WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas

(AP Photo/Guillermo Arias)

13 May 2020 | Commentary

Mexico Needs Comprehensive Strategies to Combat Violence against Journalists and Human Rights Defenders

The murder of environmental activist Adán Vez Lira in Veracruz state on April 8—the same day that the slain body of journalist Víctor Fernando Álvarez Chávez was discovered in the state of Guerrero—serves as a tragic reminder that Mexico continues to be one of the most dangerous countries in the world for individuals committed to reporting on corruption and organized crime, seeking truth and justice for human rights abuses, and defending environmental, territorial, and social rights. 

In 2019, more reporters were killed in relation to their work in Mexico than any other country besides Syria, accounting for half of the journalists killed worldwide. Meanwhile, Mexico ranked fourth in the world for human rights defender killings, with environmental activists facing particular risks: individuals openly opposing large-scale development projects and the illegal exploitation of natural resources made up more than half of the human rights defenders killed in Mexico last year.

Violence against this population in Mexico is not new: at least 161 human rights defenders and 40 journalists were killed during former President Enrique Peña Nieto’s administration. But President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s government has so far done little to address the problem. At least 12 journalists and 26 human rights defenders have been killed since López Obrador took office in December 2018. Killings have continued even as Mexico has stepped up social distancing and public health measures in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Many journalists and human rights defenders have faced other types of aggressions such as death threats, harassment, and violent attacks in their homes or workplaces. For example, in recent months, members of the human rights group the Centro de Derechos Humanos José María Morelos y Pavón, as well as the journalist Ezequiel Flores, have received death threats from a community policing group in Guerrero. And this isn’t the first time staff from the human rights center have faced violence in relation to their work. In December 2019, one of the group’s lawyers, Teodomira Rosales, reported that officials from Guerrero’s Public Security Ministry had beaten and sexually assaulted her. Later, in February, she reported receiving threatening phone calls from a member of Mexico’s National Guard. 

One obstacle is that the López Obrador administration has yet to dedicate the resources needed to strengthen the Mechanism to Protect Human Rights Defenders and Journalists—the federal agency responsible for providing protection measures such as security cameras, bulletproof vests, and bodyguards to at-risk journalists and human rights defenders. While the Mechanism has certainly saved many lives, a lack of human and financial resources has severely limited the agency’s capacity to do its job properly.

At the heart of the problem, though, is a lack of comprehensive public policies designed to address the root causes of the violence faced by journalists and human rights defenders. Efforts by public officials at all levels of government to defame and criminalize critical voices, the failure to crack down on illegal mining, logging, and other ventures that contribute to environmental degradation, and the failure to investigate and sanction attacks against the freedom of expression all contribute to the hostile environment that journalists and human rights defenders face in their daily lives. As WOLA has consistently noted, immediate protection measures from the Mechanism must be paired with more comprehensive efforts to address these underlying contexts. 

The need to better protect Mexico’s journalists and human rights defenders is compounded by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The free, independent press plays a vital role in pushing for transparency and providing accurate information to the public during this unprecedented public health emergency, while defenders serve as a crucial voice for victims of government abuse and neglect. Policies and government agencies designed to create a safer environment for journalists and defenders shouldn’t be deprioritized or defunded in this moment—they are essential for guaranteeing a successful public health response.  

Protection measures

Since the Mechanism was created in November 2012, staffing levels have not kept up with the agency’s growing caseload. In 2014, 36 staff members oversaw the protection of around 100 journalists and human rights defenders. The same number of employees staff the Mechanism today, despite the fact that enrollment has grown to over 1,100 beneficiaries.

Another problem is funding. On multiple occasions, the Mechanism’s budget for protection measures has run out before the year’s end, leaving beneficiaries at risk. In 2019, Mexico’s Interior Ministry (Secretaría de Gobernación, SEGOB), which coordinates the Mechanism, predicted that it would need USD$13.1 million (MXN$225 million) to cover protection measures for the year, but Congress appropriated only 64 percent of that amount—a little over USD$8.3 million. Halfway through the year, the Interior Ministry requested an additional USD$6 million to help fill the gap, but the request wasn’t fulfilled until the end of the year. 

For 2020, Mexico’s Congress appropriated a slightly higher amount, about USD$9.2 million. This small increase, paired with residual funds from last year’s emergency budget supplement, may strengthen the Mechanism’s capacity to keep up with the needs of beneficiaries, but it doesn’t fully cover the gap in funds. 

