(Translated from the Spanish by Patrick Timmons. Leer en español)
On March 23, I began to receive messages about the murder of Miroslava Breach in the city of Chihuahua, my hometown. It’s still where my family lives. The news made me violently shake. I felt like there was a dead bird in my throat producing a silent wail like a hiccup, along with a layer of ice under my skin. Miroslava dead? How dare they kill such an important journalist, I asked myself, as though trapped in a web of senselessness? The news did not seem incredible to me because death has become usual for Mexico’s journalists. We have also had to train ourselves to bury colleagues. My second reaction (that later I realized was the same as many of my friends) was to think about Patricia Mayorga, Paty, my friend, the brave journalist who dared write for Proceso magazine about narcopolitics and the advance of the drug cartels. The same subjects Miroslava covered for the newspaper La Jornada.
For several hours Paty did not answer messages. That morning news outlets published pictures of Miroslava’s truck in the driveway to her house; she was murdered just as she was readying her car to take her son to school. The alleged assassin, a narco called “El Ochenta,” placed a sign beside her saying she was killed for her big mouth. Paty was reporting on auto pilot, the thing she had to do to avoid being overcome by a pain, she told me later, that turned into rage.
I logged onto social media like a person possessed. I started by writing on my Facebook page. Then I took to Twitter. I wrote because this murder wasn’t just another murder. It had to concern us. Miroslava was important and so were the beats she covered: the Army and police abuse against the Rarámuri and the Ódame of Chihuahua; corrupt politicians; the indigenous people and their expulsion from the land. Over the past few months she wrote about the drug cartels and their fatal power to force people into slavery or to flee, all the while colluding with local politicians.
I can’t explain why it is that when I learn of the death of a colleague whom either I did or did not know, their case touches me deeply and I always turn to social media. It’s like there is something inside me that needs to make noise in the first hours after the crime, letting people know who the victim was. It’s how I try to make sure they do not get lost in anonymity. That is what happens to most of those murdered. As if shouting references about a murdered colleague can help us get closer to some sort of justice, helping us avoid the impunity marking the fates of many journalists throughout this country.
Miroslava Breach—Miros is what her friends called her. She is one of the seven journalists murdered in 2017 in Mexico. She was the Chihuahua correspondent for newspaper La Jornada since 1997. She was the journalist I read to learn about what was going on in my home state when I moved to Mexico City. She was one of the few who – in spite of the death threats she received – published what others would not dare to print.
I knew Miroslava only a little. But I know Paty very well. She is the friend who always invites me out when I go home to Chihuahua. She brings me up to speed with everything going on in the state. People call for her help from all over the Sierra Tarahumara. These people know about the shootouts, the massacres, the expulsions from villages or the disappearances the government denies and about which the press refuses to report. I read Paty fervently because she reports for Proceso, where we both work, and a couple of times like a coward I have called her to tell her that her reports on the violence scare me and to ask her if she is not afraid. But Paty, just like Miroslava, never stopped publishing.
The statistics journalists now know by heart state that Mexico is where the largest number of journalists die for a country not at war: 120 journalists have been murdered and more than 23 more have gone missing since 2000. Almost all of these crimes, 99 percent, linger in impunity.
In Mexico, many committed journalists are not just murdered, disappeared or threatened. We don’t know how many are spied on, how many have been tortured, or how many have been displaced or exiled.
Every time a journalist is murdered things happen that remain in the shadows. Freedom of the press organizations have had to remove (temporarily or permanently) colleagues under threat. Terror runs through the profession so some desert its ranks. Others respond by staying at home. Still more censor themselves and some confront the fear head on, risking themselves. Unease overwhelms the public. Once again, silence gains ground.
In Chihuahua Paty Mayorga was one of those who had to leave the country. Three months after her exile the conditions still do not exist for her safe return: The state of Chihuahua and the federal government cannot guarantee her security.
Before fleeing Mexico, Paty went to Mexico City to see a group of indigenous rights defenders she covers, to thank them, to say farewell. A few days’ later colleagues and friends said goodbye to her at a private gathering. We avoided farewells because we know that she will return.
That night we cried. It is not easy to say goodbye to a friend. But that sadness also came with the certainty she would be safe, secure and still around, notwithstanding the distance.
But that evening, in spite of the sadness, I felt lucky. We were able to hug Paty, to wish her good luck for the next place in her journey. We are sure that she will continue to learn and gather her strength. To wish her farewell was a luxury that we have not had in this freedom of expression crisis. We often learn after the fact about a colleague or friend who has had to leave, when we hear news of their travels in strange lands, places where they have to start over, looking for work again and dealing with the uncertainty of not having a return date.
The friends who have to disappear to save their lives often turn into ghosts. They are like satellites spinning around us. Although they are absent, they always feel like they are with us because we could never say goodbye or wish them a safe trip. These are costs the statistics never reflect.
The night that we wished Paty farewell, we also discovered the house was full of reporters from Chihuahua. There’s no space for them as journalists there. Chihuahua lacks independent outlets, or they have to move for financial reasons, so they came to Mexico City. Several of them belong to the Chihuahua Network of Independent Journalists (Red Periodismo Libre de Chihuahua) that Paty founded years ago to help journalists who were suffocating under the control of a mafia installed in the state government. The governor at the time was César Duarte, who had denied the violence in the Chihuahua sierra and is currently under investigation for corruption.
Miroslava’s murder still has not been solved.
We oppose the idea that only drug traffickers are to blame for her murder; the crime has all the hallmarks of narcopolitics.
Last June 23, in front of the Chihuahua State Government offices, beside a civic monument called La Cruz de Clavos (Cross of Nails), citizens and journalists from Chihuahua gathered to remember Miroslava Breach three months on from her murder. That day I missed Paty.
There, to honor Miroslava the Mexico Representative of the Mexico Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Jan Jarab, and the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, Edison Lanza, laid a wreath of flowers. They approached her inconsolable sister to embrace her and pass on their condolences. “She is one of journalism’s heroes. Her murder deprives us of an extraordinary life in service of others and denies readers their right to be informed,” Lanza said. The Special Rapporteur recognized that in her reports she gave “voice” to some of the most vulnerable groups and her brave work denounced organized crime. Jarab remembered that in his last visit to Chihuahua, and right there at the Cross of Nails where the murders of women, femicides, are commemorated, Miroslava approached him for an interview. He mentioned her extraordinary bravery as a journalist, a defender of indigenous peoples, and a great example of investigative journalism.
A day later, the U.S. organization Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE) awarded the Don Bolles Medal to Miroslava Breach. IRE values her as “a symbol of the threats that Mexican journalists face when they investigate.”
Miroslava is the first journalist to receive this new award and, according to IRE, it recognizes “investigative journalists who have exhibited extraordinary courage in standing up against intimidation or efforts to suppress the truth about matters of public importance.”
The medal bears the name of the investigative reporter from the Arizona Republic, Don Bolles, who was murdered by a car bomb in 1976. Miroslava came from a line of deserving investigative reporters who have been murdered for exposing the truth: Don Bolles for investigating the ties between politicians and organized crime, Miroslava Breach for exposing the ties between politicians and drug traffickers.