Worldwide, at least 65 journalists have disappeared since 2005, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). In Mexico, 15 of them have disappeared, giving the country the record for the most cases of missing journalists in the world.
The CPJ released its updated data on Aug. 30, the International Day of Missing Persons. In the organization's ranking, after Mexico are Iraq (9 cases) and Syria (8). Haiti is the only other Latin American and Caribbean country on the list. There, CPJ records a single case: photojournalist Vladjimir Legagneur, whose whereabouts have been unknown since March 14, 2018.
Reporters Without Borders (RSF), for its part, estimates that 55 journalists have remained missing around the world since 2003. Mexico's share of RSF's tally is even higher: the organization counts 25 journalists who have remained missing in the country over the last 20 years. In second place is Syria, with seven cases in the same period.
The counts differ because the organizations have different criteria for considering cases of missing journalists. Even so, Mexico remains in first place worldwide in both lists of missing journalists, far behind the second country in the ranking.
"The disappearance [of journalists] is just as shocking at the level of society, at the level of loss in journalism, and even more devastating for the families than murder. The missing person is neither dead nor alive. It is a very complex issue to cope with in terms of the psycho-emotional impact on the families," Sara Mendiola, executive director of Propuesta Cívica, told LatAm Journalism Review (LJR).
The organization has existed since 2011 and its mission is to support journalists and human rights defenders at risk for doing their job, as well as their families. One of its initiatives is the Tejidos Solidarios [Weaving solidarity] network, which offers psychological support to relatives of missing or murdered journalists.
“Families who have a murdered journalist have gone through mourning, they have processed a better treatment of the psycho emotional impact because they’ve had the chance to have a farewell ritual, burying their loved one, having a grave, knowing that their [mortal] remains are already resting there. But all this is not available to families who have a missing person, so the post-traumatic shock is much stronger,” she said.
According to Mendiola, the increase in violence against journalists in Mexico in recent decades has taken place in a context of strengthening of drug trafficking and narco-politics, the collusion between authorities and drug traffickers.
Far from what one might think, that it’s organized crime or criminal gangs who are attacking [journalists] in the first place, well it’s not: in the first place we have Mexican authorities, who are the main aggressors, followed by criminal groups. Based on our experience representing cases of murdered journalists there’s also another interesting pattern: In many of these cases, those who ordered the aggressions were the authorities and those who executed those aggressions were organized crime. This also shows the complicity between Mexican authorities and criminal groups in attacking journalists.
The disappearance of people is an endemic problem in Mexico. The National Search Commission (CNB, by its Spanish acronym) records that 293,565 people have disappeared in the country since 1962. The whereabouts of 111,312 of them remain unknown. According to Propuesta Cívica, at least 30 of the people who remain missing are journalists.
The organization is also dedicated to maintaining the memory of disappeared journalists, holding events and activities to remind society that these professionals disappeared because they were investigating issues that were uncomfortable for the government.
“Authorities are not only betting on impunity for these crimes, but also on oblivion. This is also where a strong battle must be fought to preserve their memory,” she said.
Mexico is also the country with the most murders of journalists, according to RSF and CPJ counts. While impunity in cases of murders of these professionals is around 95%, impunity in cases of missing journalists is 100%, Mendiola said. No case has been solved and no person has been held responsible for the disappearance of journalists in Mexico to date.
Mendiola believes the country has a robust legislative and institutional framework for the protection of journalists. She mentioned the Federal Special Prosecutor's Office for Crimes Against Freedom of Expression (Feadle), dedicated to prosecuting attacks against journalists, and its counterparts in the states. She also highlighted the existence in Mexico of a Protection Mechanism for Human Rights Defenders and Journalists.
“We have a lot at the law level and at the institutional level. In the face of this we have very high impunity rates and a penal system that simply does not work when dealing with crimes committed against journalists. There is a structure, but there is no political will,” she said. “Mexican civil society is very supportive, very hardworking. We can be a reference point for many countries, from everything we have promoted, to everything we have worked for. But, unfortunately, none of this ends up working because of the political absence of the Mexican State.”
Faced with this absence, in November 2022 Propuesta Cívica and RSF denounced Mexico before the United Nations Human Rights Committee. The complaint points to the responsibility of the Mexican state in the case of journalists Mauricio Estrada Zamora and Ramón Ángeles Zalpa, who disappeared in the state of Michoacán in 2008 and 2010, respectively.
Mendiola said that the organizations are still waiting for the Committee's first analysis, which should ask the Mexican state to present its defense before judging the complaint. According to Mendiola, Propuesta Cívica intends to submit other complaints about disappeared journalists to the UN Human Rights Committee.
"What we're looking for is for this international body to issue a ruling against the Mexican state. And, from there, for public policies to be built to deal with this problem and for the families to receive the fullest possible reparation," she said.
Featured image and banner: A mural painted in the city of Morelia, in Michoacan, demanding justice for missing journalists. Photo: Mauricio Perez/ Propuesta Civica.