A crime reporter shot at his own home in Oaxaca, Mexico. A Colombian radio journalist shot while waiting to pick up his son from school, two weeks after losing government-mandated protection measures. This isn’t some kind of new wave of targeted killings. It’s just the second week of August in Latin America.
Latin America has long been a deadly place for journalists, particularly those who cover crime stories or work in conflict zones or areas controlled by drug cartels and other armed groups. This week’s two cases, which happened within a day of each other, are just the latest entries in a long history of regional violence aimed at silencing those who would bring damning information about powerful individuals and organizations to light.
Mexican crime reporter Octavio Rojas, 35, was shot six times in front of his own home when an unidentified man arrived, allegedly to see a car the journalist was selling. According to press freedom defense group Artículo 19, Rojas, who worked in Veracruz state, had been threatened multiple times for his work. His publication, El Buen Tono, had also received several threats since 2011, including a fire set in its offices.
Twenty-eight-year-old Luis Carlos Cervantes, a Colombian radio and television journalist in the northwest province of Antioquia, was known among colleagues as the journalist who had received the province’s highest number of threats from organized criminal groups as a result of his investigative work. He had publicly reported on ties between local governments and some of the region’s most powerful criminal groups, making him a target for those groups, which began threatening him in 2010.
As a result of the intimidation, Cervantes temporarily received protective measures from the National Protections Unit (UNP), a government agency created to protect human rights defenders from exactly these kinds of threats. However, the most recent UNP risk analysis found “no connection between the threats received by Mr. Cervantes and his work as a journalist,” and Cervantes lost his protective measures on July 24.
Three weeks later, he was dead.
The threat of organized crime
Journalists’ work is especially dangerous in regions controlled by organized crime structures. These groups are some of the primary offenders for crimes against reporters, whom they often view as threats to their dominance. A 2013 report by the Investigative Commission for Attacks against Journalists (CIAP), part of the Latin American Journalists Federation (FELAP), found that organized crime members were behind the murders of at least 19 journalists in Latin America and the Caribbean between January and August 2013.
In Central America, the iron grip of drug cartels and weak or corrupt law enforcement structures have practically given organized crime groups carte blanche to silence reporters they feel are a threat to their activities.
“Criminal organizations have [also] silenced the press in Central America — perhaps nowhere as much as in Honduras,” said Carlos Lauria, senior Americas program coordinator at the Committee to Protect Journalists, at a 2013 press event. “Rampant gang violence, the presence of powerful drug cartels from Mexico and the deep societal polarization that followed the 2009 ouster of former President Manuel Zelaya all have contributed to make the work of reporters there even more dangerous.”
The real number of journalists killed by crime syndicates is likely even higher, as law enforcement officials are often hesitant to blame organized crime groups, because they themselves may become the target of threats or violence. Instead, authorities will often find a more “normal” motive for the crime — a botched robbery, for example, or a lovers’ quarrel.
In many countries, murders of journalists and human rights defenders are often classified as “crimes of passion,” the result of some jealous fight over a girlfriend, and the cases are not investigated further, nor categorized as the human rights violations that they are.
Though Cervantes received numerous threats directly from the Urabeños criminal group (also known as the Clan Úsuga), including one on July 21, Colombian authorities have said it is “premature” to assume the group is behind the journalist’s murder. The Foundation for Press Freedom has condemned Cervantes’ killing and demanded a full investigation into the murder — as well as the Colombian government’s decision to remove his protective measures despite the fact that he had registered five different incidents of threats with the government office that is supposed to investigate such cases.
No help from above
There is little hope of support from government structures, as local politicians are often ambivalent at best — and complicit at worst.
In February, residents of Rojas’ home state of Veracruz, Mexico, took to the streets to demand the resignation of governor Javier Duarte, saying his administration had failed to investigate the circumstances behind the death of journalist Gregorio Jiménez de la Cruz. Jiménez was kidnapped and murdered in early February, making him one of nearly a dozen journalists murdered in Veracruz state since the beginning of Duarte’s term in 2010.
Just a few weeks ago, the governor of Mexico’s Sinaloa state tried to pass a law making it illegal for reporters to cover crime stories. He was eventually forced to backtrack after widespread protests.
Reporters Without Borders’ 2014 Press Freedom Index, which analyzes freedom of the press and violations against media workers, found that Mexico continued to hold mainland Latin America’s lowest spot for media freedom, coming in at a dismal 152nd out of the 180 countries ranked. Cuba was the region’s worst offender, at 170th, while Honduras (129th), Colombia (126th), Guatemala (125th), Brazil (111th) and Paraguay (105th) all showed significant threats to freedom of the press and the safety of local reporters.
According to Geneva-based watchdog Press Emblem Campaign, 61 journalists were killed in 22 countries across the world in the first six months of 2014 — two more than the same time period last year. The violence has been exacerbated by the conflicts in Ukraine and Gaza, which have claimed the lives of almost a dozen media workers, with seven reporters killed in Ukraine alone.
While the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) is still the world’s most dangerous region for reporters, Latin America accounted for 14 of the deaths reported as of July. Of those, four were in Brazil, three each in Mexico and Honduras, two in Paraguay and one each in Colombia and Panama.
Sadly, those numbers will now be going up yet again.