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Mexico's killing fields

Dozens of Mexican journalists have been killed since 2004. Mexico says it is concerned, but little has changed. Foreign reporters publicizing Mexican colleagues' work might offer a shield.

February 15, 2010|By Tony Cohan and Tamsin Mitchell

Last Nov. 2, the body of Jose Bladimir Antuna Garcia, crime and security affairs reporter for the newspaper El Tiempo de Durango, was found in front of a hospital in the central Mexican city of Durango. Antuna, 39, had been abducted on his way to work earlier that day. He was declared to have died of "asphyxia from strangulation," though according to some reports, his body also bore bullet wounds to the head and abdomen.

A note found next to his body reportedly read: "This happened to me for giving information to soldiers and for writing too much."

Mexico is one of the most dangerous countries in the world to work as a journalist. From January 2004 to December 2009, a total of 27 writers -- 26 print journalists and one author -- were slain, seven of them in 2009 alone. Five others have disappeared. Last month, two more Mexican journalists were killed. Few if any of these crimes have been properly investigated or prosecuted.

International PEN, the worldwide writers' organization, believes it likely that these journalists were targeted in retaliation for their critical reporting, particularly on drug trafficking. Though organized-crime groups are believed to be responsible for many attacks against journalists, government officials and the police are also believed to have played a role in some.

In the week before his death, Jose Antuna had broken a story about police corruption in Durango and had also been investigating the unsolved killing of another journalist at his newspaper, Carlos Ortega Samper, who was abducted and killed in May 2009. Antuna had received repeated death threats starting in 2008 and was the target of an apparent assassination attempt in April 2009. Despite reporting the latter to the Durango state public prosecutor's office, Antuna was not provided with any protection and continued to receive threats.

On May 26, the same day that another Durango-based journalist, Eliseo Barron Hernandez, was found dead after having been kidnapped from his home, an anonymous call was reportedly made to El Tiempo's offices saying that Antuna would be next. The caller identified himself as a member of Los Zetas, a paramilitary group reportedly linked to a drug cartel.

Last February, Mexico's human rights record was scrutinized for the first time by the United Nations under the Universal Periodic Review. Numerous member states took the opportunity to express concern about the shocking violence faced by journalists in the country and the apparent impunity of their attackers.

The Mexican government took the international community's recommendations seriously and promised to better protect journalists, investigate threats and violence against them more vigorously, and ensure that the investigation and prosecution of such crimes would become a federal rather than a state matter.

A year later, little has changed. Since the U.N. review, eight more print journalists have been slain in Mexico and another has disappeared. A number of these journalists were threatened before their killing or disappearance, and yet apparently none had been offered police protection or other measures to ensure their safety. In none of these cases has the perpetrator been brought to justice.

In a recent article on the dangers of being a journalist in Mexico, the award-winning Mexican investigative journalist and activist Lydia Cacho criticized the Mexican mainstream media for failing to reflect the true reality of the country, leaving the international community uninformed. Cacho called on foreign journalists to fill this gap by writing about the violence faced by their Mexican counterparts, "because talking about us protects our life and allows us to go on investigating and reporting."

So, let's not be silent about Mexico's killing field for journalists. Let's call President Felipe Calderon and the Mexican state to account for the 34 Mexican writers who since 2004 have paid the ultimate price for "writing too much."

Tony Cohan is the author of the travel narratives "On Mexican Time" and "Mexican Days"; Tamsin Mitchell is Americas researcher and campaigner for the Writers in Prison Committee of International PEN.

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