A government agency protects 1,500 journalists and human rights activists, but it is strapped for resources and its record is mixed.



On August 19, a Mexican radio journalist, Jacinto Romero, was murdered after reportedly receiving threats related to his work. He was the fifth reporter murdered in Mexico this year. The country continues to experience levels of violence against journalists only seen in war zones like Syria and Afghanistan. As James Fredrick reports from Mexico City, efforts to stop the violence have failed.

JAMES FREDRICK, BYLINE: Gildo Garza had no illusions about what it meant to be a journalist in the Mexican border state Tamaulipas.

GILDO GARZA: (Speaking Spanish).

FREDRICK: "Being a local journalist in Mexico is a huge challenge," he says. "We do it out of duty and love."

Garza graduated from college and started his career in journalism in the midst of a bloody war between the Mexican military and drug cartels like Los Zetas. In 2013, a cartel kidnapped Garza, and he was later released. A close colleague wasn't as lucky. He, too, was kidnapped, but his body was later found in a mass grave. Still, Garza figured he could keep his head down and stay off the narcos' radar reporting on cultural events and municipal government. But there was no ignoring the crime and corruption.

GARZA: (Speaking Spanish).

FREDRICK: "In 2017," he says, "I reported two cases of financial corruption between the state government and Los Zetas." Garza says days later, the cartel hung a banner telling him he had 24 hours to leave. Otherwise, they'd kill him, his wife, his children and, quote, "even the dog."

Garza fled to Mexico City and was surprised to learn the federal government was trying to protect journalists through a small agency called the Protection Mechanism.

JAN-ALBERT HOOTSEN: It's basically an agency that coordinates protective measures for, as of right now, approximately 1,500 human rights defenders and journalists.

SIMON: That's Jan-Albert Hootsen, the Mexico representative for the Committee to Protect Journalists. He says agency support might be a bulletproof vest, a bodyguard, a safe house, security cameras or a panic button, which a journalist hits to alert authorities they're in immediate danger. In extreme cases like Garza's, they help journalists relocate and give them financial support.

HOOTSEN: That's how it works on paper. In reality, it doesn't always function really well.

FREDRICK: Garza told me much of the same. He says the agency lacks funding and staff. And the Mexico City-based bureaucrats often struggle to understand the daily challenges of being a journalist outside the capital. They often respond too slowly to desperate situations. In June of this year, a crime reporter in Oaxaca state was murdered five months after asking the Protection Mechanism for help, which never arrived. He's at least the seventh journalist murdered while officially under government protection.

Despite the efforts of the protection agency, there's a more fundamental reason violence against journalists continues unchanged in Mexico. Here's Hootsen again.

HOOTSEN: The vast majority of cases - I would say anywhere between 90 and 95% of these cases end up sort of lingering in impunity. And it's very, very rare in Mexico to get full justice. There are maybe just two or three cases where this actually happened.

FREDRICK: Simply put, if you kill a journalist in Mexico or order one killed, you'll almost certainly get away with it. Jorge Sanchez, a journalist in Veracruz state, where 30 reporters had been murdered in the last 20 years, lives with the pain of impunity every day.

JORGE SANCHEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

FREDRICK: "None of the cases of journalists murdered here in Veracruz has been solved," he says.

Sanchez's father, Moises, was a tenacious reporter, a thorn in the side of corrupt politicians. In 2014, he exposed their local mayor for working with organized crime. Days later, masked men broke into their home and kidnapped Moises. His body was found weeks after. Six years later, just one police officer was in jail for the crime despite evidence that the mayor ordered the killing.

SANCHEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

FREDRICK: Sanchez explains that there have been three different state governments from three different parties since his father's murder, and none of them have delivered justice. In an act of defiance, Sanchez continues to publish the online newspaper his father ran. He's had government protection since 2015 - security cameras, barbed wire, an armed guard. But the fear never leaves him. So I asked if he ever thought about leaving.

SANCHEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

FREDRICK: "The criminals are the ones who should be thinking about where to go to hide," he says, "not us, the victims."

For NPR News, I'm James Fredrick in Mexico City. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.