Some weeks ago in a city in southern Mexico, my colleague Ernesto* arrived home to his apartment after a day covering a story a few miles away. He was met by two men with guns who demanded his money, phone and camera.
Cornered and fearing for his life, Ernesto handed over the goods. To his relief the men left, leaving the journalist standing in his doorway, shaking.
Many journalists in Mexico have faced similar or worse situations. To work in the media in this country is to be painfully aware of the extraordinary dangers faced by reporters: the death threats, threats to families and children, kidnappings, exiles, forced disappearances, and murders that made Mexico the second most dangerous country in the world to be a journalist last year. First place honours went to Afghanistan.
Ernesto regularly reports on government corruption and complicity with organized crime. He and his colleagues noted that the men appeared in the doorway less than a week after Ernesto had tweeted one of his reports at the governor of their state, a politician with close relatives in local organized crime networks.
It’s commonplace for my Mexican journalist colleagues to assume that the government — their elected representatives and senior public servants — is one of their most likely enemies. Independent investigative journalist Anabel Hernández has demonstrated how complicity between organised crime, the army, intelligence services, the federal police and political representatives in Mexico has created a bloody, gaping hole where freedom of the press, accountability for crime and protection of citizens ought to be.
Hernández is an award-winning journalist who can no longer live in her country due to the constant threats made on her life and those of her children, prompted by her uncovering and reporting of criminal involvement of state police and political leaders.
Just last week 46-year-old Norma Sarabia, who reported on and denounced police corruption in her home state of Tabasco, became the seventh journalist to be killed this year in Mexico. Two men gunned her down on her doorstep and fled the scene in a car.
In 2017 The New York Times reported that the Mexican government — then led by Enrique Peña-Nieto — was using notorious Pegasus malware to spy on journalists, human rights lawyers and anti-corruption activists across the country. The malware had been sold to the Mexican government by its Israeli manufacturer for the ostensible purpose of investigating criminals and terrorists. This year, internet watchdog group Citizen Lab reported that Griselda Triani, the widow of murdered journalist Javier Valdez, had been a target of Pegasus within two weeks of her husband being shot and killed. Valdez was a prominent reporter who regularly published accounts of collusion between government and organised crime.
How did Mexico get here? The current trouble started, as with so many of Mexico’s ills, with the “war on drugs” declared by president Felipe Calderón in 2006. Under pressure from a nation-wide military crackdown, the drug cartels splintered and multiplied, doubling down on their efforts to preserve and grow their profits and honour. Fighting for territory in bloody shoot-outs, buying the co-operation of officials and threatening journalists who exposed them were all commonplace.
The links between political power and organised crime deepened and flourished. There are many who say that the Peña-Nieto administration, which followed Calderón’s, was entirely bought. Colombian drug lord Alex Cifuentes Villa testified at the trial of Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzmán that Guzmán himself paid a bribe of $100 million to Peña-Nieto to call of the search for the notorious leader. If this is true it is little wonder that the Peña-Nieto government went to such lengths to control the actions of journalists and others working to reveal the truth to the Mexican people.
As Hernández told me last month, it would be a mistake to say this is an essentially Mexican situation. The impunity created by government corruption and misuse of executive power could happen anywhere, and be arrived at through a myriad of anti-democratic and self-serving ways.
That’s what I thought when I saw the reports of the Australian Federal Police invading a journalist’s home and accessing files in the offices of the ABC. It could happen anywhere. It could happen in Australia.
Among those who stand up for the truth when truth is being considered the enemy, it could be any of us standing in that doorway, shaking.