing the Story depicts in great detail the dynamics driving violence against journalists in Mexico. Grecko, a Mexican journalist who has reported around the world, returned home several years ago amid a surge of violence against the press. The book builds on his 2018 documentary No se mata la verdad (The truth shall not be killed), weaving together accounts of about a dozen different incidents of press repression in the country.

Murders of journalists have surged along with more generalized violence in Mexico since 2006, when the military was first deployed to fight the so-called War on Drugs. Pop culture representations of Mexico, produced both within the country and without, often reduce the mechanism of press repression to caricatures of narco cowboys or despotic politicians enraged over a scoop. But Grecko’s book troubles the conventional stereotypes of narco-trafficking and cartel violence that predominate both state narratives and foreign reporting on Mexico. The mythology of narco-trafficking “has been used to distract from other issues, including . . . the state’s attempt to depopulate land, neutralize popular resistance, and facilitate for corporations the mass appropriation of natural resources and the exploitation of labor,” he writes. Few journalists working in English have meaningfully examined these categories—Mexico-based Dawn Paley’s 2014 book Drug War Capitalism is one of the few, in English or Spanish, that tackles them head-on—but deconstructing them is key to understanding the politics of violence in Mexico.

Violence against journalists is a political tool. Regardless of the way journalists are targeted—“Some crime groups or public officials bribe journalists for favorable coverage, others use threats or violence to pressure journalists not to expose their crimes or to retaliate against journalists who report on their crimes,” Grecko writes—the reasons for doing so remain consistent. Journalists who find themselves in the crosshairs for their work often cover the kaleidoscope of issues around political corruption, organized crime, and violence, which together maintain Mexico’s status quo, in which resources are hyper-concentrated in the hands of the elite. Corruption determines how resources are distributed, and state violence represses those who challenge this order. That can look, for instance, like violently displacing inhabitants of communally owned land in order to clear the way for corporate megaprojects. But it can also look like threatening the journalists who investigate the state’s interests on that land.

Consider the case of radio journalist Carmen Aristegui, who was effectively banned from the airwaves for over three years after investigating a conflict of interest around a mansion owned by the family of then-president Enrique Peña Nieto, purchased from a real estate group that had recently won a major government contract. Or that of Armando “El Choco” Rodriguez, who was killed in Ciudad Juarez after documenting drug trafficking by the armed forces and police, torture by soldiers, and public officials’ links to organized crime. In both cases, press repression served to conceal state uses of capital and violence that, if revealed, could undermine its legitimacy.

Corruption determines how resources are distributed, and state violence represses those who challenge this order.

Along with the stories of murdered journalists, Grecko also examines accounts of less obviously violent forms of repression, like censorship, imprisonment, or financial sabotage. And he takes care to describe how each journalist featured in Killing the Story was affected by a complex web of power, negotiated among a range of state and non-state actors. Among those actors are Mexico’s own press corps. A handful of corporate media outlets have long served as the de facto PR wing of the Mexican government. The conglomerates Televisa and TV Azteca, whose owners enjoy intimate relationships with the Mexican political elite, dominate television screens. Grecko refers to such journalists with the famous slogan “silver or lead”—that is, they accept money to reproduce the state’s narrative, or face mortal consequences. Those who take the silver, he notes, undermine the integrity of the profession itself, and a long tradition of press bribery has left much of Mexican society fundamentally distrustful of the entire news media. Historically, too, nearly all Mexican media outlets have relied heavily on government advertising as a major funding source—itself a form of stifling dissent, as that funding often comes with the implicit or explicit requirement to adhere to the state’s narrative.

Mexico’s current president Andrés Manuel López Obrador has dramatically slashed the government’s publicity budget, meaning that media outlets now rely far less on government funding than they once did. While the change has put outlets under financial stress, they’re also under less material pressure to toe the federal government’s editorial line. Like many Mexican politicians past, however, he has also seized on the history of the so-called “prensa vendida”—sell-out press—to disqualify his critics. As Grecko laments, the left that Lopez Obrador has long represented, once in power, has taken on rhetoric similar to more right-wing predecessors. Earlier this year, he insisted in a press conference that “Mexico doesn’t have independent, professional journalists.”

The comment came as an insult to the dedicated roster of independent reporters throughout Mexico. They often have to work multiple jobs or make ends meet by fixing for foreign outlets; they face death threats for a meager salary, if they receive one at all. As with most industries in the country, the figureheads of Mexican media are overrepresented in the capital. The national media depend dearly, though, on the work of independent reporters in less-covered regions—reporters like Moisés Sanchez and Pedro Canché, each of whom receive their own chapter in Killing the Story. Often, these writers are targeted not so much for what they publish, but for what they know: journalists who investigate violence on a hyper-local level may learn things that incriminate the police, politicians, or local gangs, all of which endangers them regardless of what they print. Sanchez published a hand-designed local newspaper on a folded sheet of letter paper; his newspaper covered local crime, and he knew local authorities didn’t appreciate it. In 2015, he was taken from his home in Veracruz by an armed group and later killed. Pedro Canché, who from 2014 to 2015 was imprisoned on false charges in the state of Quintana Roo, wrote his own local news blog. Grecko notes that Canché brought to the attention of national media stories from the Mayan community of Carrillo Puerto, an area that otherwise, in terms of news coverage, “would have been a black hole.” Despite the national media’s reliance on such reporters, they are easy targets by virtue of working so far from the center of power.

