In the first six weeks of 2022, five journalists were assassinated in Mexico. Two of those, Margarito Martínez and Lourdes Maldonado López, were colleagues of Jorge Nieto’s in Tijuana. Nieto, a journalist and fixer with 19 years of experience in the region, spoke with me in Spanish from Brisbane, Australia, where he has been reporting remotely since the beginning of the pandemic. The thousands of miles separating Nieto from his home have made it safer for him to discuss the violent conditions that have claimed the lives of his friends and threaten independent journalism in Mexico.
Liliana Frankel: Could you comment on the critiques of the Mexican press from President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, in particular on his decision to use his morning press conference to expose the salary of Mexican Washington Post contributor Carlos Loret de Mola?
Jorge Nieto: Many of the aggressions against journalists come from the state. Artículo 19 [a human rights organization] has documented it well. In 2021, 37 percent of the aggressions against journalists didn’t come from organized crime like the world thinks. They came from some representative of the state—a governor, a mayor, an alderman, a secretary of public security, a transit chief, someone with some kind of power. Now, we are seeing that the aggressions are coming from the highest platform in the country. In my opinion, it’s giving permission to anyone to attack a journalist, because if the president does it and it’s OK, well why can’t I do it? It’s giving power to government officials in these small communities. Let’s situate ourselves in the mountains of Guerrero or Michoacán, where there is not great media coverage, where there aren’t American correspondents, where there are not international agencies, but where there is a small newspaper or small webpage with a team of three or four people. And if they decide to do an investigation or a denunciation of corruption for that government official, it will be very easy to attack them because of a culture of impunity.
LF: None of the five journalists who have been assassinated this year so far have lived in Mexico City. The condition of being a local journalist outside of the capital seems to be a factor that makes people vulnerable. Can you speak to that?
JN: In Mexico City, there is representation from international bodies. The majority of the international agencies like EFE [a Spanish news agency], AP, or Reuters have offices there. Mexico continues to be a pretty centralized country, in which news travels slowly and so does support. The access that a journalist can have to the protection mechanisms that the federal government theoretically offers is a lot more complicated to obtain from the states. I don’t 100 percent know the reality of journalists in Mexico City. But I know what happened to Margarito, for example, is that he solicited the protection mechanism because there were threats that made him fear for his safety. But because the state government had just taken office two months prior, and they hadn’t gotten the mechanism moving, there were a series of bureaucratic barriers, and I don’t know if that would have been the same if he had been in Mexico City.
LF: In Tijuana, what are the economic conditions or power structures that make journalists vulnerable?
JN: Look, for example Margarito, I know that he worked for at least five or six different media companies, and he sold his photos, his videos to all of them. I even bought videos from him for my clients, because he was the only one who arrived at some of those scenes. But he lived in very limited conditions. And it wasn’t fair, because he was a guy who worked a lot—lots more than many people I know.
To constantly report on scenes of violence puts you at risk. There were occasions in which I had to report with Margarito at night. We would arrive at a crime scene, and people would suddenly show up to say, “You’d better not publish anything. You better not say anything. You’re better off going home, because if not, you will have problems.”
It’s a guy with a ski mask. It’s a guy with whom you’re sure you do not want to have problems. They’re saying it to you in front of a group of policemen, because there are always police at a crime scene. They can be there, in the same place as the policemen, and they can threaten you.
You also stop thinking about it so much. You normalize it and think, “OK, it is what it is, and it’s what this job involves, and nothing’s going to happen to me.” A lot of time had passed since there were such attacks on journalists, at least in Tijuana. Obviously there are antecedents, but for a long spell nothing had happened. So there was a false sense of security. Now none of us feel safe, and we see that this could happen to anyone. This sensation of security was just that—a sensation of something that didn’t exist.
LF: So when those guys arrived to threaten you, what did you do?
JN: I would do an evaluation of what it was that we recorded. Is it important for the media companies for whom I work? Then, as a freelancer, do I think that this is something I can sell or publish? Is it going to be something that will interest the international media? Is the risk worth it? Well, this question we’ll leave to one side, because no, the risk is not worth it. When I knew that it was an important case, that it was a case in which there were multiple people executed in one area, I’d pass the video to my colleagues so that it’s more people who are publishing it, not just me and Margarito. You have to use certain strategies in order to protect yourself.
