MEXICO CITY – When Gildo Garza finally fled his home state of Tamaulipas in 2017 and arrived in Mexico City, he knew where to go first: the Federal Attorney General’s office. Even though the odds were slim, he had a silver lining that investigators would find and prosecute the narcos and corrupt politicians who wanted him dead for his reporting.
But as he described the threats and violence he faced, a new anxiety filled Garza’s thoughts. He didn’t know how he could afford to take care of his family in the Mexican capital. Most journalists in his home country are paid between $ 75 and $ 150 per month and he has scraped off several jobs, freelance jobs and consulting assignments.
“Have you been to see the Mechanism?” asked a lawyer from the office.
Garza would soon fall into the safety net that is the Federal protection mechanism for human rights defenders and journalists, an agency created in 2012 to fight the rise in violence against activists and journalists. Today, around 1,500 human rights defenders and journalists are officially supported.
“Mexico has levels of violence – and of impunity in that violence – that are comparable to open war zones, even though Mexico is not officially a country at war,” said Jan-Albert Hootsen, representative. from Mexico for the Committee to Protect Journalists. CPJ Global Impunity Index places Mexico in 6th place, behind active conflict zones such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Somalia and South Sudan.
When a journalist is in danger, he can contact the Mechanism for an assessment.
After assessing individual risk factors, the agency can provide journalists with a range of protective measures, such as a bulletproof vest or bodyguard; security cameras in their home or office; targeted police patrols; a panic button to alert authorities if they are in immediate danger. The agency also links journalists with mental health services.
Garza’s reporting put his life in danger
“In 2017, I documented two instances of corruption between the state government and the Los Zetas cartel,” Garza told NPR. He was no stranger to violence: he had already been kidnapped three times and a close colleague had been murdered in 2013.
But this case was different. The cartel hung a banner telling Garza he had 24 hours to leave the state or they would kill him, his wife, his children and “even the dog.”
“During the assessment with the agency, the government of my home state, Tamaulipas, said that I could never go back, that they could not guarantee my safety,” he said. For this reason, the Mechanism moved Garza and his family to an apartment in Mexico City and provided them with additional financial support, in addition to a bodyguard.
Garza appreciates support during the worst times of his life, but over time he has seen significant gaps in the agency.
“It’s a beautiful and complete setting on paper,” he says. “But our bureaucracy is indifferent to the needs of the victims.”
Garza saw colleagues at home struggle for protection at critical times and began the Association of Displaced and Assaulted Journalists to defend them more. CPJ’s Hootsen shares similar criticisms of the agency.
“In reality, it doesn’t always work very well,” he says. “Many of those [protective] the measures in fact have no effect. There are a lot of problems in the communication and coordination of the federal mechanism. “
Hootsen says the mechanism’s funding is in jeopardy and he is in desperate need of additional staff. Mexico City-based bureaucrats often don’t understand the unique challenges of being a vulnerable journalist in rural Mexico, he says. Slow responses are a common complaint among journalists who need immediate help
A recurring complaint heard by NPR by journalists who benefited from the agency’s help concerned the panic button. This small mobile device allows a reporter to send a geolocated SOS that will immediately alert the agency and trusted police forces when a reporter is in danger. But devices are often old and faulty, and they rely on cellular signals.
“The panic button doesn’t work where I live,” says Jorge Sánchez, journalist in the state of Veracruz. “I am sitting in my office and there is no signal here. I know a lot of others who have it and it is just unnecessary for most of us.”
Seemingly minor slippages at the agency can have deadly consequences. In June, a criminal journalist from the state of Oaxaca, Gustavo Sanchez (unrelated to Jorge Sánchez), was murdered five months after asking the agency for help. They had officially classified him as “protected” but had in fact done nothing to protect him. Hootsen says Sánchez is at least the seventh journalist killed while under government protection.
He wants the government of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador to invest more money and more and better trained staff in the agency. But the real engine of violence against journalists is a fundamental failure of Mexican society: impunity.
Not prosecuting crimes against journalists means no deterrence
“The vast majority of these cases, I would say between 90 and 95%, end up lingering with impunity,” says Hootsen. In some cases, the person who pulled the trigger may end up in jail, but the mastermind behind the crime almost never will.
“It’s very, very rare in Mexico to get full justice,” he said. “In fact, I think there are maybe only two or three instances where this has actually happened.”
Jorge Sánchez knows this pain well. Every January since 2015, Sánchez has demonstrated outside the seat of government of the state of Veracruz against the murder of his father that year. Moisés Sánchez ran The union, a small online newspaper based near the port city of Veracruz. He was a thorn in the side of local politicians, says Jorge.
“He often clashed with local authorities,” he says. “I think he was proud to be hated by them. He received a lot of threats in his life but I guess he never took them seriously.”
When Sánchez released a report linking the mayor to organized crime in late 2014, threatening calls and messages poured in. On January 5, 2015, armed and masked men broke into their house and kidnapped him. His body was found 20 days later.
After years of investigation, there is still only one policeman in prison for the crime, even though he has presented evidence that the mayor ordered him to “do [Sánchez] disappear.”
“Even though governments have changed [and] there were three governors from three different parties, impunity is still there, ”explains Sánchez’s son Jorge. “People will let me know when they see [the former mayor] have coffee or go out with the family. He’s just free. “
Jorge’s mother left their hometown after his father died, but he insisted on staying. In an act of defiance, Sánchez decided to continue publishing The union in the name of his father. He does not derive any income from it and his collaborators are all volunteers. They were able to continue reporting because Sánchez has had a bodyguard and other security measures provided by the Federal Protection Mechanism since 2015.
He’s happy to have the protection and hopes he doesn’t have to run away like Garza did. But Sánchez finds his situation, and that of so many journalists in Mexico, perverse.
“Criminals are the ones who should be wondering where to hide,” he says. “Not us, not the victims.”
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