US-Backed Drug War Fuels Murders of Journalists in Mexico

We travel to Tijuana in Mexico, where a wave a murdered journalists has raised international concern and prompted nationwide protests. The three most recently murdered are José Luis Gamboa Arenas, Alfonso Margarito Martínez Esquivel and Lourdes Maldonado López. We speak with Jan-Albert Hootsen, Mexico correspondent at the Committee to Protect Journalists, who attended López’s funeral on Thursday in Tijuana and says Mexican authorities’ investigations and security measures have proven “woefully insufficient.” He adds that violence against journalists exploded after the Mexican government launched its U.S.-backed war on drugs. “The United States is a player in this violence, whether it likes it or not.”


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be final.

AMY GOODMAN: We begin today’s show in Mexico, where a wave of murders of journalists in the last two weeks prompted reporters and their supporters to take to the streets in protests nationwide Tuesday.

PALOMAR FIERRO: [translated] I’m here with a lot of grief, because more than 100 journalists have been murdered in the last couple of years, no matter how many times we’ve protested. I was in several protests, one in 2008 dubbed “We want to be alive,” one right after the killing of Javier Valdez. Despite all our protests the murder of journalists continues. I feel more sadness than indignation when I arrive here.

AMY GOODMAN:Mexico is one of most dangerous places for journalists in the world. Yesterday, people gathered in Tijuana, a city bordering the United States, for the funeral of reporter Lourdes Maldonado López, a well-known broadcast journalist, who had already faced multiple attacks on her life when she was shot dead in front of her home Sunday. She was the third Mexican reporter to be killed in the first weeks 2022. On January 17th, another Tijuana journalist, Margarito Martínez, was shot dead in front of his residence after he had just returned from an assignment. He was a fixer for international media and covered crime and police. On January 10th, the body of reporter José Luis Gamboa was found in the state of Veracruz after he was stabbed to death.

The murder of Lourdes Manadonado has attracted widespread attention. According to Mexican authorities, she was enrolled into a protection program for journalists. She had a panic alarm in her house. In 2019, she went to a press briefing with the Mexican president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, and pleaded for his help.

LOURDES MALDONADO LÓPEZ: [translated]I am writing to you asking for your assistance, for labor justice and for your help, as I fear for my safety. I know that there’s nothing I can do against the corruption I’m experiencing in Tijuana and with this powerful person without your support, Mr. President.

AMY GOODMAN:That was 2019. This is Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador responding this week to the murder of Lourdes Maldonado.

PRESIDENT ANDRÉS MANUEL LÓPEZ OBRADOR: [translated]I wanted to address this particular murder, which was deplorable. We will investigate. I’m saying this because yesterday there were reports that she was here, reports saying she went to the president asking for protection, and now look what happened, as if we dismissed her, as if we didn’t care and left her without protection.

AMY GOODMAN: This comes as Lourdes’s dog refused to move from guarding the entrance to her home this week, after she was killed.

We go to Tijuana and speak to Jan-Albert Hootsen about the Mexican authorities’ calls to investigate these killings. He’s the Mexico correspondent for the Committee to Protect Journalists. He attended Lourdes’s funeral yesterday.

Welcome back Democracy Now!, Jan. This is a terrible loss, not only for Mexico. You were there at the funeral. Can you tell us more? You spent time with the relatives. Tell us about the family and who was there.

JANALBERT HOOTSEN: Hi. Thank you for being here.

Yes, I was yesterday at Lourdes’s funeral here in Tijuana. It was a small event. There were probably 40 people there, and at least half were journalists. It’s a big story here in Tijuana because most of the journalists here in the city actually knew Lourdes. This made it even more tragic for them. They had to cover the murder of their friend and colleague at Tijuana’s graveyard.

Lourdes’ family was there. There were relatives from the United States who lived just across the border in San Diego and Tijuana. They spoke briefly with me and the media. They wanted justice. Her brothers said they were sorry for the actions of those involved and they are anxiously awaiting an update from the Mexican authorities.

And I think, going back to your other question, what should be done, I think that’s the first thing that should be done. Authorities here in the state of Baja California need to provide clarity on who might be involved and what might be the motive behind this killing, because we don’t know that so far.

AMY GOODMAN:Can you talk about the type of reporting she did and the fact that she kept a panic button in her home?

JANALBERT HOOTSEN: Sure. She was an online radio host and television host. Sintoniza Sin Fronteras was the streaming service she worked for. She was a regular commentator on local events and had multiple shows each week. She didn’t mince words. It was about politics. It was about security and crime, Tijuana being the most dangerous city in Mexico at the moment. She also addressed the murder of her colleague Margarito Martínez one week earlier.

According to the Baja California state officials, I spoke with earlier this weeks, she was enrolled into a protection program and had a panic button at her home. But, you know, at 7 p.m., when she got back, when she was attacked, apparently she didn’t have the panic button with her. And another thing that actually we need more clarity about is that the Baja California state authorities told me that she had regular police check-ins, meaning a patrol car would check in with her residence every once in a while to see if she was OK. And apparently this wasn’t enough, and they were not present at the time when she was attacked. So, this means that whatever security measures the Mexican state had provided her, they’ve been woefully insufficient.

AMY GOODMAN: One of Lourdes Maldonado’s last broadcasts was January 19th. It was dedicated to the Tijuana photojournalist, Jan, who you just mentioned, Margarito Martínez, who was assassinated outside his home last week. This is Lourdes’ clip from her own program. Brebaje, which means “Potion,” paying homage to Margarito, not knowing she’d be killed days later herself.

