Journalist released from prison in Mexico publishes book of interviews conducted while in maximum security jail

Without any proof or evidence, Mexican journalist Jesús Lemus Barajas was sentenced to 20 years in prison on charges of drug trafficking, only to get his freedom back after serving three years in maximum security jail, according to Reporters Without Borders.

From that experience, the reporter later published the book "Los Malditos” (The Damned), based on interviews he did with his fellow prisoners in Puente Grande, better known as “the jail of the stars" because the country’s most famous prisoners are held there.  It is the same prison from which Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, one of Mexico’s most powerful drug lords, escaped in 2001.

Lemus, director and founder of the newspaper El Tiempo in La Piedad, a town located in the state of Michoacán, was arrested May 7, 2008, in the state of Guanajuato.  While in prison, three of his defense lawyers were assassinated, according to Radio Nederland. El Tiempo stopped circulating as its founder spent his days in jail. Finally, he was released on May 11, 2011, due to insufficient evidence and for suffering threats and torture during the first days of his sentence.

Lemus recently spoke with the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas about his book and time in Puente Grande.

Lemus used his time in prison to interview other prisoners and make notes in the letters he sent to his wife and on the toilet paper she brought him during visits. His goal was to publish a book on interviews with the most famous prisoners in Mexico.

“I knew I was getting out and that this book was going to be seen by the public,” he said.

“In prison, no one talks about violence in the crude manner that it is spoken about in the media,” he added. “What surprised me is that prisoners kept to themselves and that no one talked about violence or crime. No one talked about their legal proceedings or jail sentences.”

Lemus revealed that he suffered physical and mental abuse in jail “but the worst part is the humiliating treatment they give to prisoners’ family members.”

Lemus said he succeeded in getting out of jail because, five months before his sentence started, he had alerted Reporters Without Borders about death threats against him, stemming from his investigations on ties between government officials and criminal organizations.

“My wife notified them that I had disappeared and they started a process to find me,” he said, referring to when he was illegally arrested before being taken to jail.

After being set free in 2011, Lemus and his family left Michoacán for Mexico City where he lives off freelance work and royalties from his book.

Lemus’ case is the most famous of an imprisoned reporter in Mexico for his work “but I am not the only one,” he said.  He also met human rights defenders also serving time at Puente Grande.

In 2012, the Knight Center reported about four imprisoned reporters in Mexico  for trafficking charges while working in the state of Aguascalientes, located in the central region of the country, but Lemus doubts they committed the crime.

“The easiest thing to do with these protected witnesses is to implicate someone of serious crimes,” he said.

Now free, Lemus contemplates the possibility of creating a digital publication that employs other reporters who fled their homes for Mexico City  due to threats for doing their work.

“There is a need for media outlets that focus on the truth rather than on money,” he said about the situation in his home state of Michoacán, one of the places most affected by drug trafficking.

Note from the editor: This story was originally published by the Knight Center’s blog Journalism in the Americas, the predecessor of LatAm Journalism Review.

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