Cases often go years without being reevaluated, since the Mechanism’s Risk Analysis Unit lacks the capacity to periodically review cases and adjust protection measures accordingly if a beneficiary faces a new set of threats. When a beneficiary’s security equipment breaks, it can take months to be replaced, if it’s ever replaced at all. In various instances, a beneficiary’s bodyguards have been withdrawn, despite the continued risks the individual faced in their work. The consequences have been dire. Between 2016 and 2018, 56 journalists suffered an attack despite having protection measures. At least seven journalists and human rights defenders with protection measures have been killed since the Mechanism’s creation in 2012.

Apart from the Mechanism’s inadequate human and financial resources, protection measures often fall short due to deficiencies in the response of state-level officials, who are responsible for implementing certain measures like police patrols. Only 12 of Mexico’s 32 states have created the state-level protection units that are supposed to serve as a point of contact for the federal Protection Mechanism. The majority of those state units lack the personnel and resources needed to coordinate protection measures effectively with Mechanism officials. 

In many cases, the problem appears to be a lack of political will on behalf of state and municipal governments. In March, for example, Yucatán state’s Ministry of Public Security decided to withdraw the police escorts that had been assigned to women’s rights defender Clemencia Adelaida Salas as part of her protection measures, arguing that the officers needed to tend to other activities related to the state’s COVID-19 response—a move that Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission (CNDH) condemned.

In another case, the Casa del Migrante de Saltillo, a migrant shelter in Coahuila state, has informed WOLA of grave shortcomings in the local government’s response to an increased number of attacks against the shelter. In recent months, unknown assailants have broken into the shelter, threatened and harassed migrants and staff, and tried to run over one shelter worker with a motorcycle. While a state police officer is supposed to maintain a constant presence outside the shelter as part of the staff’s protection measures, on several of these occasions, the officer assigned either wasn’t present at the shelter, or did nothing to respond to the threat.

In addition, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the state government began rotating the police agents assigned to the shelter, yet recent events have made clear that the new agents have not been trained on the protection protocols established with shelter staff. On May 4, a shelter worker noticed that the agent patrolling the shelter was in an unmarked vehicle, rather than an official police vehicle, which violates the established protection protocols. When the shelter worker photographed the vehicle as proof of the violation, the police officer attacked him, grabbing by the neck and threatening him. 

There is no excuse for such behavior from a state agent charged with protecting shelter staff. The implications of the officer’s behavior were aggravated by the fact that he violated social distancing protocols and placed the shelter worker at elevated risk in the context of the pandemic, as the agent was not wearing a face mask when he attacked him. 

Those defending and providing services to migrant populations are working in especially challenging circumstances because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the lack of effective protection has made these circumstances even more precarious. While the pandemic has forced the shelter to close its doors to new arrivals, staff continue to face serious threats in response to their work serving the migrants passing through Saltillo, including legal assistance for those applying for asylum in Mexico or those who have suffered crimes or human rights violations in the country.

Prevention efforts

Recognizing the Mechanism’s shortcomings, in early 2019 the Interior Ministry requested that the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) conduct an assessment of how the Mechanism could be improved. In July of that year, the OHCHR released a report on its findings. 

In addition to echoing many of the deficiencies discussed above, the UN agency calculated that without the prompt adoption of comprehensive prevention initiatives, there would likely be around 3,400 beneficiaries enrolled in the Mechanism by 2024, resulting in the protection agency’s collapse. The report urges the Mexican government to adopt a “paradigm shift towards a more preventive approach” to addressing violence against journalists and human rights defenders. 

In January, the Interior Ministry’s Aaron Mastache, who heads the Mechanism, said that the agency’s number one priority for 2020 would be to strengthen its prevention efforts. An important first step should include bolstering the Mechanism’s capacity to track and analyze trends in attacks in different areas across the country in order to determine hotspots, identify situations that may pose an elevated risk to journalists and human rights defenders in the area, and work with local authorities to promptly address those risks. 

But the Mechanism itself is not, and should not be, responsible for addressing the plethora of factors that leave journalists and human rights defenders vulnerable to violence. It is up to public officials at all levels of government to combat the root causes of those threats. This should include vehemently promoting the freedom of expression and condemning and sanctioning acts of violence, among other comprehensive, preventive actions. 

However, President López Obrador’s hostility toward criticism has only exacerbated the dangerous environment that journalists and human rights defenders face in Mexico. On several occasions, the president has used his daily morning press briefings to single out and vilify reporters, academics, and civil society organizations who have publicly challenged his policies. This includes individuals who have criticized the government’s security strategy, the country’s rising homicide rates, and the impunity that persists for widespread human rights violations. It also includes journalists who have questioned the administration’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Several journalists singled out in López Obrador’s press briefings later reported facing death threats, harassment, and other aggressions.

