Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The American Iraq: Mexican Journalists in Mortal Jeopardy

Just three of dozens of journalists killed in Mexico since 1992. From clockwise, Bradley Will, Valentin Valdes Espinosa, Armando Rodriguez Carreon.

It's easy to see the impact of the drug war in Mexico.

Just look for dead bodies.

And nameless ones at that. Author Charles Bowden found that nobody in Juarez, Mexico's murder city, could bother naming them, not even the forensics experts, after about 2008. And yet there they are all around, heads on street corners, bodies dumped in towns, and turfed on the outskirts of towns, kept out of the way, or in plain sight. And then there are the mass graves. Over the past weekend, Mexican authorities found a fifty-one cadaver mass grave in Nuevo Leon. Some of the corpses had been burned in steel drums.

So it's easy to see the impact of the drug war-- all the blood, all the gore, all the teary eyes, all the headless bodies. It's easy to hear all the political platitudes.

But it's not easy to see what Mexico has lost in the bloodshed. Ignominy and silence overwhelm a record of the victims' potential as human beings, voices often silenced in processes that begin with threats, continue with kidnap, confront torture, and end with death. And once the dead body appears nobody much cares, making the virulent cycle dangerous, offering no closure.

A specific way to inquire about what Mexicans have lost, what the effects of their government's U.S.-sponsored war won't have access to in the future, is to look at the journalists killed. People who investigate, collate, write, and broadcast the news in Mexico's northern, border, and drug producing or transshipment states have been favored targets in the narco-war between police, the army, and the drug trafficking organizations. The problem for journalists in Mexico is that the issues of reporting interest matter too much to the violent actors in the conflict, and all, even the government, would rather silence to news coverage. In a few years, Mexico has become an Iraq in the Americas.

Mexico is now the most dangerous place in the Western Hemisphere for a journalist to work. Reporters without Borders estimates that since 2000, fifty-five journalists have died. Another organization, the Committee to Protect Journalists totals thirty journalists dead in Mexico from 2006. In testimony in June 2010 before the US Congress's House Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, Committee on Foreign Affairs, CPJ executive director Joel Simon described the unifying features of the slaughtered journalists:

"Most of them are local reporters covering drug trafficking, crime, or corruption. Impunity for these crimes is nearly complete. Pervasive self-censorship, a devastating effect of this wave of unprecedented violence, is undermining the basic right to freedom of expression."

Even the UN has tried to become involved, decrying journalists' murders and urging the prosecution of their killers. Recently, Irinia Bokova, director of UNESCO, commented on the late June 2010 joint slaying of a journalist husband and wife team in the State of Guerrero.

"These two new murders again marred a profession," said Bokova. "I urge the Mexican authorities to do everything in their power to find those responsible and bring them to justice because such crimes must not go unpunished."
Bokova spoke in the wake of the case of Juan Francisco Rodriguez Rios and his wife Maria Elvira Hernandez Galeana. These journalists died at work in their cyber cafe. Rios served as a leader in the state chapter of the National Union of Press Editors. He had recently railed against the harassment of journalists. It may have cost him his life and that of his journalist partner.

And now, to the story of dozens of journalists' disappearances, comes confirmation of the abduction of four more in Durango. Recently, the state has been riven by violence, but none as dramatic as the confirmation from Mexico's Attorney General that the director of the local prison allowed her charges to leave the prison to commit an act of mass violence. The BBC writes that the four kidnapped journalists were investigating recent instances of protests in the prison.

Investigation. Outspokenness. A desire for justice. Commitment to reporting facts. Horror at the costs of the drug war. A need to make Mexico matter. An interest in stopping government impunity. The need to tell a good story.

Among other things, Mexico has lost a significant number of people willing to make the country a better place. That statement's true of journalists. But it's equally true of many of the 25,000 who have died so far. It's just that we don't know their names. And we may not, since the journalists seeking those names are either dead or maybe among those seeking asylum.

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