Reporting from the Kingdom of Fear

Reporting from the Kingdom of Fear
Monday, 11 April 2016 Written by Leticia Pineda, Mexico correspondent for Agence France-Presse

In Mexico, journalists put their lives on the line every day investigating the suffering drug cartels leave in their wake. The traffickers’ ruthlessness, violence and impunity have made Mexico one of the world’s most dangerous countries for newsgatherers.

Some 91 media workers have been killed and another 17 have gone missing here since 2000. One of the latest was a 32-year-old mother-of-two, Anabel Flores Salazar, who worked as a crime reporter for a newspaper in the eastern state of Veracruz. Her half-naked body was found dumped on a road in central Mexico in February, just days after an armed group wearing military-like clothes burst into her home before dawn and took her away.

Risks taken by journalists working in the regions, where the drug cartels reign with impunity, are immense.
 
An example: In 2011, AFP photographer Ronaldo Schemidt and I were in Durango, in Mexico’s north, where some 300 bodies had been discovered. No one wanted to talk to us. When we approached people, they would stop talking, slam doors in our face.
 
Intimidation and threats 

Then, in a parking lot in front of the state prosecutor’s office, we see two refrigerated trucks. Inside are human remains wrapped in white sheets. Forensic doctors are performing autopsies in the open air. On the ground are other bodies, covered by shrouds. There are so many bodies that no morgue in town can accommodate them all.

Ronaldo and another photographer are taking pictures when a group of agents from the prosecutor’s office rush out of the building. A local journalist who was with us runs off and we follow. The authorities, which in Mexico’s regions are often in cahoots with the cartels, clearly did not appreciate our presence.

The same day, we receive a veiled threat. We are accused of stealing confidential information. Cars tail us throughout the day. It’s difficult to determine who as in Durango the traffickers ride through the streets in the same vehicles as agents from the prosecutor’s office. Everywhere we see informers for drug traffickers watching us. We don’t sleep well that night.
 
insert-mexico-afp.pngImage credit: Mexico, Durango cemetery 2011 where the bodies found in several mass graves across the city have now been properly buried. AFP PHOTO/RONALDO SCHEMIDT

Putting their lives on the line
 
Journalists living in areas controlled by drug gangs can be kidnapped in a blink of an eye. You’ll be forced into a van and then found dead or never heard from again. Rarely do people return from such kidnappings alive.
 
In May 2012, I visited Veracruz, where three photographers and an administrative worker of a newspaper were found dead in a canal a day after disappearing. Their bodies showed signs of torture. At the time, two drug cartels were at war with each other, fighting for control over criminal activity. “We journalists are caught in the crossfire,” a reporter told me, saying he was going to change professions.
 
Newspaper owners want to distance themselves from the victims to avoid the cartels’ wrath. The daily AZ, where one of the slain photographers had worked a few months prior, even published his resignation letter – on the day of his funeral - to show that the paper had no more ties with him.
 
A dreaded, fatal summons
 
A photographer who covers the police told me how the Zetas cartel “summoned” journalists with whom they were not happy. “They beat you with a bat in front of your colleagues,” he told me. The offending reporter is beaten on his bare buttocks until they bleed in a public reprimand.

The day after the Veracruz bodies were discovered I visit the house of photographers Gabriel Huge and his 22-year old nephew Guillermo Luna, two of the victims. It’s a modest house. The room where the coffins are laid out is unbearably hot. As they enter the house with me, three journalists dissolve into sobs -- after days and days of stress and tension, they let go.

While there, I learn that Gabriel - a freelancer - and Guillermo, had been “summoned”.

Before the fatal appointment, Gabriel left his motorbike with a friend and asked him to look after his daughter. He gave his camera to his sister and bid her adieu.

The day of his disappearance, Guillermo worked as usual, covering police activities like he did every day. Before leaving for his “summons,” he took the memory card out of his camera and gave it to a colleague, telling him to pass it on to the newspaper’s editors in case he didn’t return quickly.

Their bodies were found on May 3, World Press Freedom Day.
 
This is an abridged version of a longer report by Leticia Pineda on the dangers of reporting in Mexico. The full blog can be found here.

Main image credit: A vigil for murdered journalists at the Independence Angel monument in Mexico City on May 5, 2012. The poster reads "The Truth is Not Killed by Killing The Journalist".  AFP PHOTO/Yuri CORTEZ
 
RPT's work in Mexico:
 
  • Over the past six years, the Rory Peck Trust has supported 18 Mexican freelance journalists in circumstances ranging from threats, to supporting families of killed journalists, relocation and equipment costs and medical needs.
  • The Trust has provided bursaries for 49 Mexican freelancers to attend specially tailored safety training courses.
  • In November 2015, the RPT organized a trauma workshop in Puebla-Mexico for 12 freelancers working in the most dangerous parts of Mexico. The workshop was the first of its kind to be held in the country. A second workshop is planned for 2016.
     

Help AFP’s London bureau raise money for RPT's work with freelance journalists in Mexico and across the world.

On 30 April, a group of 19 journalist and technical staff of the London bureau of the AFP news agency will take on a 12-mile (19-kilometre) endurance challenge: running, jumping and wading across the British countryside, plunging into icy water, scaling walls and overcoming obstacles to raise money for RPT's work supporting freelance journalists around the world 

The money you donate will help fund vital programmes like those in Mexico, giving freelancers specially-tailored tools to protect themselves, work effectively and in as much safety as possible.
 

PLEASE SUPPORT AFP LONDON'S FUNDRAISING CHALLENGE

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