José Ignacio Santiago Martínez was working during the early hours Wednesday. As an events reporter, he had just collected photographs and videos in a town near San Lucas Yosonicaje, in the Mexican state of Oaxaca.
At 2 a.m., a red taxi began to follow the van that was transporting him and suddenly tried to block his path.
“The driver made a maneuver and managed to evade him, but the men in the taxi were carrying long weapons and began to shoot at us,” a fearful Santiago Martínez told Noticias Telemundo. “Fortunately we were not injured, but there were many bullets. The escorts asked me to throw myself on the floor of the truck, and I did not raise my head until we get away from there.”
The Oaxacan reporter, director of the outlet Pluma Digital Noticias, said he was saved because he's part of the Federal Mechanism for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders and Journalists, which assigned him four escorts who work two shifts.
“If it weren’t for the protection that I had, I would be part of the unfortunate statistics that we are experiencing,” Santiago Martínez said.
Not all Mexican journalists have had the same luck. As of the first weeks of 2022, four reporters have been killed in the country.
In early January, José Luis Gamboa, director of a website, was fatally stabbed in the state of Veracruz. On Jan. 17, photojournalist Margarito Martínez was shot in the head in broad daylight in front of his house in a Tijuana neighborhood. Then six days later, on Jan. 23, reporter Lourdes Maldonado was assassinated in the same state, also in front of her residence.
On Monday, during the last hours of the month, journalist Roberto Toledo was shot to death in Zitácuaro, Michoacán. Toledo, 55, was a lawyer and columnist for the outlet Monitor Michoacán, and, according to local media reports, he had received multiple threats and had entered the federal government’s protection mechanism.
In the most recent annual Reporters Without Borders report, Mexico was once again considered the most dangerous country in the world for journalists — for the third consecutive year — due to the killings of at least seven journalists in 2021.
“What Mexico is facing now is the product of the proliferation of organized crime throughout the territory and the corruption in the police forces and prosecutors’ offices that violate the rule of law,” said Jan-Albert Hootsen, Mexico representative for the Committee to Protect Journalists, or CPJ. “In reality, the Mexican government does not have the capacity to deal with a problem as specific as the attacks on press freedom.”
According to various organizations, including the group Article 19, 148 journalists have been killed in Mexico since 2000. At least 28 of them have died during the administration of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador.
Article 19 documented 362 assaults or attacks against journalists — one every 12 hours — in Mexico during several months in 2021.
'I'm not going to back down'
“Whenever an attack against the media happens, they have to move us from our place of origin, and I’ve already experienced that and I’ve suffered it,” Santiago Martínez said.
It's not the first time the reporter from Oaxaca has been attacked for his work. In 2015, two of his arms were fractured, and two years later, he was told he would be killed if he didn't help disseminate information for some drug traffickers. He was transferred to Mexico City.
Santiago Martínez, 31, said these incidents, in addition to the constant harassment through digital media, have taken a toll on his health and that he experiences intense stress. A little over a month ago, he had a heart attack.
“Sometimes it scares me, but I’m not going to back down because we have to keep reporting. That’s my job,” he said.
The killings of Maldonado, Martínez and Gamboa triggered protests on Tuesday in different cities of the country, where dozens of journalists came out to demand justice.
'I even fear for my life'
It was a regular morning news conference with López Obrador on March 26, 2019.
Maldonado, a reporter who worked in Tijuana in the state of Baja California, asked some questions about trade issues and then took a moment to tell the president she was demanding workplace justice in a lawsuit against Jaime Bonilla Valdez, a political ally of the president, alleging wrongful dismissal and payroll debits.
Bonilla Valdez was governor of Baja California between 2019 and 2021 and the owner of PSN, a regional television network where the reporter used to work.
At the news conference, Maldonado looked at López Obrador and told him, "I even fear for my life."
On Jan. 23, 669 days after she made the comments at the news conference, she was assassinated in front of her house in Tijuana.
The reporter was receiving protection from the State Mechanism for the Protection of Journalists because in March she had been attacked — a bullet pierced the rear window of her vehicle.
However, the incident on Jan. 23 happened when the officers who were guarding her had already left her residence. According to state prosecutors, she was approached by three men and one shot her.
On Jan. 19, after a nine-year labor dispute, Maldonado received a favorable decision on her claim against the channel. Bonilla Valdez has publicly denied being connected to Maldonado's death, and López Obrador asked the public not to rush to conclusions, in addition to demanding “a thorough investigation.”
