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US-Backed Drug War Fuels Murders of Journalists in Mexico

A wave of murdered journalists has raised international alarm and prompted nationwide protests.

We go to Tijuana, Mexico, where a wave of murdered journalists has raised international alarm and prompted nationwide protests. The three most recently murdered are José Luis Gamboa Arenas, Alfonso Margarito Martínez Esquivel and Lourdes Maldonado López. We speak with Jan-Albert Hootsen, Mexico correspondent at the Committee to Protect Journalists, who attended López’s funeral on Thursday in Tijuana and says Mexican authorities’ investigations and security measures have proven “woefully insufficient.” He adds that violence against journalists exploded after the Mexican government launched its U.S.-backed war on drugs. “The United States is a player in this violence, whether it likes it or not.”


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We begin today’s show in Mexico, where a wave of murders of journalists in the last two weeks prompted reporters and their supporters to take to the streets in protests nationwide Tuesday.

PALOMAR FIERRO: [translated] I’m here with a lot of grief, because more than 100 journalists have been murdered in the last couple of years, no matter how many times we’ve protested. I was in several protests, one in 2008 dubbed “We want to be alive,” one right after the killing of Javier Valdez. Despite all our protests, the killing of journalists continues. I come here with more sadness than indignation.

AMY GOODMAN: Mexico is one of the deadliest countries in the world for journalists. Yesterday, people gathered in Tijuana, a city bordering the United States, for the funeral of reporter Lourdes Maldonado López, a well-known broadcast journalist, who had already faced multiple attacks on her life when she was shot dead in front of her home Sunday. She was the third Mexican reporter killed in the first weeks of 2022. On January 17th, another Tijuana journalist, Margarito Martínez, was shot dead in front of his residence after he had just returned from an assignment. He covered police and crime and worked as a fixer for international media. On January 10th, the body of reporter José Luis Gamboa was found in the state of Veracruz after he was stabbed to death.

The murder of Lourdes Maldonado has drawn widespread attention. She was reportedly enrolled in a protection program for journalists overseen by the Mexican government. She had a panic button in her house. In 2019, she went to a press briefing with the Mexican president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, and pleaded for his help.

LOURDES MALDONADO LÓPEZ: [translated] I am here asking for your support, for your help and labor justice, because I fear for my life. I know that there’s nothing I can do against the corruption I’m experiencing in Tijuana and with this powerful person without your support, Mr. President.

AMY GOODMAN: That was 2019. This is Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador responding this week to the murder of Lourdes Maldonado.

PRESIDENT ANDRÉS MANUEL LÓPEZ OBRADOR: [translated] I wanted to address this murder, deplorable and painful like many other cases, but this one in particular. We are going to investigate thoroughly. I’m saying this because yesterday there were reports that she was here, reports saying she went to the president asking for protection, and now look what happened, as if we dismissed her, as if we didn’t care and left her without protection.

AMY GOODMAN: This comes as Lourdes’s dog refused to move from guarding the entrance to her home this week, after she was killed.

For more on the calls from Mexican authorities to investigate these killings and what should be done, we go to Tijuana to speak with Jan-Albert Hootsen. He’s the Mexico correspondent for the Committee to Protect Journalists. He attended Lourdes’s funeral yesterday.

Welcome back to Democracy Now!, Jan. This is a horrible loss for so many, not only in Mexico. You were at the funeral. Can you describe it for us? You spent time with the family. Tell us who was there and what the family is demanding.

JANALBERT HOOTSEN: Hi. Thanks to be here.

Yes, I was yesterday at Lourdes’s funeral here in Tijuana. It was a relatively small-scale event. I think there were about 40 people, and at least half of them were journalists. It’s a big story here in Tijuana because most of the journalists here in the city actually knew Lourdes. So, for them, it was extra tragic. They had to gather at the graveyard here in Tijuana and basically cover the murder of their own friend and colleague.

The family of Lourdes was there. There were family members from the United States, who lived in San Diego, just across the border, and family members from here from Tijuana. They spoke briefly with the media amongst myself. And they were asking for justice. Her brothers said that they forgave the people who did this, and otherwise they are very anxiously waiting for the Mexican authorities to provide them with an update about what happened.

And I think, going back to your other question, what should be done, I think that’s the first thing that should be done. Authorities here in the state of Baja California need to provide clarity on who might be involved and what might be the motive behind this killing, because we don’t know that so far.

AMY GOODMAN: So, can you talk about the kind of reporting that she did, and also the fact that she had a panic button in her house?

JANALBERT HOOTSEN: Sure. She was a online radio and television show host. She worked for a streaming provider called Sintoniza Sin Fronteras. And as such, she had several shows each week, in which she was heard commenting on local events. She never pulled any punches. It was about politics. It was about crime and security, Tijuana being one of the most dangerous cities in Mexico right now. She also addressed the murder of her colleague Margarito Martínez one week earlier.

And according to the Baja California state authorities, which I spoke with earlier this week, she was enrolled in a protection scheme, and she had a panic button at home in her house. But, you know, at 7 p.m., when she got back, when she was attacked, apparently she didn’t have the panic button with her. And another thing that actually we need more clarity about is that the Baja California state authorities told me that she had regular police check-ins, meaning a patrol car would check in with her residence every once in a while to see if she was OK. And apparently this wasn’t enough, and they were not present at the time when she was attacked. So, this means that whatever security measures the Mexican state had provided her, they’ve been woefully insufficient.

