Journalists light candles to mark the first anniversary of the murder of Mexican journalist Miroslava Breach, in March. Crime and politics are dangerous beats for Mexico's journalists. (Reuters/Jose Luis Gonzalez)
Journalists light candles to mark the first anniversary of the murder of Mexican journalist Miroslava Breach, in March. Crime and politics are dangerous beats for Mexico's journalists. (Reuters/Jose Luis Gonzalez)

In Mexico, ‘narcopolitics’ is a deadly mix for journalists covering crime and politics

It was 3 p.m. on January 13 when Carlos Domínguez Rodríguez stopped at a traffic light in Nuevo Laredo, in the northern Mexican state of Tamaulipas. Two men approached the car of the well-known newspaper columnist, opened the driver’s door, and stabbed him more than 20 times in front of his family.

Domínguez, 77, was the first journalist killed in Mexico in 2018. CPJ has determined that at least four journalists–including Domínguez–were murdered in direct reprisal for their work there this year, and are investigating the murders of another six to determine the motive.

Although it can be difficult to determine the motive in these killings, CPJ often finds indications that organized crime and state actors may have been either directly or indirectly involved. Observers like Juan Veledíaz, a veteran crime reporter for the national newspaper El Sol de México, call this “narcopolítica,” the phenomenon of public officials, local politics, and organized crime becoming so intertwined they are no longer distinguishable.

“Narcopolitics means that the interests of public officials and organized crime overlap,” he told CPJ. “As such, it becomes an enormous risk for journalists in this country who report on crime and corruption.”

The violent effect of this overlap was clear in the July elections, when over 150 candidates were killed in what analysts such as Alejandro Hope said they believed was a mix of political conflict and organized crime attempting to insert itself into the political process. Separately, Red #RompeElMiedo, a social media campaign run by local press freedom groups, reported 52 attacks on the media during the election period.

Mexican authorities have long denied or ignored the role of state actors in violence against the press, instead placing the blame squarely on organized crime. In May last year, then president Enrique Peña Nieto hastily organized a summit to address the issue in the wake of the 2017 murder of Sinaloan reporter Javier Valdez Cárdenas. Joined by all 32 Mexican governors and the federal Security Cabinet, Peña Nieto said it “[was] the obligation of the Mexican state in its entirety to guarantee journalists can carry out their profession, especially when faced with the threat from organized crime.”

However, data compiled by press freedom organizations contradicts the official narrative that organized crime is almost exclusively to blame. Since 1992, CPJ has found that in at least 10 cases government or military officials were the suspected culprits in the murders of Mexican journalists.

Moreover, in its annual report published in March, the Mexican chapter of press freedom group Article 19 found that 48 percent of the attacks against reporters that it documented last year were committed either by or with the involvement of government officials.

Those statistics don’t tell the whole story. In Mexico, the line between public officials and organized crime is often blurry.

“In places where local public officials and organized crime have fused, their interests become intertwined and they are often both responsible for attacks against journalists who threaten their interests,” said Sara Mendiola, director of Propuesta Cívica, a Mexico City nonprofit organization that provides legal assistance to journalists and human rights defenders.

Mendiola and her organization represent the family of Miroslava Breach Velducea, a reporter killed in the northern state of Chihuahua on March 23, 2017. Breach, a correspondent for the Mexico City newspaper La Jornada, had received threats after reporting on a criminal gangs attempting to postulate electoral candidates for mayor in small municipalities in the state’s Sierra Tarahumara region. It was one of several murders CPJ has documented where narcopolitics may have been the motive.

Other cases include Leobardo Vázquez Atzín, 42, who was killed on March 21 in Gutiérrez Zamora, Veracruz–the deadliest state in Mexico for journalists. Before he was killed, Vázquez had criticized the mayor of a nearby town on Enlace Informativo Regional, a news page he had started recently on Facebook. On September 20, four suspects were arrested for their alleged involvement in a series of crimes, including the murder of Vázquez, according to reports. But, as of mid-December, authorities had not released further information on the identity of the suspects or a possible motive.

And in Acapulco, 36-year old Leslie Ann Pamela Montenegro del Real, was shot dead on February 9. Known for her eccentric persona “La Nana Pelucas,” (the Grandma in Wigs) and what colleagues described to CPJ as her “sharp tongue,” Montenegro was often critical of local politics on “El Sillón,” a satirical news show she broadcast on YouTube. One day after the murder, then Guerrero Attorney General Javier Olea said that Montenegro had provoked the anger of an unnamed government official and a criminal group, and added that the journalist had been threatened by a police officer with links to the gang. A suspect was arrested in August, according to reports. As of mid-December, Guerrero state authorities had not responded to several requests from CPJ for updates in the case.

In Domínguez’s case, police arrested a former political operative named Rodolfo Cantú on accusations of orchestrating the murder. Cantú’s nephew is former Nuevo Laredo mayor Carlos Cantúrosas Villareal, whom Domínguez had accused of controlling a network of shell companies to launder money. In a March interview with El Universal, the reporter’s son accused Cantúrosas of being involved in the murder. The latter’s whereabouts are currently unknown and CPJ was unable to find contact details for him. CPJ asked Tamaulipas state attorney general Irving Barrios Mojíca via text message whether Cantúrosas was a suspect in the case, but as of December 17 had not received a reply.

Beyond attacks over their reporting, journalists working for small, local outlets are also often at risk because of their close ties to local politics. The majority of journalists in remote areas or small municipalities make the equivalent of only a few hundred dollars per month, with little to no benefits, according to dozens of conversations CPJ has had in recent months with reporters across the country. To add to their income, reporters often work as spokespeople or communication officials for local governments, which can make it hard at times for CPJ to determine whether an attack was in relation to a victim’s journalism or political ties.

CPJ continues to closely monitor the progress of investigations into these cases. And, while the exact motive often remains unclear, “narcopolítica” cannot be ruled out.

[Reporting from Mexico City, Tuxtla Gutiérrez and Ciudad Victoria.]

Editor’s Note: The second paragraph has been corrected to reflect the number of cases in 2018 that CPJ is investigating to determine if the journalist was killed for their work.