Thirty-four journalists murdered in Mexico during drug war

WASHINGTON — Thirty-four journalists have been killed in Mexico since former President Felipe Calderon declared an all-out war on drugs in late 2006.  

Already in 2019, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, radio reporter Santiago Barosso was shot to death at his home in Sonora on March 15. Journalist Hiram Moreno was shot in the back, but survived on March 20 in Oaxaca.

Mexico recorded its highest homicide rates in modern history the last two years, with 29,168 in 2017 and 33,341 in 2018. 

The accelerated murder rate is attributed by some experts to Mexican government policies that focus on capturing high-value drug cartel targets, like Joaquin Guzman, whose recent trial and conviction in Brooklyn offered a real-life example of the failures of the strategy.

 “We’ve seen Mexico successfully go after the heads of cartels,” said David Shirk of the think tank Wilson Center’s Mexico Institute. But the power vacuum leads to conflicts within criminal organizations and gave rise to violence from smaller cartels.

“Lower level gangs are able to operate without any shock collars that are telling them not to engage in violence,” Shirk said. “When there’s no dominant criminal organization in place, lower level criminals can do whatever they want.”

Reporters Without Borders, a press freedom advocacy group, ranks Mexico 147 out of 180 on their World Press Freedom Index.

“When journalists cover subjects linked to organized crime or political corruption (especially at the local level), they are the targets of intimidation and physical violence and are often executed in cold blood.”

In a country rife with organized crime, a journalist’s safety requires meticulous planning and vigilance. The CPJ basic preparedness manual recommends a series of measures to mitigate risks, but warns that there are no foolproof procedures.

“The alarming number of journalists murdered while covering criminal activities in high-risk nations,” the manual says, “shows that there are no easy answers about what stories to cover, how to approach them safely, or whether it is safe to approach them at all.”

When planning coverage of a region, a journalist should also devise a way to escape.

“When covering dangerous figures such as criminal or terrorist suspects,” the manual continues, “the assessment should be accompanied by a contingency plan in case the journalist or his or her sources become endangered.”

Covering organized crime in Mexico is, in a way, like other conflict assignments. Yet the terminology is frequently debated by governments and thinkers. Is the fight against organized crime really a war?

Ioan Grillo, a British journalist who has covered Mexico since 2001 grapples with this question in his book “Gangster Warlords: Drug Dollars, Killing Fields and the New Politics of Latin America.”

“Journalists writing on the bloodshed make the comparison all the time,” Grillo writes. Police and soldiers also often describe them in martial terms as they work out battle tactics to fight militias such as the Zetas. And residents of embattled communities frequently refer to war, albeit one they cannot clearly define.”

Whatever the specific terms used to describe the cartel territories, the pervasive violence shows few signs of letting up. And the rise of synthetic drugs could exacerbate the trend.

Synthetic drugs, “are destabilizing networks,” Shirk said. “People who used to grow poppies for heroin are disgruntled and could potentially engage in other criminal activities.”