Violence threatens women journalists in Mexico, obstructs journalism

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Photo credit: Miguel Tovar/Getty Images

Femicide, drugs cartels, corruption, violence and organized crime — a few keywords that have taken hold of Mexico. The country, despite its vibrant culture and rich indigenous history, has become infamous for its violence. While life in Mexico is relatively affordable, it is overshadowed by the cost of criminal groups and drugs lords. Simply being a woman adds another layer of vulnerability.

At least 645 women were killed between January and August this year. The Mexican government recorded at least a 2.2 percent rise in gender-based killings of women in 2020, as compared to 2019, as stated in a report by the Executive Secretary of the National Public Security System. Sexual assaults also increased by 57 percent. However, these statistics were disputed by activists who suggested the number of gender-based homicides could be higher than reported.

While the state of security is already bleak for women in Mexico, it becomes increasingly difficult if they are journalists, especially those who report on politics, crime, corruption, and lawlessness in the country.

Press freedom is a luxury for journalists in Mexico. At least six people working in the country’s press and media industry have been killed this year, including four male and two female professionals.

Itzel Aguilera, a documentary photographer based in Ciudad Juárez, stated that it is not exclusively a gender issue, as even male journalists are at a higher risk of being killed over their work.

“Murders of male journalists such as Armando Rodríguez Carreón in Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua (2008) or Javier Valdés in Culiacán, Sinaloa (2017) were also rampant in the country. In journalism, it is not just a question of gender,” she said.

Julio Valdivia, a crime reporter working near Oaxaca State’s rural zone, was found dead and decapitated in Veracruz this past September. He was reporting on gang warfare in the area for El Mundo de Veracruz. This chilling murder served as a message to anyone who dared to uncover the organized crimes taking place in the country. Pablo Morrugares was killed in August, Jorge Miguel Armenta Ávalos was murdered in May and Víctor Fernando Álvarez Chávez was found decapitated in April this year.

Mariana Martínez Esténs, an independent multimedia journalist based in Tijuana, said that Veracruz is one of the most dangerous places to work as a journalist. State and local politicians — including the governor — have openly and aggressively painted the press as the enemy, in attempts to silence them.

“Some of the media is bought by the federal and state government and politicians, in general. If all of the media is praising the governor, then someone who does not, stands out more, becomes a nuisance and eventually remains vulnerable to attacks,” she said.

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Photo credit: Associated Press

Among the women, Teresa Aracely Alcocer Carmona and Maria Elena Ferral Hernández were murdered in February and March, respectively. Chihuahua based Teresa aka Barbara Greco was an announcer for an astrology segment on a radio show at La Poderosa, while long-time journalist Maria was the co-founder of El Quinto Poder — a local news website based in Papantla, Veracruz.

Maria was shot dead by two men on a motorcycle in broad daylight on March 30. She was known for her reporting on corruption, crime and the police. She wrote a weekly column — titled Polaca Totonaca (Politics of Totonaca) — on her website. Before being killed, Maria wrote about the murders of four potential mayoral candidates in Gutiérrez Zamora — a town known as a prized territory for criminal groups.

She was shot three times with rounds that caused excessive bleeding and eventually succumbed to her injuries. Reports later suggested that her killing was a result of her profession. Her killers remain at large.

Teresa, on the other hand, was reportedly killed for her views on violence against women and children in Mexico, particularly in relation to the killing of a seven-year-old girl in Mexico City. Teresa was shot by a group of gunmen, who opened fire as she stood with her father outside her home on February 19. They immediately fled the scene and are yet to be apprehended.

“In the case of María, it is evident that it was a direct constant persecution and intimidation. Teresa was murdered after she condemned a girl’s murder, just like many women do. We all show solidarity and condemnation. We should not lose sight of the fact that in Mexico they are killing ‘us’ whether or not we are journalists, artists, or activists,” Itzel said.

Itzel further added that women journalists are at a greater risk of being killed for their journalistic work. She highlighted some of the incidents from the past including Lydia Cacho’s case, as she had to leave the country following threats and intimidation.

“In 2019, assailants entered her house and murdered her dogs. It was a way to show her that she could be killed too. Regina Martínez was also murdered in 2012 for her investigative journalism,” Itzel shared.

Mariana, on the other hand, highlighted that both women spoke against the machista culture in Mexico.

“It is fascinating and sad that both of these women had very different paths, but they coincide when they’re talking against the machista culture and violence against women,” she said when commenting on the two murders.

Almost two months later, María Fernanda de Luna Ferral — Maria’s daughter — was attacked by gunmen in Gutiérrez Zamora. She was subjected to this physical attack after her car came under fire by attackers while she was on her way to Xalapa. de Luna luckily survived the attacks after her bodyguards — provided by the state of Veracruz — resisted the attack with equal force. She was known to have taken over the reins of her mother’s publication after her assassination. de Luna was also provided a supervised residence in Xalapa since the beginning of April, following threats to her life.

“There are many interests involved, so if a family member wants to continue with the investigation, their lives will also be at risk. As long as there is impunity in this country, murders will continue to silence the voice of those who denounce these crimes,” Itzel opined.