LOURDES MALDONADO LÓPEZ: [translated] Margarito’s death, his assassination, has left a big hole in journalism. He was known for his reporting on the violence in Baja California and on the murders. He was a great expert on these subjects.

AMY GOODMAN:Jan-Albert Hootsen, I know that we, in addition having you on the line, tried to reach some Mexican journalists at Tijuana but no one would listen, afraid of what it could mean for them. Can you talk about the danger they face and what this federal protection program is for journalists and why one is needed in Mexico, why it’s one of the deadliest places in the world for media workers?

JANALBERT HOOTSEN: Sure. I was actually yesterday at the home of Margarito Martínez. I spoke with his wife for quite some time. The place where he was killed, it’s very chilling. You approach her home and you see a spot that is very clearly cleaned. There are flowers and candles right next to it. It’s almost like Margarito was a silent witness.

And the kind of journalism that Margarito Martínez was specialized in was the crime and security beat. He would wake up every morning to listen to the radio frequencies of the Tijuana and Baja California state police as well as the Red Cross. And whenever any incident would come in — Tijuana has on average five homicides a day — then he would jump in his car and just go to the place where the incident was reported, get out as soon as he can, take pictures, drive back home and then upload those pictures to one of the — one or more of his many employers. And that particular kind of journalism is quite dangerous in Mexico, and especially Tijuana, because it happens very often that when a journalist takes photos of these incidents, there might be someone there who doesn’t like them to do it — for example, gang members or the family members of the people who were killed, who were shot. Journalists will be closely followed. They will be harassed. They might be threatened with the death. So, it’s really a daily struggle for people like Margarito.

One of the things I find very important and which the Mexican state must clarify is the fact that Margarito actually contacted the Federal Mechanism for the Protection of Journalists & Human Rights Defenders. That’s an institution that functions under the coordination of the Mexican federal government. It was established in this year’s 10th anniversary. And it is a small institution that’s focused on coordinating protection efforts with state governments and with federal agencies. The problem with this mechanism is that it’s woefully insufficient. It’s highly centralized in Mexico City; it doesn’t have any regional representation in Mexico. And even if it were — even if it did have enough money, which it really doesn’t, because it’s only working with a budget of approximately just over 15 million U.S. dollars a year — even if it had enough money, and even if it had enough public officials working for it that were well trained, then there was still the issue of impunity, the issue of crimes not being properly investigated by the Mexican authorities, which is what keeps incentivizing these killings. Apologies for the background noise —I’m here in Tijuana, and there’s a little bit of a siren back there just now.

AMY GOODMAN:We are completely aware. Can you speak about the effects of the so-called U.S.-backed war on drugs, its rise to Mexico, and whether violence is being used against journalists and human rights defenders.

JANALBERT HOOTSEN: There’s a case of, about five years ago, the murder of a journalist, Miroslava Breach, in the northern Mexican state of Chihuahua. And in the years after she was murdered — she was a correspondent for national newspaper La Jornada — there have been numerous investigations into the circumstances of her death, and one of those investigations focused on the ballistic evidence. People who looked into it were able link the murder weapon, the gun Miroslava Breach was murdered with, directly to the United States. It was a gun purchased at the Mexican border and smuggled into Mexico. The gun was then used for many crimes including the murder of Miroslava Brach.

Baja California state officials have been able link the gun to at most five crimes in the case involving Margarito’s death. And there’s a very high probability that that gun, too, has been smuggled into Mexico and then used by criminal gangs here.

I believe we cannot see the violence against journalists at Mexico as a separate issue from the war on drug. The numbers, at CPJWe know that violence against journalists rose just as Mexico declared its U.S. backed drug war against organized criminal groups. The United States is involved in this violence, regardless of whether it wants it or not. This is a transnational problem and we have no choice but to view the war against drugs as the main factor that fuels the violence from an international, transnational perspective.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, USAToday reportsAccording to the Mexican government, more than half a million guns are smuggled into the United States each year. Jan-Albert, can you finish on that note?

JANALBERT HOOTSEN: Absolutely. Ioan Grillo, a British journalist here in Mexico, wrote a book about it. The Iron River. And it’s a phenomenon that is apparently unstoppable. There are so many guns moving southward. There are hundreds of gun shops near the border. It is amazing how easy it is for smugglers to buy guns in the United States and then smuggle them across the border to Mexico.

And the current government under President López Obrador has actually been very vocal about the United States having to take measures against that. I think it’s a very tall order. It is a matter for bilateral cooperation. In the United States, there isn’t a lot of incentive currently to change it, you know, despite all the mass shootings in the U.S., but I don’t think there’s any other way than to — to drop the violence than to at least address this issue in a bilateral sense.

AMY GOODMAN:Jan-Albert Hootsen – We are so grateful that you were with us, Dutch journalist and Mexico correspondent of the Committee to Protect Journalists. We are speaking from Tijuana, where Lourdes maldonado was just remembered at her funeral yesterday. She is one among three journalists murdered in Mexico in the first weeks in 2022.

Next, we’ll visit Sheikh Jarrah in occupied East Jerusalem. This is where Israeli forces demolished the home of a Palestinian family. We’ll speak to the Sheikh Jarrah resident Mohammed El-Kurd, well-known Palestinian poet and activist. Stay with us.