Graffiti shows the likeness of murdered photojournalist Rubén Espinosa and the eyes and names of the other four victims, on the wall of Mexico City attorney general's headquarters in Mexico City, in July 2016. Deadly violence against journalists is rare in the capital, but reporters covering organized crime in the city say threats are on the rise. (AP/Marco Ugarte)

Threats draw near, damaging Mexico City’s reputation as safe haven for reporters

By Jan-Albert Hootsen/CPJ Mexico Representative on February 24, 2020 12:13 PM ET

Emir Olivares was almost too stunned to speak when, on December 6, he found two men in the bedroom of his apartment in Mexico City.

“I was in the bathroom and I heard that someone opened the door,” he said. “I saw the men going through drawers in my bedroom. When they saw me, they asked whether I was ‘Emir’. They knew my name. I told them to get out and they left.”

Later that day, still shaken from the home intrusion and now accompanied by police in his apartment, the reporter received a call from an unidentified male.

“He told me about my coverage of drug trafficking in Mexico City and asked me how much I thought my life was worth,” Olivares said. “He told me that if I wanted to pay two million pesos [approximately US$100,000] they would leave me alone.”

Olivares is no stranger to threats. As a seasoned reporter for La Jornada, one of the capital’s main newspapers, he exposed drug trafficking on the campus of Ciudad Universitaria, the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), in the south of the city. The report led to threats from alleged gang members, after which he was enrolled in a protection scheme under the Federal Mechanism for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders and Journalists.

“I don’t know who the people are who threatened me this time, but they knew everything,” Olivares said. “They knew about my previous reporting, about the threats I had received.”

Olivares is not the only reporter in recent years to have received serious threats over their coverage of drug trafficking and organized crime in the capital.

On January 16, Héctor de Mauleón, a columnist and investigative reporter for El Universal, posted a photo of a threatening note on his Twitter profile. “De Mauleón, we know where you’re hiding!” the note said. “Unhappy rat. You’ll prove that of Joan.”

The note was an apparent reference to a column De Mauleón published in El Universal on March 2, 2017, that included testimonies alleging that Joan Sebastián, a popular singer, was involved in soliciting the services of minors who were the victims of sex trafficking.

De Mauleón, who quoted from legal documents in his column, was sued for moral damages by the family of the singer, who died in 2015. A judge absolved the journalist on January 16 this year, the same day that De Mauleón received the threatening message.

“I have been receiving threats for five years. They’ve never reached my home. They just did. It won’t stay that way,” De Mauleón wrote on Twitter.

In recent years, the columnist has posted details on social media of other threats he received after publishing columns on drug trafficking, extortion, and organized crime in the capital and its surrounding municipalities.

Other journalists in the capital have been targeted too. In 2016, two men broke into the offices of Carmen Aristegui, one of Mexico’s most widely known reporters, whose outlet, Aristegui Noticias, has exposed numerous corruption scandals. The burglars, who have not yet been identified, stole a computer containing information about investigations by Aristegui’s team.

Compared with other states, Mexico City is one of the least dangerous for the press in terms of extreme violence such as abductions, torture, and deadly attacks.

Most attacks on journalists take place during the protest marches that are organized in the capital on a daily basis. Tobyanne Ledesma, who heads the Mexico City Integral Mechanism for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders and Journalists, said that reporters often face aggression from protesters and law enforcement during the marches.

“These are mostly conjunctural issues. Risks to reporters rise when there are manifestations of large groups of people,” Ledesma said. “But those aren’t incidents with the degree of violence we see in other areas of the country.”

Deadly violence among reporters is relatively rare. The last journalist to be killed for their work in the city was Rubén Espinosa. The freelance photographer was murdered in 2015 alongside human rights activist Nadia Vera and three other women in an apartment in the Narvarte neighborhood, according to CPJ research. Espinosa told reporters shortly before his death that he had fled his native state of Veracruz for fear of being killed.

Numerous reporters and editors with whom CPJ has spoken said that the threats and break-ins at homes and offices of journalists appear to be on the rise. The risk appears to increase for those who investigate drug trafficking and organized crime in the capital.

“The authorities don’t take this seriously. They don’t link threats against journalists like me to our work, but instead brush it off as though they’re regular crimes,” said Olivares. “In that sense the city is like any other state in the country.”

Authorities of Mexico City long boasted that the capital was a safe haven, with low crime and little to no presence of organized crime. Miguel Ángel Mancera, the state’s head of government between 2012 and 2018, denied drug trafficking cartels were operating in Mexico City, despite news reports suggesting evidence to the contrary. Numerous news reports have warned that at least four organized crime groups operate in the city.

Alejandro Hope, a security analyst and columnist for El Universal, admonished Mancera’s government in a 2017 column for “minimizing” the presence of organized crime in the capital. “They continue to minimize the problem by latching on to semantic discussions,” Hope wrote. “Meanwhile, there are groups sufficiently large to place the stability of the city and life, freedom and property of a large share of the population in the same city at risk.”

Analysts such as Hope have long warned that Mancera’s denial of the severity of the organized crime issue in Mexico City allowed drug trafficking groups to gain a stronger foothold, leading to an increase in their visibility and violence.

“The city is now notably more dangerous for journalists than it used to be,” said Humberto Padgett, a freelance investigative reporter who authored several books on drug trafficking, organized crime, political corruption, and violence in the city and its surrounding municipalities. He has received numerous threats and was attacked by gang members in 2017 while doing a story on drug trafficking in Ciudad Universitaria.

“Before 2013, targeted violence and threats were isolated incidents, but in recent years drug trafficking groups are far more visible and present in Mexico City,” said Padgett. “Drug trafficking is happening more out in the open, and reporters who cover crime are being watched.”

An official from the Federal Mechanism for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders and Journalists told CPJ that the institution has seen an increase in the severity of threats against reporters in Mexico City. The official asked to not be named because he is not authorized to speak publicly on the matter.

“One thing we’ve seen more in recent years are threats directed at reporters who investigate drug trafficking,” the official said. “This is due to the presence of organized crime groups in the city.”

Ledesma, from the Mexico City mechanism, said that the current city government, headed by Claudia Sheinbaum, is “committed to defending journalists.” She added, “Reporting on corruption and crime leaves journalists exposed and it’s necessary that we work on prevention.”

La Jornada reporter Olivares was pessimistic that the situation will improve soon. “Mexican authorities don’t take threats against journalists seriously. Mexico City is no different to the rest of the country,” he said.

Padgett agreed. “We constantly run into situations of risk and threats and the authorities don’t take the problem seriously,” he said. “The politics of denying the problem are still here.”

[Reporting from Mexico City]

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