Fear and the driving force of anarchy?

A series of journalist murders shows that Mexico is not just protecting its journalists, but that lawlessness is a systemic problem and a legacy of the failed “war on drugs”, experts warn.

For months, Roberto Toledo had been receiving death threats. As a result, he was placed in a federal program to protect journalists and human rights defenders, according to the Monitor Michoacan news portal, for which Toledo reported on corruption. But on Monday this week, he was shot dead on his way to an interview.

It was not the first murder of a journalist in Mexico this year. On January 10, Jose Luis Gamboa Arenas, the founder of a Veracruz regional news blog, was assassinated.

Exactly one week later, photojournalist Margarito Martinez, who like Arenas had sought state protection, was shot dead outside his home in the border town of Tijuana. Her colleague, Lourdes Maldonado, devoted an entire radio and television segment to her. Five days later, she too was found shot dead inside her car, despite being enrolled in a federal protective program.

Even before the start of February, the number of journalists killed in Mexico in 2022 stood at four.

A double failure

Two years ago, journalist Lourdes Maldonado reportedly personally told Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador that she feared for her life. For years, the press rights group, Reporters Without Borders, has called Mexico the most dangerous country in the world for journalists.

Mexico fails not only to protect its journalists, but also to prosecute crimes. According to Mexico’s Undersecretary of the Interior, Alejandro Encinas, more than 90% of murders of journalists and human rights activists remain unsolved. This emboldened the authors.

This is not a new situation. According to experts, widespread impunity has been a systemic problem in Mexico for many decades, affecting everyone.

Mexico has a serious rule of law problem. This is a fact that has been recorded year after year by the World Justice Project (WJP). In 2021, Mexico ranked 113th out of 139 countries in the WJP’s Rule of Law Index; in Latin America, it currently surveys 27 of 32 nations. Only Honduras, Bolivia, authoritarian Nicaragua, Venezuela and Haiti, which some consider a failed state, are worse off than Mexico in the region.

Watered-down reforms

Many experts have conducted studies on the continuing problems of lawlessness and corruption in Mexico. There have been repeated attempts to reform and overhaul the criminal justice system. In 2008, for example, the legislator approved a reform for the introduction of oral trials. It aimed to shorten and make more transparent the purely written procedure that dates back to Spanish colonial times.

The National Anti-Corruption System, adopted in 2018 following civil society pressure in Congress, aimed to bring greater transparency, accountability and participation to the justice system. Both reforms were delayed and watered down by excessive bureaucracy and wrangling between the central government and the states over who would be responsible.

Other projects, such as the creation of an independent attorney general’s office, have been directly torpedoed by the president. In 2019, President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador clashed with civil rights groups to push for his former confidant, Alejandro Gertz Manero, to be named head of the attorney general’s office.

At the time, Adriana Greaves of the Tojil lawyers’ group, which fights corruption and impunity, criticized that Manero’s appointment was light years away from self-governance: “Instead , he (Manero) uses his office for political persecution and plays the president’s watchdog,” she said.

A lack of training

Ximena Ugarte of the Mexican Institute for Human Rights and Democracy told DW that individual reforms, although well-intentioned, cannot fix the flaws in the system.

Ugarte pointed to two main flaws in law enforcement: “Local prosecutors’ offices, where most murder cases are blocked, are not trained for highly specialized organized crime investigations,” he said. she stated. “That’s why they investigate each murder as an individual case and don’t see any larger connections, networks or patterns behind it.”

Ugarte said this approach led to an impasse, fueled impunity and created a “climate of fear” among journalists and the public.

Mafia infiltration of the justice system

Mexico lacks the political will to reform the process, according to human rights expert Michael Chamberlin. “The prosecutor’s offices are infiltrated by criminal networks, as are many city and state governments,” he said, adding that this explains the lack of appetite for modernization.

Chamberlin also said investigations into individual cases were often poorly handled. Although individual perpetrators end up in prison – often after forced confessions under torture, as denounced by human rights organizations and the UN – the actual mafia structures behind them are undisputed.

Chamberlin said the current government has actually reversed some progress.

Another problem, he adds, is the influence of the military, which has grown steadily since the war on drugs began in 2006.

“If you take the biggest massacres of the last 30 years in Mexico, from Acteal to Ayotzinapa, investigations have always been stopped when the armed forces were targeted,” said the former adviser to the regime for the protection of journalists and journalists. activists. “It is all the more worrying that today the military takes on many civilian functions beyond security.”

Chamberlin was referring to President Lopez Obrador’s decision to entrust the military with the construction of airports, train lines and banks as well as gas distribution and reforestation.

Both experts believe it is unlikely that Mexico’s entrenched problems can be solved by internal reforms. “We have argued in vain for years for an international commission against impunity, as it existed in Guatemala run by the UN, or another independent mechanism within the framework of a transitional justice system,” Ugarte said.

Chamberlin, however, said he hoped the combined pressure from civil society and key partners like the United States could still make a difference.

This article has been translated from German.