For years Mexican journalists have been literally caught in a cross-fire between drug gangs and the so-called government authorities who say they will stop the criminals. After many unsolved killings of their peers, those journalists are finally taking charge.
Photo by John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, CC
Mexico's largest industry by far is the drug trade, at an estimated $35 billion each year. Fighting drug gangs and taking bribes from them is another massive industry.
The drug trade has radically altered Mexico as a nation and robbed it of hope for a future.
Caught in the middle are ordinary Mexicans and the journalists who try to report on what is happening to their country.
The assassination of veteran reporter Javier Valdez on May 15 has launched an unprecedented response to do something about journalists’ deaths from the drug wars. This time, that response is not coming from the authorities, though. It is coming from the journalists themselves.
Valdez was like one of many who had been targeted in Mexico. He ran and was the co-founder of the only independent newspaper in Culiacán, a town located in the center of where the Sinaloa cartel is situated and a major part of the country’s drug war violence has taken place. Just three months before his death, Valdez had interviewed someone close to Dámaso López, a former close ally of well-known drug lord “El Chapo” Guzmán. The story claimed that López had been planning the takeover of territory controlled by the Sinaloa cartel, only to be captured by authorities in early May.
The rumor of the story Valdez planned to put in print was enough to enrage Guzmán’s sons. They warned Valdez not to publish the interview, but he went ahead anyway, despite those warnings. He did so in part because he was so public in what he was doing as well as one of the most highly respected in his craft.
That was not enough to protect him. On May 15, Valdez’s car was ambushed in broad daylight. He was yanked from his car and killed during daylight hours near his office in Culiacán. Few leads as to precisely who killed him have been found, but those who know Valdez well believe the Sinaloa cartel as well as corrupt Mexican federal authorities are likely behind the murder.
Journalists in Mexico who have aggressively investigated corruption in the government and the drug cartels have paid dearly for their efforts. Since the year 2000, the Mexican government has officially logged 114 murders of journalists. Yet it has investigated only 48 of these and only three sentences have resulted from those investigations.
Besides the 114 journalists killed since 2000, those that survived were threatened on a regular basis. A human rights report on the matter, prepared by the U.S. State Department, said: “Journalists were sometimes subject to physical attacks, harassment, and intimidation due to their reporting. Perpetrators of violence against journalists continued to act with impunity with few reports of successful investigation, arrest, or prosecution of suspects.”
While the journalists fought their battles with words and the drug cartel with bullets, the Mexican government, riddled with corruption in its ranks, was having little success doing much of anything to stop the drug business.
The United States Makes a Mess of Things in Mexico
The United States, home of many of the eventual users and buyers of the illegal drugs brought out of Mexico, has stepped up efforts to stop some of the cartels. Many, however, see what the United States has done as having at best stirred up the bloody fighting in the drug wars there and at worst having provided aid to some of those responsible for those drugs.
Part of the U.S. approach, revealed both in declassified State Department documents and government leaks, has been to arm and fund the Mexican military over the years to fight the drug wars, while also arming the cartels.
This included what has been named the Mérida Initiative, a program co-developed in 2007 by former Mexican President Felipe Calderón and then U.S. President George W. Bush. It was launched in 2008 as a “security assistance program and counter-drug aid package.” Since that time, it has expanded significantly under Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and even continues today in full force, fueled in part by Donald Trump’s fiery antagonism toward Mexico over many issues.
The money the United States has paid for this program runs to at least $2.6 billion and likely more. It includes funds used directly by the Pentagon and the Justice Department, but much of it rolls through U.S.-based security firms that provide – at high profits and therefore high costs to American taxpayers – sophisticated training for Mexican security organizations along with a variety of kinds of equipment. That equipment includes advanced helicopters, intelligence equipment, armed vehicles, surveillance aircraft, night-vision systems and satellite technology. Another billion dollars or so is also provided to Mexico, with the blessing of Uncle Sam north of the border via weapons contractors in the form of direct sales of arms and munitions.
As to how these were to be used, the United States asked Mexico to pursue a “kill or capture” targeting strategy against the drug-cartel leaders in Mexico. It even borrowed a few tricks from the so-called “high-value targeting,” or “HVT,” operations used in the past two decades in Iraq, Afghanistan and more.
Like those strategies in the Middle East, the approaches the United States brought to Mexico – and bought and paid for with American taxpayer funds – often ended up mostly stirring the hornet’s nests of the drug cartels without killing most of them. As noted in formerly classified files on one example of this – files released under a Freedom of Information Act request – in 2010 one of those high-value killings, of Ignacio “Nacho” Coronel Villarreal, who was one of the Sinaloa cartel’s four main leaders, ended up lighting the fuse to a major increase in fighting afterwards in 2010. That fighting was between the Zetas and other organized criminal organizations who saw an opportunity in the void and the remaining Sinaloa cartel forces who fought to retain their ground.
