IS MEXICO FAILING TO PROTECT JOURNALISTS?
Anabel Hernández Thinks So, and Fears for Her Life
by Jason McGahan, Vice
Anabel Hernández is one of the most decorated journalists in Mexico, and currently reports for the weekly news magazine Proceso and the online magazine Reporte Indigo. She's been on the radar of the most powerful corrupt law enforcement officials in the country since at least 2008, when she published her first expose on Genaro García Luna, the head of Mexico's equivalent of the FBI and then-president Felipe Calderón's right-hand man in the drug war. She revealed he owned lavish homes and vast amounts of property that far exceeded what could be bought with the salary of a humble public servant. She followed that up, in 2010, with Los Senores del Narco, a 588-page history of the Mexican drug mafia that exposed, in exhaustive detail, the crimes of García Luna and his inner circle of corrupt officials. (That book is being translated into English by Verso Press and will be available in September under the title Narcoland: The Mexican Drug Lords and Their Godfathers.) Sources in the federal police warned her soon afterward that Mexico's top cop was plotting to have her murdered and make it look like an accident.
Anabel alerted the authorities in Mexico City, and they've been providing her and her two children with 24-hour armed protection ever since—until now, that is. On April 26, she received a letter from the government of Mexico City informing her that her armed escort would be revoked at some point in June (no date was specified in the letter). Her protection, she was told, will become the responsibility of the same federal police whose top officials she believes are the ones behind the death threats and attacks against her life, not to mention the jailing, intimidation, and in some cases even assassination of her sources.
I recently reached her by telephone in Los Angeles, where she was on tour to promote her newest book, Mexico en Llamas: El Legado de Calderón (Mexico in Flames: The Legacy of Felipe Calderón), and asked her about the danger she's in and the Mexican government's total lack of effort to protect journalists like her.
[Interview has been translated from Spanish.]
VICE: Could you tell me about the threats made against you because of your work?
Anabel Hernandez: In 2008 I began investigating a clique of Mexican police officers, all with more than 20 years of service, who are deeply implicated in criminal activities like kidnapping and drug trafficking. Since then, I've been targeted by this group of cops headed by Genaro García Luna, Luis Cárdenas Palomino, and Facundo Rosas Rosas.
The first thing they did was threaten to kill me and incarcerate those who were my sources of information. I was publishing, for example, investigations into the criminal past of Luis Cárdenas Palomino, who was one of the main chiefs of police in Felipe Calderon's government. I also published stories about the homes and properties that Genaro Garcia Luna owned and how far beyond his policeman's salary they were. Plenty of people say that that money came to him from organized crime. I also published items about how federal police officers, on orders from García Luna, carried out kidnappings, like in the well-known case of Fernando Marti, the [14-year-old] hostage who was murdered in 2008. The policemen who kidnapped him were very close to García Luna. They worked for the federal police directly, in the anti-kidnapping unit. Only instead of preventing kidnappings, they carried them out.
All of those investigations that I published over the course of five years made these corrupt policemen very angry. Then in 2010 I published Los Senores del Narco. In December 2010, I got a tip from police sources of mine who warned me of a plot being hatched to have me killed. One of my sources told me that he had just come from a meeting in which García Luna tried assigning members of a federal police unit to carry out my assassination and faking an accident or kidnapping or robbery—they'd kill me and in exchange he was going to give them better salaries and higher posts in the government. Thanks to that tip I had enough time to protect myself—if I hadn't found out from the policeman, I certainly wouldn't be here now. I'd be just another journalist executed in Mexico. When I got that tip, I immediately brought a complaint to the National Commission on Human Rights, and the human rights commission went with me to the office of the district attorney in Mexico City, which opened a case file and quickly assigned me an armed security detail.
I've lived with bodyguards 24 hours a day for the past two years. It's what has allowed me to keep working and remain safe.
In January 2011, two men aimed pistols at my daughters. They threatened my family with guns—not stealing anything, mind you, because the only purpose was to terrorize them. The message became clear to me after that night. It was: we can do whatever we want, whenever we want, to whatever it is you care about the most. My family has lived under armed guard ever since that attack to protect their lives.
Over the past two years I myself have also been physically threatened. For example, at a restaurant in January 2010 I was accosted by a man wearing a hoodie. My bodyguards had to rush in and get me out of there. I managed to take a photo of the man who threatened me and chased after me, but the authorities didn't investigate it any further.
In May of 2012 a source of mine was kidnapped and tortured by the federal authorities in order to force him to make false accusations against me. Other sources of mine have been jailed, still others have been murdered. And I get word from people who are close to Garcia Luna that he hasn't given up his plan to have me killed. I've been informed that García Luna has commented to more than one person that I was his worst enemy, that he was going to get rid of me. And to be honest, it's not a fair fight. I'm just a journalist. This man is one of the most powerful men in Mexico—because he is so corrupt, because he is the leader of a group of corrupt police that has been around for 20 years. And basically I've gone beyond trying to comprehend it. I am incapable of understanding how a public servant can think that a journalist and her pen are more dangerous than all of the cartels he's supposedly combating.
What's your opinion on the procedures that are in place to protect journalists in Mexico?
