The WhatsApp group filled with messages from a new emergency: a group of armed men stopped three reporters, threatened them, and stole their cameras and cell phones. The reporters had been traveling with Marichuy Patricio Martínez, an indigenous woman and representative of the National Indigenous Council, who has been on the road for months gathering signatures in a bid to register as an independent candidate in the upcoming 2018 Mexican presidential elections. On Sunday, January 21, she and the caravan accompanying her were traveling through the Tierra Caliente region in the state of Michoacán.
The journalists’ car brought up the tail of the caravan. The photographers were taking pictures of the countryside at dusk when an SUV filled with armed men pulled up beside them, aiming at them, and then cut them off. They forced several of the journalists out of the car at gunpoint and took their equipment. It did no good trying to explain that they had not taken pictures of the gunmen. “Stop whining,” one of the men told them, “this could have gone a lot worse for you.”
Like always, the tension is at its highest during the first few hours. Those of us reporters in the WhatsApp group began calling colleagues in Michoacán to find out more about what happened, confirm the names of those still in danger, and try to reach them directly. We made sure that the organizations dedicated to journalists’ safety were monitoring the situation. We didn’t rest until we knew that the journalists were okay, had arrived at a safe place, were being interviewed by one of the organizations, and guarded by authorities.
This particular form of censorship is becoming customary in Mexico, where entire highways are controlled by organized crime, always with the acceptance or complicity of some level of government.
For some time now, the risk isn’t just publishing, but merely passing through a territory “under control.” The risk is there, even before you start reporting, even before you get out of your car.
Such alerts of journalists being stopped, held at gunpoint, threatened, stripped of their belongings—or they themselves disappeared—are ever more common.
In the security workshops offered to Mexican journalists in recent years, in addition to such topics as digital protection, it has now become common to learn techniques how to travel in dangerous areas. They teach us how to draw up protocols similar to those an oil company would make for its employees working in war zones.
We should consult with sources about the various dangers in the area. Reach out to trustworthy local reporters. Ask someone to monitor us. Leave our blood type and a list of emergency contacts with the monitor. Make an hour-by-hour route map. Use secure communication tools. Make a plan for if someone should fall out of contact.
But, again, the danger is no longer the investigation itself, but sometimes just passing through some place. The situation is so extreme that one foundation from which I sought funds for an investigative project made it a requirement for me to take out a life insurance policy for everyone on the investigative team. Is such a request exaggerated? I don’t think so.
In the southern state of Guerrero, on Saturday, May 13, 2016—two days before the murder of veteran Sinaloan reporter Javier Valdez—more than 100 armed, masked men, many of them in their late teens, some of them intoxicated, stopped a group of seven journalists traveling in two cars on the highway. The group was traveling back to the state capital after reporting in a nearby town. The armed men forced the journalists out of their cars at gunpoint, took their computers, cameras, cell phones, money, and IDs as well as one of the two cars.
One of the gunmen placed the barrel of his weapon against one of the journalists’ heads and warned him to keep quiet when the group went through the military checkpoint down the road. “If you say what we did here,” the man said, “we will eat you alive. We have our own eyes at that checkpoint, and we’ll be watching you.”
No one has been punished for that aggression and theft. The Guerrero state government tried to close the case by offering money to the journalists. The federal government has not investigated—even though the journalists pressed charges at the federal level (possession of firearms and organized crime are both federal crimes in Mexico).
When covering protests in Mexico, one always runs the risk of getting beaten, gassed, threatened or stripped of one’s equipment by the police. But now reporters have to be careful about where they drive along a highway or which neighborhood they walk into. Who controls the territory? What are the unwritten rules? Who might be upset upon simply seeing an unfamiliar face wandering about?
A month and a half before the aggression in Guerrero, a reporting team from Al Jazeera had a similar scare. Three journalists from the international network had left Culiacan, Sinaloa at dawn to work on a story about migrant day laborers in neighboring Navolato. As they were waiting in front of a market for the university professor who would be their guide, a group of men apprehended them at gunpoint and forced them all into the backseat of their car.
The armed men tied the reporters up, pulled their shirts up over their heads as impromptu blindfolds, and drove off with them to an undisclosed location. There the gunmen interrogated the journalists for some 45 minutes, asking them whom they worked for and why they were waiting at the market. The gunmen came to believe that they were journalists when they went through their bags and found a satellite phone, cameras, and microphones.
