Mexico Becomes Most Dangerous Country in the World for Journalists

Mexico has the highest number of journalists and media workers killed in 2019 alone; in 2018, the number of media murders in Mexico was second only to that of Afghanistan, and surpassed even that of Syria, an active conflict zone. A questionable president, potential Russian interference, illicit use of controlled spyware, and an escalating war on drugs have made Mexico a journalist death trap.
Journalists in Mexico City protest the kidnappings, murder and violence against their peers. Placards with written protests and photos of slain or kidnapped colleagues were left on the steps of the Ministry of the Interior and covered with red paint. Photo: Knight Foundation

Some may still expect that the recent culmination of the 2018 elections will bring stability, but thus far Mexico has the highest number of journalists and media workers killed in 2019 alone; in 2018, the number of media murders in Mexico was second only to that of Afghanistan, and surpassed even that of Syria, an active conflict zone. Because violence and corruption in Mexico inhibit credible investigations, these sadly are only conservative estimates at best.

Mexico has a long history of press censorship, from the New World Spanish Inquisition to the 19th and early 20th century authoritarian Porfiriato government. Recent press censorship relates to former president Calderón Hinojosa’s policies of attacking organized crime head-on, policies that ultimately resulted in a steep increase of violent attacks against the press in Mexico starting around 2006 as cartels and corrupt officials sought to contain compromising information. Indeed, in Mexico, the press has historically been threatened with violence not only by organized crime but also by state actors.

Current president Andrés Manuel López Obrador (abbreviated AMLO) has promised to tackle the issue of corruption in Mexico, but his rise to power is problematic and suspicious. Interviews with Victory Lab’s Carlos Merlo and a report from the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab reveal that fake news stories were widely circulated during AMLO’s candidacy. Facebook posts and comments, as well as Twitter trends, popularized fake news stories both against and in favor of the candidate, with some of these falsified stories gaining enough attention to resurface in more mainstream and credible Mexican press sources. These “fake news” services included falsified user activity in the form of outsourced bot accounts that provide any given original post or story the activity needed to appear in more users’ feeds on Facebook or Twitter and allegedly cost $50,000 dollars per story—millions of dollars when one considers the frequency with which these false stories were popularized over the course of the election.  

A visual representation of interactions between real users and bots during the UK membership referendum. The hub and spoke formations demonstrate the cascade effect of tweets triggered by bots. Graphic: City University of London

In the 2018 Mexican election, fake news was related specifically to AMLO. Of the posts about AMLO linked to users outside of Mexico, 20 percent are associated with users in Ukraine and about 63 percent are associated with users in Russia. Such reports appear to be substantiated in Buzzfeed’s interview with “Mexico’s fake news king” Carlos Merlo, in which Merlo discusses buying (or renting, according to one investigation of Merlo’s Victory Lab) Twitter accounts from Russia via PayPal.

Some analysts believe that there are Russian interests supporting AMLO, who campaigned on taking a more confrontational approach to relations with the United States. Of course, AMLO denies any connection with Russian stakeholders. Most of these false news stories attack AMLO, but all are partisan and polarizing, which may point to Russian efforts to destabilize the region by increasing political resentment and further fracturing the electorate. Merlo participated in a set of interviews and revealed this information prior to the date of elections, thereby allowing Mexican voters would learn out about Victory Lab’s work and thus have less faith in the electoral process.

Far more disturbing is the trail left by more exacting and targeted spyware attacks. The NSO Group is an Israel-based cyberwarfare company best known for its WhatsApp exploit that allows governments to track users via GPS, use device microphones to eavesdrop on conversations, and gain access to encrypted messages. The NSO Group reportedly sold their flagship Pegasus software to a Mexican government-linked group that has since been exposed for abusing the spyware to gain intelligence on and silence journalists. Mexico has a history of officially and unofficially censoring the press, whether via government policy or by cartel violence; Pegasus is only the newest tool at the government’s disposal. The NSO Group claims to maintain a strict vetting process that restricts sales only to legitimate government organizations that use the spyware to target terrorists and crime organizations, but Pegasus’ use on law abiding citizens demonstrates that it has no control of how end-users decide to utilize its software.

Protestors march in downtown Mexico City demanding justice and protection for journalists against violence perpetrated by drug cartels. Photo: Knight Foundation

Javier Valdez Cárdenas, co-founder and writer for RíoDoce, one of the few magazines based from Sinaloa that writes about local cartel activity, is one of the more prominent journalists to have been targeted. He was also a Sinaloa correspondent for leading Mexico City-based newspaper La Jornada, and earned international acclaim for publishing a series of books on organized crime in Mexico and the victims of Mexican drug violence. Cárdenas was murdered on May 15, 2017, with his laptop, mobile phone, and papers stolen. Soon after his death, his colleagues at RíoDoce were targeted by Pegasus spyware.

