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Drugs, Journalism, and Tourism: How Cartels Control the Flow of Information in Mexico

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A few months ago I was in Cancun, the state of Quintana Roo, Mexico, and one detail surprised me. I was in a club and someone offered me drugs. I told him “no,” but I asked him how they managed to sell it without any problem inside the club. The man replied that it was an agreement between the gangs and nightclub owners.

Later, a friend who lives in Cancun explained it to me: drug-trafficking permeated absolutely everything in the tourist district. The row of bars that line the main street of the Hotel Zone doesn’t escape the will of the local drug lords. Every nightclub, every restaurant, must pay its fee to the mafia in order to exist, enjoy protection and, obligatorily, allow the sale of drugs.

I don’t know if it is really like that, but I imagine it this way (as it was explained to me): the Hard Rock Café pays its fee. The RIU hotel pays its fee. If you want to set up your restaurant in Cancun, you must consider, among the budget, the mafia bond. It is a mandatory tax that has the endorsement of the state and the tacit connivance of the owners.

The most frightening thing is that this is an implicit truth, which is neither discussed nor published. No local journalist can delve into it, because it would be a death sentence. There are limits that the press cannot cross. And in Mexico, there are too many. Crossing them implies playing with life. In most cases, it does not end well.

On that trip to Cancun, I spoke at length with a great friend, a journalist. I will not tell her name to protect her, but among the many things we talked about, she told me: “Sometimes I would like to give my opinion. To talk about a subject that you see, that you know is not right, that everybody knows is not right, but nobody says it. But in the end, I prefer not to write or say anything. You know, I’m not someone super recognized, nor am I famous. You get silenced quickly.”

That’s the danger of self-censorship. Everyone knows what happens if you say something about someone, so it’s better not to say it. Voluntarily, independent journalists, on the rise, avoid their own impulses, so as not to risk their lives. They choose silence, neutralize their essence and, in the end, repress their own craft. The motive is laudable, of course, it is their life; but the reality is very alarming.

“If you are a journalist who loves to dig, who is not afraid to publish something, and you are looking for the truth, it is dangerous. You will probably end up dead or exiled,” my friend told me.

It’s not about delving into a particular subject. In Mexico, everything is connected. Mainly politics and drug trafficking, but no one escapes the risks. Even covering show business is risky, in a country so permeated by organized crime. In her latest book, journalist Anabel Hernández revealed the relationships between celebrities and the big mafia bosses. Models, actors and singers, who had a friendship or an affair with a drug lord. Anabel Hernandez, of course, is in exile.

“I don’t like to keep quiet. It is difficult and very frustrating because I know that there are topics that I should never touch. Today the conditions are not right for me to grow as a journalist,” added my friend, who works for a local media outlet in Cancun, one of the most dangerous cities to work as a journalist. In fact, a few days ago, an attempt was made to murder journalist Nezahualcóyotl Cordero in the very touristic Isla Mujeres. Fortunately, one of the assassins got his gun jammed. He was not able to kill him, and Cordero can still tell the story, out of town and protected.

Mexico’s Secretary of Security, Rosa Icela Rodríguez, speaks at a press conference with the President of Mexico, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, today at the National Palace in Mexico City, Mexico. The Mexican government announced Wednesday the arrest of three people allegedly involved in the murder of journalist Lourdes Maldonado, whose death in Tijuana sparked a national mobilization against violence against the press. (Image: EFE)

Hugs, not bullets

Mexico is not at war, but it is one of the most violent countries in the world. For journalists, it is the most hostile country, followed by India, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Since 2000, 149 journalists have been killed in Mexico. Since 2018, when leftist President Andrés Manuel López Obrador came to power, 29.

Regarding violence, López Obrador raised a campaign that seeks, instead of confronting armed gangs, to reason with them. Perhaps the crowning and most symbolic moment of his policy against crime was when in October 2019, Ovidio Guzmán López—the son of Chapo Guzmán, Mexico’s most dangerous drug trafficker, now imprisoned in the United States—was arrested by security agents in Culiacán, the capital of Sinaloa. Immediately after his arrest, the Sinaloa Cartel criminal organization rose up. Men (better armed than the police) wearing bulletproof vests, began to spread fire throughout the city. They demanded the release of Ovidio Guzman. After several hours, the state gave in.

