Mexico: Being a journalist has never been so dangerous

It wasn’t until nearly an hour of crawling through near-stopped traffic on a highway in Tijuana, Mexico that we saw a rush hour growl crash.

Two cars, a pickup truck and an old four-door sedan collided at a busy intersection. The entire passenger window of the truck was visibly blown out.

“Oh, that one?” said Jesús Aguilar, a Tijuana-based crime journalist we’re late with. “Yeah, it looked like murder scene number five today. It’s going to be a busy night.”

The truck driver was shot through the passenger window at the intersection and crashed into the sedan as a result.

Stumble upon a murder scene is not uncommon in Tijuana. In a country riddled with murder, the city stands out. More than 800 homicides have been reported this year alone, according to city officials, and that’s just including documented homicides. Experts say the real number of murders is higher.

The state of Baja California, where Tijuana is located, is also known for disappearances. Judging by the past, many of these people will never be found and are most likely already dead.

Crime reporters like Aguilar are always busy. But they are also at extreme risk of becoming victim of the same crimes they cover.
This year 11 journalists in mexico were killed, according to the rights group Article 19.

Night shift

Freelance crime journalist Arturo Rosales, who last week agreed to let CNN accompany him on one of his night shifts, knows this every night.

We meet in a deserted park near the infamous red-light district, where Rosales pulls up in his taxi.

“If I have free time between crime scenes, I give people lifts,” he said. “This job pays little.”

Rosales’ job depends entirely on what he hears on the tiny radio he keeps on the car’s console. It is tuned to police and emergency response frequencies. We were with him for about five minutes before a call came in about a body found in a truck near the highway.

“We’re going to very dangerous areas to document these things,” Rosales said as we raced to the scene.

“Sometimes I get scared,” he said.

Many of the murders in Tijuana are linked to organized crime, fueled by cartels and gangs that have dominated many parts of Mexico for generations.

Three journalists were killed in Mexico last week

Merely approaching these murders puts journalists at natural risk, risk of everything from being directly targeted for reporting crimes to simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Two policemen meet us at the scene of the murder. They hold the area until investigators arrive. There are so many murders every day in Tijuana that technicians often don’t even show up for hours.

Rosales greets one of the officers: “What happened?”

The driver was shot dead in his car, the officer said, adding: “Stay behind this line, but (take pictures) of whatever you want.”

Rosales takes photos and goes live on Facebook, strictly sticking to only the most basic facts: the place, time and manner of death.

“I have not yet received threats from any cartel because I am here to document a violent event and nothing else,” he explained. “I don’t get in trouble or blame any cartel, it’s none of my business.”

However, in crime reporting, this does not always protect journalists from harm.

“He taught me everything”

One of the first things people say about journalist Margarito Martinez is that he was a happy guy, that he smiled more than anyone else – despite the fact that he was covering.

Martinez was part of a small but prominent group of freelance journalists covering crime in Tijuana. Every night he went out with his camera and filmed scene after scene, mostly just reporting the basic facts.

On January 17, he was shot several times near his house. Some of his closest friends and colleagues he worked with came to document it.

Aguilar, one of Martinez’s best friends, also left. “This is what we do, we cover up murders. Now I have witnessed it.”

Margarito Martinez's wife, Maria Elena Frausto Granados (left), stands at the site where her husband was shot dead in January.

“He didn’t investigate anything,” Aguilar said. “Other journalists are investigating these crimes, but Margarito just gave the basic facts. He didn’t deserve what happened,” he said, adding, “He was a great friend… he taught me everything I know.”

Mexican authorities have detained ten people in connection with the death of Martinez. Authorities said all 10 people were linked to organized crime.

But authorities have yet to provide a specific motive for the murder. Several of the 10 detainees were eventually released. Nobody has been formally charged.

Several Tijuana-based journalists have told CNN they know exactly why Martinez was killed and have put forward various theories, including that Martinez was falsely accused of spreading information about the family of a local crime boss.

CNN cannot independently verify this information.

Attacks and impunity

This particularly violent year for Mexican journalists has sparked outrage across the country and within the media themselves.

Critics say the Mexican government is either unable or unwilling to protect journalists, just as it appears unable to curb the massive levels of violence in society at large.

“Look how many of us have been killed,” Aguilar said. “They say this level of violence doesn’t happen, but it’s bulls**t. Pure lies.”

Aguilar is referring to the federal government led by President Andrés Manuel López Obrador.

López Obrador has consistently said that his government is protecting journalists.

“In each of these cases[murders of journalists]people have already been arrested and there is no impunity,” López Obrador told a press conference earlier this year.

Mexican journalist Lourdes Maldonado Lopez, who feared for her life, was killed in Tijuana.

However, official data paint a different picture. More than 90% of crimes in Mexico remain unsolved, according to the federal government’s own statistics, and the vast majority of murders in which journalists were killed are no exception.

“Whatever threats hinder their work, whoever kills journalists, there are no consequences because we live in a land of impunity,” Sonia de Anda, a Tijuana-based journalist and press freedom advocate, told CNN.

She argues that this culture also encourages criminals to commit violence against journalists simply for doing their jobs.

Critics say the president’s narrative also fuels violence.

López Obrador regularly criticizes members of the media, personally attacking them for covering that he does not like him and calling some the enemies of the Mexican people.

Demonstration protesting the murder of three journalists - José Luis Arenas, Margarito Martinez and Lourdes Maldonado - in January.

Such rhetoric, according to de Anda, creates a climate in which violence against journalists is more likely, if not encouraged.

“We have a president who attacks freedom of speech,” de Anda said. “He invites his followers to attack those periodists (journalists) when they disagree with him. And then the violence starts. It’s the worst we’ve ever seen.”

One journalist, who asked CNN not to be named for security reasons, told CNN: “Some of us have had a really hard time lately because of the mourning, the fear, the pressure.”

Rosales said that’s how everyone thinks these days. It’s not hard to see why.

That evening, we accompany him to several more murder scenes in the most dangerous areas of Tijuana. On each of them, the presence of the police is limited, some people stand and watch.

Most likely, these are observers, called punteros, who work for certain cartels and observe what happens at the crime scene, Rosales explained.

“I just do my job openly and honestly and then I leave. But it can be scary,” he said.

During those 24 hours, 15 murders were reported in Tijuana, making it the most violent day of the year for the city.

According to Rosales, it’s only a matter of time before another journalist becomes another victim.