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Despite decades of killings, journalists in Mexico are offered little protection

Tijuana Journalist Protest 04
Matthew Bowler
Protesters hung signs on the gates to the Mexican federal prosecutor's office in Tijuana demanding "Justice for Lourdes and Margarito", two Tijuana based journalists murdered less than a week apart, Jan. 25, 2022.

The two Tijuana journalists murdered this month had sought help from Baja California’s journalist protection program. The help never came.

Baja California’s journalist protection program is a “hollow shell,” with no autonomy, no budget and fewer than 5 employees, according to Jan-Albert Hootsen, who oversees the Mexico Committee to Protect Journalists.

“Its knowledge of risk evaluation and applying protection is rudimentary at best,” Hoosten said.

The program is under fire after the fatal shootings of two Tijuana Journalists this month – Margarito Martinez and Lourdes Maldonado.

One of the main criticisms of the program is lack of continuity between former Governor Jaime Bonilla and incoming Governor Marina del Pilar Avila, who took office November 2021.

Tijuana Journalist Protest 06
Matthew Bowler
Hundreds of protesters rallied at the Mexican federal prosecutors office in Tijuana demanding the killings of Mexican journalists be stopped. This sign reads "No more journalists murdered", January 25, 2022.

During the Bonilla administration a group of stakeholders met with state representatives on a monthly basis. But that meeting has not happened since Pilar Avila took office three months ago, according to Sonia De Anda, a Tijuana journalist and head of the Tijuana Journalists Association.

Mexico has long been considered one of the world’s most dangerous countries in which to be a journalist. More than 25 journalists have been killed in Mexico since 2016, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Maldonado was the third this month. On Jan. 10, Jose Luis Gamboa was stabbed to death in Veracruz.

Martinez tried to apply for the state protection program in December. But Pilar Avila’s administration had not yet set up the enrollment process, De Anda said. He was shot and killed on Martin Luther King Jr. Day while leaving his home for work.

Maldonado, a veteran broadcast journalist who had covered Tijuana for decades, joined the program in 2020. Records and news reports show she was not receiving the level of protection that had been promised to her when she was shot and killed outside of her home on the evening of Jan. 23.

Lourdes Maldonado Lopez Home 01
Matthew Bowler
The driveway in Tijuana where journalist Lourdes Maldonado Lopez was gunned down is still wrapped in police tape, with her dog Chato who has refused to leave, eat or drink water since Maldonado's murder. Jan. 25, 2022.

Documents reviewed by KPBS show Maldonado’s protection was supposed to include a panic button installed in her home and workplace, routine police patrols from the Tijuana Police Department and permanent police protection outside her home from 8 p.m. to 6 a.m.

Tijuana Mayor Montserrat Caballero told reporters this week that Maldonado’s protection only included three phone calls a day and police patrols outside her home.

Maldonado told friends and colleagues that she felt particularly exposed right outside her home.

“She felt most vulnerable when she got home from work, got out of her car and walked the four steps it took her to get home,” De Anda said. “It’s as if she described her death.”

Tijuana Journalist Protest 02
Matthew Bowler
Hundreds came out in Tijuana and across Mexico to demand the killings of Mexican journalists be stopped, January 25, 2022.

Calls for justice

Though the dangers facing journalists in Mexico have existed for decades, the slayings this month have brought their fear and outrage to another level.

On Tuesday, reporters held marches and demonstrations in dozens of cities throughout Mexico. They called for more protection for the living and justice for the dead.

However, they worry that justice for the three killed this month will come slowly, if at all. To date, no body has been charged for Martinez’s murder and nobody has been arrested in connection with Maldonado’s slaying.

The gun used in Martinez’s death has been linked to five other crimes in Tijuana.

Tijuana Journalist Protest 01
Matthew Bowler
Journalists and supporters of journalism gather in Tijuana just before the local part of a nation wide march demanding the killing of Mexican journalists stops, January 25, 2022.

Baja California’s state attorney generals’ office said investigators found evidence of at least three men participating in Maldonado’s shooting. They are currently looking for security camera footage, according to news reports.

Statistically speaking, their killers will likely not be prosecuted.

“The principal factor that fuels these attacks is the impunity in Mexico,’ Hootsen said. “In practice, it means that 95 percent of all crimes against the press in Mexico are never actually prosecuted. Meaning that, bluntly put, it pays to commit a crime in Mexico because there is a very small chance that you’ll get caught.”

The emotional toll

Maldonado’s murder happened before colleagues had a chance to fully mourn Martinez’s death. She was killed just three days after his funeral.

“I didn’t know, but it was the last time I would see Lourdes,” said Tanya Navarro, a reporter for the San Diego Union-Tribune.. “A fellow coworker, a fellow reporter that had a long experience here in Tijuana. Unfortunately I didn’t get a chance to say hello to her because she was actually working.”

Lourdes Maldonado Lopez Home 02
Matthew Bowler
The home of murdered Tijuana journalist Lourdes Maldonado Lopez still wrapped in police tape three days after she was killed Tijuana, January 25, 2022.

Navarro described Maldonado as an inspiration to young women in the news business and “an example for many of us who started journalism when she was already a big reporter here.”

The killings have already had a psychological impact on Tijuana’s press corps.

Local reporters are second guessing which stories to cover and when to leave the house. They are also taking safety measures like traveling in pairs and constantly sharing their movements with colleagues.

“I think all of us are afraid right now,” said Yolanda Morales, a Tijuana-based journalist. “We leave the house afraid. This shouldn’t happen in a democratic country, a just country, a free country. This shouldn’t be happening.”

Tijuana Journalist Protest 07.jpg
Matthew Bowler
Protesters hung signs on the gates to the Mexican federal prosecutor's office in Tijuana demanding "Justice for Lourdes and Margarito", two Tijuana based journalists murdered less than a week apart, January 25, 2022.

Longtime journalist Vicente Calderon says the two recent murders bring back memories of similar crimes against reporters in Tijuana more than 30 years ago. He remembers marching in 1988 after the murder of Hector Felix Miranda.

“Unfortunately, when you live in a city with a lot of organized crime, with a lot of police government corruption it is very dangerous to do our job,” Calderon said.

He worries that the younger generation of journalists will leave the industry altogether.

“I’ve been talking to a lot of my colleagues, especially the younger ones, and they say that their relatives are the first ones to tell them, ‘Why don’t you get away from that profession? Why don’t you choose a different line of work?’”

Despite decades of killings, journalists in Mexico are offered little protection

Despite the fear and stress and threats, Tijuana’s journalists said they will not stop doing their jobs.

“We keep going knowing that our blood could be spilled,” De Anda said. “But we won’t stop working and we won’t hide or leave our country.”