On February 16, journalist Reynaldo López was shot and killed in the northern Mexican state of Sonora. He is reportedly the third journalist to be killed in the country this year and the fifth since Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador, commonly known as AMLO, came into power on December 1, 2018. In an environment of increasing national militarization and with local prosecution offices quickly disregarding journalists’ line of work as a legitimate motive spurring the attacks, human rights groups are decrying the government as failing to guarantee freedom of speech in the country.
The journalist López was allegedly heading to cover an event in the city of Hermosillo with former Televisa reporter Carlos Cota when a group of unknown men began shooting at their vehicle. López died at the scene, while Cota was taken to the hospital after being shot over 14 times. He is currently in a delicate state. According to preliminary reports, authorities found 35 spent bullet casings at the Hermosillo shootout.
By Monday February 18, Sonora’s attorney general had ruled out that the attack on the two victims was connected to their line of work and said that investigators believed it was related to illegal activities of someone close to the journalists. These type of statements are, according to civil rights organizations, a systematic behavior among local prosecutors.
“In the first hours after an attack, district attorneys discard the link between the victims’ profession as journalists and the aggression,” said Itzia Miravete from the NGO Article 19.
“It worries us, because in the first hours after an attack, doing a full investigation on a case is impossible,” the lawyer told Latino Rebels on a phone interview.
Neither Article 19 nor other organizations advocating free speech, such as the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), have released a public statement regarding the attack on López and Cota. But this is allegedly because, in the case of Article 19, they have not been able to collect enough evidence to show or argue that the aggression was due to the victims’ line of work. Miravete emphasized, though, that this did not mean authorities could shy away from their responsibilities in investigating the crime’s link to the victim’s profession.
Meanwhile, the NGO was still trying to establish contact with both López and Cota’s families, who asked for time and space to mourn and process what had happened.
“We are still in the documentation process,” Miravete said.
The group looks for clues in order to make the link between the victim’s attack and their journalistic work, and these clues can take many shapes. Sometimes, it’s a threat that arrives through social media or a phone call. The potential victims notice people snapping pictures of them or experience security breaches.
“It’s relevant to know the nature of information the person was writing about in order to zero in on who the journalist could have irritated,” Miravete noted.
Just a few days before López was gunned down, radio host Jesús Ramos Rodríguez was shot and killed while having breakfast at a hotel in the Emiliano Zapata municipality, Tabasco, AMLO’s home state. The 59-year-old went by the nickname of Chuchín and had hosted a morning radio show for the past two decades.
Tabasco’s governor, Adán Augusto López Hernández, said soon after the attack that the state’s attorney’s office had opened up an investigation to find the radio personality’s killers. It is still unknown if the killing was related to the Ramos Rodríguez’s work. Mexico, along with Brazil, ranks among the top 10 countries globally with the highest rates of unsolved journalist murders. With impunity rates so high, will the family of the victims and the public at large ever know?
In January, another journalist, 34-year-old Rafael Murúa Manríquez, was found dead with torture marks on his body in the state of Baja California Sur. In this case, NGO’s reported that Murúa Manríquez had received several threats all the way back to 2017. According to Article 19, the threats came from the mayor of the mangrove-lined town of Mulegé, Felipe Prado Bautista.
Baja, Sonora, and Tabasco are all states where bands of organized crime operate with, more often than not, collusion between drug cartels and government officials, but Miravete pointed out that most of the aggressions perpetrated against public communicators come from local, state, or federal authorities, not organized crime. This would explain the impunity rate of 99.6 percent for crimes against journalists: officials have no interest in finding and holding perpetrators to account.
“Our starting point is that there is a significant dark or hidden figure of crime,” said Miravete. “But most of the cases are perpetrated by local, state and federal authorities.”
With more than 100 journalists killed since 2000, Reporters Without Borders considers Mexico to be the second most dangerous country for journalists in the Americas, only after Cuba, and Article 19 stated in their “Simulated Democracy” report that the levels of violence are comparable to those of countries in a situation of war, such as Syria. Only in 2017, the group documented 507 aggressions against the press and 12 killings. Under former president Enrique Peña Nieto, the human rights group registered 1,986 aggressions.
In December, shortly after taking office, AMLO said that the state is working to investigate and bring justice to the journalists who have been assassinated. “We are going to give protection to all citizens and journalists,” he said.
Still, he has on several occasions criticized the way the media portrays him, and civil rights groups worry that the president may be putting journalists at risk and fostering a climate where it is okay to attack them. He recently lashed out at the Reforma newspaper, calling the national outlet “prensa fifí,” or posh media, after it published Mexico City homicides rose while he was mayor in the early 2000s.
“Journalists need legitimacy in order to work,” Miravete said. “Instead, with his words, he is eroding values that are fundamental for the freedom of expression. None of that contributes to strengthening a democratic country.”
Emily Corona is a digital intern at Futuro Media. She is a journalist and translator from Mexico City, pursuing a master’s in journalism and Latin American and Caribbean studies at NYU. She tweets from @daminijo.