Tanzina Vega: Last week, we heard from the Committee to Protect Journalists about the growing threats to press freedom around the world. According to the International Federation of Journalists, for the fourth time in five years, Mexico has had the most number of journalists killed. In 2020, at least 14 journalists had been killed while doing their work. The Committee to Protect Journalists found that at least nine of those were killed directly as a result of their work.
This year, an international coalition of news organizations began taking up the unfinished work of many of these journalists in an initiative called the Cartel Project. Among the many critical stories being unearthed, the project has now reported on how the journalist, Regina Martínez, was killed for her work on the links between organized crime and the Mexican government. Here with me now is Nina Lakhani, environmental justice reporter for The Guardian and Nina has worked in Latin America as an investigative reporter for years. Nina, welcome to The Takeaway.
Nina Lakhani: Thanks for having me.
Tanzina: Nina, let's start off with the killing of Regina Martínez. What was she investigating before her death?
Nina: Regina Martínez was an investigative reporter in the state of Veracruz, which is the most dangerous state in Mexico to be a journalist, She had been investigating in various different aspects the nexus between organized crime groups, mainly drug trafficking groups, and local powerful politicians. One of the big investigations that she was almost close to finishing was about the huge rise in forced disappearances. People who had just simply vanished in the state as organized crime had taken a greater hold. She had found that a really exponential rise in bodies being thrown into paupers' graves in public cemeteries.
People who had been killed in what seemed to be signs of just executions with single gunshot wounds. That discovery would have exposed these links between organized crime and the state because you can't disappear people, huge numbers of people without there being complicity with state authorities, with police, with prosecutors, with politicians, and that would have been a really explosive investigation had she been able to publish that.
She was also investigating missing millions, a huge rise in public debt, public contracts being awarded to the cronies and friends of senior officials. She was investigating a number of things that she had for many years, but they were two of the key investigations that she was working on when she was murdered in 2012.
Tanzina: Did Regina's death mark the beginning of or at least a change in the increased wave of violence in Mexico against journalists?
Nina: Yes, absolutely. Journalists have been killed in Mexico before, but she was the most prominent journalist to be killed. She was a national reporter for a really prominent investigative newsweekly called Proceso, and really what we saw after her murder was just a really significant increase in journalists being killed, mainly regional and local, but also some national journalists across the country with the state of Veracruz, where she was forming where she worked, becoming the most dangerous place on the planet to be a journalist.
It really did and I think it just showed us as journalists, as our Mexican colleagues ashore that if they can kill someone as well-known and prominent as Regina and get away with it, all of us are vulnerable and that's exactly how it played out.
Tanzina: Why is it so dangerous to report on organized crime in Mexico? Is it because of what you mentioned, the government being complicit in these killings, or is it cartels that are just out of control? What is it that makes Mexico one of the worst, if not the worst place for journalists right now?
Nina: What we know for sure is that the journalists most likely to be targeted are those investigating the links between organized crime and state officials. It isn't those who were just investigating organized crime per se, it is specifically those who're investigating the role played by state forces, security forces, politicians, mayors, the Army, the Navy. It is specifically those who were targeted. Why do they continue to be killed? Because impunity is almost guaranteed.
The Committee to Protect Journalists say that around 90% of crimes against journalists go unsolved. I would say, it's even greater than that. If you look at how many people who masterminded those crimes, who ordered, who paid for, who benefited from the silencing journalists, almost none have ever been brought to justice. It's a combination of getting at the links between state structures, state complicity, individuals in power, and the lack of justice.
Again, impunity means that there is state complicity because these crimes are not properly investigated, they're not prosecuted. In the case of Regina Martínez, one man was jailed, but we're absolutely sure he was not, he had nothing to do with it. He was a scapegoat, while those who ordered and benefited from her crime [unintelligible 00:05:42] have never faced justice.
Tanzina: Nina, you've also reported on the question of weapons entering Mexico, which are used by organized crime, members of organized crime. Where are those weapons coming from?
Nina: Well, I think the prime resource is still the US, coming over the Southern border of the US into Mexico. As part of the Cartel Project, we really dug deeply into the sale, the legal sale of arms from Europe and from Israel into Mexico, and where these weapons end up. One thing that we can say is that the vast majority of journalists who will have been killed in Mexico in the last 15 or 20 years have been killed with a weapon from a foreign country.
Our investigation really got into this exponential rise in arms sales, in weapons sales to the Mexican military who control arms trade really and how these guns and these weapons are then sold on to local police forces, and how that they often do end up in the hands of organized crime groups.
Tanzina: In 2021, Nina, what is the expectation for journalists in Mexico right now? Is it going to change? Is president Andrés Manuel López Obrador going to take any action, given that this project has now taken off and is really exposing the precarity of being a journalist in Mexico?
Nina: Well, the current president, like his predecessors, has known for a long time that being a journalist is dangerous business in Mexico. They can't say that they haven't known and they don't know because it's unfolded in front of their eyes. It's almost a journalist a month or more that's killed in Mexico. It's just a huge, the impact on democracy and on citizens and truth-telling and information, it's been so significant for so many years. While the current president, López Obrador, said that he would look in to see whether the case of Regina Martínez, for example, could be reopened, that is just not good enough.
We have seen no significant statements or steps or actions, most importantly, to suggest that this widespread systematic impunity for those who perpetrate violence and attacks against journalists is going to be tackled. We just haven't seen any evidence that that's going to change.
Tanzina: Nina Lakhani is the environmental justice reporter for The Guardian who's reported from Latin America for years. Nina, thanks so much for your time.
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