President López Obrador defended his decision to free Chapo Guzmán’s son. So did the mayor of Culiacán, Gustavo Mendoza. The argument was that the State was avoiding a bloodbath. Since then, the government’s will has not been to confront the criminal groups, but to propose pacification. But the policy remains just that: proposals. Pure rhetoric.

In July 2021, in one of his recurrent and very tedious morning speeches, López Obrador referred to the increase of violence in Mexico. His words were limited to cloying phrases, platitudes and ethereal words.

“Let us put into practice the principle of love of neighbor. Let us put aside hatred, rancor. Let us not hurt each other. No to violence, yes to peace. To dialogue. Don’t let yourselves be manipulated,” said López Obrador on July 6 last year in response to a journalist’s question about the violence in the town of Aguililla, Michoacán.

“The president of Mexico is asking for them!” added López Obrador, in a gesture of pure magical voluntarism, as if that were enough. “We don’t want anyone to lose their lives. I don’t want anyone to lose their lives, not even those in the criminal gangs. I don’t agree with the violent way. I am a pacifist.”

“And, even if they mock me… I will keep on saying: hugs, not bullets!”

That is the slogan with which Andrés Manuel López Obrador has promoted his policy of understanding and pacification of Mexico. He has been at it for years, but it has not worked. Things have not improved in Mexico. In fact, they have gotten worse.

Mexico’s President, Andrés Manuel López Obrador (c), participates in the 109th anniversary of the March of Loyalty, today, in Mexico City, Mexico. The Mexican Army on Wednesday reaffirmed its commitment to the president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, to defend the nation, guarantee internal security and help the population in the event of disasters. (Image: EFE)

Journalists killed like bedbugs

The year 2022 began violently for Mexico. The blood of four journalists marks a new wave of violence against the press. The latest case was that of Roberto Toledo, murdered in Michoacán by three men who were waiting for him outside his office.

In an article for Reforma, journalist Jorge Ramos writes: “The blood was still dripping on the floor. They had not had time to clean it up when they took the photograph of the place where reporter Roberto Toledo was murdered. Initial reports indicate that three individuals shot him at point-blank range in the garage of his office in Zitácuaro, Michoacán, next to a white van”.

Toledo is the fourth journalist to be murdered in January. A week earlier, in Tijuana, Baja California, police found the body of Lourdes Maldonado, with several shots in her face. Three years ago, in one of López Obrador’s press conferences, journalist Maldonado had told the president: “I come here to ask for support and labor justice, because I even fear for my life.” The state was unable to protect her.

Before Maldonado, Margarito Martínez, journalist of the weekly Zeta and collaborator of the British BBC, was murdered. He was shot several times at the door of his house in Tijuana. A few days earlier, on January 10, in the Port of Veracruz, the director of the digital media Inforegio, José Luis Gamboa, was stabbed to death.

Only one month and ten days into 2021 and four journalists have been murdered. They swell the scandalous number of attacks against the press, which is already in the dozens in recent years. In this regard, López Obrador promised justice. But his words are diluted in the face of previous experiences. Everyone knows that if you kill a journalist, nobody catches you. Nine out of 10 crimes against the press go unpunished, according to the Special Prosecutor’s Office for Crimes against Freedom of the Press.

Artículo 19 graphic.

Since 2010, when the state committed to solve the murders of journalists, there have been 94. Of those crimes, there have only been six homicide sentences. In the end, impunity reigns. Journalists are killed like bedbugs, and nothing happens. Hugs, not bullets.

“Historically, practicing journalism in Mexico has been very risky and with very few freedoms. Power has known how to keep the exercise of journalism limited,” journalist Juan Pablo de Leo Spínola, managing partner of Político MX, told me.

