At the end of January 2019, US President Donald Trump asserted that violence in Mexico is worse than in Afghanistan.
On Twitter he said that homicide cases in Mexico increased by 33% in 2018 compared to the previous year, reaching a total of 33,341. “This is a big contributor to the humanitarian crises taking place on our southern border then spreading throughout our country worse even than Afghanistan. Much caused by drugs. Wall is being built”.
The hard facts appear to back up Trump’s declarations.
According to national and international organisations, between January and September 2018, Mexico registered nearly 90% more violent civilian deaths than Afghanistan.
The conflict in Afghanistan claimed 3,804 civilian lives in 2018 according to a report by the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA).
Added to this is the high number of disappeared people, a total of 40,180 according to Roberto Cabrera Alfaro, the former National Commissioner of the Search for the Disappeared.
For her part, Dr. Carolina Robledo, co-ordinator of a research group in Social and Forensic Anthropology, Mexico is facing multiple kinds of violence, not always related to organised crime. She talks of a crisis in human rights and the rule of law.
“The context is one of grave human rights violations in which the public forces of law and order, from the municipal up to state level, have enforced security by means of abuses and the use of violence as a way of controlling territories and populations, but also as a way of doing business and benefitting private interests thanks to this illegitimate use of force.”
Robledo says that Mexico suffers from institutional, economic, hereditary, and gender violence.
It also exists in the realm of information: “there is a deliberate system that aims to hide the truth and crimes, to erase the evidence.”
What is the role of the media in this context of multiple violence? Can the media contribute to creating an atmosphere of peace, can they contribute to the fight against crime and violence? In order to find answers to these questions, I consulted twenty experts, including lawyers, academics, activists, journalists and human rights defenders.
In the specific case of forced disappearances and hidden mass graves, the media have played a very important role by making the problem visible and forcing it onto the public agenda. The victims’ relatives, like Mirna Nereyda Medina Quiñones, who heads the Rastreadoras de El Fuerte organisation – a group of mothers searching for their disappeared children in the state of Sinaloa, says that the support of the media has been fundamental in their efforts to find the truth and justice: “they have helped by spreading the word and speaking out with us.”
Nereyda founded the Rastreadoras following the disappearance of her son Roberto Corrales Medina. He was abducted on July 14, 2014, and his remains were found in a hidden grave three years later. She says that the media push groups like hers to make contact with the authorities and institutions and to document the replies they get from them, which can then be used as case histories that can be consulted when necessary.
Cristina Avila Cesati, founder of Corresponsales de Paz, stresses the importance of ethical journalism, as sometimes journalists can hinder investigations, lead to people being made victims of a second time, distort information or publish it without permission.
Another way in which the media have helped the fight against crime and violence is through the collection of testimonies, images, recordings, interviews, and news items that have been used to solve cases and bring the perpetrators to justice. This is the view of María del Carmen Alanis, a former magistrate in the Tribunal Electoral del Poder Judicial de la Federación, who has used this kind of evidence in cases of political gender violence.
Several of the journalists consulted affirm that the press is neither the police nor the Public Prosecutor in the pursuit of violence and crime. They do however agree that by following up on previous cases so that cases do not disappear with impunity, as well as insisting the authorities should be transparent, and offer access to information and rapid, expeditious and efficient justice, the media are contributing in a way that demonstrates the ethical dimension of their profession.
Adela Navarro, editor-in-chief of the weekly Zeta magazine in the border city of Tijuana in Baja California, says the role of the media is to make public the information the government is hiding: “our journalism is one of analysis, investigation, challenge: we try to tell people who are the ones harming us as a society.”
“Our commitment must be to publish information and contribute to the maturity of a well-informed society so that when the moment comes to take decisions, people consider these positions. I believe that in this way we can be part of this society that is demanding changes, demanding the authorities respond as they should, that they investigate and work hard so that we can overcome the lack of security and violence we have been experiencing in recent years.”
