MEXICO CITY — When Gildo Garza finally fled his home state of Tamaulipas in 2017 and arrived in Mexico City, he knew where to go first: the federal attorney general's office. Even if the chances were slim, he had a sliver of hope investigators would find and prosecute the narcos and corrupt politicians who wanted him dead for his reporting.
But as he described the threats and violence he faced, further anxiety filled Garza's thoughts. He didn't know how he could afford to care for his family in the Mexican capital. Most reporters in his home state are paid between $75 to $150 per month and he scraped by on multiple jobs, freelance work and consulting gigs.
"Have you been to see the Mechanism?" an attorney in the office asked him.
Garza would soon fall into the safety net that is the Federal Protection Mechanism for Human Rights Defenders and Journalists, an agency formed in 2012 to address rising violence against activists and reporters. Today, approximately 1,500 human rights defenders and journalists are officially receiving support.
"Mexico has levels of violence - and impunity in that violence - that are comparable to open war zones, even though Mexico is not officially a country at war," says Jan-Albert Hootsen, the Mexico representative for the Committee to Protect Journalists. CPJ's Global Impunity Index lists Mexico at No. 6, only behind active conflict zones like Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Somalia and South Sudan.
When a journalist is in danger, they can contact the Mechanism for an assessment.
After evaluating individual risk factors, the agency can provide journalists with a range of protective measures, like a bulletproof vest or a bodyguard; security cameras at their home or office; targeted police patrols; a panic button to alert authorities if they're in immediate danger. The agency also links journalists to mental health services.
Garza's reporting put his life on the line
"In 2017, I documented two cases of corruption between the state government and the Los Zetas cartel," Garza told NPR. He was no stranger to violence: he'd already been kidnapped three times and a close colleague was murdered in 2013.
But this case was different. The cartel hung a banner telling Garza he had 24 hours to leave the state or they would kill him, his wife, his children and "even the dog."
"In the assessment with the agency, the government of my home state Tamaulipas said I could never return there, that they could not guarantee my safety," he says. Because of this, the Mechanism set Garza and his family up with an apartment in Mexico City and gave them additional financial support, in addition to a bodyguard.
Garza is appreciative of the support during the worst moments of his life, but over time, he has seen major gaps in the agency.
"It is a beautiful and comprehensive framework on paper," he says. "But our bureaucracy is indifferent to the needs of victims."
Garza saw colleagues back home struggling to get protection in critical moments and started the Association for Displaced and Attacked Journalists to further advocate for them. CPJ's Hootsen shares similar critiques of the agency.
"In reality, it doesn't always function really well," he says. "Many of those [protective] measures actually don't have the effect. There are a lot of problems in the communication and coordination from the federal mechanism."
Hootsen says funding for the Mechanism is in jeopardy and that it's desperately in need of additional staff. The Mexico City-based bureaucrats often don't understand the unique struggles of being a vulnerable reporter in rural Mexico, he says. Slow responses are a common complaint among journalists who need immediate help
A recurring complaint NPR heard from reporters who have received help from the agency concerned the panic button. This little cellular device allows a reporter to send a geolocated SOS that will immediately alert the agency and trusted police forces when a reporter is in danger. But the devices are often old and faulty and they rely on cell signals.
"The panic button doesn't work where I live," says Jorge Sánchez, a reporter in Veracruz state. "I'm sitting in my office and it doesn't get a signal here. I know lots of others who have it and it's just useless for most of us."
Seemingly minor slip-ups at the agency can have mortal consequences. In June, a crime reporter in Oaxaca state, Gustavo Sánchez (not related to Jorge Sánchez), was murdered five months after asking the agency for help. They had officially listed him as "protected" but hadn't actually done anything to protect him. Hootsen says Sánchez is at least the seventh reporter killed while under government protection.
He wants the government of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador to put more money, plus more and better trained staff into the agency. But the real driver behind violence against journalists is a fundamental failure of Mexican society: impunity.
A failure to prosecute crimes against journalists means no deterrence
"The vast majority of these cases, I would say anywhere from 90 to 95%, end up lingering in impunity," says Hootsen. In some cases, the person who pulled the trigger may end up in jail, but the mastermind behind that crime almost never will.
"It's very, very rare in Mexico to get full justice," he says. "In fact, I think there may be just two or three cases where this actually happened."
Jorge Sánchez knows this pain well. Every January since 2015, Sánchez has protested in front of the Veracruz state government headquarters over his father's murder that year. Moisés Sánchez ran La Unión, a small online newspaper based near the port city Veracruz. He was a thorn in the side of local politicians, Jorge says.
"He often clashed with local authorities," he says. "I think he took pride in being hated by them. He received plenty of threats in his life but I guess he never took them seriously."
When Sánchez published a report linking the mayor to organized crime in late 2014, threatening calls and messages poured in. On Jan. 5, 2015, masked armed men burst into their home and kidnapped him. His body was found 20 days later.
After years of investigating, there is still only one police officer in prison for the crime, even though he presented evidence that the mayor had ordered him to "make [Sánchez] disappear."
"Even though the governments have changed [and] there have been three governors from three different parties, the impunity is still here," says Sánchez's son, Jorge. "People will let me know when they see [the former mayor] having a coffee or out with his family. He's just free."
Jorge's mother left their hometown after his father's death, but he insisted on staying. In an act of defiance, Sánchez decided to continue publishing La Unión in his father's name. He doesn't make any money from it and his collaborators are all volunteers. They've been able to keep reporting because Sánchez has had a bodyguard and other security measures provided by the Federal Protection Mechanism since 2015.
He's happy to have the protection and hopes he won't have to flee like Garza did. But Sánchez finds his situation, and the situation of so many journalists in Mexico, perverse.
"The criminals are the ones who should be thinking about where to go to hide," he says. "Not us, not the victims."
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
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.