In addition, the López Obrador administration has not demonstrated any substantial commitment to cracking down on illegal mining, logging, and other extractive industries— practices that often take place in areas with a high presence of organized criminal organizations. 

The failure to take action on this issue has left environmental defenders particularly vulnerable to attacks. In January, the body of environmental activist Homero Gómez Gonzáles, who managed the El Rosario monarch butterfly reserve in Michoacan state—a UNESCO World Heritage Site—was found dead with signs of torture. His fellow activists at the reserve believe his killing may be linked to his efforts to combat illegal logging, which has nearly destroyed monarch butterfly habitats in the region. Just four days after Gómez’s death, another conservationist that worked at the monarch reserve, Raúl Hernández Romero, was also found killed.

Another concern is the López Obrador administration’s failure to carry out environmental impact studies or adequate community consultations before initiating large-scale development projects. In December 2019, the OHCHR raised concerns about the Mexican government’s handling of consultations with indigenous communities over a multi-billion dollar megaproject known as the Mayan Train, which is planned to connect beach resorts, Mayan ruins, and other popular tourist destination sites in southern Mexico. While the OHCHR recognized the government’s efforts to carry out consultations, it criticized the fact that the process did not meet international standards.

The UN office has found that such projects often occur in the context of “threats, criminalization, and harassment” of environmental defenders and community leaders who oppose them. In December 2019, a Mayan human rights defender, Pedro Uc, received death threats related to his work denouncing the development of the Mayan Train, and requested protection through the Mechanism.

The consequences of opposition can be fatal. In February 2019, Samir Flores, a Nahua journalist and longtime opponent of the Integral Morelos Project—a multi-state development project involving the construction of a thermoelectric plant, an aqueduct, and a gas pipeline—was killed just days before a public vote on the project was due to take place.

The need for thorough investigations

The most effective way to prevent future violence is to effectively investigate and sanction past crimes and send the message that attacks against journalists and human rights defenders will not be tolerated. A March 2019 report by WOLA and Peace Brigades International (PBI) analyzed data from 10 state prosecutors’ offices as well as the federal-level Special Prosecutor’s Office for Crimes against Freedom of Expression (FEADLE). The report found that only 3 percent of the investigations that state prosecutors’ offices opened into crimes against journalists and human rights defenders even made it to the courts during that period, while most ended up archived or dismissed. FEADLE, which only investigates crimes against journalists, only secured convictions in five cases, less than 0.5 percent of the investigations it had opened. 

Since then, FEADLE—which now operates under the Special Prosecutor’s Office for Human Rights—appears to have made significant progress in prosecuting crimes against journalists. According to Sara Irene Herrerias, who heads the human rights prosecutor’s office, FEADLE has secured 18 convictions since 2017, some of which are related to two high-profile, internationally recognized cases—the cases of Miroslava Breach, killed in Chihuahua in 2017, and Javier Valdez, killed in Sinaloa that same year. 

Herrerias has also said that FEADLE “has a policy that is very focused on tending to cases in which authorities have been implicated.” These range from cases of torture, cruel and degrading treatment, crimes against the administration of justice, and homicide. This is critical given that public officials and security forces have been identified as the alleged aggressors in 40 percent of the cases that the Mechanism has received. 

While this progress is welcome, the vast majority of crimes against journalists remain in impunity, and no publicly available information indicates that there has been the same level of progress in investigating crimes against human rights defenders. 

A long way to go

If President López Obrador is serious about upholding the freedom of expression and safeguarding the ability of journalists and human rights defenders to play their important role in Mexico’s democracy, he can’t continue to blame the ongoing violence against this population on past administrations. The president must recognize the role that his hostile approach to addressing critical voices can play in placing journalists and human rights defenders in harm’s way. 

While securing the human and material resources needed to ensure the proper functioning of the Mechanism is important, the Mexican government should develop comprehensive public policies that go beyond supplying protection measures to people who have already been threatened. This should include working to adopt the 104 recommendations laid out in the OHCHR’s July 2019 report, placing particular emphasis on prevention initiatives and ensuring prompt, full, and independent investigations of threats and attacks linked to the work of activists and media workers. 

As Mexico continues to grapple with COVID-19, the work of journalists and human rights defenders is essential to guaranteeing an effective public health response and recovery. They play a critical role in providing oversight of government procurement of medicine and equipment, documenting and denouncing attacks against healthcare workers, and assessing measures adopted in response to the pandemic that may violate human rights. Policies that enable the free press and guarantee the ability of human rights defenders to safely do their work need to be made front and center.