- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 5, 2017

The murder was outrageous, but for Mexican journalists these days, grimly familiar.

Like other victims, Francisco Javier Ortiz Franco was in his car when masked gunmen shot him four times in the head and neck. Like other victims, he was with family members, having just left a physical therapy session with his children. And, like the others, Ortiz Franco was a journalist — a co-founder and editor of Zeta magazine in Tijuana, a border city in Mexico.

Like others, his 2004 case remains unsolved.

“It was 100 meters away from the Baja, California, [state prosecutor’s] office,” said Adela Navarro, general director of Zeta, speaking last week before an audience at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington. “But, of course, ‘no one saw it.’”

Last week marked the 13th anniversary of Ortiz Franco’s death, and still no one has been prosecuted. A group of Mexican journalists traveled to Washington to discuss conditions in one of the hemisphere’s most dangerous places to report the news. The watchdog group Article 19 says harassment and dangerous incidents targeting journalists in Mexico rose more than 250 percent from 2011 to 2016, and 26 journalists have been killed in the past 18 months alone.

Not a single name appeared in Ortiz Franco’s case file, Ms. Navarro said, even though Zeta identified potential suspects in an investigative article soon after. Ms. Navarro blames the Mexican government for not following through.

The working press is under assault as Mexico faces a rising tide of violence generally, fueled in large part by clashes between large and powerful drug cartels. Mexico is experiencing its highest homicide total in two decades as the drug gangs battle over territory.

Considerable unhappiness was aimed at the Mexican government at the panel discussion hosted by the Wilson Center and the Washington Office on Latin America.

This was no low-key, standard-issue think tank briefing: Voices were raised and panelists gestured fiercely as journalists recounted attempts to cover corruption and the country’s brutal drug trade wars while dealing with personal threats, the deaths of colleagues and the incompetence or indifference of the authorities. Ms. Navarro and most of the other panelists spoke in Spanish, through interpreters.

“Our country is murdering journalists,” said Ismael Bojorquez Perea, director of Riodoce, a weekly paper in Sinaloa. His colleague, award-winning reporter and Riodoce founder Javier Valdez, was pulled from his car and shot by a lone gunman on May 15, and prosecutors have told Riodoce nothing, Mr. Perea said.

Days before the journalists assembled in Washington, the discovery of journalist Salvador Adame’s charred remains confirmed the seventh killing of a journalist in Mexico this year. Those seven homicides and almost 90 others since 1992 make Mexico and Colombia the deadliest countries for journalists in North and South America, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

“More of the threats against journalists come from the state than from organized crime,” said Azam Ahmed, bureau chief for Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean at The New York Times.

In a May 2016 report, the Washington Office on Latin America found that 38 percent of presumed perpetrators in cases of harassed journalists were government authorities. Article 19, a British human rights organization, said public officials are thought to be responsible for 226 of the 426 crimes against journalists identified last year — up from 162 just five years earlier.

Threats beyond violence

Even when violence is not used, Mexican reporters face grave threats trying to do their jobs, especially in smaller locales far from the national press corps in Mexico City. Cyberattacks and espionage have been employed against journalists.

The Mexican government has been reeling from a spyware scandal, accused by the internet watchdog group Citizen Lab of tracking journalists, opposition party figures and human rights activists who investigate government corruption. Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto denied illegal government surveillance, but two members of the Mexico Institute at the Wilson Center were victims of such attacks, said Duncan Wood, the institute’s director.

Government collusion with drug cartels and organized crime drives the problem, Mr. Perea said. He said journalists in Sinaloa focus on political ties to the crime, what he calls “narcopolitics — the criminal perversion of politicians whose hands are dirtied by drug trafficking money.” That puts their lives in danger.

As public outcry for journalists’ rights mounted, the Mexican government established protections in the past decade, but the moves have not eased the problem. A key body set up to aid journalists lacks staff and resources, said analysts at the Washington Office on Latin America, and conflicting interests among government officials means that most cases of crime against journalists end with impunity for the perpetrators. Of more than 800 cases investigated, only three have led to convictions, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Enough laws are in place, said Mr. Ahmed, but the issue is implementation from a government with different interests.

“Who has the obligation to protect us? The same people who are part of the problem,” he said. Recalling a 2009 grenade attack on Riodoce’s offices that was “investigated” but never solved, he said the protection mechanism won’t work unless the government roots out the corruption in its own ranks and takes on the drug cartels that operate with impunity in many areas of the country.

“You don’t know who you can trust,” Ms. Navarro said, noting that Zeta has, in a few cases, called on the Mexican army instead of the new government press protection arms.

Once, Ms. Navarro said, Zeta received a threat to its facilities from the Arellano-Felix cartel, but the tip came from U.S. authorities, not the Mexican government.

Attacks don’t seem to be enough. When a journalist is attacked, the Mexican government often goes out of its way to demonstrate that the crime had nothing to do with the profession and accuses the victim of affairs or criminal ties. These “smear campaigns” take place even after a journalist’s death, said Norma Trujillo Baez, a reporter for La Jornada Veracruz and Formato Siete.

Government money allocations within publications further complicate the problem. Article 19 reported that the Mexican government spent about $1.7 billion during the first four years of Mr. Pena Nieto’s administration to advertise on TV, radio and publications, what the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers calls “soft censorship.” If a publication criticizes the government, said Ms. Navarro, the government will rescind its advertisements.

Ms. Baez said she also suspects foul play with the flight of journalists from Veracruz since 2011. The government paid their expenses for three months when they left, she said.

“In the central part of the country, there is no difference between government and organized crime,” she said. The CPJ ranks Veracruz as the second-deadliest state in Mexico.

Stifled by layers of conflicting interests and corruption, Mexican journalists have little reason for hope, said Ana Cristina Ruelas, director of Article 19’s office for Mexico and Central America.

“There will be no reduction in attacks on the press,” she said. “The only way to reverse the tide in the long term may be through this resistance movement of journalists.”

The government should focus on implementing safety measures “that don’t involve helmets or bulletproof vests,” Ms. Navarro said.

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