It was Monday midday when Roberto Toledo left his office in Zitácuaro, a small town in the Mexican state of Michoacán. The 55-year-old worked there for a local news portal, Monitor Michoacan, which repeatedly reported on corruption and nepotism on the part of the local powerful.
It was a dangerous job, no question, there had probably been threats in the past. But no sooner had Toledo left his office than three men approached him and opened fire at close range. A little later, Toledo succumbed to his gunshot wounds in a hospital.
His death alone would be tragic enough, but to make matters worse, Toledo is the fourth media figure to have been murdered in Mexico at this young age. Just last week, journalist Lourdes Maldonado was shot dead in Tijuana, the same state where photographer Margarito Martínez had just been murdered. And finally there is José Luis Gamboa, who was brutally stabbed in the street in Veracruz by an unknown perpetrator and died a few days later.
It’s a gruesome record, even for Mexico, a country more dangerous to journalists than any outside a war zone. Reporters are shot or stabbed, sometimes decapitated and even dismembered. It’s carnage unspeakable, violence unleashed. In 2021, seven journalists were killed, and if this continues, 2022 could become the deadliest year in history for media representatives in Mexico.
The power of the mafia extends far into politics
The reasons for the violence lie on the one hand in the drug war, which kills tens of thousands of people across the country every year. Reporters who report on the gangs and their machinations quickly find their lives in danger. The power of the mafia and gangs has long since reached far into politics, business and the judiciary. Corruption is almost ubiquitous in some areas of Mexico, and the powerful cover and protect one another. Crimes are hardly ever solved, and if a perpetrator does end up behind bars, it is usually only the assassin, but the people behind them remain in the dark.
Mexico’s President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has repeatedly publicly vowed to better protect media representatives in his country. At the same time, the president railed against critical journalists almost every week, calling them liars and rabble. López Obrador has long since turned his morning press conference into a kind of tough trench warfare, President versus press. All of this, experts say, fuels the violence.
It is all the more tragic that Lourdes Maldonado, one of the journalists who have now been murdered, asked for protection in just such a press conference a few years ago: “I fear for my life,” she said to López Obrador back then, in 2019. It did her no good, Maldonado is dead, even though she was part of a government protection program introduced in 2012 under public pressure to better protect human rights activists and media representatives.
But the program has long been bursting at the seams, the budget urgently needs to be increased, there are far too few staff for far too many people in need of protection. Two of the four journalists murdered this year were actually under state protection. In short: the state can neither solve nor prevent the murders of journalists.
Many are now going into exile
Many newspapers and news portals in Mexico are now protecting themselves by no longer publishing the names of authors and reporters. Others have self-censored themselves, while others go straight into exile.
At the same time, there are also many photographers and journalists who keep going, despite everything. For many Mexicans, the violence that prevails in their country has long since become part of their tragic everyday life. But the current wave of murders of media representatives has shaken up the country. Last week there were nationwide protests, journalists commemorated their murdered colleagues, and there were expressions of solidarity online.
After Roberto Toledo’s death, his former boss, Armando Linares, gave an on Facebook Explanation away. “The disclosure of corruption led to the death of our colleague,” said the director of Monitor Michoacan, and fighting back tears, he offered his condolences to Toledo’s family. “He lost his life at the hands of three men who cowardly and cunningly murdered him. We carry no weapons. We only have a pen and notebook to defend ourselves.”