Why is Mexico so Dangerous for Journalists?
Natalie D. Baker and Jonathan Landry
Reporter Arturo Valdivia's beheaded body was found near train tracks in the Veracruz town of Motzorongo. He was another Mexican journalist out of 11 murdered by the end of July 2022. Guerrero reporter Rogelio Barragán Pérez, beaten to death in 2019, was left to rot in the trunk of a Volkswagen in Zacatepec, Morelos. In 2020, Maria Elena Ferral Hernández was shot three times at a Notary's office in Papantla, Veracruz. She died later the same day. The journalist advocacy organization, Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), lists 149 journalists in Mexico as having died from suspicious or overtly criminal actions out of 2,163 media workers killed globally since 1992.
Journalist security is a global issue that persists well beyond Mexico. For example, the Ukraine conflict shows that hazardous conditions exist for reporters in the context of war. There were 15 journalist deaths in Ukraine by August 2022, with most deaths resulting from being caught in crossfire. However, active conflict is not a contributing factor to the deaths of media workers in Mexico, where most are likely intentional murders. Further, there is little to no justice for journalist killings, compounding broader issues related to security in this profession.
Mexico has a reputation for being home to some of the most dangerous cities in the world due to above-normal homicide rates. In 2019, the country had approximately 34,500 murders, some of the highest globally. The root of this issue is often rationalized, partly through the interactions of drug trafficking organizations (DTOs) and law enforcement campaigns designed to take them down. High rates of violence seen among Mexican journalists can be partly explained as collateral damage from the ongoing drug war for various related reasons. Some risks journalists in Mexico face are unique to the profession, as well as the current cultural context of the country. Scholars and watchdog groups argue that some of the motivators for journalist killings here range from the information warfare and propaganda tactics of DTOs.  For example, cartels will use journalist murders as scare tactics to silence media workers and send messages to politicians. In turn, media actors will subvert the attempts by both cartels and corrupt officials to silence or subdue them and find alternative ways to transmit their messages. These tactics sometimes get journalists in trouble and even killed.
Journalist security is a problem in Mexico. We explore the larger question of why reporting in the country seems extraordinarily dangerous beyond current explanations. Governance problems, the drug war, and the rise of cartels anecdotally account for why journalist murder occurs at higher rates in Mexico than in other countries. While these factors probably contribute, they are assumptions. Given the current state of data, it is difficult to make causal and even associative claims about how the drug war has directly influenced violence against journalists in Mexico. However, there have been targeted efforts by DTOs and government officials to attack journalists and other media workers, probably more so than since 2006. Thus, there is a gap in empirical knowledge on this topic, further compounded by data issues explored in this paper.
We briefly examine Mexican governance issues and the larger contexts in which violence against journalists occurs. Next, data on journalist killings are analyzed to answer why violence against journalists, especially local reporters, occurs at higher rates in Mexico than in any other country outside of active combat zones.
Governance and Corruption Problems in Mexico
Mexico is a multiparty federal republic with a constitution modeled after the United States. The current President, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, was elected in 2018 as a center-left National Regeneration Movement member. While Mexico is "democratically-oriented," it suffers from issues that place it more within the profile of a developing country. Like in the United States, law enforcement happens through state and municipal police. The significant difference is that some regions of Mexico have suffered extreme violence, often attributed to territorial disputes among DTOs and impunity. Governance is notoriously problematic, further amplified, or even directly caused by pervasive institutional corruption.
Since 2000, there have been 42 state governors suspected of corruption, with only 17 out of all formally investigated. In 2017, 3 Mexican governors went missing. Six others were under investigation for and or fighting formal corruption charges. The New York Times quoted anti-corruption expert Max Kaiser who stated, "…decades of impunity have generated a level of audacity and absurdity that we have never seen in Mexico." Despite high corruption and violence being public knowledge, there is little to no justice. Approximately 1.3% of violent crimes are solved. Criminal actors, corrupt lawmakers, and enforcers often do as they please with little consequence. The US Department of State wrote in 2021:
The government's federal statistics agency estimated 94 percent of crimes were either unreported or not investigated. There were reports of some government agents complicit with international organized criminal gangs and low prosecution and conviction rates for these abuses. Organized criminal elements, including local and transnational gangs, and narcotics traffickers, were significant perpetrators of violent crimes and committed acts of homicide, torture, kidnapping, extortion, human trafficking, bribery, intimidation, and other threats, resulting in high levels of violence, particularly targeting vulnerable groups. The government investigated and prosecuted some of these crimes, but the vast majority remained in impunity.