The Citizen Lab, which investigates the abusive use of NSO Group’s products in Mexico, has identified 24 victims of this Mexican government-linked buyer. Three of these victims are political officers of the PAN (Party of National Action), including former candidate Ricardo Anaya Cortés, the most competitive candidate running against AMLO in the recent election.

Police investigate a drug-related killing in Tijuana, near the U.S. border. Photo: Knight Foundation

Popularizing false news about AMLO online requires extensive financial resources, not to mention the spyware sold by NSO, which costs $500,000 for installation and $650,000 for the first ten hacks alone. Such shady details of the election suggest AMLO is not as far outside the established world of nefarious Mexican politics as his image of class diffidence presents. Aside from these corrupt mechanisms, there is much that discredits the image of AMLO as a representative of the people. López Obrador is a career politician, and nearly all politicians in democratic countries prioritize the ability to be elected into and stay in office. AMLO once served as the leader of PRI (Party of Institutional Revolution) in Tabasco, then as governor of Mexico City as a member of PRD (Party of the Democratic Revolution), and eventually formed the MORENA (National Regeneration Movement) party after losing presidential elections twice for PRD. While party switches may not be abnormal for politicians in Mexico, many voters were discouraged from supporting either PAN or PRI because they view the two parties as effectively identical or often in agreement with one another, and also because of corruption scandals in both parties over the past few decades while they were in power. Because voters view these parties as effectively identical, MORENA was able to secure votes by appealing to the people as a new, honest alternative, even though MORENA was largely composed of often scandal-ridden former PRI and PRD politicians.

MORENA’s policies, such as constructing more oil refineries and reducing the salaries and benefits of Mexican politicians to levels below those of many countries in Latin America, may appeal to those who are dissatisfied with the political establishment, but such policies are not guaranteed to empower average citizens. A potential issue with significantly reducing politicians’ salaries is that it only encourages more politicians to accept bribes from and make deals with organized crime groups in Mexico, and reinforces the power of those who already take such bribes.

One of the reasons the drug trade has affected Mexico so deeply these past 20 years is that it is so profitable, an issue apparently ignored by the salary reduction policy. The weaker the drug organizations in Colombia became near the end of the 20th century, the more frequently they subcontracted to crime organizations in Mexico. Mexican crime organizations eventually became the more dominant drug traffickers. The demand for illicit drugs has not vanished, so the profitability for trading them shall not vanish either. Government transparency programs can reduce corruption, but reducing trafficking remains a key component in the battle against corruption. In 2006, desperation drove the Mexican government use violent force to stomp out drug cartels, an effort that failed to reign in the cartels and only escalated violence as eliminating certain traffickers increased profits for the rest.

Schoolchildren seek safety during a shootout in Tijuana. Photo: Knight Foundation

There is no easy solution to Mexico’s drug crisis, but some of MORENA’s policies seem more directed at satisfying ill-informed voters than at effectual disempowerment of organized crime. AMLO has wealthy supporters, and the politicians in Mexico will continue to receive their salaries in one way or another; a policy of cutting official salaries will all but ensure that politicians’ financial needs are provided by necropolitical crime organizations, rather than the democratic process.

Many Mexican voters seem to acknowledge that their candidate is not perfect, and rationalize their choice with the understanding that because Mexico is corrupt and all politics is dirty, an “outsider,” as AMLO has branded himself, is needed to restore order. Given that former President Peña Nieto allegedly accepted $100 million from drug cartelists, attempting to position a new political party in power may have been the best option for Mexican voters. Now that AMLO and MORENA are in power, the same or similar campaign financiers may have shifted their support to adjust to the new ruling powers. Only time and greater investigation will tell who is behind AMLO, and to what extent.

Corruption in Mexico originates less from unfair election counts than it does frome shady sources and uses of money, and at times, violence. The 2016 American elections may have introduced Americans to the threat of misinformation in campaigns, but this threat extends beyond American borders. There is little doubt that fake news is a global phenomenon. Fighting misinformation and corruption requires transparency, and without awareness, transparency lacks the power to keep reproachable actors in check. As the undisputed hegemon of the western hemisphere, the United States has the power to change practices and institutions across the continent. If American readers remain uninterested in and uninformed on what is happening just across their southern border, Mexico will destabilize at America’s peril, as violence has the tendency to spill across the border. The United States has the power to protect free speech in Mexico but currently lacks the wherewithal to do so. As Americans, we take the free press for granted. As Mexico’s largest trading partner, we have a vested interest in and the power to maintain the democratic integrity and stability in Mexico.

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