It has never been so dangerous to be a journalist in Mexico

It wasn’t until nearly an hour of crawling through near-stop traffic on a freeway in Tijuana, Mexico that we saw the crash that caused the rush-hour rumble.

Two vehicles, a pickup truck and an old four-door sedan were piled up at a busy intersection. The entire window on the passenger side of the truck was ostensibly blown out.

“Oh that one? said Jesus Aguilar, a Tijuana reporter covering the crime that we are late to meet. “Yeah, that was like murder scene number five today. It’s going to be a busy night.”

The truck driver had been shot through the passenger side window at the intersection and crashed into the sedan as a result.

Stumbling upon a murder scene is not uncommon in Tijuana. In a country plagued by homicides, the city stands out. There have been more than 800 recorded homicides so far this year alone, according to city officials — and that’s only counting documented killings. Experts say the actual number of homicides is higher.

The state of Baja California, where Tijuana is located, is also known for its disappearances. If the past is any indication, many of these people will never be found – and are likely dead.

Crime reporters, like Aguilar, are sure to be always busy. But they also run an extreme risk of being victims of the same crimes they cover.
This year, 11 journalists in Mexico have been killed, according to human rights group Article 19.

The night shift

Freelance crime reporter Arturo Rosales — who agreed to let CNN accompany him on one of his night shifts last week — is aware of this reality every night.

We meet in an empty park near the city’s infamous red-light district, where Rosales pulls up in a taxi of his own.

“If I have downtime between crime scenes, I get people up,” he said. “This job doesn’t pay much.”

Rosales’ job depends entirely on what he hears on a small radio he keeps propped up on the console of the car. It is tuned to police and first responder frequencies. We are with him for about five minutes before a call comes in about a body found in a truck near a highway.

“We go to very dangerous neighborhoods to document these things,” Rosales said, as we accelerated towards the scene.

“I’m scared sometimes,” he said.

Many murders in Tijuana involve the organized crime fueled by cartels and gangs that have dominated life in many parts of Mexico for generations.

Just coming close to these murders puts journalists in inherent danger, in danger of everything from being directly targeted for covering the crimes to simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

At the scene of the homicide, we are greeted by two police officers. They hold the area until crime scene investigators arrive. There are so many murders every day in Tijuana that it often takes techs hours to show up.

Rosales greets one of the officers: “What happened?

The driver was shot in his car, the officer said, adding: ‘Stay behind that line but (photograph) whatever you want.

Rosales takes photos and goes live on Facebook, clearly sticking to the most basic facts: place, time and manner of death.

“I haven’t received any threats from any cartel yet, as I’m here to document the violent event and nothing else,” he explained. “I’m not getting into trouble and accusing no cartel, it’s none of my business.”

In the realm of crime coverage, however, this does not always protect journalists from harm.

“He taught me everything”

One of the first things people say about journalist Margarito Martinez is that he was a happy guy, that he smiled more than the others, despite what he was covering.

Martinez belonged to a well-known small group of independent journalists covering crime in Tijuana. Every evening, he would go out with his camera and document scene after scene, largely reporting only basic facts.

On January 17, he was shot several times outside his home. Some of his closest friends and colleagues he had worked with came forward to document it.

Aguilar, one of Martinez’s best friends, went there too. “That’s what we do, we cover homicides. Now I witnessed his.”

Margarito Martinez's wife, Maria Elena Frausto Granados (L), stands at the site where her husband was shot dead in January.

“He didn’t investigate anything,” Aguilar said. “Other journalists investigate these crimes but Margarito only reported basic facts. He didn’t deserve what happened,” he said, adding, “He was a great friend. .. he taught me everything I know.”

Ten people have been arrested by Mexican authorities in connection with Martinez’s death. Authorities said all 10 had ties to organized crime.

But authorities have yet to produce a specific motive for the murder. Several of the 10 people detained were eventually released. None have been formally charged.

Several Tijuana reporters told CNN they knew exactly why Martinez was killed and offered various theories, including that Martinez was falsely accused of sharing information about the family of a local crime boss.

CNN cannot independently verify this information.

Attacks and impunity

This particularly violent year for Mexican journalists has sparked outrage across the country and even within the media.

Critics say the Mexican government is unable or unwilling to protect journalists, just as it is seemingly unable to curb the vast levels of violence across society.

“Look how many of us have been killed,” Aguilar said. “They say there isn’t that level of violence, but that’s bullshit. Pure lies.”

Aguilar refers to the federal government, led by President Ándres Manuel López Obrador.

López Obrador has consistently stated that his government protects journalists.

“In each of these cases (of murdered journalists), people have already been detained and there is no impunity,” López Obrador told a press conference earlier this year.

Mexican journalist Lourdes Maldonado López, who feared for her life, was killed in Tijuana

However, official data paints a different picture. More than 90% of crimes in Mexico go unsolved, according to the federal government’s own statistics — and the vast majority of homicides in which journalists have been killed are no different.

“Whatever the threats, the obstacles to their work, whoever kills a journalist, there are no consequences because we live in a country of impunity,” said Sonia de Anda, a journalist in Tijuana and an advocate for freedom of the press, at CNN.

She argues that this culture also encourages criminals to commit acts of violence against journalists simply for doing their job.

Critics say the president’s narrative also contributes to the violence.

López Obrador regularly criticizes members of the media, personally attacking them for coverage of him that he dislikes and calling some enemies of the Mexican people.

A demonstrator demonstrates against the murder of three journalists -- Jose Luis Arenas, Margarito Martinez and Lourdes Maldonado -- in January.

This rhetoric, de Anda said, creates a climate where violence against journalists becomes more likely, if not outright encouraged.

“We have a president who attacks free speech,” de Anda said. “He invites his followers to attack these periodistas (journalists) when they don’t agree with him. And then comes the violence. It’s the worst we’ve ever seen.”

A reporter, who asked CNN not to reveal his name for security reasons, told CNN: “It’s been very difficult for some of us lately, the grief, the fear, the pressure. “

Rosales said everyone is feeling that these days. It is not difficult to understand why.

We accompany him to several more murder scenes that night, in some of Tijuana’s most dangerous neighborhoods. At each, police presence is limited, with some people standing and observing.

They are probably observers, called punteros, who work for certain cartels and monitor what is happening at crime scenes, Rosales explained.

“I just do my job openly and honestly and then I leave. But it can be scary,” he said.

During that 24-hour period, 15 homicides were recorded in Tijuana, marking the most violent day of the year for the city so far.

It’s only a matter of time, Rosales said, before another journalist becomes another victim.

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