The issue extends to violence against journalists. There are reports of egregious abuses by Mexican national and law enforcement security forces against them, which include:
…the involvement by police, military, and other government officials and illegal armed groups in unlawful or arbitrary killings and forced disappearance; torture by security forces; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions in some prisons; arbitrary arrest and lengthy pretrial detention; violence against journalists and human rights defenders; [and] serious acts of corruption.
Another factor involved in the rise of violence in Mexico and violence against journalists is the ongoing war on drugs and the DTOs.
The illicit drug trade in Mexico has persisted for over a century. Extraordinarily high rates of violence have been typical in Mexico since 2006 when the war on DTOs began. Further, the constellation of major Mexican cartels has not been static. The rise of DTOs and their hegemony in governance connects to widespread corruption and institutional neglect. Before the drug war, there were four dominant DTOs: Sinaloa Cartel, Gulf Cartel, the Carrillo Fuentes Organization (CFO), and the Tijuana/Arellano Félix Organization (AFO or CAF). Strategic operations attempted to destroy cartel leadership and destabilize existing groups. However, this drastically increased violence and presented unintended consequences by splintering the four groups into the numerous active DTOs seen at present: e.g., the Sinaloa Cartel, Los Zetas, Tijuana/Arellano Félix Organization, Juárez/Carrillo Fuentes Organization (CFO)/La Linea, Beltrán Leyva Organization, Gulf Cartel, La Familia Michoacana, the Knights Templar, and Cartel Jalisco Nuevo Generación (CJNG). Cartels have enormous power in many localities. Despite the place of DTOs in Mexican civil society and their role in overall governance, they are not solely responsible for the country's problems with violence.
Mexico also suffers significant issues stemming from pervasive violations of the rule of law. For instance, the armed forces have the ability via the President to provide policing powers targeted toward the citizenry and traditional law enforcement agencies. These powers come from a 2019 Constitutional amendment, which resulted in the absorption of the Mexican National Guard into the Federal Police. Integrating the military with law enforcement was intended to weaken the violent activities of cartels but was unsuccessful and resulted in profound corruption. Thus, lines between those in the military, law enforcement, and criminal actors are blurred. Often, former or current law enforcement personnel work in consort with DTOs. One well-known example is La Línea, the enforcement arm of the Juárez Cartel, composed of former police. La Línea has allies embedded in the criminal justice system and is well-acquainted with how to negotiate typical law enforcement approaches.
Cartels, like La Línea, are organized crime groups existing within a weak state of ineffective national governance structures. They operate like other organized crime groups. One primary difference is the everyday use of personally driven tactics (i.e., revenge) rather than those that serve an overtly strategic purpose. In this way, DTOs mimic insurgent groups like those seen in weak states such as Iraq. However, cartels take their cues from organized crime groups (i.e., the mafia). Violent retribution against snitches, for example, is a tactic that establishes power through reputation. This approach is documented in seminal literature on the Italian/Sicilian Mafia , emulated by DTOs who must persistently re-establish power through violence to maintain dominance. They also use these methods to develop trust amongst their members and the civil population where there is a pervasive lack of faith in government and law enforcement institutions. These factors probably contribute to the pervasive lack of safety for journalists in Mexico. While cartels have a hand in journalist killings to either shut them up or send a message, the extent to which DTOs are responsible for the bulk of killings is unclear.
