Violence Against Journalists in Mexico: An Interview With Laura Castellanos

Aggression against journalists in Mexico often gets lost in the murky impunity of the country’s violent drug war. However, a report by Mexican freedom-of-the-press organizations asserts that 65% of attacks on journalists have been not at the hands of drug cartels, but rather at the hands of the state. This interview is with independent journalist and writer Laura Castellanos. On May 10 still-unknown assailants ransacked her apartment, stealing only her laptop and reporter's pad, while leaving other items of value behind. Castellanos's experience is only one more incident in the recent surge of violence against journalists in Mexico, the most dangerous place for the profession in Latin America, according to Reporters Without Borders.

Paola Reyes

Aggression against journalists in Mexico often gets lost in the murky impunity of the country’s violent drug war. However, a report by Mexican non-governmental organizations, Artículo 19 and The National Center for Social Communication (CENCOS), asserts that 65% of attacks on journalists have been not at the hands of drug cartels, but rather at the hands of the state. According to the freedom-of-the-press group Reporters Without Borders, Mexico has become the most dangerous Latin American country for journalists.

On May 10 still-unknown perpetrators ransacked independent journalist and writer Laura Castellanos's Mexico City apartment while she was traveling in Paris to promote her new book México Armado. After defecating in her toilet they stole her laptop and a reporter’s pad with journalistic notes. Items of value were left behind, which has led many to believe that it was a personal attack and not a random burglary. This crime marked the culmination of a long list of intimidations suffered by Castellanos as a result of her politically motivated writing.

Castellanos's experience, however, is only one more incident in the recent surge of violence against journalists in Mexico. On May 6, two journalists for the magazine Contralínea were among those injured in a paramilitary attack against an international human rights caravan in Oaxaca that resulted in the death of two activists. As Castellanos comments in an email to an independent media network, independent journalists are particularly affected by this violence due to the lack of coverage of their cases. “. . . I wanted to make the case public and say: I hereby hold the government of Felipe Calderón responsible for any actions taken against my physical integrity or that of my family,” she wrote, “I continue with my pen in my hand.”

Castellanos is the author of México Armado, a historical work on guerrillas and state violence in Mexico from 1943-1981, and Corte de Caja, an interview with Subcomandante Marcos of the Zapatista National Liberation Army. She is currently a contributing writer for Gatopardo Magazine. She was interviewed on June 5 by Paola Reyes.

There is a lot of discussion about how it has become more dangerous to be a journalist, particularly an independent journalist, in Mexico in recent years. Do you perceive this to be true? If you do, since when do you perceive the change and in what sense has it become more dangerous?

Journalist associations and networks report an increase in the number of killings, kidnappings, and aggressions against journalists since the change of government in 2000, when the National Action Party (PAN, the political party of Mexican president Felipe Calderon and his predecessor, Vicente Fox) came to power. More than 60 journalists have been killed in the country between then and now. The advocacy group Artículo 19 says that since Felipe Calderón became president in 2006, 14 journalists have been killed and one disappeared.

You brought a legal suit before the Special Commission for Crimes Against Journalists, which is part of the Federal Attorney General´s Office (PGR), and another one before the National Commission on Human Rights regarding the burglary of your home. What do you hope to gain from making those legal claims?

I do not expect anything from government institutions since up until now they have treated the cases of killed, disappeared, and harassed journalists with complete impunity. I went to the PGR to place a claim so that there would be a legal precedent in case I am a victim of another attack.

Another freedom-of-the-press group, CENCOS, published an alert on May 27 asking for "the Mexican state to create an emergency mechanism to protect journalists at risk." Do you think that this would resolve, or at least diminish, the violence against independent journalists?

That is the opinion of Artículo 19 (CENCOS republished it). In my opinion, the state should stop harassing journalists, investigate cases of assassinations and forced disappearances, and in that way protect freedom of speech; over and above creating an emergency mechanism to protect investigative reporters.

In 2006, there was an attempt to adopt the Phoenix Project (Proyecto Fenix), in which 65 newspapers agreed that if a journalist were intimidated for writing an investigative piece, the other journalists would expand the investigation. Do you think that this model would be effective in combating crimes against journalists?

As far as I know, the Phoenix Project ended. Of course it would be effective to have a project for the protection of journalists but on a national level and not just at the border, and not just to protect reporters working on the drug war, but also on politics and human rights. It should also protect independent journalists. A similar project in Colombia was able to stop the attacks against, and killings of, media personnel.

What other ways can journalists protect themselves?

Create networks among the press, seek to expand awareness to editors and co-workers, join other independent media, and organize workshops on how to follow security measures.

Do you think that journalists are censuring themselves?

We can't generalize. Every case is different. In my own case, for example, I didn't censure myself. I sent out the alert but I didn't find solidarity in a lot of national media sources that I contacted. Exceptions were La Jornada, Excelsior, Milenio, and the broadcasting station Radio Red.

In a country where the freedom of the press is threatened, whose responsibility is it to expose the existing political reality?

The responsibility to expose the political reality of a country is that of the press, and the responsibility to ensure freedom of expression and the right to read and hear the truth is that of the state.

A good part of your work México Armado focuses on state violence and impunity during the 1970s in Mexico. How do you see state violence and impunity in today's context, particularly considering what you just experienced?

The cases of state violence during the twentieth century were treated with impunity in Mexico. Nothing changed with the PAN in power. Now it is worrisome that the state criminalizes radical and guerrilla movements, in its strategy against drug trafficking. If we add to this the fracture of the left and the allegiance of the Revolutionary Democratic Party (PRD) [Mexico’s center-left political party] with the PAN in the electoral context, we are talking about a moment of great vulnerability for Mexican social movements.


Paola Reyes is a NACLA Research Associate

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