The impact on Mexican women

Journalists in Mexico are resorting to increasingly extreme methods to avoid torture, kidnap and murder for reporting on drug crime and cartel warfare. Reporters at Mexico’s largest newspaper chain, Grupo Reforma, have taken to wearing bullet proof vests, while many are moving to high rise apartment blocks to reduce the risk of being kidnapped. Reporters are also posing as street vendors to maintain life-preserving anonymity when reporting at the scene of an incident and using social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter to publish their stories. 

Mexico is now unarguably one of the most dangerous countries in the world from which to report. More than 30 journalists number amongst the 15,000 people across Mexico who have died in drug related violence since President Felipe Calderon came into power in 2006. Increasingly, it would seem, reporters working in Mexico are falling into one of two groups. For those who deem the stakes too high, the recent case of Jorge Luis Aguirre being granted political asylum in the US will be encouraging. For those still prepared to take the massive risks, a recent symposium of female journalists in Texas, USA will provide invaluable sustenance and inspiration.

In November 1998 the Mexican journalist Jorge Luis Aguirre received a phone call immediately after the murder of a colleague in which he was informed he was next on the hitlist. Aguirre fled to El Paso in Texas and was eventually granted political asylum in the USA last month. Interviewed by Reuters, the La Polaka editor said: “I can breathe again ... this asylum opens the door to journalists caught in the middle in Mexico, where there is no justice and where the (local) governments are part of drug trafficking”. Aguirre’s case must give those ‘caught in the middle’ some hope of eventually getting out – but the relevant statistics tell us that he was lucky to escape the battleground: the USA receives almost 3,000 asylum requests annually from the Mexico, but only 252 were granted between 2005 and 2009.

For those reporters still ‘caught in the middle’ and risking their lives to file stories concerning drug and sex trafficking crimes in Mexico, inspiration is provided by JAWS, the Journalism and Women Symposium. The Symposium’s recent meeting in Texas featured a panel discussion between several Spanish and Mexican journalists determined not to let violence and near-total censorship stop their reporting. Adriana Gomez Lincon, a reporter for the EL Paso Times, gave a hard-earned insight into the current state of Juarez, a city just across the border from El Paso: “ [Juarez is] losing health care, doctors surgeries are closing, stores are closing, orphans are everywhere.. I’ve been trying to capture those changes… Not a lot of reporters like doing these stories… But.. I go.. sometimes every day. I want to bring the newspaper the coverage of that story”. Such tenacity and integrity in the face of great danger is a rare quality, but it was not in short supply amongst her fellow panel members. Judith Torrea, a Spanish blogger and journalist based in Ciudad Juarez, said: “The danger in Ciudad Juarez now is just to be alive… [But] as a journalist you must tell the stories. You must tell the stories of the fight against the drug trafficking”. 

The risks posed to women in particular in parts of Mexico make the resilience and fearlessness displayed by these female journalists all the more remarkable. Monica Ortiz Uribe, a freelance journalist based in El Paso, talked of the continuing brutality shown towards women in Juarez: “Now what’s happening is women are going missing. Disappearing without a trace. We don’t know if they are even alive. Many (women) went missing while downtown or taking a bus transfer downtown. The last one was Monday…” And yet her and her fellow reporters are still filing reports from such cities, in which their lives are constantly at risk.

It is a common argument by those in favour of drugs legalization that the legislative changes they back would at least reduce the gang warfare that is making Mexico so dangerous to report from. But do the journalists on the frontline believe this? Angel Kocherga of Belo Corp was emphatic that legalizing drugs in the UK would not reduce criminal activity, arguing that “the criminals would find another illegal activity to pursue”.

Those journalists not as lucky as Aguirre, those who are still ‘caught in the middle’, still battling to get the truth out, can take heart from these words. And those of us observing from the outside - those of who may be asking, in awed exasperation, ‘Why take the risks?’ - can learn from another JAWS panel member. Monica Ortiz Uribe reminded her audience at the symposium that reporting from such lethal terrain is about social responsibility as well as bravery: “All of you might share the reason I go to Juarez. It’s for the people – the people who survive all this”.

Read the transcript of the meeting and more about the JAWS project here.