Dying for the truth: Drug cartels target journalists in Mexico


The sky turns dark grey as hurricane Jova approaches the west coast of Mexico. It has been raining for a few days now and the sun is nowhere to be seen.

The stormy weather is similar to the lives of investigative journalists in Mexico: the dangers of lightning, strong winds and even of being washed away are always present. The only difference is that everyone knows that the hurricane will come and go and life will go on. Unfortunately, this is not the case for many investigative journalists.

Early last September, two female journalists were found dead in a park in Mexico City. The crime was attributed to the work of drug cartels. Ana María Yarce Viveros, the founder of the weekly magazine Contralinea, and Rocio González Trápaga, a freelance journalist, were kidnapped after leaving work on 31 August and were strangled to death later that night. Their murders brought the journalist death toll in Mexico to 80 since the year 2000.

Mexico is now considered to be the most dangerous country in the western hemisphere in which to practice journalism.

What is more, there is no sign of calm weather on the horizon. Pressed by press freedom groups Reporters Without Borders and the Committee to Protect Journalists, the Mexican government signed a protection act for journalists about a year ago but has not taken any concrete actions since then. Most of the murders remain unsolved.


“Reporters who choose to ignore the drug trafficking scene are usually safe,” explains Michael Forbes, the editor-in-chief of the Guadalajara Reporter newspaper.

For the same reason, many newspapers have also deliberately stop covering stories related to drug-related crimes.

Mexican special federal police forces are trained to fight drug cartels in Mexico
photo credit: Mike Rojas, Guadalajara Reporter archive

Two men were arrested for the murders of Ana María Yarce Viveros and Rocio González Trápaga, most likely due to the international attention given to the killings. The case prosecutor is insisting however that the women were the victims of robbery and that their murders were neither connected to their profession nor to the stories they were covering.

“In reality, only very few mainstream media journalists are actively investigating drug-related crimes,” Forbes explains. “Due to the volatile situation in Mexico, the value of a human life has gone down and journalists who dare to get too close to the traffickers or the officials who protect them can find themselves at huge risk.”

According to Stratfor Global Intelligence, there are seven major cartels operating in Mexico. The country is the biggest marijuana producer for the United States and most of the cocaine and heroin trafficking that reaches the US goes through Mexico.

About 80 percent of the drugs trafficked in Mexico end up in US markets and 80 percent of the guns used by drug cartels are brought in from the US.

“The US are protecting their borders, mostly against illegal immigration, but what they don’t understand is that the more dangerous the situation gets in Mexico, the more illegal immigrants they will have. This problem cannot be solved without American involvement,” says Benoît Hervieu of Reporters Without Borders.

When he took office in 2006, Mexico’s President Felipe Calderon declared war on the drug cartels. Up until now, the conflict has claimed the lives of about 40,000 people, who fell victims of three types of violent interactions: those between cartels, those between cartels and state authorities and those between cartels and civilians.

“There is a lot of corruption among the authorities – the police, the military - and a lot of money is involved,” Hervieu says. “Journalists may represent a threat to them because they can reveal information and this is bad for business.”

“This is where journalism and journalists come into the picture,” he adds.

Reporters Without Borders is working hard in Mexico to make conditions safer for journalists, but it is not easy: “We can only remind the authorities about the security protocol that they signed a year ago,” Hervieu says.

Many media professionals have already made the ultimate sacrifice in the pursuit of the truth.

The new target: social media and the blogosphere

The rise of social media, however, has changed the media outlook: “There are more independent bloggers commenting on drug issues and posting gruesome photos of crime scenes,” says Forbes. “This is something that the mainstream media has basically decided against in the current situation.”

Journalists Protest against rising violence during march in Mexico
photo credit: Knight Foundation, via Flickr (some rights reserved)

A worrisome consequence of this development is that drug cartels are now targeting social media users. In September the bodies of two bloggers and Twitter users were found hanging from a bridge in Nuevo Laredo. The victims had earlier published information and pictures related to drug traffic on Twitter and blogs. The message from cartel leaders was clear: “If you write about us, you will pay for it.”

A few decades ago it was rare to find critical reports in the media about the authorities and their policies. Now it is the topic of organised crime which appears to be off limits.

“The past 20 years have seen the press regain its independence and it’s now perfectly acceptable to criticise the country’s leaders and policies openly, something that was considered taboo 30 years ago,” Forbes explains. “But the mainstream media is still reluctant to go after those who protect criminals, some of whom may be very powerful. One notable and brave newspaper that did this, Zeta in Tijuana, had several senior journalists murdered. The stakes are very high,” he adds.

The Mexican government announced that it will start investigating crimes against journalists and that cases will be tried in local courts, reported newspaper El Universal at the end of October. The announcement was a quick reply to a report by the United Nations and the Organizations of American States criticising Mexico’s poor performance in dealing with crimes against the press.

At the moment publications which continue to investigate drug cartels still exist. But if the Mexican government is not able to improve journalists’ safety, how long will it take until no one is willing to write about the truth anymore?