Yet this kind of work has consequences, and it has not been easy for Zeta. In the 38 years since its foundation, three of its journalists have been murdered, and one, its founder Jesús Blancornelas survived a 1997 attack when he was hit by four bullets, although his driver and bodyguard was not so lucky.
With a total of 144 journalists killed since the year 2000, Mexico is the most dangerous country in the Americas for the profession. Ana Cristina Ruelas, regional director of Article 19 for Mexico and Central America, states that Mexico is a “country not openly at war where journalism constantly has to confront attacks, murders, disappearances, being shot at.”
Despite this, there are attempts to practise a journalism of investigation, accusation, a journalism of hope and of finding solutions. The media in Mexico have found ways to protect themselves when exercising the profession, sometimes openly choosing “silent zones” – in other words, self-censorship to protect their security and lives.
Some media outlets have decided to sign their work collectively: news reports bear the name of the editorial team, thus helping keep the spotlight and the danger of individuals. Networks have also been created to carry out collaborative investigations in order to create resistance and conquer fear.
The editorial decision has also been taken not to show the messages left by organise crime on mutilated bodies, or on what in Mexico are known as “narco mantas” (narco blankets) hung from bridges, often alongside lifeless bodies.
However, narco-traffickers have found a way to get their message out. Organised crime has taken over media outlets, they publish their own communiqués, send messages and videos on Whatsapp groups. “Social media have become the high-speed, low-risk channel for organised crime,” explains the journalist Urbano Barrera, who has been covering security issues for twenty-five years.
Barrera says that organised crime had infiltrated many different spheres of power: legal experts, the police, in all sorts of institutions, and as soon as a journalist starts to investigate, he or she is immediately identified. “National media can hide to some extent, we can camouflage ourselves in urban centres. But in the provinces, where all our colleagues are clearly identified, where their home addresses and their families are known, they are not able to publish.”
And yet according to the experts consulted, it is by publishing information, creating spaces to clarify the truth regarding grave human rights violations, journalism that involves in-depth investigation, contextual analysis, establishing reliable databases, setting the agenda for public debate and writing the first drafts of history that is one of the main functions of the media, especially in the context of violence in Mexico.
“There are intelligent, conciliatory and responsible ways in which perhaps we can avoid creating more confrontation,” says Marcela Turati, founder of the Red de Periodistas de a Pie and of the Quinto Elemento Lab, a project aimed at encouraging investigative journalism.
“Among the things the media can do and can be held responsible for is for their information to provide a context, for it to explain to people what is happening and why, insofar as that is possible, because when there’s violence everything becomes enveloped in fog.”
Turati also stresses the importance of showing the logic behind the violence, and not only publishing horror stories but trying to find patterns to it, insights that can help people. Something else that can be done, she says, is to publish stories that hold up a mirror to similar experiences taking place in other cities, other states, other countries.
“Our investigations should be about what is possible, what we can aspire to in order not to fall into despair, so that not everything we see on the news is horrible and paralyses people. Instead, it should help them reflect on possible ways to intervene, and for people to demand from the government a change of strategy or for them to be able to make informed choices.”
For his part, Sergio Aguayo, a professor at the Colegio de México, a columnist and defender of human rights and democracy agrees on the need to contain the perpetrators of violence by explaining them. He says that by understanding their logic we can give information to those formulating public policies or to the families searching for their lost loved ones. It is also important, in his view, to empower those who are not violent by giving them information.
Aguayo believes that there are stories that need to be told but which are not at the moment sufficiently reflected in the media. “A deficit that exists in the media is that we haven’t said enough about the different peace processes”.
He adds that there should be more reporting of concrete experiences, of what is already happening.
“In my experience, Mexican society has not stood by and done nothing. It’s not passive, it’s done what it could to defend itself, sometimes successfully and sometimes not. It’s paid a huge cost in lives, and those are the stories we should also be telling.”
This article was republished by the JOURNALISM IN THE AMERICAS Blog run by the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas at the University of Texas and Austin.
Main photo: Journalists Protest against rising violence during march in Mexico – John S. and James L. Knight Foundation (Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0)