In Mexico freedom of the press only exists because of the efforts of my colleagues

By Jésica Zermeño

Exactly when do journalists lose the desire to speak out? In Mexico, I have learned that they are the last to let that spark die and that is why they pay with their lives.

Mexico tied with Syria as the world’s most violent country for journalists, with 12 killed in 2017. Another three have been killed so far in 2018.

The last one to die, Leobardo Vázquez Atzin, was shot dead outside his home on 22 March, in Gutiérrez Zamora, in the state of Veracruz.

Leobardo had been working as a journalist for 13 years and started his own Facebook page in order to retain editorial independence. He dedicated the final months of his life to denouncing how a supposedly ecological organization was taking over large areas of land in the north of the state and damaging protected areas. He had already received threats but decided to speak out even though he lived in what is the most dangerous state for journalists in Mexico.

Every time I go on an assignment outside the Mexican capital, where I have lived all my life, I meet colleagues who have hardly enough to eat because they are paid less than 100 pesos per day (about five dollars)

Before he became the victim of criminal violence, Leobardo was the victim of another form of violence – financial. This problem, product of the crisis in the information industry, has overwhelmed journalists. For example, Leobardo had to open a grocery shop, a small butcher’s shop and a taco stand to complement his income.

Every time I go on an assignment outside the Mexican capital, where I have lived all my life, I meet colleagues who have hardly enough to eat because they are paid less than 100 pesos per day (about five dollars). To me, they are superheroes because, despite these wages, they still manage to support their families and continue to report on what is going wrong in their area, even though they may have to drive a taxi or sell food at night.

The precarious nature of their work has not been documented very much despite the constant efforts of international organizations to draw the situation to the world’s attention, including Reporters Without Borders and the Committee to Protect Journalists, who provide advice and support to the families of journalists who have been killed or threatened.

There is a cruel truth behind all this: the public has turned its back on journalists in Mexico, sacrificing people, for whatever reason, who work without decent pay.

The Mexican authorities do not do enough to protect them either.

It took nearly a year to capture one of the alleged killers of Javier Valdez, the Sinaloan journalist who became internationally famous because he reported on how the taste for easy money is so destructive in the land of the leading Mexican drug barons.

They killed him with 12 bullets on 15 May 2017, in a street of Culiacán, the capital of Sinaloa. According to the investigation, the killers received a silver-plated pistol in payment with an image of the cartel that paid for the crime.

I only met Javier once, in November 2015, when I was sent to work there to report on the search for Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán in the mountains of Sinaloa.

I was one of many to receive his assistance and shelter. Javier did not mind telling anyone about how drug money has become a cancer that obsesses men and women and makes them cruel and insensitive. He repeated this in front of the camera, without mentioning that he was receiving constant threats.

The loss of Miroslava and Javier were major warnings of the vulnerability of journalists in Mexico. In addition to these two terrible deaths, there is the suffering of other colleagues who have had to leave everything behind because they are bothering somebody.

In the case of Miroslava Breach, another important journalist killed a few months before Javier, the killer was not captured. The Chihuahua prosecutor said only that the accused died before he could be arrested, as though his death meant the tragedy had not happened. Miroslava spent years documenting the incursions of criminal groups in her state, Chihuahua.

She was shot dead in her car while she was waiting to take her son to school.

The loss of Miroslava and Javier were major warnings of the vulnerability of journalists in Mexico. In addition to these two terrible deaths, there is the suffering of other colleagues who have had to leave everything behind because they are bothering somebody.

Cynthia Valdez had to leave Sinaloa quickly after the killing of Javier. She and her partner Martín Durán founded La Pared, which specializes in covering security and drug trafficking in the state. They were threatened by the same drug baron who gave the order to kill Javier.

Cynthia now lives under protection somewhere in Mexico City.

“Since I left Sinaloa, the local authorities have given me no support. We are on the Interior Ministry’s Protection Mechanism list, but the system has become bureaucratic and officials don't know what they're doing,” she told me recently.

“‘Temporary’ measures are not enough. I have left my work, my family and my home to come and live in a massive city which I do not know. I'm certain that I will not be able to live in peace in my own city until the murder of Javier Valdez is solved. The same is true for the many journalists who have decided to censor their own work since he was killed.”

It hurts me that Cynthia has to worry about how to look after her four children because she cannot work.

It also hurts me that dozens of journalists have to live away from their homes because threats do not allow them to carry on with their lives.

Some have had to go to the United States, Canada or Spain, with the help of international organizations. Our displaced colleagues who remain here in Mexico anxiously await assistance from the authorities because they do not have food to eat, they are desperate and depressed and they have lost their jobs because they have had to get away to save themselves.

It would seem that evil people are in charge in Mexico and they do not want journalists near them if they are going to tell the truth.

I ask the same question to all those who I hear are threatened: Is the effort, the sacrifice, the pain worth it?

They all reply YES without hesitation, “because we are journalists and journalists tell people what is happening, despite everything, because Mexico needs to know”.

In my country, genuine freedom of the press only exists because of their efforts and no article can pay homage enough to the determination that makes most of my Mexican colleagues keep on working every day.

This article was originally published by Huff Post México