On the Day of the Dead, Mexicans join the international fight against impunity in murders of journalists

November 2, the International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists, first declared by the United Nations in 2013, coincides with the Day of the Dead, a cultural and religious event widely celebrated in Mexico.

In recent years, this has meant that, for Mexicans, Nov. 2 has been the day to pay homage to their loved ones who passed away, and to bring attention to violence against journalists and the impunity that results in most cases.

In cities across Mexico, supporters of press freedom have created “altares de muertos,” or altars to the dead, to spread the stories of journalists who have been killed and to create a sense of urgency to solve the crimes against them.

Flowers, candles, food offerings and tools of the trade, like cameras and notebooks, accompany photos of the journalists killed this year. The altars create an opportunity for passersby to learn more the violent situation faced by journalists in Mexico as well as one of the ways the country remembers those departed.

On the campus of the University of Texas at Austin, for the second year in a row, a group of Mexican students created a special "altar de los muertos" to pay homage to journalists killed in Mexico this year.

Mexico is an exceedingly dangerous place for journalists. Year after year, the country gains its spot on lists related to freedom of expression that no nation wants to be part of.

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) said Mexico “continues to be the western hemisphere’s deadliest country for the media” and ranked the nation 149 out of 180 countries worldwide on its 2016 World Press Freedom Index.

The country is also sixth on the Committee to Protect Journalist’s 2016 Global Impunity Index, which lists countries around the world where killers of journalists go free.

So far, the Knight Center has recorded eleven murders* of journalists in Mexico this year. In an additional case, a journalist was run over by a police car and officials did not label it a homicide.

The states of Oaxaca (5) and Veracruz (3) have the highest number of deaths this year. Additionally, a journalist was killed in each of the following states this year: Guerrero, Puebla, Tabasco and Tamaulipas.

With the exception of Tamaulipas, most deaths are occurring in the southern part of Mexico. This mirrors the geographic concentration of violence against journalists in the country in 2015.

“In northern states, narcoviolence has decreased in recent years as turf wars between drug cartels abated or ended. That meant less focus on the media. The exception is Tamaulipas, where cartels are still fighting and that's why we still see violence there,” said Mexican journalist Javier Garza, an adviser on safety to the World Association of Newspapers, to the Knight Center.

“In southern states, especially Oaxaca and Veracruz, we see the presence of organized crime, but also the possibility that it mixes with political groups and goes after local journalists,” Garza said.

Violence against journalists extends beyond murders.

Article 19 Mexico reported 218 attacks against the press from January to June of this year. The number included 69 that occurred between January and March and 149 additional cases from April to June. A majority of the 218 attacks were physical in nature, it added.

Criminal groups carried out just seven attacks, while 101 were from public servants, according to Article 19. The organization explained that this runs contrary to official discourse on who is carrying out attacks on human rights.

A majority of attacks happened in Mexico City (31), Veracruz (28), Oaxaca (27), Guerrero (17) and Puebla (15).

As mentioned previously, many of these cases are not solved.

The impunity that penetrates Mexico, particularly with respect to attacks against freedom of expression, has made the country one of the most lethal for the press,” said Ana Ruelas, director of Article 19 Mexico, in that organization’s report about the first half of 2016. “An increase of such magnitude in the number of attacks is only explained by a lack of a policy of protection and access to effective justice, as well as a lack of state accountability with respect to those responsible for these attacks.”

In a recent report, the Special Prosecutor for Crimes against Freedom of Expression (Feadle) reported the opening of 798 preliminary investigations for crimes against journalists and media outlets from August 2010 to August 2016.

According to Animal Politico, which studied the report, the alleged perpetrator was brought before a judge in just 101, or 12.6 percent, of these cases. Only two cases resulted in convictions, the publication added.

Though groundbreaking journalism is still being produced in Mexico, this violence inevitably takes a toll on the journalists cover the country on a daily basis.

“Unfortunately many local journalists across Mexico, especially those covering politics or crime, have "normalized" the violence and their coverage has been inhibited. Journalists are not afraid to work, but they are afraid to go into topics that can provoke violence,” Javier Garza said. “Impunity is what drives aggressions because anyone thinking of attacking a journalist has as an incentive [considering] the fact that the ones who did it before have gotten away with it. So journalists don't want to risk that.”

*Knight Center intern Josefina Mancilla created the detailed graphics that accompany this post

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.