Journalist Marcela Turati and two other women who had looked into a 2011 mass disappearance in Mexico are now under federal investigation. (Photo: Mónica González Islas)

Marcela Turati on the chilling implications of Mexico’s probe into her reporting

For more than a decade, Marcela Turati has painstakingly documented disappearances and mass graves in Mexico, cementing her reputation as one of the country’s foremost investigative reporters. But even with her knowledge of human rights abuses and corruption, she was shocked to learn that she has been under investigation by Mexican federal authorities for years.

On November 23, the Fundación para la Justicia y el Estado Democrático de Derecho, a Mexico City-based legal nonprofit, revealed in the Washington Post that the Mexican federal attorney general’s office (FGR) had in 2016 opened an “organized crime” and “kidnapping” investigation into Turati, the nonprofit’s director Ana Lorena Delgadillo, and Argentine forensic anthropologist Mercedes Doretti.

The investigation into the three women was part of a broader probe into the 2011 mass disappearance of almost 200 people in San Fernando, in the northern Mexican state of Tamaulipas, which Turati reported on for Mexico City weekly Proceso. Mexican federal authorities alleged that Los Zetas, one of the country’s most notorious and violent criminal gangs, was behind the disappearances.

If being investigated wasn’t shocking enough, Turati also learned that authorities had surveilled her as part of the probe. According to the foundation, the federal attorney general’s office obtained phone and geolocation data on the women without a court order. It was able to do that because Mexican law compels mobile phone operators – in Turati’s case, Movistar – to cooperate with federal authorities in organized crime probes.

The revelation came shortly after Turati learned that she was one of at least 25 journalists in Mexico who had been selected for potential surveillance with Pegasus phone hacking technology, according to a report by investigative journalism nonprofit Forbidden Stories. NSO Group, the Israeli company that makes Pegasus and sells it to government clients, disputes the report.

FGR has not commented publicly on the case. CPJ sent a request for comment to the assistant of Raúl Tovar, the chief spokesperson for the FGR and attorney general Alejandro Gertz Manero via messaging app, but did not receive a reply.

CPJ spoke with Turati about how the discovery of the investigation has impacted her and what it means for investigative reporting in Mexico, which is, according to CPJ research, the deadliest country for journalists in the Western Hemisphere. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What was your initial response to learning you were investigated by federal authorities?

It came as a huge shock to me, because I saw my photo, my digital fingerprint, contact I had with my family, my address, everything. First I felt very angry, then I felt scared and, exposed, especially after I was told earlier this year that I was also targeted with the Pegasus spyware. If that was successful, then they have also had access to my messages, email, and photos.

I’m also angry for what this means for investigative journalism in Mexico. It’s as if they have exposed my professional secrets as a journalist. Ultimately what they did was send an analysis to the Federal Police to see how many times I met my sources. They also looked into calls I made to the lawyer of the families, that I had covered Ayotzinapa [the abduction of 43 students of a rural teachers’ college in the southern Mexican state of Guerrero in 2014, which authorities said was possibly a mass murder]. We haven’t seen a lot of the documents yet, but we’re talking about some 500 pages about my life. I’m really worried about what else may turn up.

FGR specifically labeled the investigation as one into “organized crime” and “kidnapping” in the case file —how does this ease its ability to surveil you?  

They did it to trick the system. When a person disappears in Mexico and they urgently request mobile phone data to track calls, it can take months to obtain the information. In our case they got the data in just 24 hours. They can skip the judge [by tagging an investigation as “organized crime”]. They didn’t create a separate case file about us, but they included us in a case as if we were suspects.

What does the inclusion of your name in this federal organized crime probe mean for Mexican journalists who cover human rights abuses?

This happened in 2015 and 2016, under a different government than that of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, but the investigator who requested the data is the same who handed the case file to the foundation in May [in compliance with a Mexican Supreme Court ruling, according to the Washington Post]. He still works at the attorney general’s office, and there are the others who have a copy, who signed off. They’re all still there.

There are a lot of things that go through my mind. As happened with the Pegasus spyware case, the people who did this are still working there. We haven’t been shown that the FGR has been purged. This is very serious. It can still happen; we really only found out about this case by accident. How many others are there?

Another thing is that, if a journalist can’t keep her sources secret, it’s like taking us out of the water we swim in. You take away the right of people to report abuses. I felt that this is not just something they did to me. They abuse the state apparatus; the FGR was involved, federal police, forensic investigators, and the highest officials were informed, because they received copies of the case file.

Do you have any faith that the López Obrador administration will take steps to prevent this from happening again?

I’m not sure. Alejandro Encinas, the undersecretary for Human Rights, condemned it and promised that it would be investigated, but he’s not the one with the authority to do something about this. The FGR hasn’t said anything. They can change the story. They can end impunity in this case by sanctioning the officials who were responsible if they want to. But we don’t know what’s going on.

Will this change the way you work as a reporter?

I do everything by myself, but since Pegasus I ask myself how it’s possible to defend yourself against this. Would I have to stop using smartphones and do things like they did with Watergate, leaving a ribbon on my balcony so sources know that I want to talk with them? Even if you use different phones and take courses in cybersecurity, how much can one really do? How can you do journalism without speaking with a source of the telephone, if you can’t be sure that they’re not spying on you?