The Perils of Mexican Journalism and the Role of the U.S.
Last year, Mexico ranked sixth on the Committee to Protect Journalists’ list tracking impunity in the killings of journalists (CPJ). On August 3, advocacy group Article 19 tweeted that Ernesto Mendéz was murdered in the city of Guanajuato. Mendéz is the 13th journalist killed in Mexico this year, including three women (Article 19/Twitter). There have been 157 Mexican journalists killed since 2000 (UNESCO). By comparison, there have been fewer than 20 journalists killed in the past 30 years in the U.S. (Committee to Protect Journalists). But the murders of journalists in Mexico are deeply connected to the United States, which has backed the policies that increased their risk.
Homicides and disappearances have increased steadily in México since December 2006, when former President Felipe Calderón launched police and army operations on the pretext of fighting drug cartels, with the full support of D.C. (The Funambulist). Since then, the U.S. government has pumped at least $3.3 billion into Mexico’s war on drugs (Washington Post).
The social impacts have been devastating. In May, Mexico reached a tragic milestone of 100,000 disappearances. Homicides since 2006 climbed to over 400,000 this year. Thousands of Mexicans have been displaced from their communities, many undertaking the risky journey across the U.S. border in search of security.
There have been Mexican journalists killed in the northern cities of Ciudad Victoria, Tijuana, and Culiacán, as well as in smaller municipalities in central and southern México (New Yorker). Few of these crimes are investigated, and even fewer are solved. Given the frequency of attacks and the number of Mexican journalists killed, media workers are among those fleeing the country to the U.S., Canada, and elsewhere following death threats (NPR, LatAm Journalism Review).
While killings represent the most extreme facet of the threats facing journalists in Mexico, their labor is undermined in many other ways. Violence in Mexico, as in the U.S. and elsewhere, is structured by deep social and economic inequalities created by global capitalism. The dangers journalists face in Mexico must be understood in the context of precarity and low wages.
The Mexican minimum wage for reporters is $19 a day. On average, a journalist in the U.S. makes the same amount in one hour. The income disparity experienced by journalists in México mirrors that of their counterparts in other trades, who are severely underpaid compared to their colleagues north of the border. Low wages are part of what has caused so many to leave behind careers in México and seek work, sometimes as undocumented laborers, in the United States.
Low pay increases risks for media workers, who are often overworked and unable to take proper security measures due to a lack of resources. Journalists often have to take other jobs to get by. This was the case for Juan Carlos Muñiz, who was working his second job as a cab driver when he was killed in the state of Zacatecas in March (Los Noticierias).
Killings in Mexico —of journalists or otherwise— are often presented as the result of cartel activity. But the situation on the ground is much more complicated and often tied to the militarization of state and federal security forces, which has been accentuated by D.C.’s support for using force against suspected narcotics traffickers.
Journalists working in México are more at risk today than before the ramping up of the war on drugs. The U.S. continues financially and politically supporting the drug war, including training Mexican security forces involved in massacres and other crimes (Vice, Vice). The U.S. is the largest market for narcotics sales anywhere in the world, incentivizing smugglers and traffickers to continue to move their product north, no matter the cost. Both factors contributed to the alarming militarization and paramilitarization of México, making journalism a dangerous—and sometimes deadly—job.
As of last year, 467 journalists who have been kidnapped, threatened, or physically attacked were enrolled in a protection mechanism set up by México’s federal government. The measures introduced by the protection mechanism fall short of what journalists need to stay safe. Some are assigned security guards and provided police drive-bys. Around 300 journalists were given a “panic button” last year, a pager-like device meant to signal for help should a reporter be in danger. As of last year, at least seven journalists meant to be receiving protection under the mechanism were murdered. In 2020, over half of the journalists enrolled in the protection mechanism said the aggressions they faced came from public servants. State forces and government institutions, including those receiving direct U.S. support, also rely on force to shape the media and are connected with criminal groups (NPR).
Beyond the direct, human toll of the violence, attacks on journalists in Mexico impact our ability to understand what is taking place in the lives, and struggles, of millions just across the border.
• Mexico is one of the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists.
• The United States helps create these conditions by supporting the Mexican drug war, training security forces that commit massacres, and providing the world’s largest market for drugs.
• Journalists are also at risk because of the severe economic disparities between the U.S. and Mexico, two countries whose economic and political systems are deeply integrated.