The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Mexico offers bodyguards and bulletproof vests to vulnerable journalists. It hasn’t been enough.

Journalists march Tuesday to federal offices in Mexico City to demand justice in the killings of journalists María de Lourdes Maldonado López and Alfonso Margarito Martínez Esquivel this month in Tijuana. (Jorge Duenes/Reuters)
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MEXICO CITY — Veteran news reporter María de Lourdes Maldonado López knew there were people who wanted her dead, so she applied for the only protection she knew: an unusual Mexican government program that promised to defend vulnerable journalists with state-funded bodyguards, bulletproof vests and other safety measures.

Maldonado López seemed certain to qualify. She was a well-known broadcast journalist in Tijuana, where for years she had received threats, including two attacks on her car and multiple promises to hunt her down.

More than 140 journalists have been killed in Mexico since 2000, making it one of the deadliest countries in the world for members of the news media. A decade ago, authorities attempted a solution: the Protection Mechanism for Human Rights Defenders and Journalists, a government-funded private security service for reporters, photographers and activists under threat.

At least 467 journalists are registered in the $23 million-a-year program, which offers a range of safeguards: full-time bodyguards, antiballistic gear, at-home panic buttons and surveillance cameras. In some cases, the government relocates journalists to different parts of the country, a kind of witness protection program for reporters.

Maldonado López applied for protection through the state of Baja California. Her colleague Alfonso Margarito Martínez Esquivel, a freelance photographer in Tijuana who had become the target of a Facebook smear campaign, was in the process of applying.

Both knew the dangers of reporting in Tijuana. Sometimes the threats came from organized crime. Sometimes they came from government officials. Applying for protection from the state was not ideal, but it was the only affordable protection they could find.

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Maldonado López was approved for the program in December.

This month, both were killed. Maldonado López was shot dead in front of her home on Sunday night. Martínez Esquivel was killed outside his residence on Jan. 17. He had just returned from an assignment.

Their deaths have reignited demands to strengthen protections for journalists, many of whom have been killed even after cataloguing the specific threats against them with state and federal officials.

Reporters and supporters demonstrated across Mexico on Tuesday. In Mexico City, journalists gathered at the front gate of the Government Ministry, where they hung photos of slain reporters and photographers. They chanted “Justice!” and “No to silence!” and waved signs including “You can’t kill the truth.”

When authorities established the protection program in 2012, they said they were driven by a desire to defend press freedom.

“We cannot allow those who work for a more just and better-informed society to be silenced,” then-President Felipe Calderón said.

But by the end of 2012, only two journalists had been registered in the system. The killings continued. By 2020, Mexico had become the world’s most dangerous country in which to be a reporter.

“The protection of journalists and human rights defenders requires extraordinary measures,” then-President Enrique Peña Nieto said in 2017.

While human rights advocates and press freedom groups lauded the idea behind the mechanism, they said it was the Mexican state that, in many cases, posed the biggest threat to the country’s journalists.

Under Peña Nieto, the state spied on some of Mexico’s best-known reporters. In many cases, it was local law enforcement, sometimes acting on behalf of cartels, that worried journalists the most.

“Journalists will ask for some sort of protection under the government’s mechanism and, in some cases, the government will say, ‘Here’s a police detail,’ even if the journalist is being threatened by the chief of police,” said Natalie Southwick, program coordinator for Latin America and the Caribbean at the Committee to Protect Journalists.

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The number of journalists protected by the federal government has grown by roughly 80 percent under President Andrés Manuel López Obrador. Dozens more are protected under parallel state programs.

That increase in registration has allowed the administration to portray itself as a defender of the press. But it hasn’t solved the problem. Seven journalists enrolled in the program have been killed since 2018.

Journalists who are registered in state programs, as Maldonado López was, have also been killed. Others whose applications are pending or incomplete, as Martínez Esquivel’s was, have been killed before receiving any protection at all.

Maldonado López received a panic button to install in her two-story house near the eastern edge of the city. Municipal police were instructed to drive by her home at least once a day. She celebrated the protections, telling friends she felt safer. But she sometimes complained that the police never showed up.

“She was still scared,” said one of Maldonado López’s friends, who works for the government of Baja California. The friend spoke on the condition of anonymity because she wasn’t authorized to speak publicly.

Four days before she was killed, Maldonado López won a settlement in a wrongful-dismissal lawsuit against a former employer, Jaime Bonilla. Bonilla, the owner of the media company Primer Sistema de Noticias, is a former governor of Baja California, the state that was ostensibly protecting Maldonado López.

Bonilla could not be reached for comment. In a television interview Monday night, he denied any involvement in her death and said they had a good relationship.

“One thing is the conflict with the company and a different thing is one with the company’s owner,” he said.

Some journalists have credited the mechanism with possibly saving their lives.

Antonio Nieto, an investigative reporter for Televisa, has been enrolled in the program for a year. He was given a bulletproof vest and assigned armed bodyguards around-the-clock. They sleep in their cars outside his house and follow him everywhere.

“The police officers that protect me deserve all my respect,” Nieto said. “They sacrifice a lot of time to take care of me. Sometimes it’s complicated to do my job, interview people and go reporting with bodyguards, but they never interfere with my work.”

Martínez Esquivel filed his application in December but had not yet finished it, said Paula Saucedo, protection and defense program officer at the press freedom group Article 19. Advocates say the application process can be arduous and time-consuming.

“It’s a very cumbersome and bureaucratic process that a lot of freelance reporters don’t have the time or headspace to finish,” Saucedo said. “That’s one of the main complaints we have about the protection mechanism.”

In other cases, bureaucratic problems have delayed the protection that journalists have spent years requesting.

Gustavo Sánchez Cabrera covered crime and politics for La Policiaca, his own online media outlet in Oaxaca. He was shot at in 2020, and continued to receive threats.

For months that year, he tried registering for federal protection, to no avail.

He was finally approved in June 2021. But before the safeguards were implemented, he was shot to death in his home.

He’s running for mayor of his Mexican city. He’s also wanted by the DEA.

Even when the protection is offered, journalists complain about persistent problems.

Priscilla Pacheco Romero and her mother fled their home in the small town of Taxco, in the state of Guerrero, in May 2016 after receiving a death threat in their home. They knew to take it seriously: Days before, Pacheco Romero’s father, local reporter Francisco Pacheco Beltrán, had been killed in front of the family’s house. Priscilla continued to publish the family-run weekly.

It took the government six months to finish the family’s risk assessment. In December 2016, they were assigned a battery of safeguards: closed-circuit television cameras outside their home, special security locks, lighting and barbed wire around the property, an emergency phone number, a panic button, and a remote mechanism to open the house’s front door.

The family also asked to have a police detail assigned permanently to their home.

“The police surveillance has happened six times in a month, when it should happen daily,” Pacheco Romero said. She said the patrol cars merely park in front of the house, turn on the light bar and alarms to take a photo, and drive away.

Their panic button and the remote mechanism to open the house’s front door have failed repeatedly. All of those measures were installed by RCU Sistemas, which has the government’s sole contract to implement the safeguards for journalists.

“You have to report the faulty equipment to the mechanism, who in turn contact RCU,” Pacheco Romero said. “RCU then calls you and tells you that you need to contact the mechanism.”

RCU Sistemas declined to comment, citing confidentiality concerns.

The family’s equipment was broken for more than a year before workers finally came around to fix it, Pacheco Romero said.

On Tuesday, she attended the protest in Mexico City, carrying a banner with her father’s image.

It read: “Justice for my father. Justice for the murdered journalists.”

Mary Beth Sheridan contributed to this report.

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