Organized Crime Stifles Freedom of Speech in Latin America

SHARETweet about this on TwitterShare on FacebookShare on LinkedInShare on Google+

With the marking of World Press Freedom Day on May 3, and with the recent kidnapping of French journalist Romeo Langlois by rebel group the FARC in Colombia, the challenges facing journalists in Latin America who report on criminal groups once again comes under the spotlight.

On April 28, the body of journalist Regina Martinez was discovered in the bathroom of her home in Xalapa, Veracruz. Martinez, who had been working for Mexican magazine Proceso for a decade, was beaten and strangled to death, reports the AP.

So far Mexican authorities have been hesitant to speculate about the motive for the killing. However, it only takes a look at the nature of Martinez’s work to quickly recognize that she did widespread reporting on Mexican criminal networks, and that there were likely a number of interest groups that wanted to silence her work. During the week prior to her death, for example, Martinez produced articles on a Veracruz mayor’s ties to the Zetas drug gang, the arrest of an alleged Zetas financial head, and the detention of nine Veracruz police officers for alleged links to organized crime.

Though Veracruz Governor Javier Duarte has ordered an extensive investigation into the killing, Proceso expressed their skepticism, stating bluntly, “We do not believe [this will happen], and we made them know it.”

Martinez’s death is sadly no anomaly. A reading of any news report following her murder will tell you that Mexico has seen anywhere between 51 (the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) estimate) and 75 (Mexico’s national human rights commission (CNDH)) journalists killed between 2000 to 2011. What’s more, when analyzing the CPJ statistics, the trend spikes dramatically after 2006, with the majority of journalist murders occurring during the presidency of Felipe Calderon. The correlation between Mexico’s general increase in brutal violence and the rise in attacks against journalists is certainly no coincidence.

There are several ways that drug controls seek to intimidate the media. As the homicide numbers attest to, silencing the press through murder is one frequently deployed tactic. However, criminal groups are also known to threaten and intimidate media in order to dictate what receives coverage and what doesn’t, ensuring that aspects of their operations simply go unreported. As the Washington Post reported in 2010, the Zetas were able to pressure local media outlets in Nuevo Laredo into following “a near-complete news blackout,” with one reporter stating, “We are under their complete control.” Just this week, five bodies (none of whom were journalists) were found in Michoacan with a note allegedly from the Zetas threatening the press.

[See InSight Crime Zetas profile]

In an attempt to avoid the pressure faced by traditional news outlets, people have resorted to social media to expose gang activity where journalists are unable to. However, bloggers who write under the protection of a pseudonym appear equally unsafe. In September last year, three people were allegedly killed by the Zetas in Nuevo Laredo for their online posts about gang operations. Messages were left alongside the bodies threatening those who continued to use social media forums to speak out against gangs.

Despite Mexico’s reputation as one of the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists — the country ranked fourth in the CPJ’s 2011 report on the deadliest countries for media workers — it does not stand alone in Latin America. An end-of-year review by the Inter-American Press Association (IAPA) found that 24 journalists were killed in Latin America in 2011 (a slight divergence from the more conservative CPJ estimate). Though Mexico led the way with seven deaths, the IAPA stated that the figures highlighted a worrying regional trend of organized crime suppressing journalists’ work.

Brazil, for example, has seen a sharp rise in journalist killings over the last two years, with at least four killed so far in 2012, according to the AP. Unlike Mexico’s large transnational cartels, Brazil’s most visible groups include prison gangs like the Red Command and the Primeiro Comando da Capital (PCC), both of which are smaller and exert nowhere near the same measure of control over media as the Zetas in Nuevo Laredo. Brazil also suffers from police-run militias who run their own criminal enterprises and carry out extrajudicial killings. Journalists attempting to uncover these nefarious activities stand in the crosshairs of these groups.

In Honduras, some 20 journalists have been killed since Porfirio Lobo became president in 2009. The case of Luz Marina Paz Villalobos, a radio journalist gunned down in December last year for refusing to pay extortion money to a gang, represents just one facet of the threat faced by the media in Honduras. The sharp rise in killings since Lobo came to power can also be partly attributed to supression of the press by members of the police force, with some speculating the government is carrying out the killings in an effort to silence dissenters. This same police force has been shown in some cases to be heavily embedded in the country’s street gangs.

Colombia, a country that was once considered the most dangerous Latin American country for journalists — before it was replaced by Mexico — has seen sharp improvements over recent years, with the number of journalists killed falling dramatically from the most violent periods during the late 1990s, early 2000s. This is not to say that the press is free from persecution (or kidnapping, given the recent case of Romeo Langlois). Instead, the threats facing the Colombian press have changed in nature. Gang members still silence journalists through death threats and intimidation. According to the CPJ article, three journalists have been forced to flee their homes in 2012 as a result of these threats, with the northern department of Cordoba particularly affected. What’s more, these threats are not always from low-level gangsters. In August last year, El Espectador journalist Mary Luz Avendaño was forced to flee Colombia after reportedly receiving death threats from one of Colombia’s most notorious crime bosses, Henry de Jesus Lopez, alias “Mi Sangre.”

It would be wrong to claim that the threat posed to journalists in Latin America comes only from organized crime. The forces working to suppress freedom of speech are manifold and killings and intimidation are not only attributed to gangs. Journalists may also become targets for covering government corruption or other topics that affect the interests of politicians. Attempts by the government to suppress media organizations are also widespread. At its biannual meeting in April, one of the IAPA’s main conclusions was that the press in the Americas faces a major problem from state-led defamation cases against their work. This is particularly prevalent in Ecuador, for example, where, according to press freedom organization Fundamedios, over 50 percent of the threats made against journalists so far this year were aggressive statements issued by public officials.

However, organized crime still deploys the most violent intimidation tactics against media workers, in attempts to ensure·they can carry out their activities outside of public scrutiny. Mexico has tried to address this problem on several fronts. While many correctly decry the lack of legal protection journalists are offered — Mexico only approved a law making attacks on journalists a federal crime two days after Martinez’s body was found — impunity is another problem, as murder cases involving journalists are rarely investigated or solved. Honduras, Colombia, Guatemala and Mexico all have impunity rates around the 90 percent mark, while Brazil does not fare much better.

Self-censorship within the Latin American press is sadly becoming a norm as journalists try to protect themselves, since the legal system offers little shield. If efforts to try and protect journalists reporting from areas hardest-hit by organized crime are not made in earnest, it will be to the detriment of our understanding of how these networks operate and to everyone who follows crucial developments in Latin America.

SHARETweet about this on TwitterShare on FacebookShare on LinkedInShare on Google+