On Aug. 1, five people were found tortured and fatally shot in a Mexico City apartment. The reports shocked the city’s residents, who view it as an oasis of peace amid the violence that has rocked Mexico for the last 10 years. Since former President Felipe Calderón started his war on drugs in 2006, more than 100,000 Mexicans have been killed in drug-related violence. Criminals govern large parts of the country. The security situation remains dire even in regions where the army has replaced local police.
Before last week’s tragedy, in which Mexican photojournalist Ruben Espinosa and four others were found dead with hands bound, Mexico City was seen as a haven for those fleeing the violence in the countryside. The murders brought a cloud of insecurity to the city. Espinosa was a correspondent in the Gulf state of Veracruz for the investigative magazine Proceso. He fled Veracruz in June after he was harassed and his home was put under surveillance. Journalism watchdog group Article 19 called on the Mexican government to guarantee Espinosa’s safety.
The motives behind the murders remain unclear. No suspects have been named. During a press conference on Aug. 2, Mexico City’s prosecutor suggested that the victims were killed during a robbery. However, civil rights advocates have questioned that account, pointing to visible signs of torture on the victims’ bodies. Some of those killed were sexually assaulted, according to media reports.
Since President Enrique Peña Nieto took power in 2012, 16 journalists have been killed in the country. Mexico City had been a sanctuary for internally displaced Mexican journalists. “Espinosa’s murder marks a new milestone in the violence against the press in Mexico,” Article 19 said on Saturday. “It is the first time a journalist has been killed while internally displaced in the federal district.”
Despite this, the ongoing attack on Mexico’s freedom of speech and the press has largely escaped international attention. In January, Western leaders condemned the killing of 12 people at the Paris offices of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. Outraged freedom of speech advocates from around the globe proclaimed in solidarity, “Je suis Charlie.” Even Peña Nieto denounced the attack.
By contrast, the murders of Mexican journalists have been met with silence. Peña Nieto has not said a word about the killings and the growing sense of insecurity for journalists in Mexico.
To be clear, extremists acting under the pretext of defending their faith did not murder the Mexican journalists. But the killings are taking place amid the state’s failure to safeguard journalists and freedom of speech. The Mexican government has vowed to protect journalists facing threat. However, the growing number of murdered journalists over the last few years underscores the inefficacy of those efforts.
Last month during his trip to East Africa, President Barack Obama called on African leaders to allow free press to thrive, emphasizing its importance as an ingredient for “real democracy.” This is a stark contrast with the U.S. government’s silence on the ongoing crisis in Mexico, which the advocacy group Reporters Without Borders deems “ one of the world’s most dangerous countries for journalists.” The contrast between Obama’s rebuke of African leaders and the deafening silence on Mexico is puzzling and calls Washington’s credibility into question.
It is unlikely that the Mexican state will solve Espinosa’s crime. None of the journalists murdered during Peña Nieto’s term have found justice. The lack of impunity has created a growing sense of fear among journalists in Mexico.
Peña Nieto’s administration has proved incapable of protecting its citizens, let alone the press. It is time for the international community to condemn the attacks on the press and freedom of speech in Mexico and to commit to doing more. For example, the U.S. and other countries could offer asylum to journalists threatened for doing their job. World leaders should press Mexican authorities to end impunity and corruption.
The stakes are high for Western countries, particularly the United States. Mexico is the prime destination for American tourists and a significant trade partner. U.S. leaders and lawmakers should take a critical look at the deterioration of democracy in Mexico and apply more pressure on the Mexican government to end impunity and corruption. The U.S. war on drugs and the demand for illicit substances across the U.S. have had devastating effects on Mexican democracy. This has taken a huge toll on the press and other civil society organizations.
Washington must rethink its economic and drug policies to end the climate of insecurity and violence in Mexico. As Obama said at the African Union headquarters in Ethiopia, when pivotal elements like the press are threatened, “you may have democracy in name but not in substance.”