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Tijuana police photographer Margarito Martínez, and Lourdes Maldonado, an outspoken radio and television veteran, believed they were in deadly danger. They both sought safety in a state government protection mechanism.
Yet in less than a week’s time, the two journalists were shot dead in attacks outside their Tijuana homes earlier this month.
The crimes, which remain unsolved, have brought clamors for justice from journalists and their supporters across Mexico, one of the most dangerous countries in the world to report the news.
They have also placed scrutiny on state and federal government mechanisms designed to protect Mexican journalists as they go about their jobs.
“The protection they give you is bureaucratic, you’re on a list of threatened journalists, they don’t immediately send someone to protect you,” said Odilón García, a Tijuana journalist who was previously enrolled in Baja California’s special protection program for journalists and human rights defenders.
He called the measures “absolutely useless.”
The programs are designed to offer additional protection to journalists and human rights defenders who are under threat. They can involve special telephone numbers — often called “panic buttons” — to round-the-clock protection to intermittent patrols. The measures are meant to be adapted to the specific needs of the person under protection.
García had turned to the state mechanism in April 2018 following death threats posted on Facebook by Ivan Riebeling, a man who posed as a human rights worker and called himself “Commander Cobra,” and later died of COVID-19.
“It’s more than clear that the systems to protect journalists have not functioned,” said Sonia de Anda, a Tijuana journalist who leads a journalists’ collective called #YoSíSoyPeriodista, which means #IAMaJournalist. She is also serving as counselor to the state protection mechanism.
Mexico’s federal journalist protection program was launched in 2012, at the end of Felipe Calderón’s presidency, which saw rising violence against journalists and human rights defenders.
“It’s an institution that has had, to put it mildly, a very rocky start, and is still far from what it should be,” said Jan-Albert Hootsen, Mexico representative for the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists. “The mechanism is perpetually understaffed, perpetually underfunded, it’s facing myriad problems in just the way they deal with these threats.”
In the wake of the murder of journalist Javier Valdez in Culiacan in May 2017, then-President Enrique Peña Nieto ordered the creation of state protection mechanisms. Baja California’s mechanism was launched later that year, but more than four years later, it has had little success.
“It has no budget of its own. It has almost no people working for them. It is not autonomous at all, so it’s basically a paper tiger,” Hootsen said.
Baja California’s attorney general this week announced the appointment of a special prosecutor to investigate both crimes.
Authorities say they are in the initial phases of the investigation and have not established a link between the shootings and the victims’ work as journalists. They say the weapon used in Martinez’s Jan. 17 killing is connected to at least five other homicides.
No shell casings were found at the scene of Maldonado’s Jan. 23 killing, but authorities believe more than one person had to have been involved in the shooting and say the killer used a 45-caliber handgun.
Maldonado, 67, was shot in the head as she returned home Sunday night to the small house where she lived with her dog and four cats in a modest and tightly packed housing development south of downtown.
Nearly two years earlier, in March 2019, she had told President Andrés Manuel López Obrador during a televised news conference that she feared for her life. She wanted support for her longstanding labor battle against Jaime Bonilla, then-candidate for governor of Baja California and the owner of a media company where Maldonado had worked and was fighting in court for back wages.
Last April, after Maldonado reported the back window of her car had been shattered by a gunshot, she was enrolled in Baja California’s protection program, de Anda said. The measures included a permanent municipal police guard outside her residence from 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. De Anda said Maldonado had also requested municipal police presence when she returned home, and had been given a number to call when she needed help.
“That’s the moment she felt the most vulnerable, when she’d come home at night, get out of the car and walk four steps to her door,” de Anda said. “She practically described the manner in which she was killed.”
De Anda said she has been trying to verify whether the established protocols were in place that night, but had yet to receive a response from municipal police.
In the days before she died, Maldonado had been upbeat following a legal victory in her lengthy battle for back pay from Bonilla’s news company, PSN. On Thursday, just two days before she was shot to death, she was in a crowd of journalists gathered to demand justice for Martínez.
Martínez, 49, was shot dead in broad daylight on Jan. 17, outside the house where he lived with his wife and daughter in one of Tijuana’s most violent neighborhoods. He had worked for years as a freelance police photographer and fixer for foreign journalists, and was often the first member of the media to arrive at homicide scenes.
Martínez sought protection from the state last month following a confrontation with a man who covered crime on his Facebook page and falsely accused Martinez of running a popular Facebook page that exposes drug traffickers.
The photographer made his petition just days after the start of a new gubernatorial administration. A state official claimed that Martínez couldn’t be incorporated because the system had yet to be legally installed under the new government, de Anda said. Martínez was referred to the federal protection system, and sent paperwork to fill out, but he apparently never completed it, and was never enrolled.
“He was never incorporated either into the state system or the federal system,” she said. Government officials, “did not understand that the system cannot stop operating, even for a day.”
A state official said this week the system is undergoing “exhaustive revision,” and that no details would be forthcoming until the review was completed.
Hootsen said even well-funded and well-run protective mechanisms will fall short as long as the overwhelming majority of attacks on journalists go unsolved and unpunished. Special protective measures can only work, he said, “if you, as a government, also decide to work on impunity.”