Freedom of expression moved forward on paper with the decriminalisation of press offences at federal level, but in practice, the country is still the most deadly in the Americas for journalists, with two killed and three vanished in 2007. Three media assistants were also killed and prospects are not good with some local authorities working with organised crime.
The murder of journalists Amado Ramírez in the southern city of Acapulco on 6 April 2007 and of Saúl Martínez Ortega, who went missing and whose body was found on 23 April in the northern state of Chihuahua, coincided with a vast federal-level police and military drive against drug-traffickers which killed nearly 400 people in three weeks. Ramírez, correspondent for the privately-owned national TV station Televisa in Acapulco, was shot dead as he left his office. The station suspended his news programme Al Tanto three days after his death. One suspect, Genaro Vázquez Durán, was arrested and charged but the investigation was set back in November when one of the five witnesses said Vázquez Durán was not involved.
Martínez Ortega was editor of the magazine Interdiario and also worked for the daily Diario de Agua Prieta in the town of the same name (in the northern state of Sonora). He was familiar with tricky topics, especially drug-smuggling, and was in close contact with Luis Angel Borboa Canchola, a former policeman in trouble with the authorities who was kidnapped on 13 March and found murdered soon afterwards. Martínez Ortega was murdered a month later just as federal officials had arrested about 100 local police involved in the drug trade. The murder came after accusations by a police lieutenant before the National Human Rights Commission (CNDH) that aides of Sonora state governor Eduardo Bours were involved in the disappearance in the state capital, Hermosillo, on 2 April 2005, of journalist Alfredo Jiménez Mota, of the daily paper El Imparcial.
Human heads delivered
No motive has yet been found for the shooting murder on 8 December 2007 of a third journalist, Gerardo Israel García Pimentel, of the regional daily La Opinión, in the western town of Uruapán, in Michoacán state, one of the country’s new centres of drug-trafficking where a terror campaign against the media in 2006 included sending human heads to media offices. Such “messages” from traffickers were common in May 2007 during the anti-drugs campaign in some southern and southeastern states, such as Veracruz and Tabasco. Rodolfo Rincón Taracena, of the daily Tabasco Hoy, vanished on 20 January after writing an article about drug-smuggling and another about a string of bank robberies. The paper received a parcel in May with a human head inside.
Gamaliel López, of the station TV Azteca, in the northeastern state of Monterrey, and his cameraman, Gerardo Paredes, vanished on 10 May and anti-kidnapping police have failed to find them, bringing to seven the number of journalists who have disappeared since 2003. López had reported for six months on the local presence of the army and had exposed corruption.
Tough conditions at state level
Felipe Calderón, of the right-wing National Action Party (PAN) who was narrowly elected president on 2 July 2006, faces a parliament divided between the country’s three main political forces and has to rely on the support of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which ruled Mexico from 1929 to 2000. A similar situation between the federal government and the states (most of them still controlled by the PRI) has slowed efforts by the judiciary and federal authorities to fight impunity and local obstacles to free expression. Some regional officials showed contempt for the right to inform the public and in 2007 newspapers were seized, media outlets censored and attempts made to spy on journalists (in a town in Guanajuato state). The Chihuahua state government on 24 November dismissed a CNDH recommendation about physical attacks by state police on three journalists.
The height of political cynicism was displayed when the federal supreme court cleared Puebla state governor Mario Marín on 29 November of any involvement in the arbitrary arrest of journalist Lydia Cacho in December 2005. Strong suspicion fell on Marín after W Radio, part of Televisa Radio, and the daily paper La Jornada, disclosed conversations between him and a businessman friend, José Camel Nacif, who was accused by Cacho of belonging to a paedophile network in a 2004 book called “The Demons of Eden.” The governor and his friend joked about raping Cacho during her transfer from her home state of Quintana Roo state to Puebla. The supreme court ruled that the evidence was not strong enough. Carmen Aristegui, of W Radio, who had revealed the conversations, had her programme dropped on 3 January 2008, allegedly because it did not fit in with the station’s “editorial model.”
Hostility towards the media continued in the southern state of Oaxaca, where Indymedia cameraman Brad Will was killed during unrest in late 2006. The culprits have not been punished and governor Ulises Ruiz Ortíz has never been held to account for his abuses of power. Misael Sánchez Sarmiento, of the daily El Tiempo who investigated Will’s death, was shot and wounded by a gunman on 12 June 2007 and Alberto Fernández Portilla, editor of the weekly Semanario del Istmo and a programme on radio station XEKZ, was shot and wounded on 5 August. Also in Oaxaca, Agustín López, Mateo Cortés Martínez and Flor Vásquez López, distributors of the local daily El Imparcial, were shot dead on 8 October, sparking several resignations from the paper for fear of further reprisals.
President Calderón signed a law on 12 April (passed by the federal parliament) decriminalising defamation and “insults” and obliging state governments to fall in line. Only three states had already done this - Baja California, Jalisco and the Federal District. In Chiapas, defamation is still punishable by up to nine years in prison and a fine equivalent to nine times the minimum wage.