Mexico reporters defy threats, murders to keep writing

Jean Luis ARCE
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Noe Zavaleta refuses to stop his investigative journalism on organized crime and corruption despite death threats

Mexican reporter Noe Zavaleta has mourned murdered colleagues and received death threats himself, but he refuses to stop working despite the fear.

His is the deadliest country for journalists outside of war zones -- but with all the corruption and violence, there is just too much news for him to quit.

"I have had to bury colleagues and see other companions leave the country. But you still panic when it happens to you," he says, in his home town of Xalapa in the eastern state of Veracruz.

Like hundreds of other journalists in Mexico, the 36-year-old has been threatened for writing about organized crime.

But he keeps cranking out the stories for investigative magazine Proceso: about links between politicians and organized crime, corruption, disappearances and mass graves.

"You're constantly discovering more subjects, more injustices, more material."

- Bodyguards, panic button -

Zavaleta knew what he was getting into when he joined the magazine in 2012 to replace a journalist who had been murdered.

His predecessor in the post, Regina Martinez, had reported on corruption and abuses by Veracruz state authorities. Her killing has never been solved.

Zavaleta also worked with the photographer Ruben Espinosa, who fled Veracruz after receiving threats from authorities. He was murdered in Mexico City in 2015.

Zavaleta received threats last year for a report about an ex-governor accused of corruption.

He saw unknown men stalking around his office, his home and that of his girlfriend.

"You panic. You don't know what to do," he says.

He fled to the capital and reported the intimidation to the federal authorities.

They provided him with two bodyguards who stayed by his side for half the year.

He still carries a panic button to alert authorities if he is in danger.

"I am still working," Zavaleta says with a smile.

"If I suffer more intimidation and if I have to get out again and make it public, then that is what I will do."

- Journalists murdered -

International media rights group Reporters Without Borders ranks Mexico as the third most deadly country in the world, behind Syria and Afghanistan.

Mexico has seen 102 journalists murdered since 2000 -- 20 of them in Veracruz.

March was a particularly brutal month.

Three reporters were murdered and a fourth hospitalized after being shot, authorities said. One regional newspaper shut down for a lack of security.

In 2016 in Mexico, 400 journalists were attacked and 11 killed, according to rights group Articulo 19.

- Cost of protection -

Not all journalists get bodyguards because the authorities' budgets do not always allow it, Zavaleta says -- and even the protectors are at risk.

One of his former bodyguards was shot dead in late March while protecting another journalist.

"They were always complaining that they needed bullet-proof vests and a better vehicle," he says.

"That didn't get authorized the whole six months they were with me, because there wasn't the budget for it."

- Threats from officials -

Articulo 19 says more than half of the recorded threats received by journalists over the past decade have been from officials themselves. It says 99.75 percent of journalists' murders remain unsolved.

"Here in Mexico no one gives you any guarantees," Zavaleta says.

"You decide to come back to work because you are stubborn and determined and because you are passionate about the job."

He recalls another journalist who inspired him: Jesus Blancornelas, who investigated the drugs trade in the state of Tijuana as director of Zeta magazine.

Blancornelas was injured in 1997 in an attack blamed on organized crime. He went from home to work and back under military guard until his death of cancer in 2006.

"I remember very well what Blancornelas used to say" to his enemies, he says: "I will stop when I want, not when you want."