This essay examines existing data on journalist killings to accomplish two primary goals. The first is to shed light on general themes concerning primary motivations for journalist killings in Mexico. Second, our analysis provides a data-informed risk profile of journalist deaths since 1992. Ultimately, we address why Mexico is so dangerous for journalists through a data-informed lens.
The Committee to Protect Journalists lists 149 reporters killed in Mexico since 1992 as of August 2022. However, this number has discrepancies as their data output includes only 143 killed by early August 2022 . Other organizations, such as Reporters Without Borders (RSF) and the UNESCO Observatory of Killed Journalists, collect similar data. The actual state of conditions for journalists in Mexico is unknown due to the accuracy of the numbers killed. This issue is likely due to how watchdog groups use different points in time (e.g., CPJ started their counts in 1992, and others, such as Mexican-based organizations, use different years) to conceptualize the statistics. Given this issue, we examined data from all available sources but focused primarily on the CPJ database as it was the most comprehensive database available in English, our native language. Data were then triangulated via RSF, UNESCO, and Mexican and US media sources to ensure accuracy.
We collected data from the publicly available information CPJ hosts on its website concerning suspicious journalist deaths in Mexico since 1992. The website's purpose is to shed light about known attacks on the press over time, per country on a global scale. Data hosted on the CPJ site includes information such as date and location of a murder, suspected or known motive, perpetrators of the crime, status of the case, demographic information of the decedent, type of media worker (e.g., print reporter or photojournalist), as well as detailed information about each case if available. As mentioned, data were triangulated and cross-checked via multiple sources (e.g., RSF, UNESCO, and media reports). These efforts did reveal problems with CPJ data and how they described it in their database (e.g., ‘impunity’ confused with ‘unsolved’ or a case with a motive initially attributed to DTO activity unrelated and not accounted for in their records). Another issue was that few cases of an unnatural death unrelated to violence counted in overall statistics intended to demonstrate the scope of journalistic safety issues.
For instance, a US-based reporter for Breitbart, Gerardo Antonio Moreno Aranda, accidentally drowned in the Pacific Ocean while on vacation. His death was not related to his work. As another example, José Luis Gamboa Arenas was stabbed on 10 January 2022, in a suspected robbery thought to be random. Including death unrelated to work paints a distorted picture of the actual risk journalists negotiates for their jobs. Other issues arise from the characterization of motive. Mass media, for instance, will use sensationalized headlines to bring attention to an issue, and journalist death in Mexico is no different. In some cases, the motives for murder were due to personal indiscretion or nefarious activities, such as romantic affairs or participation in cartel activities. Such “convenient conjecture” on the part of media and watchdog groups on motive arises from the problems of impunity and government corruption, and the extent to which this happens is difficult to determine.
Despite these challenges, the data had much to contribute to the larger question of why journalism can be dangerous for its practitioners in Mexico.
What does the Data say?
First, we wanted to explore how ‘motive’ appeared in the data. We organized 13 significant categories based on how CPJ discussed actual or suspected motivations. The number one motive was 'unconfirmed' at close to 40% of the data, which anecdotally supports claims of impunity and low rates of case closures on homicide investigations. There are a fair number of cases in the ‘other’ (and ‘unlikely related to work’ (e.g., accident, personal vendettas, drowning) categories, underscoring the point that context matters. What is also clear is that the convergence of politics and organized crime via DTOs are salient motives for the murder of journalists or media workers, as shown (in Figure 1) below.
Figure 1. Possible Motive/Responsible Actors
While the motive category speaks on risks to journalist safety, we thought it was important to dig a little deeper into the types of coverage engaged by each reporter.
Type of Coverage
Data on motive and coverage indicates that corruption, carried out by criminal groups in consort with local politics, is potentially one of the root causes of violence perpetrated on journalists in Mexico. Figure 2 below shows that reporters who cover politics and crime are murdered at higher rates than those who cover other topics. Based on these counts, those who cover crime, politics (particularly corruption), or a combination of the two general topics seem more at risk than those who cover other topics.
Next, we looked for the states that experienced the most deaths. Figure 3 below demonstrates.