“López Obrador’s government has followed the populist line of previous governments. He has attacked the press. But we have never seen this in the last few years. We have never seen a president, with an attack on the press, from the pulpit, every day, with the budget of power,” he added.

Mexican Navy agents guard the house of photojournalist Margarito Martínez, murdered on January 17, 2022, in Camino Verde, Tijuana, Baja California state (Mexico). Amnesty International (AI) warned on Wednesday about the growing violence against journalists and human rights defenders in the Americas following the murder of at least 24 people this January in the region. (Image: EFE)

Nowhere to turn to

The state won’t protect you. On the contrary, it is the enemy. “And that has to do with the fact that politics is closely linked to drug trafficking. The risk comes from there. When one investigates and realizes that a certain candidate or public official has a certain pact with a mafioso, that’s as far as the investigation goes. The state and the criminal groups take care of stopping you,” my journalist friend confessed.

“Sometimes there may not be an explicit reaction from the government against a journalist, as would happen in Venezuela, for example, where they simply put you in jail. Not in Mexico. Here drug trafficking does the politician’s dirty work,” he said.

“We are standing idly by. We want to speak, to shout, but we cannot. We shout in silence, trying to do what is within our reach.”

This week, U.S. Senators Marco Rubio, a Republican, and Tim Kaine, a Democrat, sent a letter to U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, demanding that he pressure the Mexican government to protect journalists.

“We write to express deep concern about the ongoing killings of journalists in Mexico and to seek greater insight into U.S. efforts in support of press freedom in the country,” the letter reads.

“The United States should urge the Mexican government to seriously improve efforts to protect journalists,” they wrote on February 8.

The letter is a reaction to the nine journalists murdered in Mexico during 2021, plus the four already in 2022. But, above all, it is a reaction to the inertia of López Obrador, who has allowed organized crime to flourish in the country.

“The years-long violence against journalists in Mexico cannot begin to lessen as long as the country’s leader continues to normalize hostility towards freedom of expression,” the senators said.

“We request that the State Department provide detailed information on what specific steps the agency will take to ensure that there is transparency and accountability for the recent murders of journalists, and to better address the crisis of freedom of expression in Mexico,” Rubio and Kaine add.

Faced with the desperate and sterile reality in Mexico, many have to look to the international community, hoping that the denunciations do find echo in the world, as the two U.S. senators have done.

Juan Pablo Leo de Spinola told me: “Mexico is not an easy country to understand. It is not easy in social, economic, political or labor matters. There is an exceptionalism that runs through the veins of Mexican society in many ways. Perhaps it is not well understood why freedom of expression is attacked in Mexico, but I believe that there is an international conscience. There are the indexes that place us among the most dangerous countries for the press”.

“In Mexico it is often easier to remain silent than to publish. There is a saying in the Mexican press that says that a journalist is not worth for what he says but for what he keeps silent”, says de Spinola.

He distrusts the Mexican government’s ability to protect journalists. “When a journalist is threatened and the interest groups want to end those voices, they can do it without any problem. There are many cases of journalists who, before being murdered, were threatened. And nobody protected them.”

The managing partner of Político MX says that “there is no real rule of law in Mexico, so that we can trust in justice or in the laws”.

“As a journalist many times you turn to look everywhere, to see who can defend you or take care of you and there is no one. In the end, it depends on oneself. On each journalist’s ability to censor himself, to keep quiet. That alone protects you. Impunity in Mexico is absolute in practically all cases”.

In the end, says Juan Pablo Leo de Spinola, the international community is of little use when the presidency itself is hostile to the press.

“There is little that can be done. We are all aware of the danger we run, but there is nowhere to turn,” he says.

Orlando Avendaño is the co-editor-in-chief of El American. He is a Venezuelan journalist and has studies in the History of Venezuela. He is the author of the book Days of submission // Orlando Avendaño es el co-editor en Jefe de El American. Es periodista venezolano y cuenta con estudios en Historia de Venezuela. Es autor del libro Días de sumisión.

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