The Dangerous World of Mexican Journalism

(TLS, 2021)

Journalists risking their lives to uncover the truth in Mexico
Translated by Diane Stockwell
243pp. New Press. £18.99.
Témoris Grecko

Moisés Sánchez was a citizen journalist in Medellin de Bravo, a town near the bustling port of Veracruz on Mexico’s Gulf Coast, a locale of dirt roads, abundant trash and scarce plumbing. He worked as a butcher and drove a taxi, but his true calling, for nearly twenty years, was La Unión, the newsletter he produced on a photocopier: black-and-white, 8 x 5 (similar to A4), a single page folded in two. (His son later helped him to produce it on a computer.) His print run was 1,000 copies per month. The only real source of news in the area, Sánchez wrote about washed out roads and unfinished construction sites, as well as abuses by police, some of whom took residents to a secret jail and tortured them until their families handed over money. The local mayor tried to pay Sánchez off, but he refused the cash.

This is a chronicle of a death foretold. Threats reached him, but he kept reporting. According to Témoris Grecko in Killing the Story, Sánchez often told his son: “We have a government that came to power not to work, not to build a better town … they have come to sack, to rob, to hand out jobs to their brothers, their brothers-in-law, their sons-in-law”. On January 2, 2015 Sánchez was dragged from his home, killed and dismembered. A former police officer arrested for the crime later remarked in a videotaped statement: “He rocked the boat”.

Grecko’s book examines the most perilous corners of Mexican journalism over the past two decades. A veteran reporter and foreign correspondent, currently based in Mexico, he shows how Mexican journalists are frequently caught between nefarious politicians and ruthless criminal organizations, who are often aligned with each other. The recurring theme of his narrative is Mexico’s broken criminal justice system, in which nearly 90 per cent of murders do not lead to a conviction. Between 2000 and 2018, 141 journalists were assassinated in Mexico. In the first five months of the term of the current president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, five reporters were killed. Nine were murdered in 2020.

Grecko is not just a skilled reporter but a sensitive writer who provides vivid portraits of his fallen comrades, many of whom toiled in lawless provincial cities far from the capital. There is Rubén Espinosa, an idealistic young photojournalist who became a thorn in the side of Veracruz’s corrupt governor, Javier Duarte; the charismatic Javier Valdez, who chronicled family members who used rods and shovels to search for the bodies of disappeared relatives in the state of Sinaloa; and Miroslava Breach, who wrote about crimes against women and the environment, and who discovered that criminal organizations were running their own candidates in mayoral elections in the state of Chihuahua. All three were brutally murdered.

But Killing the Story, which has been smoothly translated by Diane Stockwell, does not have the bleak uniformity of a human rights report. There are victories to savour here, and profiles in courage. Take Pedro Canché, a citizen journalist of Mayan background in the state of Quintana Roo. His reporting on police brutality and political skulduggery enraged the state governor, Roberto Borge, who ordered his arrest in 2014. In jail, Canché was viciously assaulted. But then the tables turned. The governor, accused of illicit enrichment and money laundering, fled Mexico in 2016, and Canché earned his freedom. The reporter subsequently flew to Panama, where Borge was imprisoned, and asked his lawyer for an interview with the governor. The lawyer confused Canché with someone else and granted him a meeting. Canché thereby had the satisfaction of interviewing his nemesis behind bars.

Determined female reporters are not neglected here: Grecko chronicles the work of Carmen Aristegui, who, against tremendous odds, has continued to conduct her muckraking journalism on various radio and digital channels; and Laura Castellanos, who risked her life to reconstruct a 2015 massacre in the state of Michoacán to which high-ranking state officials were closely linked.

Even in the shadow of brutality, Grecko demonstrates, there can be continuity and persistence. In Veracruz, Sánchez’s son, Jorge, has continued to publish La Unión. “If they thought by killing him they would win silence, they’ll see that’s not how it is.” On a sojourn to Tijuana, Grecko visited the office of the independent weekly Zeta, two of whose editors have been shot, one fatally, as a result of their work. “This weekly has cost lives”, Adela Navarro, the current editor, told Grecko. “It has cost blood. We have had threats, political and fiscal pressure, attacks on morale, everything … But we go ahead, to the next edition, and the next edition, and the next edition.”