Mexico - PEN campaign for murdered journalists

Mexico’s El Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead), dates back to indigenous times. However, many of the celebrations associated with the festival, which takes place from 31 – 2 November, have evolved over time.

The tradition of printing satirical images of politicians and celebrities, drawn as skeletons, was begun in the 1890s by Jose Guadalupe Posada. An engraver, based in the old heart of Mexico City, behind the National Palace, Posada started his career as a political cartoonist before becoming a commercial illustrator, drawing sensational events for broadsheets as well as depicting the daily horrors, murders, and tragedies of city life. But he is best known for the dancing skeletons and grinning skulls that lampooned the rich and famous during El Día de Muertos. La Catrina, his upper-class, elegantly attired calvera, was to become one of the most popular figures of the Day of the Dead celebrations.

Today, journalists who attempt to investigate or draw attention to corruption in Mexico – whether engineered by state officials or the notorious drug cartels – are more likely to find themselves threatened for their work or even killed.

PEN, the international association of writers, is bringing a more sombre tone to the normally jocular ritual by remembering those journalist and writers who have been murdered in Mexico in recent years.

Since December 2006, when President Calderón began his military campaign against the drug cartels, 35 writers have been murdered (33 print journalists, one author and one poet), while a further eight print journalists have gone missing. Others have been threatened, harassed, driven into exile or otherwise censored. A number of these increasingly gruesome crimes occur in states where organised crime has a strong presence, and particularly affect local journalists.

Mexico is now rated as one of the most dangerous places  in the world to work as a journalist and many see the National Human Rights Commission as inadequate to tackle the escalating violence. Drug-trafficking is blamed for many of Mexico’s ills and while it is true that much of the violence against those journalists who attempt to investigate their crimes comes from these quarters, there is also corruption amongst state officials and powerful businessmen, who have the money to buy complicity or silence. Another inherent failure of Mexico’s justice system is the apparent inability to punish and prosecute those in positions of power who abuse their office.

One of nine print journalists to have been killed between January and September 2011, was Susana Chávez Castillo, a prominent poet and activist who led protests against the unsolved killings of women raped and killed in Ciudad Juárez; her strangled and mutilated corpse was found in that city in early January 2011. Reporters Ana María Marcela Yarce Viveros and Rocio González Trápaga were abducted in Mexico City on 31 August 2011; their bodies were found the next day, naked with nooses around their necks and their hands tied behind their backs. Political journalist Angel Castillo Corona was murdered along with his 16-year-old son in Ocuilan, Mexico state, on 3 July 2011.

A recent report commissioned by Canadian PEN and the University of Toronto faculty of law’s international human-rights program, entitled Corruption, Impunity, Silence: The War on Mexico’s Journalists, suggests that Mexico’s journalists have to contend with laws that limit freedom of expression and effectively muzzle their attempts to expose corruption at both local and state levels. It claims that the Mexican government has delayed implementing reforms that could protect reporters, while continuing to prosecute citizen journalists under its complex communications laws.

The eminent Mexican poet José Emilo Pacheco has written some verses especially for PEN’s Day of the Dead campaign.

This atrocious month has finally passed

And left us so many dead

That even the air breathes death

And death is drunk in the water.

I can’t resist the wound of so much death.

Mexico cannot be the plural cemetery,

The enormous common grave

Where our hopes lie exhausted.

We already drown the future

In the abyss that opens each day.

 José Emilio Pacheco, ‘The Altar of the Dead’

Readers might like to send/emails appeals to President Calderón via your nearest Mexican embassy: Protesting the murder of 35 print journalists and writers and the disappearance of eight print journalists since the start of his term in office in December 2006; Calling for a full and impartial investigation into these crimes, focusing on the journalists’ and writers’ work as a possible motive, with the involvement of the Special Prosecutor for Crimes against Freedom of Expression; Calling on President Calderón’s government to fulfil promises to make crimes against journalists a federal offence, by amending the Constitution so that federal authorities have the power to investigate, prosecute and punish such crimes.

Originally published in