Figure 2. Type of Coverage by Murdered Journalists
The following sets of data speak to general trends in demographic and location data. We looked at the geographic location at the state and city level to ascertain which areas of Mexico might present the most dangerous conditions for journalists.
Geographic Location of Death
Data paint a picture of Mexican cities with the highest potential risk to journalists. The Committee to Protect Journalists documents the city where a reporter's death occurred or the location of a found body.
A trend arose concerning cities, where Veracruz experienced 7 journalist deaths since 1992. Other towns such as Acapulco (5 deaths), Oaxaca (4 deaths), Villahermosa (4 deaths), and Nuevo Laredo (4 deaths) follow close behind.
Figure 3. Death County per State
Veracruz (26 deaths), by far, had the most deaths over time, followed not so closely by Guerrero (14 deaths), Oaxaca (11 deaths), and Chihuahua (11 deaths). The rest are relatively even in distribution amongst Mexican states. Thus, certain areas contain more risk for journalists based on the overall political and social conditions. The data strongly assert that Mexican reporters die at higher rates than foreign journalists (97.2% of all reporters in the database were Mexican). It is also important to note that these Mexican reporters were local. Or, they lived in the areas where they both worked and were killed. The numbers in Veracruz State were particularly alarming.
We also explored demographic trends in deaths among data collected by CPJ.
The age of journalists when they died was another factor we examined, as depicted in the table below.
Figure 4. Journalists’ Age at Death
The age distribution ranges from the youngest at 20 to 77 at the oldest. Most reporters who died of suspicious causes since 1992 aggregate in the above 38 and older categories. It is essential to mention that there are some instances where the age of a reporter at death was unknown. However, when investigating news reports to find the age of each journalist, the majority appeared to be at least 35, given their history reporting and pictures. Thus, if unknowns were accurately incorporated, the actual age distribution would skew more towards older reporters killed than young. The table above does not reflect this aspect of the data.
Notably, most slain reporters were male, with 14 women killed out of the 143 total reporters. These data are below in Figure 5.
Figure 5. Gender Distribution of Slain Reporters
Cause of Death
The ways journalists died as depicted in the data are described in Figure 6 following.
Figure 6. Cause of Journalists’ Death
As Figure 6 shows, being shot was the most common cause of death. There was deviation where more gruesome methods were employed, such as dismemberment, beheading, and trauma experienced due to beating or even torture. Those methods are likely those of DTOs, as they are typical when cartels want to send a message or engage in acts of retribution. However, the data indicate that criminal groups like DTOs are involved in killing journalists as part of enforcing activities related to government corruption. This conclusion is rooted in the qualitative assessment of motive as discussed within specific reports, in conjunction with an analysis of numerical data.
Conclusion and Recommendations
Our essay sets the stage for a deeper, empirically driven understanding of why Mexico is the most dangerous country for media workers to operate in outside active combat zones. The data support a contention that the root of the problem is high rates of impunity for crime and cartel violence——most likely associated with criminal activities to support a corrupt local government rather than the self-interest of a particular DTO and general government corruption. A convergence of multiple sociopolitical conditions is a significant source of the problem, without one explanation for why.
Mexico has profound governance issues that foster corruption and a significant undercurrent of criminal governance deeply embedded in traditional institutions. While measures intended to mitigate insecurity are in place, such as the government-initiated Protection Mechanism for Human Rights Defenders and Journalists. The mechanism, initiated in 2012, is ineffective. There were multiple reporters killed while under protection via this measure. Safety issues for media workers will likely persist unless there is a meaningful change in governance structures. Drug trafficking organizations also remain highly problematic in that they likely act as enforcers of the nefarious activities of the State.
Issues such as including accidental deaths in statistics intended to provide a picture of journalist security for an entire country are detrimental to accuracy. Considerable work to 'clean' and triangulate data can help increase the accuracy of the information available for those who want to study this topic empirically. Haphazard collection and maintenance of data detract from the ability of interested parties to ascertain an accurate picture of the problem of journalist security. Thus, we recommend that advocacy groups be more meticulous and intentional with the data.
