Rights groups call on the government to institutionalise protection of journalists.
Mexico City, Mexico – Journalist Francisco Pacheco Beltran spent his last night working hard at his desk.
A founding editor of Taxco’s critical weekly, El Faro, a crime reporter and local radio contributor, Pacheco, 55, spent the night of April 25 sifting through video vines and photographs uploaded to social media by witnesses of the previous night’s violent shoot-out at the Acapulco beach resort.
What he saw was enough for Pacheco to post a critical article to his blog, saying that police efforts to restore order had spread “psychosis” among locals.
With his article completed, and a radio segment critical of the government of his home town, Taxco, ready to broadcast, Pacheco drove his daughter to catch an early morning bus.
Taxco, like other cities in the troubled state of Guerrero, lies on the frontlines of a bloody turf battle between rival crime groups.
In fact, Pacheco‘s home was only about an hour’s drive from Iguala, the site of the 2014 mass abduction and disappearance of 43 students.
Pacheco‘s wife and other daughter were expecting him home when, at 6:30 that morning, they heard a noise “like firecrackers” from outside.
Pacheco lay dead in the doorway. There was no sign of his killers.
Pacheco was an ardent critic of the local government. He was also a valued and generous contact to media colleagues throughout the region. And, while journalists mourn the loss of a friend and colleague, NGOs have expressed alarm at the fifth murder of a journalist in Mexico in 2016.
This year’s World Press Freedom Day was laden with grim irony for journalists working in Mexico – where 36 have been killed for reasons directly connected their work since 1992, and where dozens more have died in violent or mysterious circumstances, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).
Given that only 6 percent of crimes end in a conviction, according to Mexican government figures, “violence against journalism is a vicious cycle emerging out of impunity”, said Jan-Albert Hootsen, the CPJ’s Mexico correspondent, remarking on the Pacheco case.
“Self-censorship is the ultimate consequence of these attacks,” he adds. “When the lion’s share of attacks against the press is committed by members of different levels of government, silence means impunity, which in turn means more violence.”
Local journalists, such as Pacheco, who uncover the links between organised crime and political interests, bear the brunt of this violence.
In Veracruz, for instance, 19 journalists have died violently since December 2010, when Javier Duarte became governor, according to the independent news portal Regeneracion.
Anabel Flores Salazar, was one of the victims there. She worked in a Veracruz branch of the same newspaper chain as Pacheco. She was found dead in Puebla earlier this year. Before being violently killed, Moises Sanchez, another reporter, supplemented his income by working as a taxi-driver until his death in January 2015, allegedly for reporting on local government corruption, also in Veracruz.
Finally, photojournalist Ruben Espinosa – whose murder in Mexico City last July made international headlines – had reported receiving threats from the office of the Veracruz governor in an interview filmed shortly before his death.
Journalists in danger don't want to be statistics, or guests of honour at NGO dinners. We don't want people to ask why we are being threatened. All we want is to work.
The Mexico and Central America branch of Article 19, an NGO that fights to protect free speech, expects 2016 to be an even worse year for the security of Mexican journalists.
Last year, they logged almost 400 threats and assaults – including murder – against journalists.
“Pacheco worked in one of the world’s most dangerous places to be a journalist,” Article 19 spokeswoman Sandra Patargo told Al Jazeera.
“While Mexico has a robust system of protections for journalists, the institutions have proven to be empty structures that don’t diminish impunity rates.”
However, for Patargo, the formation of grassroots structures that operate outside of the governmental and non-governmental safety net offers protection from danger and hope for the future.
When gang violence erupted in Chilapa, Guerrero, last year, a group of 20 freelancers took it upon themselves to form an impromptu network that moved in convoys, shared information, and monitored one another’s whereabouts. Meanwhile, Voz Alterna, co-founded by Ruben Espinosa in Veracruz, takes a double-edged approach of denouncing attacks on freedom of expression while training journalists in ways to protect themselves.
Structures like these helped award-winning reporter Luis Cardona, 55, get back on his feet after he was kidnapped in Nuevo Casas Grandes, Chihuahua, in September 2012.
Cardona tells his story in an animated short film “I Am Number 16”. The title refers to Cardona’s investigation into the disappearance of 15 labourers who worked in the cannabis fields of the lucrative Golden Triangle region of Sinaloa, Durango, and Chihuahua.
“I was an uncomfortable presence,” Cardona told Al Jazeera. “Organised crime is the killing arm of moneyed interests. Their only law is to shut you up if you say too much.”
After being kidnapped by 12 men dressed in army camouflage and carrying police-issued AR-15 rifles, Cardona was blindfolded, handcuffed, and beaten at what he believes was the city jail, before being dumped in the desert.
With the threat against his life still active, Cardona was forced to restart his career in Mexico City.
“My life was a panorama of destruction,” he explained. “NGOs can only give you emergency help. I was put up in a hotel for six weeks and given post-trauma therapy, but what messed me up most was to be without work. This isn’t a job; it’s a vocation. When you move to a new city, you lose all your contacts – but you and your family still need to eat.”
Cardona’s 37 years of reporting experience and personal tenacity have seen him build up a strong freelance portfolio with mostly international outlets, but he acknowledges that this may not be an option for other journalists living under threat.
With that in mind, in 2013, he and a group of 150 journalists associated with the nonprofit outlet Diario 19 set up a “horizontal structure” of contacts, financial support, and professionals to help displaced journalists who are facing threats in Mexico, continue to work and thrive in new locations.
The nameless collective now has more than 700 active members and has helped reporters relocate to places such as Spain, Chile, and the United States.
“Sometimes, we don’t act fast enough,” said Cardona, referring to Francisco Pacheco‘s death in Taxco.
“Every time we lose a colleague, it hurts. But all we can do is give help to colleagues in danger. I’ve lived this myself. Journalists in danger don’t want to be statistics, or guests of honour at NGO dinners. We don’t want people to ask why we are being threatened. All we want is to work.”