LF: What are the security measures that a person is obligated to take to be able to produce in this context?
JN: In 2007 and 2009, when there were gunfights everywhere, we stopped thinking about each other as competition. This thing happens where you get married to the business. You think, “I want to get the exclusive.” But we realized that this competition was between the owners of the brands and that it wasn’t benefiting us. We began to work as a team. We created groups that would arrive together at a scene that we considered risky. We gave data about where we would be. Now we use WhatsApp groups to monitor one another. The person who is at their desk can maintain constant communication. We have groups where there are representatives from international organizations that help protect journalists. Where we believe there will be a risky situation, we alert them. There’s now more than your colleagues keeping an eye on you. The collective of information workers in the trenches has generated its own strategies. But they haven’t been sufficient. None of those strategies are capable of repelling bullets.
LF: How do you feel the impact of bearing witness to these assassinations in your work?
JN:In the cases of Margarito and Lourdes, they were people that I knew, that I spent a lot of time with. With Margarito, even more. He’s someone whose daughter I know, who visited my house, who I ate burritos with, who I went to cover stories with at the crack of dawn. I had a huge feeling of guilt. I felt frustrated to not be there, to not be with my colleagues, because I had always been there. At least two colleagues work under my coordination. They are putting themselves at risk and working extremely hard, and they haven’t had time to sit down and cry, because they have to get the story out as fast as possible. And I’m here facing the beach. Why am I so OK, and they’re not? It affected me. I think they call it survivor’s guilt.
LF: How do you see the potential impact of journalists’ organizing in this moment?
JN: In Tijuana there’s a group called Yo Sí Soy Periodista, which is made up of journalists, reporters, and photographers from the city. It was difficult to organize them. My respect to those who took the initiative to do it. There have been, for example, cases in which a journalist has had a serious illness and has needed to pay large hospital bills, and money has come out of there. We created an emergency fund where we all give money. That’s already a show of organization, faith, and transparency. We have this community that cares for us emotionally and financially and legally. The abandonment by the government, business, and society has propelled us to band together, just ourselves, and look for ways out.
And now that I’m talking about social abandonment, for a moment I’d like to speak on a topic that really bothers me. Why has society not joined the protests, the marches to raise their voices against the murders of journalists?
For many years in Mexico, journalism was linked to the power structures. After the massacre of 1968, after Tlatelolco, the next day the media was talking about the weather. There’s still a collective imaginary of journalism as being corrupt and close to privilege and power. In today’s conditions, it’s very far from reality. The majority of journalists are not in any way close to power.
In Tijuana, in 2008, 2009, when organized crime began to kidnap doctors, the community from different sectors organized itself and went out to protest. They took the streets, and there were thousands of people marching every Sunday until the authorities did something and stopped this problem. A doctor is important for the neighborhood. But we still don’t think that a journalist is important for your neighborhood, for your city, and for the development of your country.
LF: What measures would you like to see implemented by the government to protect journalists at the national level and at the local level?
JN: To begin with, the hateful discourse should end. Secondly, the mechanisms of protection should have the necessary resources, because no mechanism, no matter how pretty it looks on paper, can work without economic resources. And there have been budget cuts to this system of protection. So you go and ask, and they tell you there’s nothing, there’s no money to pay for guards, for gasoline.
What else can the government do? Legislate. It could make contractors offer social benefits to the reporters. I think that they have to legislate to raise wages and to pressure the companies. However, I think this is much more difficult because the trend nationwide, not just in journalism, is toward subcontracting, toward outsourcing.
LF: What motivates you to continue in this moment?
JN: It’s what I most like to do. I can’t picture myself doing something else. Those of us who dedicate ourselves to this, I think we have something else in our blood, because it’s not very logical for us to keep doing this. Someone with a half-functioning brain would say, “Well, what are you doing? Why not work in something else?” I don’t have a response. But to give up is not an option. I know what we’re doing is very important, especially in countries like Mexico, where our work is crucial for development. If you imagine a day when all the journalists quit, it would favor the darkest interests—they could do what they want. And I don’t want that for my country.