As the United States invested further, it stumbled further into what it was attempting to do and created even more trouble. In 2010, drug trafficking organizations flourished in the face of what U.S. Embassy officials called “compromised local security forces” in the northeastern part of Mexico. Yet the United States continued to flow weapons and military warfare into the region, often ending up training some stage and local officials already in the pockets of the Zetas. The revolving door out of the Mexican political, police and military forces continued in the background, with occasional arrests of retired law enforcement officials in places like Nuevo León mostly only shining a light on how the United States was in fact assisting the corrupt to be more successful in their crimes.
As another example of the United States creating more havoc just by its involvement, take the case of what is known as the Allende massacre. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) had managed to convince a member of the Zetas group to get them the cellphone identification numbers for two of that group’s most wanted: Miguel Ángel Treviño Morales and his brother Omar. The DEA, seeing an opportunity, shared the information secured from those cellphones with a Mexican police unit already flagged for internal corruption and leaks to the cartel. Then that information got leaked.
The Treviño Morales brothers, knowing someone had betrayed them and having a good idea of who had done it, then launched their own mini-war resulting in the brutal torture and killing of those they suspected of leaking the information, along with their families and anyone else close to them.
The vengeance the brothers exacted on those who had spilled the information to the DEA was quick, savage and brutal. As José Juan Morales, the investigative director for “the disappeared,” as they are called, in the Coahuila State Prosecutor’s Office, described it, “We have testimony from people who say they participated in the crime. They describe some 50 trucks arriving in Allende, carrying people connected to the cartel. They broke into houses and looted and burned them. Afterwards, they kidnapped the people who lived in those houses and took them to a ranch just outside of Allende. First, they killed them. They put them inside a storage shed filled with hay. They doused them with fuel and lit them on fire, feeding the flames for hours and hours.”
The Rise of Indigenous Power and the Evolution of the Zapatistas
In the face of the Mexican drug wars and government corruption, some have sought out other ways to deal with the crisis. A recent one came in the form of the selection of María de Jesús Patricio “Marichui” Martinez, a prominent indigenous leader in the country, as an independent candidate representing the National Indigenous Congress in the next Mexican presidential elections, in 2018.
What makes the choice of Martinez so unusual was that she will be backed this time by the Zapatista Army of National Liberation, most commonly known by the Spanish acronym EZLN. The Zapatistas have fought against the Mexican state and its corrupt politics for over two decades, first becoming known internationally when they attacked several Mexican military installations on January 1, 1994, on behalf of the indigenous peoples against NAFTA and conditions in Mexico. While the Zapatistas have made some progress in fighting for their causes, they have seen massive repression from the Mexican and local governments, private landowners and others and have had to operate as outlaws of the state.
This time, they are taking a different path and have chosen to support Martinez to drive a major change in the way politics is run in the country. Martinez, who has strong backing from the indigenous peoples across the country, is a traditional doctor in her local town of Tuxpan, a Nahua community in the state of Jalisco. She also founded Calli Tecolhuacateca Tochan, an important health center there since 1992, and is a long-term leader of her people.
The Journalists Fight Back
For the journalists who continue to fight their own dangerous war of words against the drug cartels, working with the government to stop their killings and find justice for those who have died has been fruitless, for the most part. With the government itself implicated in the crimes and few willing to have the courage to face those responsible for the deaths, reporters across the affected regions have banded together to address the situation.
From June 14 to 16, over 400 of those journalists came together in Mexico City to discuss how best to deal with their attackers and to create plans for all. As the Agenda de Periodistas (Journalists’ Agenda) website (agendadeperiodistas.mx) describes the gathering, “Given the context of systemic violence against journalists … we invite all people interested to participate in building an agenda with short- and medium-term goals to protect journalists.”
The event was pulled together by Horizontal Digital and assisted in facilitation by Fundación Ciudadano Inteligente of Chile. It was structured in the form of six working groups, all involved in how to protect journalists and the critical need for freedom of expression in Mexico. Many approaches were discussed, and more will be considered in the days to come, with one participant, journalist Marcela Turati Muñoz, who described it well when she said that “these dialogues have raised the anchor and filled the sail, ready to navigate the dream barely begun.”
What the movement and the gathering did accomplish was to bring those journalists challenging the crimes around them together.
Javier Valdez, the journalist whose death galvanized the new movement to happen, was equally driven to do something big about the brutality and corruption surrounding the deaths of his colleagues. When Miroslava Breach Velducea, a journalist associate, was assassinated in March just like he was later, he said, perhaps fatefully but in words that are burned into all in his profession now: “Let them kill us all, if that is the death sentence for reporting this hell. No to silence.”
Americans won't stop taking illegal drugs and empowering the deadly drug cartels so the only solution is to legalize and regulate narcotics. By making them legal but taxed the drug trade can go from a horrific drain on society and source of misery and death to a significant source of revenue for addiction treatment programs.