Our findings provide empirically rooted evidence of who might experience more risk than others. The data indicate that local male journalists over 38 years old, who work in Veracruz and cover political corruption, criminal activity ascribed to DTOs, or both, are most at risk in Mexico. These factors are valuable practical information that assists in future efforts to prevent unnecessary death. Mexican reporters are acutely aware of the risks yet choose their job irrespective of personal safety. They will continue to put themselves in danger to do their jobs, which remain crucial to maintaining open societies. Generalized risk to the profession still matters, despite the profile presented here.
 We use “journalist(s),” “reporter(s)",” and “media worker(s)” in this paper. We acknowledge these are loaded terms and that they take on different meanings depending on use and context. However, this is howthe Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) describes data in their website and database as they and other advocacy groups include broad classifications of those who work in this field, broadly speaking to describe those killed beyond just “journalist” or “reporter.” These professions include photojournalists, photographers, individuals who take drone footage and provide it to media outlets, camera operators, social media reporters, and other ancillary professionals working in Mexico's wider mass media field.
 “149 Journalists and Media Workers Killed in Mexico,” Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). 2022, https://bit.ly/3c3ZFLW. This statistic was last verified on 16 August 2022, when 13 had died as of 3 August 2022. The CPJ database had not been updated since May 2022.
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 Op. cit., Human Rights Watch. “Mexico: Events of 2020” at Note 8.
 Op. cit., United States Department of State. “2020 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices: Mexico” at Note 15
 Op. cit., Human Rights Watch. :Mexico: Events of 2020” at Note 8.
 Op. cit., United States Department of State. “2020 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices: Mexico” at Note 18.
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 Op. cit., June S. Beittel. "Mexico: Organized Crime and Drug Trafficking Organizations” at Note 22.
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 “Juárez Drug Cartel Leader Pleads Guilty to Charges Related to US Consulate Murders and Is Sentenced to Life in Prison.” Washington, DC: United States Department of Justice (DOJ), Office of Public Affairs, 2012, https://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/Juárez-drug-cartel-leader-pleads-guilty-charges-related-us-consulate-murders-and-sentenced.
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 Op. cit., Committee to Protect Journalists, “149 Journalists and Media Workers Killed in Mexico” at Note 1.
 Examples include titles such as Matt Ribers, “It's never been more dangerous to be a journalist in Mexico.” CNN. 17 June 2022, https://www.cnn.com/2022/06/17/americas/mexico-journalist-violence-intl-latam-cmd/index.html; Tom Phillips, “Two slain in Mexico are the latest in unrelenting slaughter of journalists.” The Guardian. 9 May 2022, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/may/09/mexico-journalists-killed-slaughter-amlo; and Albinson Linares, “‘Annihilating journalism’: Mexican reporters work amid attacks, killings” NBC News. 31 January 2022, https://www.nbcnews.com/news/latino/annihilating-journalism-mexican-reporters-work-attacks-killings-rcna14196. While violence against journalists is a problem that warrants attention, and compromises democratic ideals, the statistics on journalist killings indicate that to be murdered as a journalist is quite rare when accounting for how many in this profession are not killed on a day-to-day basis.
 Data on additional murders after downloading CPJ data had to be added by hand to run an “accurate” analysis on killings of media workers and journalists discussed in more extensive US new reports. The Committee to Protect Journalists did not update their downloadable dataset via their website, which as of January 2022, included 143 deaths in Mexico since 1992. All additional deaths and information had to be added after the fact by the authors and the research assistant.
 José Miguel Vivanco, “Mexican Journalism in Mourning: The López Obrador administration should act immediately to strengthen protection mechanisms.” El País. 11 June 2020, https://elpais.com/opinion/2020-06-10/el-luto-del-periodismo-en-mexico.html.
 Special thanks to Allan Jacob, a graduate student in the Department of Security Studies at Sam Houston State University, for assisting with data collection and cleaning. He can be contacted at email@example.com.