Once the men confirmed the reporters’ identities, they let them go. They apologized for having confused the reporters with enemies from a rival organization, for having confused them in such a “heated up” area.
The dangers of transit through certain areas are not new, though they increased with the policies known as the “War on Drugs” launched in 2006 by then-president Felipe Calderón. At that time, the disputes over territorial control and drug-trafficking routes intensified.
Mexican-American freelance photographer Zane Plemmons fell victim to such disputes. On May 21, 2012, Plemmons was last seen leaving his hotel in Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas to cover a shootout. Hotel employees later told reporters from San Antonio that a group of masked gunmen arrived at the hotel and withdrew all of Plemmons’ belongings.
On April 27, 2010, a humanitarian caravan traveling to San Juan Copala, Oaxaca, was ambushed by the paramilitaries that had kept Copala under siege. Two activists—Bety Cariño and Jyri Jaakkola—were murdered and two journalists from the political magazine Contralínea—Érika Ramírez and David Cilia—were hiding wounded in the mountainside. It took three days of pressure from family, activists, and reporters before the paramilitaries “allowed” a group of reporters and family accompanied by the Oaxaca state police to search for and rescue Ramírez and Cilia.
Two journalists in Reynosa survived a similar terror after being sent to cover the violence in Reynosa, Tamaulipas. In his testimony, Raymundo Pérez Arellano wrote: “I can tell you about censorship and intimidation of journalists in this absurd war in our country. On March 3, 2010 I and a photographer were kidnapped by an armed gang. We had been reporting on the war between the Zetas and the Gulf Cartel. I felt the cold of a pistol’s steel against my head and heard our death sentence: take them away and finish them. But they didn’t kill us. Although they did warn us: we don’t want to see any reporters here, because you all publish and bring the heat to our territory.”
That is how Pérez Arellano begins his story of hours of torture and interrogation. His captors thought that he and his colleague were part of the Zetas, or perhaps soldiers on reconnaissance. Their press credentials and pleas for the gunmen to call their media outlets to confirm their identities were worthless. The gunmen only became convinced once they had interrogated and tortured them and thoroughly examined their computers, cameras, and notebooks.
That same week five journalists were disappeared in Tamaulipas. Four journalists from Televisa and Multimedios suffered such an ordeal when they went to cover a prison fight in Durango in July 2010. They were captured leaving the area and interrogated. When they had convinced their captors that they were journalists, the gunmen wanted their media outlets to publish a video critical of their rivals, the Zetas. They tortured the journalists for six days during their campaign to pressure Televisa and Multimedios to transmit their video.
Entering territories in dispute, or controlled by cartels, is more and more difficult. Every on-the-ground reporting project requires its own series of protocols. A story as innocent as reporting on malnutrition could take a terrifying turn if one were to discover that the community had exchanged corn crops for opium poppies. Or if one goes to report in a neighborhood in one’s own city only to learn that it is now under the control of local dealers. A sudden decision to take one road or another could become a matter life and death, finding oneself walking on quicksand.
In 2011, when I was covering the Peace Caravan, accompanying families of murder victims through the south of Veracruz state, we were followed everywhere. Or in Iguala, Guerrero, a city occupied by the army and federal police, where we had gone to report on the forced disappearance of 43 Ayotzinapa students, men on motorcycles followed us and took our pictures, and kept watch over us when we ate at restaurants, waiting across the streets from the hotels where we stayed.
I’ve gone to communities where I shouldn’t have: in the Sierra Tarahumara, someone told me to turn around and go back the way I had come, and to not dare to ask any questions. Someone had called ahead that I was on my way toward the community. The same thing happened to me in Texas, along the border with Mexico. Drug traffickers demand control over territories and roadways. If you approach along such streets or highways, you will be at risk.
The last workshops I have attended are indicators of how much worse things have gotten. To the trainings of first aid and what to do if kidnapped they have added what to do in a shootout, complete with floor exercises to protect head, neck, and chest.
In Michoacán, the aggression against the reporters covering the caravan of pre-candidate Marichuy Martínez will not be the last. With 2018 being an electoral year, every candidate seeking the presidency or other elected offices will have journalists following them. The roadways are not safe. Many roads and highways are under the control of armed men not wearing any official uniform. The security logistics never take into consideration all the various people that follow a candidate.
The sad reality is that it is up to us journalists to monitor and protect each other.