With 99% impunity for crimes against journalists, organization says Mexican justice system is flawed

The worrisome figures of violence against the press in Mexico – pointed out by various organizations as one of the most dangerous countries to practice journalism – become even more dramatic when taking into account levels of impunity in those cases. According to the organization Article 19 Mexico, impunity for crimes against journalists in the country remains at 99.13 percent, that is, "almost absolute" impunity.

“In a context of irrepressible violence against the press, the success of the policy of prevention comes from sending a strong message to any victimizers of journalists: 'Impunity will not be tolerated,'” says the report Protocol of Impunity in Crimes against Journalists from Article 19, published in February.

Portada informe sobre impunidad en crímenes contra periodistas de la organización

Portada informe sobre impunidad en crímenes contra periodistas de la organización Artículo 19 México.

Through six representative cases of violence against journalists in the country, the organization analyzes the different problems, obstacles and deficiencies in the investigation of these crimes that end up creating a "pattern of impunity.”

It’s a serious situation if you take into account that 123 journalists have been murdered in Mexico from 2000 to February 2019 and 24 other communicators have been missing since 2003. To these numbers are added cases of physical aggression, arbitrary detentions, harassment, threats, judicial processes, which are some of the most common crimes against journalists – in addition to homicide and forced disappearance, according to Article 19.

“In the current context of widespread violence against journalists in Mexico, whose most serious expression is materialized in the commission of various crimes against their lives, personal freedom and personal integrity, the prevailing impunity in the Mexican State makes it responsible for violations of human rights due to the absence of an effective judicial remedy that guarantees the determination of the truth, access to justice and comprehensive and effective reparation of the damage," the report states.

Although the organization recognizes as important the construction of an Approved Protocol for the Investigation of Crimes committed against Freedom of Expression made by the Special Prosecutor for the Care of Crimes Committed against Freedom of Expression (Feadle, for its initials in Spanish) and the Attorney General's Office of the Republic (PGR), it considers that there is still much more to do.

In fact, according to figures from Article 19, Feadle has initiated 1,140 investigations from 2010 to 2018, for different crimes such as homicides, threats, abuse of authority and theft, among others. Of these, only 186 have reached criminal judges, which represents 16.3 percent. However, of these cases, only 10 convictions have been obtained, representing 0.87 percent.

For homicides, Feadle recorded 89 cases of journalists, although it recorded 45 cases that it says are linked to journalistic work. However, it only opened 29 investigations, and only one conviction has been achieved, Article 19 added.

“The effectiveness in punishment with respect to this crime is 2.2 percent with respect to the historical universe of cases that the FEADLE considers related to the victim’s informative work; and 1.12 percent with respect to the total homicides against journalists,” the organization reported.

Among the cases analyzed for this report are the murders of Moisés Sánchez Cerezo and Rubén Espinosa, both from the country’s most dangerous state for journalism: Veracruz.

Sánchez Cerezo's body was found on Jan. 25, 2015 several days after he disappeared when armed men took him from his house on Jan. 2. Although at present one of those accused as a material author is in prison and two people are recognized as responsible for not preventing what happened to the journalist, there is still much to be done, according to Article 19.

Thus, for example, not all material or intellectual authors have been identified, although the organization said there are reports of the alleged involvement of the then-mayor of Medellín de Bravo, where Sánchez directed a newspaper. The organization also pointed out several shortcomings in the work of the Feadle, which refused to attract the case at the beginning. Although it now has the case, it has not effectively proceeded to corroborate what was said by the only witness of this crime, according to Article 19.

Article 19 also criticized what it said was the PGR’s "media court" when Sánchez's body was found. Although the organization considers that it is vital for public opinion to know what happens in relevant cases, it said that these statements may have a motivation other than offering information.

“In Mexico, public accusations have become one of the most effective ways to reduce the political impact generated by the murder of a journalist, especially in said acts where state agents could be actors or participants,” Article 19 said.

The second murder highlighted, that of photojournalist Rubén Espinosa, marked the country. Espinosa had arrived in Mexico City from Veracruz because he feared for his life. However, the violence arrived on July 31, 2015 after at least five people entered an apartment where he was with four women. All were tortured and then shot in the head, according to Article 19.

In their case, as in that of Sánchez and other journalists, the victims are subject to stigmatization and criminalization, or the delegitimization of journalistic work as a motive for the crimes, according to the report.

For this crime, officials began to popularize a theory that has been maintained until today and which has "guaranteed impunity," according to Article 19. This hypothesis involves theft, prostitution and drug dealing.

So far there are three people accused of the crime, but only one sentence. Article 19 recommended that in order to end impunity in this case, it is necessary, among other steps, to change the entire team that conducts the investigation and involve "people who are truly trained in gender violence and violence against human rights defenders and journalists, in the ministerial, expert and police fields."

The report also included the case of Pedro Canché, a journalist who was "arbitrarily imprisoned" for nine months in the state of Quintana Roo in 2014, accused of sabotage “just for covering a social protest,” according to Article 19.

The other cases were those of Alejandra Rodríguez, victim of physical and sexual assaults and arbitrarily detained in Mexico City in 2013; Aldo Sotelo, victim in 2013 of physical aggressions by police, of whom he had documented “arbitrary and illegal acts”; and that of the site Sinembargo.mx that was attacked and taken offline in 2014 and whose collaborators have been victims of threats, intimidation and smear campaigns.

The report culminates with a series of recommendations for the Feadle, local prosecutors' offices, human rights commissions, local and federal executive powers, local and federal judicial powers, local security secretariats and national security commission, and finally, the media and journalists.

Impunity in Mexico has been a problem pointed out by organizations like the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). Each year, the organization publishes the Global Impunity Index in which it analyzes and classifies the country where the murderers of journalists go free. Mexico has been in the index for 11 years and occupied the 7th place in the most recent ranking (2018). It was the worst on the American continent, followed by Colombia and Brazil.

The protection of journalists in Mexico has also been a concern for other organizations. On March 4, members of congress and of civil organizations announced the restart of working tables to discuss mechanisms of protection for these professionals that would be included in a bill, according to El Diario. The tables will take place in March and April, the site reported.

The Knight Center attempted to contact representatives of the PGR and Feadle, but did not receive a response as of publication of this post.

Read the complete report from Article 19 here.