Because of that risk, Mexico City has long been a refuge for activists and journalists who face persecution in their homes outside the capital. The illusion of safety in the city dissolved, though, with the 2015 murder of Rubén Espinosa, to whom Grecko dedicates two chapters of the book. Espinosa was a young photojournalist in Xalapa, Veracruz, where the notoriously repressive Javier Duarte served as governor from 2010 to 2016. During that time, Veracruz became one of the most violent places in Mexico; twelve journalists in the state were killed. Against this backdrop, Espinosa covered corruption and social movements. He knew for some time that he was an “uncomfortable photographer for the state government,” as he told the news website SinEmbargo in an interview. He attracted Duarte’s rage after the magazine Proceso featured on its cover a particularly unflattering photo Espinosa had taken of the governor: the government bought up nearly every copy in the state. Even so, Espinosa continued to document repression of social movements. On one occasion, police officers followed him after a particularly violent confrontation with activists and demanded he erase his photos.

Espinosa escaped to Mexico City in the summer of 2015 after receiving threats in Veracruz. Less than two months after arriving, on July 31, he was murdered along with four other people in an apartment in the middle-class neighborhood of Narvarte.

The Narvarte 5, as they’ve come to be known, included Nadia Vera, a young human rights activist also from Veracruz. Both Espinosa and Vera knew they were targets, and both had anticipated violence against them. When I first began reporting in Mexico, these stories struck me as bone-chillingly eerie: a journalist murdered by the state for writing about someone else murdered by the state. It had a prophetic quality, a tragic form of dramatic irony. Many had foreseen their own fate, but even knowing the mechanisms, and being a conduit to inform the rest of us of those mechanisms, they could not save themselves. It’s more of a curse than a catch-22: the knowledge is what ultimately doomed them. Once they knew, they couldn’t escape.

These chains of violence appear over and over throughout the book. Regina Martínez had investigated, among other things, the military’s torture and murder of an indigenous woman, Ernestina Ascencio Rosario. She was killed in Veracruz in 2012. Javier Valdez wrote story after story about victims of violence on the part of organized crime and the state. He was shot in the street in May 2017, just weeks after his fiftieth birthday, after publishing a story about ongoing territory disputes among organized crime groups in Sinaloa.

Many had foreseen their own fate, but even knowing the mechanisms, and being a conduit to inform the rest of us of those mechanisms, they could not save themselves.

Among the cases Grecko recounts, Valdez’s shares the most with the popular image of narco violence against journalists. But he complicates what might otherwise seem like a trope with nuance and detail. Valdez was a nationally renowned and beloved reporter for his magazine Ríodoce, based in Culiacán, Sinaloa, one of the regions most affected by Mexico’s drug war. His investigative reporting on crime, corruption, and violence won him the 2011 Press Freedom Award. But despite then-president Enrique Peña Nieto’s offer of condolences to Valdez’s family’s after his death, the Mexican government responded to Valdez’s murder by bringing those close to him under surveillance. People close to Valdez—including Río Doce colleagues and his widow, Griselda Triana—became victims of cell phone spyware attacks via software contracted by the federal government. As Grecko notes, these attacks, which were later revealed in a New York Times investigation, targeted human rights activists and journalists with track records of criticizing the government. The Valdez case is not an outlier: even when a rare criminal investigation is carried out, even when someone is sentenced, it is highly unlikely in Mexico that the “intellectual author” of a crime will face consequences, or even be revealed. Regardless of who pulls the trigger, the biggest threat to journalists remains the state itself.

In the United States, people ask me often if I’m afraid of being a journalist in Mexico. The answer is a little too dark and geopolitical to make for good party small talk. Apart from the generalized violence that anyone in Mexico faces, which is not trivial, foreign journalists, particularly from the United States and Europe, tend to enjoy a degree of immunity from the physical violence that menaces Mexican journalists. (The last American journalist to be killed in Mexico was Brad Will, who was shot in 2006 while covering uprisings in the state of Oaxaca. It is not thought that he was targeted for his work.) Foreign journalists may receive threats, or massive, coordinated social media harassment from pro-government accounts, but unlike my Mexican counterparts, I haven’t yet had to worry specifically about facing violent reprisals for what I write. The diplomatic cost would be too high. But for my friends and colleagues, as in that Uber ride to Mexico State, I worry always.

For too many Mexican journalists, to report on state violence is to see a version of their own possible fate, to examine the apparatus that could easily trap them. Accordingly, Grecko ends Killing the Story by emphasizing the dedication of Mexican journalists who continue their work in the face of this danger. They will persist; they do; they are. In Javier, Rubén, Regina, Moises—in dozens of others, like Julio Valdivia, a crime reporter in Veracruz murdered in early September, or Jorge Miguel Armenta Ávalos, a newspaper publisher in Sonora killed in May, or Maria Elena Ferral Hernandez, a reporter in Veracruz killed in April—I see my colleagues, and in my colleagues I see them. They feel so close, as if at any minute they could be bumping my shoulder at a march, or sitting down with me for a beer after a press conference, or jumping in the car together and speeding away.