My experience with the whole process has been terrible. Now I understand why they keep killing journalists in Mexico, and why others choose to flee the country. The money spent on paying for it is money wasted. On April 26, I went to a meeting with the Secretary of the Interior and I criticized the process for its lack of commitment. [The government seems to think] that the law enforces itself, without any effort necessary from the men and women sworn to enforce it. It has become clear to me that the [Journalist Protection Program] is being used simply to put on a show for the outside world. It's a means to save face internationally. Keeping up international relations is more important than addressing freedom of expression.
It's obvious to me that these government institutions are only good for simulating a concern for journalists' lives. But the truth is that my case put them to the test, and now I have a better understanding of what the rest of my colleagues are facing. The procedures in place for protecting journalists are nothing more than the appearance of concern, because this government—not the outgoing government of Felipe Calderón, not the incoming government of Enrique Peña Nieto—has no interest in either solving the murders of journalists or protecting them while they continue working in the country. I'm worried because they know that my life is in danger and even so they want to take away my security detail. I'm worried that the real objective is to force me to flee the country—because how convenient would it be for everyone if a journalist who asks tough questions, who won't shut her mouth, were forced to run away crying to another country instead of continuing the struggle for freedom of expression and continuing to publish in Mexico?
I'm not leaving Mexico. If something happens to me and I become another name on the long list of murdered journalists, it won't be because of any failure of mine, but the failure of the Mexican government that refused to protect me. It's an institution, a whole government, that can't even protect its journalists—it's not that it can't, but that it doesn't want to.
What is the extent of the security provided to you by the Journalist Protection Program?
The bodyguards I have are from the district attorney's office in Mexico City. That is the only tangible, real, concrete benefit I've received from any ministry in the Mexican government. That's why I was requesting that they please not take them away from me, because that's the only thing that has kept me in Mexico in recent years in spite of the death threats. I've been physically targeted in the past two years, my family has been attacked, and more threats have come recently. I think the plots to harm me establish there is a clear danger in removing my police protection. That's why it's important that I keep it. As for the agency headed run the federal government, they haven't followed up on any leads. The only thing they've given me is a so-called panic button that is nothing more than a telephone number to call if someone is trying to kidnap me or shooting at me. It does nothing to aid in the pursuit of the attackers, it does nothing to protect me, and nothing to prevent the attack. The panic button's only purpose is that if I'm being attacked, killed, or kidnapped, snatched off the street like so many thousands have been in Mexico, I can call that phone number if I have the chance—though of course if [the attackers] take the phone out of my hands I won't have anything to call with. What I mean to say is that the protection program is a joke, and the whole world might as well know it.
Why are they removing your security detail?
I should say that I entered into the Journalist Protection Program last March at the suggestion of the Secretary of the Interior, which came after the district attorney's office in Mexico City recused itself, after two years, from the investigation into the threats and the assassination plots against my life. So my case ended up in the hands of the [federal] office of the attorney general.
I should also point out that by then I had already filed a criminal complaint against Genaro García Luna as the culprit in the threats made against my family in 2011, independently of the complaint I'd brought to Mexico City authorities in 2010. When the Mexico City authorities recused themselves from my case, and the whole investigation shifted over to the federal authorities, I asked the attorney general's office to show me my file for the first time. That was how I learned firsthand that the attorney general's office hadn't lifted a finger to investigate my case in a year and a half. Nothing. They hadn't investigated a thing, hadn't interviewed a single person, hadn't even followed up on the leads that I had given them about people who had harassed me. So to enroll in the Journalist Protection Program was my only option.
If the Mexico City authorities take away my security detail, all that the federal government has to offer me is protection from the federal police, which is stupid, illogical, and absurd in the extreme—these are the same federal police who are under the command of García Luna. They're delivering my head into the hands of those that most want me dead. To me, protection from the federal police is not an option. So I'm asking for the Mexico City police to continue providing for my protection.
The Journalist Protection Program was supposed to clear up this situation. At a meeting on April 26 attended by the Secretary of the Interior, the Mexico City government, the UN, the office of the attorney general, and the protection program itself, they vowed to continue providing for my protection, leaving only the investigation in the hands of the federal authorities. However, the protection program informed me a week ago by mail that it was going to withdraw my security detail in June, without telling me what day or time. And this in spite of the fact that the same protection program acknowledged—this was told to me over the phone by its director, Juan Carlos Gutierrez—"Anabel, your level of risk, according to our assessment, is high."
To me it indicates one of two things: either the federal government wants me dead or wants me gone. And of course neither of those options is viable to me.
What conclusions should we draw from your experience with the Journalist Protection Program?
I know based on what I have lived through that the federal government doesn't care about punishing those who make threats against journalists. The government has no interest in putting in prison the assassins who murder journalists. The government that allows this to happen is as guilty as whoever ends up pulling the trigger. I'm not sure I'm making myself clear: The government, if it wanted to, could lock up every murderer of every one of the 90 journalists killed in the past 12 years. The government, if it wanted to, could scare García Luna, put him in jail for all the threats and for all the harm he's caused in the past five years. It doesn't do so because it doesn't want to. It prefers a dead journalist to a corrupt policeman in prison.
This story first appeared June 18 in Vice magazine.
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