Before her murder, Maldonado had participated in a demonstration to remember Margarito Martínez, the photojournalist who was killed in Tijuana.
“I am very dismayed, full of doubts and conflicts in my mind,” the journalist said at the demonstration. “It is urgent that this case be clarified. It is necessary to know what were the reasons why Margarito was murdered.”
Days later, she became part of Mexico's bloody statistics.
Since 2012, the Mexican government has run the Federal Mechanism for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders and Journalists, which has 1,504 beneficiaries; 493 of them are media and communications professionals.
As with most crimes in Mexico, there is almost total impunity for attacks against journalists. The special prosecutor for attention to crimes committed against freedom of expression initiated around 3,000 investigations since 2010 but, according to the group Article 19, has only achieved 22 convictions.
“The government wants to hold forums to improve the protection mechanism, and that is very good, but the demands of the journalistic community are very clear: The main thing is to fight impunity,” Itzia Miravete, prevention coordinator at Article 19, said. “There can be no change in the situation of violence if the perpetrators are not investigated and punished.”
When war knocks on the door
Some 16 hours after the attack on Santiago Martínez, reporter Alejandro Ortiz was caught in the middle of a shootout in Chilpancingo, Guerrero.
It was a little after 6 p.m., and Ortiz had just had dinner with his two children and his wife. While answering a phone call, he began to hear thunderous detonations in Buenavista de la Salud, the community where he lives.
“I thought it was some religious celebration. I never imagined it was a barrage of bullets from a criminal group,” he said.
Hanging up, he saw his wife’s frightened face and realized a war had just broken out outside their house. His family all fell to the ground to protect themselves, while he contacted the authorities and his support networks for help.
When the shooting ended and the suspects had left the area, authorities arrived with police and military personnel.
“There were hundreds of bullets. The sound was deafening and lasted more than an hour, without stopping. My children will never forget that,” he said sadly, while remembering that a few years ago another armed group took cameras, a laptop and a truck from them during coverage.
“Although one is prepared for these things to happen at work, you never expect it at home, after hours, and when you are already resting,” Ortiz, who is not protected by the authorities, said.
Stressed and jaded, the reporter said he could hardly sleep that night. But the next day, he wrote a short post on social media about his traumatic experience, headlined “And the bullets continued.”
For Hootsen and Miravete, reversing the situation of violence against journalists will take years, but they said it can be achieved if protection mechanisms are strengthened and training processes are initiated for authorities, so they can combat the impunity regarding these crimes. In addition, mechanisms to help journalists must be implemented.
“The impact of the violence experienced by the press — both on a physical, psychosocial and economic level — is brutal. Many journalists get sick after being displaced. Some have even died, and that needs to be addressed,” Miravete said.
Omar Bello, a displaced journalist from Guerrero, is well aware of the consequences of being removed from his region. He had to leave the paradise of Zihuatanejo’s beaches for the gray megalopolis of the capital. On Aug. 20, 2017, he received one last threat from drug traffickers in his area, and the message was clear: “Either stop misbehaving or we’ll kill you.”
Shortly after, he entered the protection mechanism, and he now lives in Mexico City.
"You lose everything: family, friends, jobs and, most importantly, you lose your identity, because when you are displaced, you can no longer exercise your profession," he said. "The mechanism only gives you aid for food and housing, but it does not help you to return to work. You renounce that criminals are annihilating journalism."
In his case, the impossibility of doing his journalistic work led him to become a human rights activist. In December 2020, Bello and a group of protesters drew blood in front of the capital’s Ministry of the Interior to protest budget cuts in protective measures for journalists.
“I lasted more than 25 days in a sit-in, and they didn’t attend to me,” Bello said. “They didn’t even give me escorts even though I am threatened with death. That’s why we stained the entire façade with our blood. My DNA remained there.”
Santiago Martínez agreed with Bello, saying his experience in the Mexican capital was “martyrdom” because he felt imprisoned and without the possibility of writing again about his beloved Oaxaca.
“They don’t even give you a temporary job,” he said. “They don’t give you alternatives, and they lock you up in a shelter. That’s why, despite all the dangers, I decided to return to my place of origin and I plan to continue here.”
If you have information about cases of abuse against journalists in Mexico, you can email firstname.lastname@example.org.
An earlier version of this story was first published in Noticias Telemundo.
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