Mariana said that family members of those disappeared, murdered and attacked take it upon themselves to fight for justice.

“This is not only true for journalists. Usually the families of those murdered and disappeared remain in great danger. A lot of them flee their hometowns and states, only to have their lives completely destroyed because they are left without any protection,” Marina observed.

According to The Coalition For Women In Journalism (CFWIJ), at least nine cases of threats and violence against women journalists have been documented from January to September. These are the cases that the CFWIJ found through various sources including news websites. Many such incidents do not even make it to news, considering how often women are threatened for speaking up against their perpetrators. They are vulnerable to murders, impediments and attacks both in the field and within newsrooms. They are sexually harassed and also intimidated with violence.

Mariana said that while working as a journalist in Mexico is already dangerous, this vulnerability is exacerbated for women.

“We are more vulnerable to danger because of our gender,” she said, while emphasizing that the real danger starts in the newsroom, where harassment or dismissal of women reporters is very common.

“You are overseen by your bosses, who choose a male reporter to do certain reports and topics. If you are a mother, you are not considered reliable and become less hirable. When we go out on the streets, we find sources that sexualize and harass us. Drug cartels use sexual violence on their victims, including journalists,” she stated.

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Photo credit: Hector Quintanar/AFP

Many of the attacks on women journalists are often portrayed as cases of domestic violence in the media. This provides criminals an escape from being investigated and punished for their possible involvement in these crimes. In most cases, family members of these journalists are also at risk of being persecuted.

“This argument about domestic violence or dispute is a way to lessen the number of attacks against journalists. When big international organizations are trying to document the attacks against journalists, whether they are men or women, the latter is mostly tried to be kept off the list in the guise of domestic violence,” Mariana said, adding that there is a lot to gain for criminal groups when an attack on a woman journalist is dismissed and linked with their private life.

Women journalists are time and again subjected to different types of threats and discrimination, regardless of whether these attacks are linked to their journalistic work or not.

In February 11, Julia Santín of news website Los Llanos del Sotaviento, was attacked by members of the Fuerza Civil who hurled death threats at her and her colleague while they were reporting a protest in Ciudad Isla. Edna López, a reporter or A Título Personal, was also threatened by a Fuerza Civil policeman, who held a gun at her head during the coverage of the same protest.

Lucy del Carmen Sosa — an El Dario reporter and co-founder of the Network of Journalists of Juarez — was subjected to discriminatory behavior by Javier Corral Jurado, the Governor of Chihuahua, after he refused to respond to her questions during a press conference held on February 17 and 24, respectively. She then filed a complaint against him for violation of her rights to information. Later, it was reported that authorities visited her office under dubious circumstances, while she was away on leave.

Isabel González, a journalist working for Grupo Imagen, was openly threatened by a male journalist earlier this year. Self-proclaimed journalist and vlogger Paul Velázquez verbally attacked Isabel and said, “I hope they shot her”. Even though he later apologized for his threatening remarks followed by criticism on social media, the damage was already done.

Isabel denounced this “act of hatred and incitement to violence” against her during a conference at the National Palace in March. She addressed President Andrés Manuel López Obrador at one of his regular morning conferences and requested protection from the Interior Ministry. Instead of taking her plea seriously, the president offered her ‘hugs’.

In June this year, Baja California Governor Jaime Bonilla discredited the work of Aline Corpus — a journalist and member of the Mexicali Journalists Network — during a press conference. She had reported a story about local authorities concealing actual figures related to Covid-19 cases.

Legal threats are also another dilemma for women journalists in Mexico. On September 12, journalist Carmen Olsen — a journalist in Baja California State, who investigates acts of corruption committed by the police chief of Rosarito — was charged with a six-month prison sentence for alleged offenses made to municipal policemen in 2013.

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Photo credit: Getty Images

Miroslava Breach, a journalist who worked as a correspondent for national newspaper La Jornada and regional newspaper Norte de Juarez, was gunned down outside her home in Chihuahua on March 23, 2017. Her reporting was focused on human rights, corruption, organized crime and drug trafficking. Her murderer, Juan Carlos Moreno Ochoa aka El Larry, was sentenced to 50 years in prison in August this year.

Last year was also scarred by the brutal killing of journalist Norma Sarabia, as well as male journalists. Norma worked for a local newspaper Tabasco Hoy and was shot dead in the south-east city of Tabasco on June 12. To this date, her culprits have not been caught or punished. At the very least, these women journalists deserve justice.

“Those restricting press freedom in Mexico are criminal groups who hold power in certain sectors. Journalists, who hinder the interests of these mafia or criminal groups through their work, are killed,” she commented.

Mariana, too, echoed Itzel’s words in relation to different dangers that journalists face in Mexico.

“The current president Andrés Manuel López Obrador has been very critical of the media for their reporting on his government. Whoever questions him, his policies and politics is labeled as an enemy of the public good… This allows other enemies of the press to feel that somebody has their back. Therefore, they can attack the press more freely. We’re surrounded by all sides and remain in a ring of fire at this moment,” Mariana lamented about the worsening state of security for journalists in Mexico.

This story was originally published in the Women In Journalism Magazine by The Coalition For Women In Journalism

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