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The perverse power of silence

Guest editorial for World Press Freedom Day, today

May 3, 2012
By Anabel Hernández

"Silence kills democracy, but a free press talks," is a phrase associated with World Press Freedom Day. Currently, during this dramatic period in Mexico's history, silence is killing men, women and children, ordinary members of civil society; it is killing human rights defenders; it is killing government officials; and it is killing journalists.

But breaking the silence can also be deadly.

Life in Mexico is marked by the daily loss of fundamental rights, such as the right to life or the right to justice. These have been decimated by the immense power of the drug trafficking trade, in an assault that was buried for decades but is now characterized by a macabre and spectacular display of violence. The consequence is the erosion of the social, political and economic fabric of society. And those living in Mexico face a terrible dilemma: to denounce atrocities or remain silent. Shout at the top of one's lungs, or stifle the cry of protest about what is happening?

Article Photos

(Cartoon by Michel Cambon, World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers)

Reporters Without Borders has identified Mexico as one of the most dangerous countries in the world in which to be a journalist. This is not only a reflection of the fact that it is nearly impossible to exercise freedom of the press and expression in the country - it is also an indication of how Mexicans' rights in general are curtailed.

Journalists are not the only individuals being assassinated in Mexico with impunity - with no proper follow-up and with those responsible not being detained or brought to trial. In the last five years, this is a phenomenon being experienced by all of civil society.

The victim may be a rich businessman, a much-loved mayor, a poet, a young woman working in the maquilladoras in Ciudad Juarez or a young man waiting in line outside a cinema. Violence and impunity do not discriminate; they are impacting on everyone equally. Journalists are not the exception to this sobering rule.

But perhaps the most terrifying aspect of the situation in Mexico is that despite the more than 60,000 individuals who have been assassinated in less than six years - children, women and men, upstanding citizens, some of whom have been riddled with bullets, tortured or chopped up - despite the thousands of people who have disappeared; despite the fact that less than 3 percent of crimes that are committed are actually punished; despite the narcobloqueos (drug-related roadblocks) that paralyze entire cities in the interior of the country; despite the rampant corruption at all levels of government ... Despite all of this, it's as if nothing has happened.

I have had an opportunity to meet and talk with journalists from around the world who have come to Mexico in the last three years to experience the adrenaline rush that results from a "safari" adventure marked by terror and death. They go in search of shootings, cadavers, the body parts that turn up; they count those who are hung out to dry or are killed; and they interview corrupt government officials and even hired assassins. At times they are disappointed if they don't come across anything worthy or dramatic enough to film.

They do not realize that the Mexican state is on the verge of collapse. In some ways this is understandable. Part of Mexican society is still unable to perceive this reality while the part that does is too afraid to admit what it is seeing.

One day one can be walking calmly down the street in Guadalajara, Jalisco, and the next day be terrorized by narcobloqueos. Trucks that have been set on fire may be blocking the main avenues, or there are shootings or hand grenades exploding among the traffic - brazen displays of the power of the drug trafficking cartels.

One week later there may be no signs that anything untoward happened. Calm returns to daily life, and no one understands when or how drug trafficking took over their formerly "peaceful" and beautiful city, nor when and how the violence might return.

Mario Vargas Llosa, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, once famously said that Mexico is the "perfect dictatorship." Today it is a perfect criminal state. To contemplate this reality, to voice it or write about it, is more dangerous than being a drug trafficker or being at the service of the drug trafficking trade.

The most repressive regime of all time is characterized by criminal activity which hides its power behind an apparently legal facade made up of the political and economic powers in Mexico. This, combined with a torpid society stupefied by indifference or fear, makes up the perfect mix that allows this perverse regime to continue to reign.

Currently, the drug trafficking trade in Mexico enjoys a power that bestows on it perverse benefits - benefits that would be the envy of any mafia around the world. Drug traffickers carry out criminal activities but often with the backing of an official legal entity, be that the president, the secretary of state, a governor, Mexican Army general, police chief, judge, magistrate, a distinguished banker, a hotel owner or even the priesthood.

Who is the face of the drug trafficking trade in Mexico? It is not only infamous Mexican drug dealers who are on the DEA's (the United States' anti-drug enforcement agency) most-wanted list, well known individuals such as Joaquin Guzman Loera, alias "El Chapo Guzman."

The drug trafficking trade consists of a broad sector of Mexican society that includes high-ranking government officials at the federal level (many of whom are tasked with fighting crime), bankers, business people, members of each political party without exception, governors, municipal presidents and legislators. These are the other hidden faces of drug trafficking.

Mexican society is under attack not only by well-known criminals such as "El Chapo Guzman" but by individuals who are able to act with complete impunity. The worst criminal is the one who makes a pretense of embodying the law and under that cover commits his misdeeds.

Silence foments crime and impunity, and there is no free press in Mexico. That is the reality.

Television stations intentionally omit certain subjects - sometimes out of fear and sometimes out of complicity.

Important newspapers or prestigious magazines demonstrate the lack of press freedom each time they remove a thorny subject from their pages or they publish reports without crediting the author - as if the person who wrote the article and is responsible for it has turned into a ghost, just like the people he or she was trying to write about. Hiding the name of the journalist does not prevent his or her death; it only serves to further foment impunity if that individual is targeted.

Other media outlets opt for a middle way. They inform society but do not cross a delicate line by staying away from particularly risky topics. This line is not crossed when one comments on the exploits of the well-known drug traffickers or their female companions, but when reporters encroach on the interests of those forming part of the networks of complicity that maintain this million-dollar business.

Nobody can claim that there is press freedom when reporting on sensitive subjects comes at the risk of receiving a death threat, being killed or "disappeared." There is no press freedom when the state does not choose, nor is it able, to guarantee journalists' safety.

Today, whoever questions President Calderon's so-called "war on drug trafficking" is condemned by the state, even more than the criminals themselves. The state and the drug traffickers both follow the same logic: "You are either with me or against me."

In Mexico one pays a high price for speaking out about the aberrations of this criminal state. The dozens of brutal assassinations of rights activists, those who demand justice for their causes, and journalists are proof of this.

But remaining silent also has a very high cost.

By keeping quiet, we - the Mexican journalism community - endorse the violence, the impunity and the loathsome corruption that is strangling our nation. If we remain silent, we kill freedom, justice and the possibility that a society armed with information may have the power to change the situation that has brought us to this point.

Impunity and corruption increase all over the world when silence reigns. Let's not be complicit with what is happening inside and outside our countries.

---

Anabel Hernandez is a journalist and writer known for her investigative reporting on corruption and the abuse of power in Mexican politics, in particular for her work exposing the complicities between organized crime and high-level authorities in Mexico's high-profile "war on drugs." This article was made available for World Press Freedom Day - today, May 3 -through the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers.

 
 

 

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