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Why do journalists in Mexico keep getting killed?

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 5/10/2022 Alejandra Ibarra Chaoul, Kevin Sieff
A black ribbon hangs outside the home of the late journalist Sheila Johana García Olivera during her wake May 10 in Minatitlan, Mexico. © Felix Marquez/AP A black ribbon hangs outside the home of the late journalist Sheila Johana García Olivera during her wake May 10 in Minatitlan, Mexico.

MEXICO CITY — With the shooting deaths this week of a cameraperson and a director in Veracruz state, the number of journalists killed in Mexico this year is now up to 11. That’s more than in Ukraine, where the world’s press corps is covering a war.

Mexico has long been one of the world’s most dangerous countries to be a journalist. But 2022’s killing rampage is on pace to more than triple last year’s total. The increase has left many here wondering what has changed — how to explain the epidemic of violence against reporters, editors and photographers.

Sheila Johana García Olivera and Yesenia Mollinedo Falconi of the online news outlet El Veraz were shot Monday night while sitting in a car outside a convenience store. Neither survived. Mollinedo Falconi had received threats for her journalistic work, her brother said.

A relative of Sheila Johana García Olivera shows her photo on a cellphone. © Felix Marquez/AP A relative of Sheila Johana García Olivera shows her photo on a cellphone.

A closer look at this year’s killings suggests no single reason explains the uptick. No one criminal organization or arm of the government is responsible. Instead, the deaths point to the wide range of threats that journalists here face daily — and the impunity that allows their killers to act without fear of consequence.

The slain media workers shared some characteristics that put them at risk. Many worked for small, independent, often online-only outlets — some of which published only on Facebook — leaving them without any institutional support or physical protection. Some relied on other sources of income — driving cabs, selling tacos, delivering food — to make ends meet.

Ascertaining motives behind their killings is a challenge. “There’s a very high percentage in impunity,” Alejandro Encinas Rodríguez, Mexico’s deputy interior minister responsible for human rights, said in late 2020, when only 5 percent of homicides under the administration of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador had resulted in a sentence.

Since then, 19 more journalists have been killed. The government says it has opened investigations in many of the cases, but the information is often sparse and sometimes not shared with colleagues or family members. Some continue only because of pressure from family members and advocates.

Mexico offers bodyguards and bulletproof vests to vulnerable journalists. It hasn’t been enough.

But the information that does exist — what journalists were covering before their deaths and the threats they faced — offers some clues.

There was Alfonso Margarito Martínez Esquivel, 49, the freelance crime photographer and fixer in Tijuana, who worked for Mexican and international news outlets. He was shot and killed outside his home on Jan. 17. Martínez Esquivel had repeatedly received threats.

In December, he was falsely accused of running a Facebook page that published information on criminal organizations. He sought protection from state and federal authorities, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Within weeks, he was ambushed and shot in plain daylight in his car in front of his house. Police initially claimed the murder was a result of a drunken brawl between neighbors, but investigators eventually found his killing had been ordered by a local cartel leader who thought his work damaged his organization’s reputation. He allegedly paid hit men $2,000 for the journalist’s life.

Journalists and family members protest the killing of journalists at the Angel of Independence monument in Mexico City on Monday. © Alfredo Estrella/AFP/Getty Images Journalists and family members protest the killing of journalists at the Angel of Independence monument in Mexico City on Monday.

María Guadalupe Lourdes Maldonado López, 67, also worked in Tijuana. While she covered politics and daily news for her online radio show “Brebaje,” she was known mostly for her confrontational interview style. In 2019, Maldonado López showed up at López Obrador’s daily news conference to ask his help in her six-year wrongful termination lawsuit against Primer Sistema de Noticias, a news outlet owned by Baja California’s former governor, Jaime Bonilla Valdez. She said she feared for her life.

She was placed under a state protection program that consisted of police officers driving by her house two to three times a day. By January 2022, the court hearing her suit determined she was owed $25,000. When payment didn’t come, the court appointed her as the legal representative of the company. In a video published on YouTube, she said she would expose the company’s lack of compliance with labor law.

A few weeks later, on Jan. 23, she was shot in front of her house. Bonilla has denied involvement in her death.

Another Mexican journalist is killed, and Lopez Obrador attacks the media

Armando Linares López, founder of the Michoacán Monitor, was shot to death at home in front of his family on March 15. ​​Linares was killed less than two months after his colleague, Roberto Toledo Barrera, was gunned down.

Before his death, Linares said he and Toledo had received death threats from members of organized crime groups, who demanded that they stop publishing reports alleging corruption by municipal and state officials.

A presidential spokesman later tweeted that Toledo worked as “an assistant in a law firm, not as a journalist.” At least one article under Toledo’s byline remains on the Monitor’s cached website.

Other cases illustrate the blurry lines between journalism and government — and the reality that some reporters also work as press liaisons for politicians. Many journalists say they have no other option. The average media salary here is $200 to $300 dollars per month, according to the National Employment and Occupation Survey.

The war next door: Conflict in Mexico is displacing thousands

Jorge Camero Zazueta, 28, worked as the personal secretary for the mayor of Empalme, Sonora, while maintaining El Informativo, a Facebook news page focusing on security issues. He was killed Feb. 24. Authorities said it was unrelated to his work as a journalist.

A few weeks before his death, Camero resigned from the mayor’s office when it emerged he was being investigated for cartel links.

Juan Carlos Muñiz was shot to death March 4 in Fresnillo, Zacatecas. In addition to his work for the digital outlet Testigo Minero, he drove the taxi in which he was killed. Fresnillo is one of the most violent cities in Mexico.

Testigo Minero put out a statement: “The authorities are required to carry out an exhaustive investigation in order to clarify the motive for this reprehensible homicide and find those responsible.”

Security forces speak with people near the site in Cosoleacaque where Sheila Johana García Olivera and Yesenia Mollinedo Falconi were killed. © Angel Hernandez/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock Security forces speak with people near the site in Cosoleacaque where Sheila Johana García Olivera and Yesenia Mollinedo Falconi were killed.

After a journalist is killed, their colleagues have to reckon with the question of whether to continue publishing. For the Michoacán Monitor, the death of a journalist meant the death of the publication. In other cases, reporters and editors band together to continue the work of the deceased.

In Tijuana, one of Martínez Esquivel’s proteges is now doing the work he once did — photographing crime in the city after dark. His name is Arturo Rosales.

Rosales, too, has faced threats. He has wondered whether his fate might one day by the same as his mentor’s.

“But I’m not going to stop doing this,” he said. “This is important work.”

Gabriela Martinez in Mexico City contributed to this report.

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