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Rubén Espinosa and journalists under increasing threat in Mexico’s U.S.-propelled drug war

by Sonja Dahl, WFP intern

Rubén Espinosa, a photojournalist based in the Mexican state of Veracruz who covered social movements, thought he had escaped danger when he moved to the country’s capital, following threats on his life. So did Nadia Vera, an activist and friend of Espinosa’s, after her similar flight. But despite their hopes, both were found dead on July 31st along with three other women. Their deaths explode the notion of the bubble of relative security for press in Mexico City, which had seen 33 non-fatal aggressions against journalists since the beginning of this year, but no killings until now.

One of the worst aspects related to this terrible crime and tragedy – yet one that has unfortunately come to be expected – is the government’s response. The Mexico City prosecutor has refused to acknowledge that the killing was motivated by Espinosa’s profession, or even that he had come to the city for refuge, claiming instead that he was seeking work. People have already joined together in a massive outcry at the deaths, including a thousands-strong protest on August 2nd. Still, it’s unlikely that this murder will become one of the few to escape impunity.

Mexican journalists like Espinosa are under threat, with at least 41 killed since 2010, including at least seven this year alone (figures vary, and these are conservative estimates). The press freedom group Article 19 reported 227 aggressions against journalists in the first quarter of 2015, most of which were perpetrated by state or political party officials. Startling impunity and a lack of protection for threatened journalists, both the result of government inaction, allow the violence to continue. In this dangerous climate, many journalists turn to self-censorship, and it can take months before anyone challenges the official version of a story. This phenomenon isn’t limited to journalists – just look at the time it took for a magistrate judge to come forward with his version of events in the Ayotzinapa disappearances, and his decision to flee to the U.S. following his testimony. In Espinosa’s case, many believe that he was targeted because of his unflattering magazine cover of the notorious Veracruz governor and his work covering protests concerning the Ayotzinapa disappearances.

Killings of journalists are only a drop in the bucket of the over 100,000 killed and 27,000 disappeared so far in the U.S.-backed drug war. But they are emblematic of an important theme, which Dawn Paley (there will be a blog from her this week) explores in her book Drug War Capitalism: the violence triggered by the war on drugs is hardly an unintended byproduct of the supposed fight against cartels. Rather, the U.S.-backed Mexican state, under former President Felipe Calderón and even more so under current President Enrique Peña Nieto, has encouraged it in an attempt to terrorize people into silence about its own corruption, militarization, and privatizing reforms. Journalists, human rights defenders, and witnesses continue to stand up and speak out, but, as Rubén Espinosa’s death shows, even the Mexican capital’s refuge is gone.

And through all of this, the U.S. government has continued to support the Mexican government. We sell them arms, train their military and police, and provide them with drug war funding through programs like Plan Mérida, all of which totaled $44 million in fiscal year 2014. We encourage them to cruelly deport migrants just like we do through Plan Frontera Sur. We even enter into trade deals like NAFTA, and now the possibly the TPP, with them, despite two important things. 1) The harm the former has done, and that the latter would do to ordinary people in both countries; and 2) the human rights abuses in Mexico that should supposedly turn our government away from a potential or actual trade partner until it improves its record in that regard. Here in the U.S., we need to push our government to withdraw that support, and to seek justice for Espinosa, Vera, and countless others like them who have been silenced in the drug war.


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