AMY GOODMAN: One of Lourdes Maldonado’s last broadcasts was January 19th. It was dedicated to the Tijuana photojournalist, Jan, who you just mentioned, Margarito Martínez, who was assassinated outside his home last week. This is a clip of Lourdes on her own program Brebaje, which means “Potion,” paying homage to Margarito, not knowing she’d be killed days later herself.

LOURDES MALDONADO LÓPEZ: [translated] Margarito’s death, his assassination, has left a big hole in journalism. He was recognized around the world for his work, reporting on the violence in Baja California, on the murders. He had tremendous knowledge on these issues.

AMY GOODMAN: Jan-Albert Hootsen, you know, we, in addition to having you on, were trying to reach some Mexican journalists in Tijuana, but no one would come on, fearful for what it could mean, how much danger they face. Can you talk about the danger they face and what this federal protection program is for journalists and why one is needed in Mexico, why it’s one of the deadliest places in the world for media workers?

JANALBERT HOOTSEN: Sure. I was actually yesterday at the home of Margarito Martínez. I spoke with his wife for quite a long time. The place where he was killed, it’s very chilling. You walk up to her home, and there is a spot, a very large spot, that was very clearly cleaned, with flowers and with candles standing right next to it, sort of like a silent witness to what happened to Margarito.

And the kind of journalism that Margarito Martínez was specialized in was the crime and security beat. What he did is he would get up in the morning and listen to radio frequencies of the Tijuana municipal and Baja California state police, as well as the Red Cross. And whenever any incident would come in — Tijuana has on average five homicides a day — then he would jump in his car and just go to the place where the incident was reported, get out as soon as he can, take pictures, drive back home and then upload those pictures to one of the — one or more of his many employers. And that particular kind of journalism is quite dangerous in Mexico, and especially Tijuana, because it happens very often that when a journalist takes photos of these incidents, there might be someone there who doesn’t like them to do it — for example, gang members or the family members of the people who were killed, who were shot. And journalists will be followed. They will be harassed by the police. They might receive death threats. So, it’s really a daily struggle for people like Margarito.

And one of the things that I think is very important, and which I think the Mexican state needs to clarify, is that Margarito actually got in touch with the Federal Mechanism for the Protection of Journalists and Human Rights Defenders. That’s an institution that functions under the coordination of the Mexican federal government. It was created 10 years ago this year. And it is a small institution that’s focused on coordinating protection efforts with state governments and with federal agencies. The problem with this mechanism is that it’s woefully insufficient. It’s highly centralized in Mexico City; it doesn’t have any regional representation in Mexico. And even if it were — even if it did have enough money, which it really doesn’t, because it’s only working with a budget of approximately just over 15 million U.S. dollars a year — even if it had enough money, and even if it had enough public officials working for it that were well trained, then there was still the issue of impunity, the issue of crimes not being properly investigated by the Mexican authorities, which is what keeps incentivizing these killings. Apologies for the background noise —I’m here in Tijuana, and there’s a little bit of a siren back there just now.

AMY GOODMAN: We totally understand. Can you talk about the effect of the U.S.-backed so-called war on drugs, its rise in Mexico, and whether it is connected to violence against journalists and human rights defenders?

JANALBERT HOOTSEN: There’s a case of, about five years ago, the murder of a journalist, Miroslava Breach, in the northern Mexican state of Chihuahua. And in the years after she was murdered — she was a correspondent for national newspaper La Jornada — there have been numerous investigations into the circumstances of her death, and one of those investigations focused on the ballistic evidence. And the people who looked into that, they were able to link the murder weapon, the pistol Miroslava Breach was killed with, directly to the United States. It was a gun that was bought across the border, smuggled into Mexico and then used for numerous crimes, including the murder of Miroslava Breach.

In the case of the murder of Margarito, Baja California state authorities have already been able to link that gun to at least five crimes. And there’s a very high probability that that gun, too, has been smuggled into Mexico and then used by criminal gangs here.

I think we cannot see the violence against journalists in Mexico as something independent from the war on drugs, because the numbers, at CPJ, that we have indicate that the violence against journalists exploded just at a time when Mexico declared its U.S.-backed drug war against organized crime groups. The United States is a player in this violence, whether it likes it or not, because this is a transnational problem, and we just have no other way than to view the war on drugs as probably the main factor that fuels this violence from a sort of transnational, international perspective.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, USA Today reports the Mexican government estimates more than half a million guns are smuggled from the U.S. each year. Can you end on that note, Jan-Albert?

JANALBERT HOOTSEN: Absolutely. One of my colleagues, Ioan Grillo, a British reporter here in Mexico, actually wrote a book about that called The Iron River. And it’s a phenomenon that is apparently unstoppable. There are so many guns flowing southward. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of gun stores just across the border. The ease with which smugglers can buy guns in the United States and then smuggle them over the border to Mexico is staggering.

And the current government under President López Obrador has actually been very vocal about the United States having to take measures against that. I think it’s a very tall order. It is a matter of bilateral cooperation. In the United States, there isn’t a lot of incentive currently to change it, you know, despite all the mass shootings in the U.S., but I don’t think there’s any other way than to — to drop the violence than to at least address this issue in a bilateral sense.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Jan-Albert Hootsen, we want to thank you so much for being with us, Dutch journalist and Mexico correspondent at the Committee to Protect Journalists, speaking to us from Tijuana, where Lourdes Maldonado was just memorialized at her funeral yesterday. She is one of three journalists to have been murdered in Mexico so far this year, in the first weeks of 2022.

Next up, we go to Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood in occupied East Jerusalem, where Israeli forces recently evicted a Palestinian family and demolished their home. We’ll speak to the Sheikh Jarrah resident Mohammed El-Kurd, well-known Palestinian poet and activist. Stay with us.

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